I watched a little horse racing when I was young. Specifically, I watched three races a year: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Everything else eluded me. I had no clue about prep races, the handicap division, horses who ran on grass, or lunchpail horses who did not run for seven-figure purses and a shot at immortality.
I have dusty memories of a lot of horses. Mostly I remember Pat Day’s mounts, since my father liked Pat Day. I remember Lil E. Tee, Tabasco Cat, Timber Country, and Menifee — Menifee more than anyone, since I had fun saying his name.
I remember a few others. Julie Krone’s victory on Colonial Affair set my feminist heart aflutter by proving there was a place for women in a top-level professional sport. Union City’s breakdown in the Preakness broke my heart. I remember Triple Crown tries falling short. Touch Gold, Victory Gallop, and Lemon Drop Kid brought disappointment three years in a row. I even remember Easy Goer from some dusty corner of the past, though I was so young when he ran that my memories can only be from replays run years later.
But, through my entire childhood, I never figured out that I could follow horse racing more than three days a year. I still berate my younger self for being so oblivious to the greater existence of the sport that has become my life. After all, I had pieces of that puzzle during my childhood.
For one, I knew about my mom’s stack of two-dollar bills.
She had lived in Arlington Heights, and even mentioned that she had collected those bills at Arlington Park. I knew Arlington Park was a horse track. I even knew none of the Triple Crown races took place there.
This should have tipped me off. It should have at least put the idea in my head to check out Arlington Park after I moved to Chicago for college. That did not register. Years of racing passed me by. I lived here when Arlington hosted a Breeders’ Cup, but I had no idea what the Breeders’ Cup even was until years later. I never visited until a work outing at the ripe old age of twenty-four.
I also knew the name Cigar.
I watched SportsCenter religiously through the later stages of elementary school, through middle school. I paid attention to college basketball — after all, I did live in North Carolina. I needed to know the latest heroic deeds of Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley. I caught up on baseball, hockey, even football.
But, every so often when I was in seventh and eighth grades, they would show horse racing highlights. They’d all be about some horse named Cigar who was on a win streak. I tuned in just enough to see whether his win streak was active. I smiled whenever I heard he had won again.
But, that happiness was nothing personal. It sprung from nothing more than some vague sense of wanting to live through history. I didn’t know any of those races he won. I didn’t retain the name Dare and Go. I didn’t squander any of my AOL ration of twenty minutes a day to look up Cigar’s streak. I needed that time for Mortal Kombat cheat codes, and to yell at chat room trolls with names like Coin Flip.
The existence of horse racing for more than three days every spring finally dawned on me. I became a once-every-few-years racegoer in my twenties, and a somewhat more avid one in my thirties. I make up for as many lost years as I can by throwing myself into the sport, but I will always wonder how much farther along I would be now had I put these pieces together as a child.