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
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
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
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.