As Backstretch friend John at The Race is Not the Swift noted recently, now is the winter of our discontent. It’s mid-February; three and a half months of racing at Aqueduct in the books (really? Is it three and a half months since, on opening weekend, we thrilled to watch Zenyatta’s win in the Classic?), two and a half to go.
DOWNS: It’s been cold here for a while, cold enough every morning to warrant serious consideration to clothing and footwear, cold enough that a usually inveterately cheerful horseman groused to me yesterday about how miserable it’s been at the barn every morning in 20 degree weather, how hard the frozen ground is on the horses’ feet.
DOWNS: And if New York racing is your focus, the hits just keep on coming: NYRA suggests that it might run out of money before the Belmont; state legislators finally show a little interest in the racing industry, only to bloviate and grandstand with an utter lack of understanding of any of the issues; NYC OTB thinks that it should be able to sell NYRA’s signal without paying for it; the governor finally names a VLT operator, only to be socked with inquiries and investigations, one of which is instigated by the man who has had nine years to make a decision about a VLT operator, never does, and now is upset at the choice that was made.
So it is not with the usual jump in my step with which I alight from the A train, not with my usual enthusiasm for a rare Monday of racing. But the sky over Aqueduct is a brilliant blue, and the sun reflects an almost blinding glare off the virtually untouched snow on the infield. In its own way, Aqueduct is beautiful today. UP!
A group of graduate students in journalism is at the track, learning to cover a day at the races. Though many of them leave mid-card, one stays around to the end, fascinated by the stories and history and rhythm and beauty of a day at the races, curious about the decay evident at Aqueduct, wondering why people don’t go to the races any more, seriously interested in the sport. UP!
In the second race, Suddenly I See breaks down; without rider Jacqueline Davis on her back, the five-year-old mare runs around on a terribly broken leg—it is horrifying to watch, and I don’t. Davis is fine and rides the rest of the card; Suddenly I See is euthanized on track. DOWN.
The featured Hollie Hughes is placed fourth on the ten-race card (yes, ten races at Aqueduct on a Monday—make-ups from the cancellations last Wednesday and Thursday—is that an UP or a DOWN?), and West Point Thoroughbred’s Rereadthefootnotes goes to the lead and never looks back, winning by three and a half on an afternoon that feels like it might hold harbingers of spring—ignore the snow, and the warmth of the sun brings smiles to the faces of those in the paddock, who shed a heavy layer or two in the strength of the sun. UP!
If a crowd of whoopin’ and hollerin’ West Point winners, even on a February day at Aqueduct, can’t raise your racing spirits, check your pulse. Trainer Mike Hushion, not known for effusive glee, smiles as he talks about the win. “It’s nice to get all these people excited; we’ve been lacking that around here lately. These people come from South Carolina, West Point people come from all over. It makes it so much better, to see people with enthusiasm again. Luckily they get one of these real pros to have some fun with.”
And having fun they are; one woman says to her horse, “Reread, you’re the man! I don’t care if you’re a gelding!”
The ninth race unforgivably brings another breakdown—in the stretch, finding room on the rail, full of run, Thousand Excuses suddenly, horrifyingly goes down, flailing. Jockey Ramon Dominguez hits the ground card, but bounces back up right away. Relief: this jockey too is OK, and he rides in the finale. But for the second time, the screen goes up, and Thousand Excuses is put down; like Suddenly I See, he has suffered an irreparably broken cannon bone. Down, down, down.
The days ends over dinner with racing friends, with talk of news and current projects and Saratoga rentals, and yes, even some non-racing topics. Earlier in the day, someone says, “I never get used to it, it never gets easier, and I’m glad.” The downs of the day are not forgotten, but the day ends, as it began, on an up note—which, fortunately, is usually the case when you spend a day at the races.