Sunday, October 19, 2008

Black Hats and Heart

It was 1986. I was fifteen and school had let out for summer vacation, my father took me with him to work one day and dropped me off at the Maryland State Fairgrounds to get a job. You see, it was something of a family tradition.

My grandfather worked there for years doing everything from groundskeeping to helping train the horses with sulky carts. My father worked there. Lots of my uncles worked there. And so it was a given that I'd be working there.

It was hard work, no question. As a young grunt, my work consisted of mowing and raking grass on the infield, shoveling sand mounds inside the livestock buildings or packing cedar chips for the cattle and sheep that would come in for the Fair later that summer. I also dealt with shoveling so much cow dung that... well... let's just say that I could have fertilized half the crops in York County. And let's not forget riding on the back of a garbage truck that led to the single most disgusting incident I've ever been privy to (it involved a blazing August heat and a dead iguana, but that's another story for another time).

It was hard work, but also mindless and even though the pay was for shit, there are some days that I truly do look back upon the three summers I worked there with fond memories.

I'd been with my father many summers to go watch horse racing. It can be harsh at times - even cruel to be certain, depending on the owner and trainer - but when there's a horse that's loved and cared for, the excitement of being at the races... whether it's a $2 bet to win, or a $50 bet on the long shot... the time between Post Time and when you see the blur of silky blacks and browns crossing that finish line... the surge of the crowd as one cheering entity, the smell of draft beer and heavy cigar smoke, the sound of scores of people swatting their thighs with a folded racing form, all of them screaming for their horse to pull through... it's like nothing else.

Fast forward to 2003.

A beautiful lean thoroughbred, described by the original owner as strong-willed from birth, Smarty Jones made his racing debut and won the race by 7 3/4 lengths. At his second race, two weeks later, he won by 15 lengths.

Move ahead to the Kentucky Derby, and Smarty Jones became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, taking the win by 2 3/4 lengths, and securing his place in history.

At the Preakness, a couple weeks later, Smarty blew the other horses completely away, blazing ahead to the finish line a record margin of 11 1/2 lengths. It was the second leg of the Triple Crown.

I remember watching the race... beer in hand, warm weather outside. It was incredibly exciting. It was history in the making. I remember calling my dad and hearing the excitement in his voice.

By the time the Belmont Stakes came around, Smarty Jones had become a rock star. Offers for breeding rights were coming in regularly as high as 40 million dollars. He had a legion of fans to cheer him on. The public had gotten Smarty Jones Fever.

And yet... it wasn't meant to be.

The Belmont kicked off and Smarty came in second, losing to a long shot horse of 36-1 odds named Birdstone. There is a lot of speculation as to why Smarty didn't win, but in the end, it doesn't really matter.

Watching Smarty come up short was devastating. I was completely and utterly depressed that he didn't win. It was the first time in my entire life I saw the owner of the winning horse apologize for winning. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke at the podium after Birdstone won.

There were a lot of people in the crowd at Belmont that had tears in their eyes too. It was as if hope had been stolen from them.

Smarty jones gave his entire being to the race. He gave his heart and spirit. He did the best he could to win and still fell short.

Sometimes shit happens.

During the time between the Preakness and Belmont, my father gave me a black hat and pin with Smarty Jones name on it. Like I said, it was a big deal... the public had caught Smarty Fever and there was everything from t-shirts to thongs with his name on it. Never before or since have I seen that sort of thing in horse racing.

When I write, I usually have a mug of coffee at my side. I wear that Smarty Jones hat flipped backwards like I'm a gunner ready to wade into battle.

It seems kind of silly but I think of that horse and that last race at Belmont a lot. He didn't win, but that doesn't matter much.

Smarty Jones never gave up heart. His spirit never faltered. That's the best we can strive for ourselves isn't it?

It's not the finish line we should be striving for... it's the race itself.

It's early as I write this. My family will start stirring soon, but I've still got some time. Outside, the sun is just beginning to peak its face over the skyline and it seems as if we've gotten our first frost of the year.

The monitor of my laptop glows brightly in the dark dining room and there's a faint head of steam rising off my mug of coffee.

I have my Smarty Jones hat on and I can feel that excitement building like I'm ready to watch a race begin.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I can hear the announcer blowing his trumpet.

It's Post Time and I'll see you all on the other side.


Blogger Joseph Mulak said...

That's a really nice story. It's true what you say: The finish line doesn't matter, it's the race that matters. That's something we all need to keep in mind as we live our lives. It's not how we go that matters, it's what we did during our lives that matters. Thanks for the reality check.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know all too well that "life isn't a destination, it's a journey"...
I think there's a good race brewing in NC soon within reach...

1:54 PM  

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