I first went to the racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1958. I was 9 years old. In those days the horses were saddled under the trees in an outdoor paddock open to the public. You could stand 6 feet away from the greatest thoroughbreds in the world. There was nothing between you and them but a warm summer breeze. It was hard not to be taken by the pure majesty of the horses. Their simple beauty, grace, stature, power and dignity were overwhelming.
And then came the races. The energy as the horses came down the stretch was palpable. My father would give me $1 to bet, and on the rare occasion my horse was close to the lead the excitement was electric. Once in a very long while I even won. It was unadulterated joy! I could delude myself with the idea that my superior insight had noticed what other bettors had missed! The total experience was bliss. What I didn't know couldn't hurt me, or change the experience.
Over the years as my naiveté diminished, I gradually became aware of the realities of the sport and the way its heroes are abused and mistreated for our pleasure. Rushing 2-year-olds to run before their bodies are sufficiently mature to endure the stress. The excessive use of (legal and illegal) performance-enhancing drugs to keep the horses on the track. The unacceptably high rate of serious injury and death suffered as a result. The way many thoroughbreds are discarded or even euthanized after their racing careers are over and they are no longer of economic use. The sport attracts, and reflects, the best and the worst of us.
All this knowledge makes it harder to experience the same pure joy I felt back at Saratoga when I was 9 years old. But at its best I still marvel at the simplicity and purity of the sport, and more importantly the dignity and beauty of its athletes.
I've come to realize one of the appealing things about horse racing is that it is a perfect metaphor for life, warts and all. On Saturday I be attended the Belmont Stakes for the 40th time. Because of the possibility of the first Triple Crown in 36 years, tens of thousands attended for the first time.
As they ran the race, I rooted for three things -- all the horses return safely to the barn after the race is over, a triple crown for California Chrome, and most importantly, that horse racing starts to address the serious reforms necessary to make it a safer, more enlightened sport.
I've always been attracted to long shots. You can't give up hope.