Sunday, September 6, 2009

It's going to be desperately close...

It's taken me longer than I'd expected to process all the emotions and thoughts of the weekend's races. My friends and family would tell you that I am perfectly capable of over-analyzing a stick of chewing gum, so give me an historic moment and *whoa,* stand back.

I've always been a sports fan, someone who enjoyed--in the fullest sense--being part of something larger than myself. As a teenager I loved (loved isn't a strong enough word, perhaps, but you get the gist) the San Francisco 49ers, and the key object of said love was Joe Montana. I remember "the catch," Montana's lofty throw to Dwight Clark in a playoff game vs the Dallas Cowboys in 1982 as clearly as I remember anything. (Video HERE for those who aren't familiar) I was over the moon and would continue to follow the ups and downs (for downs, reference: vs Joey Browner and the Minnesota Vikings; vs Jim Burt and the NY Giants) for many years to come.

And then there were the Minnesota Twins. As a Minnesotan by birth, the Twins (who thankfully didn't parallel their football counterparts with a record number of championship failures as their calling card) were part of every summer. Herb Carneal on WCCO--games listened to on AM radio after a visit to the Dairy Queen--and the likes of Roy Smalley, Rod Carew, Ken Landreaux, John many great memories. Fast forward to 1987. I was away at school and watching the World Series games on TV in Chicago. I was fortunate that the Twins were playing the nemesis of the Chicago Cubs in that World Series--the St. Louis Cardinals--because everyone was, in unison with me, singing "We're Gonna Win Twins" to the entirety of our little Chicago neighborhood. The Twins' 1991 World Series win was almost more meaningful to me because I was in Minnesota at the time and really got to experience all the hoopla and mayhem. It was great. I still love my Twins and watch them whenever I can, lamenting when they don't make the playoffs, and cheering when they do.

As a midwesterner who was transplanted to the East Coast, I have my New England teams, too. I love my Red Sox and Bruins and watch the New England Patriots filled with the same joy as that I felt when I watched my 49ers as a teenager.

All this by way of saying that I love a good sporting contest. Whether it's Rafa Nadal vs Roger Federer at Roland Garos or Smarty Jones at Belmont, I love the attempts at greatness. Even when they fall short, that level of effort and commitment to a goal is inspiring, and when the underdog wins it usually is all the better. History, however, is written by the victors.

Now, anyone who reads my blog or my tweets knows I love horses, period. From the Shetland pony up to the Clydesdale...I love them all. And when it comes to thoroughbreds, while I'm partial to grays generally, I am compelled by great stories and horses who outrun their pedigrees. I've had the chance to see some wonderful races in person--Smarty Jones and Funny Cide at Belmont--both heartbreakers (which made that long train ride back to Manhattan even longer.) And Afleet Alex also at Belmont, showing his superior athleticism and heart with his inspired victory. And then there's Barbaro. Another heartbreaker who captured all of our hearts with his courage and will to carry on. His heart, while maybe not technically the size of Secretariat's, was gigantic in all the best ways.

Heart. The heart of a champion. And this all brings me to Rachel Alexandra on Saturday at Saratoga. I've watched all her races--traveled to Belmont for the Mother Goose and saw the others on TV--and with each victory, the hold she had on my heart grew. While I'm a cynic about so many things, I'm a sentimentalist when it comes to horses. I was enthralled with her Kentucky Oaks victory. Her Preakness run was stunning and scary. The romp in the Mother Goose was great fun, but I was edgy all day before the Haskell. Each time she raised the bar, exceeded expectations and rose above and beyond her competitors. When the opportunity to watch Rachel run--and potentially make history--at Saratoga arose, it was a no brainer. Of course I had to go.

Even though I had grandstand seats, I got to the track about 7:30 am and camped out along the rail near the 1/8th pole. I figured I could always go up later in the day, depending on the crowd. (Which, I have to say, for more than 31,000 people, didn't seem so overwhelming.) It was an absolutely glorious day. The sun was out, the morning was chilly, and there was a faint smell of autumn in the air. I got to watch several horses during their morning works and it was fascinating to really watch how different all of their running styles were. The day's races were all enjoyable and Tom Durkin on the Tannoy is always something special. He is so passionate and so well informed, his presence is such a great part of NY racing, whether it's Belmont, Aqueduct, or Saratoga.

By the time we were getting to about the 8th race, I was getting antsy, jittery. And unfortunately, some of my compatriots in the surrounding seats had overindulged a little bit so that made me a bit more out of sorts. There was a very well meaning--and generally pleasant--older couple next to me. Both clearly knew a fair amount about wagering, but not a lot about specific horses. The female half of this couple was lecturing a neophyte wagering couple on who Rachel Alexandra was and how they should bet the race. Now let me just say that while I'd had an incredible day, I'd been listening to the malapropisms and general misinformation all day long so I wasn't as patient as I should/might have been and when added to my anxiety over the coming race...well, my last nerve was being frayed. I tried to put it out of my mind though, knowing that I want to be fully present for The Woodward.

It's now time for the post parade for the 10th race, The Woodward. We all watched Calvin and Rachel in the paddock on the trackside jumbo-trons and the crowd started to cheer raucously. By that point the place is HEAVING with fans and the air is electric with cheers and applause. Any of you who have read all the fabulous pieces on or in the Albany Times Union ( know that en route to the starting gate on the track, Rachel was feeling her oats, so to speak, and tossed Calvin Borel from her back. I could feel my heart literally SINK in my chest.

For the record, I have to say that I'm not terribly brave when it comes to watching my teams/horses compete. I pace, I leave the room and turn up the TV or radio, it's sometimes just better to hear it than see it. (During the Haskell I listened from the kitchen until I about 1/4 mile to go.) So sue me, I'm a coward!

All this said, no one will be surprised that after Rachel tossed Calvin to the ground, I gave up my prime trackside seat for a spot in front of one of the simulcast TVs underneath the clubhouse. It is much easier to pace in that area, that I can tell you. It just seemed utterly impossible. When a baseball player fouls off a long fly, he rarely hits a home run in that same at bat; quarterbacks don't often throw a completed touchdown pass after a long incompletion, it just doesn't happen that often. It doesn't, unless you are one of the great ones. Think Joe Montana with 2 minutes to go in any game (from Notre Dame to the 49ers) or the late, great Kirby Puckett in nearly any Twins World Series game. And of course, Rachel. As I stood in front of the televisions, with about 12 or 15 others, I paced and found myself mindlessly chewing the sleeve of my cardigan. When I heard Tom Durkin announce the split for the first 1/4, I shook my head--punishing was the word Durkin used. She was running her heart out. The split for 1/2 was a little better, but still, breakneck. (Insert more sleeve chewing and head shaking on my part) It all happened so fast, and the excitement in Tom Durkin's voice continued to build, as did a kind of panic, almost. As the field turned for home, with Rachel in the lead Durkin commented that "A dramatic stretch drive awaits...and Calvin Borel imploring his filly for more," and I chewed harder on my sleeve and paced more. I could literally feel my eyes becoming hot with tears. It was impossible not to hear the roar of the crowd and feel the clubhouse and grandstand shake as the horses thundered down the last 1/8 mile. I watched how bravely Rachel battled on and saw the amazing surge by Macho Again (and I must say, under any other circumstances, I'd have been cheering him on--he's wonderful and ran an incredible race!) and find my brain flashed back to that 'suicidal' opening 1/4 split. How could you expect a filly, a 3-year-old filly no less, to power through that kind of a challenge? And just as Tom Durkin announced that "It's going to be desperately close..." everyone in the stands, everyone outside, and people watching on TVG from home realized that Rachel might actually do it. The sound surge as she crossed the line was deafening. And even after she was called as the winner, I think everyone just wanted to see her number go up--to be sure that we'd actually seen her win, not just willed it to be so.

With apologies to Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, reader, she won. (Incidentally, she won the race in a full second less than her future "soul-mate" Curlin did. Maybe nice girls do finish first...) And while it is literally yesterday's news, it's still BIG news. We all love heroes and heroines who prove their mettle when tested. And in the end, that's what I love about sports. The effort, the attempt to do something great, to beat the odds, to make a lasting impression. While Rachel didn't necessarily beat the odds (she was the favorite), no one would have faulted her for a second or third place finish within that field--particularly after the incident in the post parade. In every instance since last November, Rachel Alexandra has risen to, met, and exceeded the challenges presented her. For that, my sincere admiration. And for all the joy and excitement she's given racing fans, my sincere gratitude.

Needless to say, I literally floated back to Connecticut. The moon was full, the Catskills and Adirondacks were blue shadows beside and behind me (respectively) and for a couple of hours all was very right with world.

Oh, and for a little Kirby Puckett trip down memory lane...tune in HERE. And for a fun montage of Herb Carneal's great game calling for the Minnesota Twins, click HERE. And I know you've seen Rachel's great race already, but watch it once more'll be glad you did.

No comments: