Morning Horse d’Oeuvres: It’s Why We’re Here.

Marion E. Altieri, New York WriterIn 10 days, more-or-less (depending on when you read this), July 22 will be upon us.  And here in Horse Racing Land, that means only one thing:  Opening Day at the revered, historic, beautiful Saratoga Race Course.  It seems that the whole world already knows everything about this year’s trappings, that is, the constants that don’t change from year-to-year:   the people–the food and alcohol–the traffic–the partying–etc., etc., etc.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as goes it.  Some things about the Saratoga meet remain constant–predictable, even.   We humans say that we embrace change, but in reality we feel far-more comfortable when things are the same way we remember them–from last year, 10, 20, 40 years ago.  When things do change too much, we feel uneasy.

So we relish the stories about how So-and-So “…got so drunk, that he…” and the archetypal two friends whom everyone calls, “1 and 1A.”  These things make us chuckle–warmly recall–and feel that we know Saratoga, and we can tell you exactly what’s going to happen this year.  Someone is going to joke about stealing the Travers Canoe.  Someone may do it.  (I saw it in 1996, gracing the barroom floor of a particular nightspot downtown.  No, really.)

Someone will dance ’til dawn–meet a lovely stranger–win a bundle of cash, then blow it all downtown.  Of course, even though every single human antic is entirely predictable–still we come here, year-after-year, for as many days during the meet that we can–to relive these moments.  Predictable moments, perhaps–but different faces, accents and circumstances make it interesting.

The one thing that’s uncontrollable–that is, which we humans cannot harness and turn into the memories as we want them to be–is The Horse.  The Horse who’s supposed to win–won’t.  (We all saw THAT in living color last year, didn’t we?)  The Horse who’s too lazy to stand up–will win by a country mile.  The Horse who looks like hell in a handbasket–will rise up and show us that he has an enormous soul.

The Horse will befriend children–convert adults who are afraid of equines–win over hundreds of thousands of human hearts.

The Horse is why we’re here.

We may think we’re here for those parties–for the adventure–for the wild opportunities.  But we’re really here–we were brought here–we were drawn here–by the siren song of The Horse.

I’m going to tell you a tale of a tail:  something that happened, perhaps 10 or 11 years ago.  It wasn’t a loud moment, at all.  It was so quiet, in fact, that–like fog–he came in on little cat’s paws.  The moment was so quiet, so special to my heart that it must be told–and you must quiet your own heart in order to read it and embrace the beauty of the moment.

Sans further ado, here’s my tale, Morning Horse d’Oeuvres:

Feet propped up on a picnic table bench, reading the Form (Daily Racing Form, that is), I found myself all alone at “our” spot in the backstretch one sultry August morning.  Karen, I believe is her name—an outrider—lightly tied her OTTB (Off-Track Thoroughbred), Black, to a tree as she prepped to bathe him. (“Lightly tied,” that is, just took the leather lead and twirled it around the tree a couple of times.)  She said that she’d be right back, I nodded absentmindedly, and went back to the Form.

Often, my friends and I bring food to share during race days, so usually our table is littered with all sorts of delicious offerings.  Today, for some weird reason, the table held only five boxes of different crackers: all opened, all with wax paper undone.

You see where this story is going.

I was engrossed in the Form, oblivious to my surroundings. The usual backstretch sounds, scents, music—all were just gone for me in that moment. Until.

Until I heard loud munching, immediately to my left, and front. I looked up, and right next to me—I mean, almost touching my chair, shoulder and leg—stood all 1,200 pounds of Black. He was rifling through those boxes like a sailor on shore leave.

Nickering with delight, joyously he consumed the contents as they spilled out onto the table.  That big, dark horse expressed joy of discovery that any human could understand, for Joy is part of our common language.  For this emotion, horses and humans need no translator.

The happy, huge, gentle Black had seen the crackers. Realized that, yes, crackers are grain, and decided to have a mid-morning snack.  He’d tip-toed across the side road, after he’d unwound his lead from the tree, and just helped himself—much to my delight!

In that moment, my heart smiled broadly as I pondered the gentleness of such an enormous animal—that he moved with the delicate and quiet footing of a ballet dancer—and that his hunger for a treat had brought him within millimeters from me, without either of us being injured in the experience.

Shortly thereafter, Karen came running and waving her arms, apologizing profusely for her horse’s ill manners, and for disturbing my morning reverie.  I gushed to her that I was absolutely blessed to have such a special, quiet moment with her horse.  I didn’t have time or opportunity to tell her that, in that one moment in time as the only sound was a snuffling, snorting critter who clearly loved Triscuits–I experienced, yet again, something that very few humans get to know.  And this is why I love horses, because they’re full of surprises.

Like their Creator, horses are best experienced by the heart of one who can get quiet enough to exhale the world, and inhale eternal, ineffable Truth.  All the human trappings and marketing designs aside–this is why we love horse racing.  If you’re already a horse-lover, I’m sure you have a hundred stories just like this one.

If you’re not already a horse-lover–that is, if you think you’re coming here to gamble/drink/carouse/breathe in the fine Adirondack air/take the kids away for a weekend–think again.  If all you come here for is to re-live last year’s memories–you’re missing so much.  In fact, you’re missing the Whole Point of the Thing.  I don’t want you to miss something so special, as looking into the eye of a horse.  Come on, give it a try.  See a horse.  Ask horse’s human if you can go near her/him.  Look right in that eye.

Feel your soul soften, and change forever.  If you’re lucky, the horse’s human will give you a cracker to offer your new equine friend.  And in that Eucharistic ritual, both of you will be blessed.


Note:  if you’re interested…I’ll write for Saratoga Today newspaper all during the Saratoga meet.  Backstretch Beat‘s the name of my column, so grab a copy of the paper every Friday, free, all throughout Saratoga.  Thanks!