Butterflies on the track

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 20, 2002

This past Saturday I had a great experience. I went to Lexington, Kentucky, to see the running of the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland Park, one of the more beautiful horse tracks I've seen. This is an important race in the progression leading to the Kentucky Derby.

The day began under heavy rains that held no promise of relief. But, probably because the weather gods like horse racing too, skies cleared and the sun shone on a perfect April day. Brisk winds dried the track sufficiently to promise hard races won by the fastest horsesnot the ones best able to navigate sloppy mud. I have no quarrel with races won by good mudders, but this race deserves the best of conditions.

The Keeneland facility is breathtaking in its manicured perfection. The staff attending the guests is both courteous and cordial. When one passes through the gates, it is a step into tradition and gentility that bespeaks the nobility of the great beasts that will make this day memorable.

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My favorite place at a horse track is the paddock. I enjoy seeing the animals being led around the ring by their grooms. One can sense the anticipation and nervousness of some of the animals as they dance around on their amazingly delicate legs. Others of them seem calm and resigned to the task ahead. But in each, their beautiful musculature is a delight to see. The raw power of these equine specimens is unparalleled.

When I lived in Shreveport, Louisiana, my daily route to work took my by the local track, Louisiana Downs. For that reason I always allowed extra commute time, especially in the spring. The track ran close to the roadway, and the nearby shelf of earth offered adequate parking space for a look-see.

At daybreak, exercise riders would come out to give their assigned mounts early morning workouts. I particularly liked those spring mornings when the two year olds were on the track. If they happened to be fillies, it was even better.

At the expense of being politically incorrect, I find fillies to be more high-strung and more easily distracted than are their male counterparts. In any case, two-year-olds work with dedication and direction up to a point. But don't let a butterfly float by or a sudden breeze ruffle the mane of another horse within sight.

Those are the times when concentration is lost. The head that was firmly set on forward momentum, the eyes that were focused on the track ahead, and the desire to please the rider are all lost in the toss of the head and the blink of the eye. That filly is once again a yearling with no more important goal than the discovery of the world around her.

Butterflies and breezes are important. Pleasing someone is not. After all, she's a baby. Everyone loves her. So my morning watches were apt to be laughable as much as anything. I still can hear hooves pounding in the early morning humidity. Dense fog often lay close to the ground, obscuring the horses until they are quite close, but the sounds drift through the thick air. The heavy breaths of the horses are punctuated by the coaxing voices of their riders. I often could not understand the words because so many of them were in Spanish. But those horses understood them. And I feel sure that many of those words were of encouragement"be a big girl, pay attention, do your homework, don't act like a baby, pay attention! It's just a butterfly." But on Bluegrass Stakes day there were few distractions. The horses knew their jobs. The jockeys knew their horses. And the twenty-eight thousand fans knew what they came to see. As race after race was run, excitement mounted. Lines at the wager windows got longer at post time of each race. Everyone was gearing up for the ninth race, the Stakes. There were six horses running in it. And when the race was over, it was clearly evident that Harlan's Holiday will be a strong contender on May 4th at Churchill Downs' Kentucky Derby.

At the end of that first race for the Triple Crown this year, we may well see the famous blanket of roses draped over the back of the same horse that stood in the winner's circle at last week's Bluegrass Stakes. And I can promise you, the winner will not be bothered by a butterfly.