By Frank Vespe, That's Amore
Normal people have normal markers for the change of seasons. They might observe spring, for example, by the first buds, bravely sneaking up through the soil; the first robin, trilling in the barren tree; or, in a more sporting vein, the words “pitchers and catchers report.”
But racing folk are hardly normal people, and we have our own methods of marking the onset of spring. Perhaps the most common, of course, is the ramping up of Triple Crown preps and the suddenly ubiquitous custom of Derby Top 10 (or 12) lists. (Regarding that: why? Why are we making top 10 lists of Derby horses? Is there any glory in choosing the 10th place finisher? Did anyone score a payday by picking Z Fortune for 10th last year? Or Nobiz like Shobiz the year before?)
All well and good, of course, but to me, the surest sign of approaching spring is the debut of turf racing in the mid-Atlantic. And though yesterday dawned cold and gray and rainy, spring announced its arrival in Laurel’s fifth race, a 1 1/16 mile turf test for maidens. In true turf race fashion, the horses dawdled through a glacial three quarters in nearly 1:17 before sprinting home, covering the last 5/16 in less than 29 seconds. For the record, Keep Me in Mind, a three year-old son of Smarty Jones, won the year’s first grass race.
Winter racing in the mid-Atlantic is a somewhat less than glamorous endeavor, entailing seemingly endless gray days of middling horses running the same races over and over. It’s “working man’s racing,” hardscrabble days at the poor cousins of the region’s tracks. No much-loved Saratoga, historic Pimlico, grande dame Monmouth for the winter; no, in these months we toil at Aqueduct, Laurel, Philly. No excited crowds pressing to the rail, either; it’s huddled masses turning their backs on the cold, sheepishly coming out just for the race, or staring at the simulcast screens above.
The palette of winter racing is equally monotonous, equally unloved. Winter is brown horses running on brown dirt against a steel-gray sky; even the jockeys’ silks seem to fade.
Saturday at Laurel, it was still winter: cold, gray, brown.
And now it’s spring. Now it’s early buds beginning to blossom; now it’s birds returning, singing the spring onward. Now it’s noble brown horses flashing across a green turf course, galloping past the blue infield pond: a palette full of color, full of promise.
For many Americans, turf racing is a somewhat annoying mystery. The hard-won lessons of dirt racing — of early speed, of form, of figures — are of less value on the lawn. The grass rewards class, closing kicks, astute tactics; it’s like dirt racing turned upside down.
But an upside-down perspective can be an asset, too. There is never any shortage of people looking at the world right side up; sometimes, it’s the person with the skewed perspective who sees what really matters.
In any case, the chart for Keep Me in Mind’s victory notes that he closed and “was along in time.” In that regard, he’s just like turf racing, and spring.