Dream Machine - by Eric Mitchell

Nothing reveals how hard people work to achieve success in horse racing like walking through the barn area of a racetrack.

Hundreds of people gather daily for the ritual of caring for these athletes in which we have so much invested—physically, financially, and emotionally. Days begin before the sun even hints of its presence. Feed tubs are filled then washed. Horses must be walked. Stalls must get cleaned. Grooms, trainers, and exercise riders scrutinize the horses’ every step, every work and hunt diligently for signs, from the turn of a head or flash in the eye. Are we good today or is something brewing?

Our charges are also not always cooperative. Along with the sore muscles of manual labor come the sting of bites and throbbing bruises from kicks.

Still the ritual occurs every day. No holidays. No weekends off.

The amount of effort exerted year-round trying just to win a race—any race—is remarkable, which is why everyone who participates in this sport in some way feels so blessed to get a “good one.” These are the special horses with the physical and mental gifts capable of achieving success in the biggest races; stakes races that carry rich purses and prestige. They are so elusive, with only 3% of the average foal crop possessing what it takes to win a black-type race.

And what everyone is fighting so hard to achieve at the track is only a fraction of what has been invested three years before a 2-year-old enters the starting gate for the first time. First are the hours of research devoted to identifying the right stallion for a mare. Breeders then must navigate the boulders in a wild river of risk—foaling, health issues, nutrition, diligent foot and leg care. Then there are the injuries. It boggles the mind the number of ways a horse can find to hurt itself. The people who shop at public auctions have their own rituals that include days of pedigree and market research, days on the road, and miles trekked through barns evaluating conformation and attitudes. Each step is a rotating row on the Rubik’s Cube, trying to solve the puzzle of finding racing’s next stars. Owners and agents make tremendous personal investments in runners that frustratingly never pan out.

But then the gem appears. The elite runner such as American Pharoah, who is an equine alchemist turning expectations into ecstasy. A horse who floats on a ridiculously long stride and makes winning appear as easy as breathing.

The energy and enthusiasm such rare horses generate are what make feats such as sweeping the Triple Crown so powerful. These iconic moments reignite the passion in every breeder, owner, and trainer that one day they, too, will be blessed with a good one. No one dares dream so openly and so big about capturing the Triple Crown, but the kernel of that dream is planted each time a foal rises for the first time onto wobbly legs.

At a farm in Central Florida is a groom who greets every new foal that same way: Here’s your next Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner. No doubt his ritual is repeated by others at barns all over the country. One day they’ll be right. At their feet will lie a future Derby winner or a Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner or a Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner.

And now with the 37-year streak broken, a new dream is revived that one day one of those foals will be the next to sweep all three.

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