(Originally published in the November 13, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Two years ago I was watching the 134th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) unfold from the living room. I, like so many others, fell in love with a beautiful gray filly named Eight Belles. Eight Belles made me proud, running like a princess, finishing strong, and then, as most people remember all too well, leaving thousands in tears when she suddenly broke down after the race.
Some will tell you that Eight Belles turned them away from racing; it was the opposite for me. Eight Belles won a piece of my heart Derby weekend. She made a lasting impact on my life, brought about positive change, and brought people together. I wouldn’t ever trade my moments of cheering for her. There won’t be another Eight Belles; she was one in a million. But there will be others that come along to touch my heart, and I don’t want to miss them.
Some friends and I just returned from an amazing trip to Lexington, where we visited Keeneland, Lane’s End, Gainsborough, Three Chimneys, Airdrie, and Taylor Made. The reason I was in Kentucky? Eight Belles. She’s also the reason I made a trip to Churchill Downs in 2008 to attend her memorial ceremony and the reason my family and I drove to Kentucky again for the 2009 Kentucky Derby to cheer for a horse from her trainer’s barn, Friesan Fire.
As Eight Belles’ biographer, I’ve been blessed in getting to know more about her. The more I’ve learned about her, her human family, and her fellow equine athletes, the more I’ve fallen in love with her world, the Thoroughbred industry.
While I was in Lexington, it occurred to me how much fans hear about the dark side of the industry and how little they hear about the good things, good people, and great horses that make the industry worth loving.
I’m constantly asked questions about the industry. I’ve found the best way to spark interest is to share the things to smile about. I tell them about the outrider at Keeneland who stopped to let a little girl pat his horse, the happy horses I’ve seen, their loving owners, the gorgeous farms in Kentucky, and organizations such as the Thoroughbred Charities of America that help so many horses.
For those who believe there aren’t any youth interested in the Thoroughbred industry anymore—I’m 17, and this industry has become one of my greatest loves. I got interested in horse racing during Hard Spun’s campaign, and since then my interest has turned into full-blown obsession. I like to tell people that my idea of fun is waking up at 5 a.m. to hotwalk horses (for friends of mine at the racetrack, when I’m lucky enough to visit them).
There are other young people like me. My brother is 15 and is a living, breathing horse-racing encyclopedia. He wants to own racehorses someday. The love of my 13-year-old sister’s life is Curlin, and she keeps up with our favorite trainer, Cindy Jones, as well as I do. My other two sisters, ages 10 and 5, both have favorite racehorses and scream and hug when they win. My 10-year-old friend bought pink and green accessories for her pony to match the colors of Zenyatta’s silks. A 16-year-old friend of mine in Wisconsin has battled anorexia, and her greatest inspiration to recover has been her No. 1 love, Hard Spun. She dreams of being a part of the Darley Flying Start program someday.
Now you know. We are out here. We don’t own horses yet, but we call some of your horses “ours” and lose our voices cheering for them and for you. We don’t exercise-ride or ride races yet, but we put our English stirrups high and gallop through the fields to see what it feels like. We don’t breed horses yet, but we look at pedigrees to find the perfect stallion for our favorite mares, and when our favorite mares deliver their foals, we call those babies “ours” and dream big for them. We aren’t training horses yet, and the only fractions we understand are eighths, due to keeping up with so many horses’ workouts. We dream about reaching the heights some of you have reached or going even higher, and, someday, some of us will.
Many of the articles we read about the industry seem to say the sport could disappear tomorrow. I am here to say it won’t because there are some of us in the next generation who love it, plan on enjoying it forever, and having a future in it.
Maria Michalak is 17-years-old, lives in Moravian Falls, NC, and is the author of "Eight Belles: Triumph Beyond the Wire." While Maria competes in both English and Western horse shows, her favorite thing to do is a simple trail ride.