Princesses, Paupers, and Mr. Fat-and-Happy at the Racetrack

By Frank Vespe

Just checked put our pal Ted's post introducing this week of musings from the small-ownership crowd.  There, to my surprise, he'd successfully pilfered a photo of me from our That's Amore Stable website.

In the picture, I appear to be the living definition of fat and happy.

Which, truth be told, I was on that day.

The picture he's grabbed is from a win photo of ours.  A gelding we owned named Terri's T Bird had just delivered a decisive score over a field of $14,000 claimers on a cool day at Laurel.  In my excitement, I'd leapt to the edge of a railing at the front of the grandstand, urging the horse home.  Until, of course, my wife Erin looked over and said, "What are you doing?"

Did I mention it was Thanksgiving day?  Plenty to be thankful for, indeed.

Meanwhile, this past weekend delivered the highlight of the true racing fan's year, the (constantly growing) series of races we call the Breeders' Cup.  As always, the Cup included fabulous performances aplenty, and more than a few good betting opportunities.  It also generated plenty of healthy introspection: what is the place of synthetic surfaces in the game?  How did the modifications in drug and steroid rules impact the outcomes?  And was the creation of a separate Ladies Day a stroke of genius or a sign of madness?

For all that, the one thing that the Breeders' Cup probably didn't do is create many new horse owners.  For the vast majority of us - Joe and Josephine Bagodonuts - the Breeders' Cup is an event to watch, not an outcome to which we might aspire.  Of course, American horse royalty - old money Phippses and Hancocks and newly minted Iavarones and the like - are all there.  To say nothing of the actual royalty whose charges more than held their own this Cup.

But this does little - nothing, perhaps - to inspire most of us to more than a betting (or rooting) interest.  I can't imagine being, or being like, a sheikh, a prince, or, for that matter, Princess Haya of Jordan, who scored twice over the weekend.

There is, however, another princess who did have a significant impact on my journey into the horse owning world.  In fact, it's probably safe to say that, without her, Mr. Fat-and-Happy-Last Thanksgiving would never have come to be.

Her name was Princess Lorna, and she was a truly terrible racehorse.  She was a Maryland horse with local connections and no discernible talent; in fact, for the first two or three dozen races of her career, she seemed likely to earn the dreaded description, "lifetime maiden."  She became one of those horses that you halfway follow, wondering if she'll ever figure the game out, or simply move on to the next career.

The day she finally did figure it out (or catch a field of even less talented animals than she) - "a maiden no more," track announcer Dave Rodman noted - Erin nudged me in the side.  "Let's go check out the winners' circle," she said, and so we did.

Not a crowded circle, but a happy one all the same.  Her breeder-owner-trainer pumped his fist, shook hands with a friend, beamed ear-to-ear.  No Grade I-winning sheikh was ever prouder of his horse than were Lorna's connections. 

A wise guy on the apron called out, "Send her to the Breeders' Cup."  A joke, of course, but even if it didn't - even for one second - seem plausible, it also didn't matter.  You could feel the connections' joy; you could share their moment.  Princess Lorna wasn't going anywhere but back to the barn, but she was going back - for the first time - as a winner.  Hard work, at last rewarded.

Seeing those smiles, feeling that joy, realizing those were ordinary folks like us in the winners' circle made us plausibly imagine - really, for the first time - ourselves in the win photo.  From there, a surprisingly short step to owning horses.

The column inches, bandwidth, and brain power are typically showered on the big horses, the big owners, and the big days.  Fair enough: a successful spectator sport (and gambling endeavor) needs fans and bettors, and fans and bettors want to see the best.

But a successful racing industry also needs owners, and no one becomes an owner until that moment when they can imagine themselves in the win photo.  Most of us don't have that "it could be me" epiphany watching old-money bluebloods, new-tech billionaires, or foreign royalty smiling after a Grade I triumph.  We have it when we see the king-sized smile on a guy who looks kinda like us as he leads a lumpy, tired horse back to the winner's circle after a nondescript victory, or we see a little girl jumping up and down shrieking, or an adult woman transformed into a little girl by the actions of a horse. 

Racing, in other words, needs stars; it also needs hard-knockers.  It needs princes, of course, and also paupers.

There's joy aplenty in horse racing.  So, next time you see an oh-for-life horse break his maiden at the lowest level, sidle on up to the winners' circle.  You'll see what I'm talking about.


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