Of Horses and Humans, and My Claustrophobic Quirks.

Marion E. Altieri and Bella Attrice

Marion E. Altieri and Bella Attrice

I won’t even begin to try to tell you about the hellacious winter that we in the Great Northeast just endured.  For the first time in my Life, I entertained the virtues of adopting Gulfstream as my home track.  With enough money in the bank, I could move to Florida, and spend the Saratoga race meet back in the town that I adore.

This winter really took it out of me:  shoveling, sitting  on an ice pile after I’d fallen and cut up my fingers and wrists–it just drained me. Emotionally, spiritually and even intellectually.

At one point, I thought that my ability to think–at all, never mind, creatively.  I was constantly cold–depressed–and felt horribly isolated.

The reality is that, every time I felt isolated–I should have remembered that humans aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and that I far-prefer the company of horses.  And that, with the advent of spring, then summer–I’d be up to my eyeballs in human company, like-it-or-not.

Perhaps you don’t fully appreciate how much I love horses, and the caution with which I approach most humans.

I could be in a herd of 5,000 horses and be perfectly calm.  The horses and I would communicate–we’d hug and chat–and I’d have a warm, loving time.

But put me in a crowd of 5,000 humans?  My soul starts to itch.  I have a genuine claustrophobia about being around many human beings.  Being in a large crowd–even at a race track, where I feel most At Home–makes me anxious.

Horses, you know, are innocent.  They have no agenda.
Horses are prey animals, and–when I’m around so many humans (who aren’t so innocent, and who DO have agenda)–I feel like a prey animal, too.

Humans, on the other hand, play both prey and predator, depending on the dynamics:  individually, a human can be prey.  Unfortunately, we’ve read too much lately about the Herd Mentality in humans, a mentality that often leads to violence–to predator behavior.

Please do not read this to mean that every human, when put into a crowd–a herd–will become a ballistic, insane predator.  Not at all. But for me–and this may be just me, and my quirks–for me, huge crowds (herds) of humans make the prey animal in me come to the fore.

Flee, or fight.  And since I’m not a fighter, I tend to find ways to flee.

Everyone who knows me has heard me utter my mantra at least once:  when I witness or hear about a human being an idiot, or cruel, I blurt out,

“The more humans I meet…the more I love horses.”

So, I approach this spring and summer race meets with a mixture of outrageous joy and (that which verges on) abject fear.  I adore horses.  I’m nuts about racing.  I am a horse racing media professional.   The thought of being around thousands of horses between today and Labor Day is a blessing of deep import.  The thought of dealing with thousands of human beings–regardless of their M.O.–flips me out.

They don’t have to be drunks in the Saratoga backyard, or those who crowd the rail and screech into my ear.

Just the thought of being in a large crowd of human beings–even humans with whom I share my obsession for racing–makes me need some quiet time.  Every time I’m in a crowd, I must take time immediately thereafter to get a kiss from a horse.  One minute with a horse–any horse–transports me to my Happy Place, and I almost fall asleep.

Horses, for me, are “Valium on the Hoof.”

So, The Next Big Thing on my calendar is the Belmont Stakes–a day that I always manage to love, in spite of the crowds.  Oh, yes, I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby twice so far–everyone should attend at least once–but both times I had extraordinary seats, and the majority of the 100,000+  humans were behind me.  I didn’t have to see them, and thereby, feel the wretched claustrophobia that sets in whenever I’m surrounded by too many people.  (If I knew someone who had a horse in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness–and invited as their guest–of course I’d be there.  I love to support my friends who are trainers and owners, and my employers who are involved.)

Now, of course, the sea of humanity at the aforementioned Belmont Stakes has the potential to send me right ’round the bend. 

But I have a Belmont Stakes Day ritual that, so far, has worked miracles over the years:  every year, I arrive at 6AM–grab a table on the paddock patio–and hang with friends, some of whom I never see except for that day.  When I arrive at 6AM, the world is fresh and new: as I sit and sip my coffee, the mist is rising–NYRA employees are wafting in–all is quiet, before the storm.  During the race day, the patio is less-crowded than the grandstand or clubhouse areas, so my claustrophobia usually doesn’t kick in ’til I suck up my guts and venture to the rail to watch races during the course of the day.

Now, I’ve been blessed.  I’ve had two extraordinary Belmont Stakes experiences beyond the scope of my usual ritual.  Both of these experiences sheltered me in very-different ways from being cheek-to-jowl with monstrous numbers of people and struggling to breathe, physically and emotionally.

The first  was in 2012, when a friend and I stood near the starting gate, as guests of NYRA’s Starter, Roy Williamson.  With Roy; his wife, Elaine and a couple others, we walked across Big Sandy to stand behind the other rail.  To be that close to the #1 horse, and that gate–and to experience the 85,000+ people there from strictly an aural-and-yet-distanced position–well, that’s a day I’ll treasure for the rest of my Life.

The other Belmont Stakes that I’ll hold in my heart forever-and-a-day:   happened last year, when for some wonderful reason–I was a guest of Longines.  (Longines, in case you live under a rock and don’t know–is the official timekeeper of the Belmont Stakes and the other Triple Crown races.  Longines is the BEST watch company in the world–they make beautiful, elegant, accurate timepieces.)  I love the company, if for no other reason than that they’re all about equestrian sports.  They’re so supportive of our horse racing–everyone should buy a Longines watch, to show appreciation for their extraordinary support.  Their new Equestrian Collection is mind-blowing.  (Like candy, I want one of each!  Check them out:    https://novelties.longines.com/the-longines-equestrian-collection/ )

So last year, I arrived at Belmont by 6AM, to hold the paddock table.  I’d told my friends that I would.    But then–woo-hoo!–I picked up my tickets that Longines had left for me at the Will Call window.  With Longines lovely folks and their other guests, I dined in a private dining room.  I sat in their box in the Clubhouse for the races.  I was completely buffered–cut off–from the insane crowds of humans.  (I know that the humans don’t intend me harm, I just bristle when I’m around so many people.  Pushing, shoving, loud conversations, alcohol overdoses–I’m very much like a horse, in that these things cause me to need to flee or fight.)

Longines saved me from dealing with the crowd.  They didn’t know that, of course:  All they knew was that they were giving me a memory to last a lifetime.

I didn’t want those nice folks  to think that I’m a wingnut, by telling them about my weird claustrophobia.  I didn’t share that I’m completely at ease around 1,000-pound horses, and freaked out around crowds of people.  (I don’t even feel comfortable in the Belmont elevator, if it’s full.  Put me in a crowd of 85,000 or more, all of whom are pressing the rail?   Up the blood pressure meds, to avoid an angst-triggered stroke.)

So yes, the Belmont Stakes–as any social event that involves billions of pounds of human flesh–offers the potential for extraordinary claustrophobia.

That brings me to Saratoga. Don’t get me started:  I love Saratoga–I adore our track–but again, I’m like a chipmonk in a valley of giants. Get me to the safest place, far from the cacophony–and the pushing, the shoving, the NOISE.

I do look forward to Saratoga–God, I count the days (99, as of today)–and at some point during the next three months, I’ll start counting the hours and minutes.

I’ve hung at that rail for 55 years–Saratoga Race Course feels as much like my own Home, as does my actual Home.  I swear, I know every square inch of the buildings and the property.

Which means that I know how to find places to hide when the crowds get to be too much for me.

If you see me at Saratoga this year–or any year–and suddenly, without warning, I disappear–please do not be offended.  Don’t take it personally.

It has nothing to do with you, as an individual human being, or my opinion of you.  My sudden flight to emotional higher ground–and a warm, soft horse nose–will be strictly a statement about my own need to self-preserve.

Think of it this way:  while many who don’t know me may see me as being an outgoing–aggressive, even–woman, deep inside I’m a prey animal, whose primary motivation is self-preservation.  (And maybe even a little enjoyment of Life…)  So if you see me at Saratoga one minute–then, ZIP!, I’m gone–it’s not you, it’s me.

If you really need to find me, I’m off finding comfort and warmth in the company of horses.  Horses, who always get me–and who understand my quirky claustrophobia, and our shared need to hang with our herd.