When I was about 15, and my sister, Laura, was about 11, we began taking a Greyhound bus to Baltimore nearly every weekend to spend the day at the races.
You might think a racetrack is not a safe or appropriate place for unaccompanied girls to spend the day, and we did have a few bad experiences. But for the most part, we always felt welcome. Some men, fathers themselves, were protective and paternal. Some saw us as lucky charms and asked us to stand near them while a race was in progress.
Of all the experiences of my childhood, I’m most grateful now for the luxury of those long, idle, unstructured days that we were free to spend pursuing things we loved. Days like that have been so rare in adulthood.
We were drawn to the racetracks by the horses, but I have even fonder memories of the people in the crowd. Many of these railbirds seemed to spend every day at the track. Some of them clearly had issues with alcohol; probably most of them would be considered gambling addicts. I’m sure they all had family members who wished they would come home. But stepping in among them felt like stepping into a Damon Runyon story. They were colorful, loud, profane, buoyantly happy, then explosively disappointed. They were all dreamers searching for a big score they always thought was just around the corner, and their enthusiasm was so infectious. Standing in a crowd of racegoers always made me feel the world was full of magic, wonder and possibility. It was my first, and most indelible, experience of being swept up in collective emotion.
Have you ever gone to the races? I’ll never forget what it feels like to stand at the rail, straining to hear the race call, then hearing and feeling the growing thunder of hooves and the open-throated roaring of the people around you as the horses suddenly appear and fly past. I sometimes felt they were literally flying, and I was floating up off the ground myself.
Laura and I started watching the Triple Crown races in 1979, the year Spectacular Bid won the first two, then stepped on a safety pin and lost the Belmont. In the years since, through countless thrills, disappointments, near misses, triumphs and calamities, I’ve never missed a Triple Crown race except once, in the early summer after my husband died. In 1984, when I was living in England, I stood in a phone box in the middle of the night, holding my breath and listening to the Kentucky Derby broadcast while Laura held the phone up to the TV.
When American Pharoah swept down the stretch to his thoroughly commanding and thrilling win in the Belmont Stakes, I fell all to pieces, saying “I can’t believe it,” over and over. My kids could not understand why this meant so much to me. But it was impossible to explain it to anyone so young. In fact, how can I explain it to anyone? Life so often feels so linear; you watch your old selves, your old lives, your old perspectives recede in the distance. You feel you can’t touch these parts of your life anymore. That stretch run seemed to pull everything together in a way I’ve never experienced before. It was one glorious, perfect moment, the sudden satisfaction of so many frustrations, the realization of a dream that had come to seem impossible, the coalescing of every self I have been over the past 37 years.
I’m so grateful to have lived long enough to see this happen.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #458, November 2015.