The Kentucky Derby

by cheri sabraw

Today in Louisville, Kentucky, the bell will scream and twenty thoroughbreds will free themselves in stunning locomotion from their forced imprisionment in the steel rectangle of the starting gate.

Their chests and forelegs will lurch forward, powered by two of the most powerful hind quarters in the animal kingdom.

Ears pricked, they wait in compressed captivity for the sound of the bell and the rumble of the crowd. Once free to thunder down the soft dirt track in a detonation of fire, they pin their ears back to their tucked heads and flare their nostrils in an effort to suck down the oxygen which must nourish their lungs and lubricate their brains for one mile and a quarter.

Those with blinkers see only what lies ahead. For the one with the most endurance and heart, that view will open like a vast prairie land laden with clover and sweet grass.

For those without blinkers, the sights to their right and left will be a familiar Pavlovian roar of thunder, crash of  leather, jostle of bumps, and rhythm of stride as they settle into a position and feel the strategy on their backs.

The traffic jam of the starting gate will fade and the speedsters will set the pace, some by strategic trainer design in order to burn out the favorites.

In the back stretch they enter a house of mirrors where, to the fans without binoculars, they do indeed stretch and elongate into a Pegasus herd with noses, ears, necks, backs, rider, rumps, and tails on the same horizontal line.

The weaker horses fade back and it is here, at the end of the backstretch, that the trainers’ grand designs and tactics reveal themselves. We see a chestnut torpedo launching itself in the middle of mass: it lurches forward and forward and challenges the black one with heart and courage.

In the end, two or three race horses rush down the home stretch. On one, the bay creature with the blinkers, a thin whip will sting his backside to remind him to stay focused, lengthen his nose, pound the ground, and run for his life, even though his heart is bursting with blood and hormones.

The one–the Swaps, the Carry Backs, the Northern Dancers, the Man o’ Wars, the  Seabiscuits, the Affirmeds, and the greatest of all–the Secretariats, will cross under the wire in a beautiful blur of the Sport of Kings.

Today is the Kentucky Derby.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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12 Responses to The Kentucky Derby

  1. Richard says:

    This is a masterpiece. You sustain the excitement as if you yourself are riding the bay. I’m quite exhausted after it all. I’ll collect my winnings.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you, Richard. I did ride an old swaybacked bay named Herb when just a girl. He was an old horse but he taught me many tricks.

  2. shoreacres says:

    For someone who pays so little attention to horse racing (and who, I am ashamed to admit, had forgotten it was Derby Day), you’ve managed to do what the television commentators never have been able to do: make it come alive for me, and even interesting. I hope your day was enjoyable, and that your horse won!

    • Cheri says:

      Ha! My horse lost this time, but I am impressed with the winner, American Pharoah. I am a sucker for all chestnuts. Each June when our county fair arrives, I attend the races. My friend Joe (who I wrote about many times on this blog until his death three years ago) and I would go out to the races. He told me, ” Baby, always bet the 7th horse in the 7th race. If the horse is gray, double the bet.”

      One year, after his wife died, we drove up to the Sonoma County Fair, which has a delightful track.I can’t watch a race without thinking of Joe.

  3. Brighid says:

    I enjoyed this, love a good horse race.

  4. Christopher says:

    Let me guess. You read Laura Hiilenbrand’s book, “Seabiscuit”, right?

    While yesterday’s Kentucky Derby was a major event in America’s sporting calendar, there was another event yesterday that was not only a major event in America’s sporting calendar, but in the world’s, too.

    I speak of course of the Big Fight last night in Las Vegas – an event that consumed the attention of manly men everywhere.

    As the most manly of men – (I spit on the ground often, drink beer out of cans, watch Charles Bronson movies, read Hemingway, and have frequent fantasies involving unclothed ladies – you don’t get more manly than that) – I would be happy to think that, if only to keep others of your male readers happy, your next posting will be about what last night’s Big Fight meant to you.

    Even if it meant absolutely nothing to you, or if you consider its participants and followers to be rebarbative, I would be interested to know this. I wouldn’t be offended. So you need not pull any punches to spare my feelings, for, as the most manly of men, I was brought up to “take it” without flinching.

    • Cheri says:

      Yes. Of course. I read Seabiscuit several times.

      You might be surprised how I feel about boxing. I grew up with my father watching the Friday night fights and at one time, sat right there with him, mesmerized by how quick their punches were. I loved the Howard Cosell punch-by-punch play calling. Sonny Foreman, Cassius Clay and all that.

      I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know about the big fight under after the fact.
      Yesterday, I went to the hospital to retape a segment in the newest episode of the Washington Hospital Experience. There, I learned from John, the production manager, all I needed to know about the fight. Every detail–how it wasn’t worth the money, how Merriweather (sp) avoided entanglement in one big stall, how his opponent is a Filipino hero…

      I loved your comment. It was very funny and clever.

      • Christopher says:

        When you referred to one of the pugilists of yore, as “Sonny Foreman”, you were conflating Sonny Liston and George Foreman. And “Merriweather” is of course Mayweather.

        I’m pointing this out for your edification just in case, at the next wine and cheese party you attend, the topic of “The Sweet Science” should come up during any conversation you may have there with a manly man whom you find alluring, and to whom you wish to appear fascinating.

  5. wkkortas says:

    The weather was so clear that I was hoping there would be a horse named Paul Revere running. In lieu of that, I backed Danzig Moon, which worked out not so well in the can-do department

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