Letter To The Editor: From A Young Fan

Hot Rod Charlie wins the GI Pennsylvania Derby | Sarah Andrew

My first race was two years ago. The 2021 Haskell Invitational S., the summer before my senior year of college. It was the post parade that hooked me.

When “Born to Run” sounded through the grandstand as Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon bounced onto the track, it didn't matter how the race would go. I was in. It was enough to latch onto despite the outrage I felt towards my home-state regulators for an ill-advised whip rule that took down Midnight Bourbon, along with my exacta box.

But though he fell, everyone came home safe that day.

I turned into a racing evangelist, with Hot Rod Charlie at the center of my devotion. I brought my friends along to his revenge tour at the Pennsylvania Derby, where he finally triumphed over Midnight Bourbon. We gutted out another inquiry, after which, I wildly bear-hugged a friend. We'd finally hit that exacta.

I loved racing. My dorm room was littered with Daily Racing Forms. I missed dinner to watch the Breeders' Cup Classic. Ducked into empty classrooms to watch Derby preps at Oaklawn. I drove three hours round-trip to Aqueduct at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to bet the Dubai World Cup because they didn't offer the superfecta on 4NJBETS.

After college I kept it up. In March of this year, I went with my girlfriend–one of our first dates had been at the 2022 Haskell–to Kentucky for the first time. We stayed in Midway, there for “Road to the Horse” at the Kentucky Horse Park. I left in the middle, hiked over to see Funny Cide and Silver Charm in their stalls. One afternoon we walked around Keeneland. Circled the paddock, went beneath the stand and onto the track. It felt like walking on hallowed ground. A few months before, we'd been brought to tears by Cody's Wish's win in the Dirt Mile and dazzled by Flightline's romp in the Classic.

So you know how I felt when I saw Maple Leaf Mel, the undefeated New York-bred, bounding away from a Grade I field as the camera zoomed in on her. She went fast early–44 and two for the half mile–and she went fast late, with a gutsy performance by turning away her classiest opponents yet. She was “six-for-six.” That's the line etched in my mind. It's the last thing I remember hearing from track announcer Frank Mirahmadi before she went down.

It felt like a gut-punch–it was the first time I understood what that word meant. I couldn't think for a few minutes. I couldn't talk. I couldn't watch Cody's Wish run afterwards.

I avoided watching Saratoga after that. But this past weekend I turned on the FOX broadcast for the first time since. It had been three weeks, I reasoned. Enough time to reset my mind. Anyways, my favorite active horse, Arcangelo, was running in the Travers, and I felt sure he'd win. What kind of sport would this be if I couldn't watch it live?

So I turned on the broadcast shortly after 3 p.m. I watched Gunite, under a great ride from Tyler Gaffalione, take down Elite Power along with his eight-race win streak. I saw that the next race was an allowance, turned the broadcast off, went back to my book. But I was back for the Jerkens. I saw the Baffert runners in the paddock, saw Jimmy Barnes sweating bullets. Saw New York Thunder looking flat, his coat dull. I pulled up the replay of his last race. Saw him blaze to victory without changing leads.

It was the post parade now. I kept watching, live on FOX. I even almost made a bet on Verifying, he was looking so muscled-up before the race.

When they burst from the starting gate, I watched New York Thunder stride out on top. He led the way through the far turn. The Baffert runners dropped back, New York Thunder having run them off their feet, each stride pounding the dirt and carrying him away from them. But then I heard Frank Mirahmadi call out the fraction of 44 and two in this $500,000 seven-furlong Grade I sprint for three-year-olds. A punishing half-mile. I shut my laptop. My nerves couldn't take it.

A minute went by. I reopened the laptop, fired up FOX. I hoped they'd come home safe. But then I saw the wide-angle camera shot, saw that the five horse wasn't in the drop-down of the top four finishers. I heard the empty unsteadiness of the commentators. I shut my laptop again, leaned back in my seat, looked blankly out the window.

I watched the Travers that evening, only after I'd known Arcangelo had won and had come back in good shape. I couldn't enjoy it, even after he sailed past the wire. When he seemed to take a bad step in the gallop-out I held my breath, despite having read that he was fine. I wanted to look away the whole time.

That's my favorite horse winning the Midsummer Derby.

I'm drawn to racing, in part, for the history. Today I watched a replay of the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Thirty-five years ago. Personal Ensign running down Winning Colors under the Churchill Downs wire. A hard-won performance from an undefeated champion. It should have been rousing. Instead during the stretch drive, I felt nothing but worry that she might fall.

That's what I see when I watch racing now.

Horse racing fan Isaac Hart lives in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

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