Though the weather outside was frightful…

…the mood inside was indeed delightful.

At the end of my last post I wrote about the giddiness friends and I were feeling as we left a dismal Aqueduct on early Sunday afternoon. The brunch to benefit the Backstretch Employees Service Team was held on the fourth floor of the clubhouse, in a private room at the rear of Equestris, the clubhouse restaurant. We had a decent view of the snowy track and a wall of windows at which to bet, had live racing been happening while we were there (the brunch was from 10 – 12).

The panel, moderated by Jan Rushton, featured John and Sandra Ronan, the filmmakers; Jenny Kellner, racing journalist; and Elizabeth Bracken, director of simulcasting for the New York Racing Association. John told us that his film, Women in American Horse Racing, had been shown on the internet Nicker Network and on a PBS affiliate in Kentucky. The press kit was a wealth of information about the movie, and from it and the film I learned that:
· of the 1,691 horses that have gone to the post in the Kentucky Derby, five have been ridden by women;
· the film was featured in an article in the June 9, 2007 edition of Thoroughbred Times;
· the Daily Racing Form and Autotote sponsored the film’s production;
· in 1968, jockey Penny Ann Early tried to ride in a race at Churchill Downs, but the male jockeys boycotted and the race was cancelled.
· the following year, Bill Veeck, president of Suffolk Downs, organized a $10,000 handicap race for female jockeys only, called the Lady Godiva Stakes;
· John has written about the importance of women in racing in the Boston Globe and Thoroughbred Times.

During the panel, Jan Rushton spoke about her background in racing, beginning on the farms of South Carolina, where she grew up, and moving on to be an exercise rider here in New York. Having had the foresight to earn a college degree and recognizing that exercise riding wouldn’t be around forever, she was hired by Steven Crist (another guest at the brunch; we were seated at the same table but never spoke to each other) to work in media for the New York Racing Association. If you watch live racing from any of the NYRA tracks, you’ll see Jan in the paddock, talking about key horses in each race, and she often hosts Thoroughbred Action, NYRA’s daily wrap-up of the races. Jan is known for her amazing hats, and she told us that, impractical as they might seem, they were born of a very practical concern indeed: bad hair. For a while, she was exercising horses in the morning and then going on the air, and with no time to shower and do her hair, she started wearing hats, and they’ve now become something of a trademark.

Jenny Kellner is an experienced sports journalist who favorably compared covering races to covering other sports because of the absence of the locker room; she’s been in the sports reporting business for a long time, and in the beginning, it wasn’t easy for female reporters to gain access to locker rooms before and after a game. At the races, there are, fortunately, no such considerations, and male and female reporters have equal access to jockeys and trainers.

According to Jan, Elizabeth Bracken “runs [NYRA] simulcasting single-handedly.” After earning a degree at the University of Arizona, she worked at Rockingham Park, the Fairgrounds, and Hialeah before coming to New York. She sells New York racing across the country and around the world, coordinating contracts and the video signal. Since Bill Nader’s departure to work in racing in Hong Kong, she has also taken over some of his responsibilities.

The conversation and the film were thoughtful, interesting, detailed looks at the many roles that women play in racing. As I posted above, the film can be purchased for $14.95 at the Daily Racing Form; it could make a nice stocking stuffer for that female race fan in your life.

As wonderful as the brunch, screening, and panel were, the afternoon got even better when we were invited by Rich Cristiano, chair of B.E.S.T.’s board and executive vice president of client management at West Point Thoroughbreds (owners of Lear’s Princess and former owner of Dream Rush and Irish Smoke), to the paddock and the rail for the first race. It was awful out—bundled up in scarves, hats, and gloves, we were freezing standing in the paddock; I can’t imagine how the jockeys managed the cold, wind, and snow, but manage it they did.

Pat Kelly, trainer of Evening Attire, had Tuffy Gold entered, and Tuffy wore an old Evening Attire cooler; many of the letters had worn off, but enough were still on to recognize it. Tuffy is owned by the same folks who own Evening Attire, so perhaps they got the permission of the big guy before throwing the blanket over his stablemate, in a kind of equine hand-me-down. Photo credit to Railbird.

Standing in the paddock, I was reminded of the Hennegan brothers’ First Saturday in May, their film about the road to the 2006 Derby; Frank Amonte, Jr., trainer of Achilles of Troy, one of the horses featured in the film, was shown on a similarly grim New York winter day, watching his horse on the TVs below ground level just off the paddock. You gotta love the game to deal with it in this weather.

We watched the inner turf race from the rail just off the winners’ circle; as is typical in New York winter racing, speed held, and R Fast Favorite was indeed both, winning by 10 ¼ lengths. By this time my feet (in very unsensible winter boots) were freezing, and duty called, so we made our way back to the clubhouse and then back home to Brooklyn. It was a far cry from the bucolic setting of the Saratoga paddock, but it was still a day at the races (part of a day, anyway), and as someone once said, “A bad day at the races is better than a good day anywhere else.” Hear, hear.

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