With tomorrow's opening of the heavily publicized horse-racing movie "Seabiscuit," America's going a little horse crazy. Northwest Weekend sampled a day at the races at Puget Sound's own Emerald Downs for a sneak preview of what it's all about.
Like roller rinks and Chick-O-Sticks, I'd assumed my horse-crazy years were a thing of the past.
They had come on me back when I was 9 with the fury and suddenness of a tropical storm. One minute, I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries and collecting Creepy Crawlers, the next I was racing across a windswept island surrounded by a retinue of powerful horse-gods bearing weather-inspired names.
Misty, Stormy, Brighty, Thunderhead — I loved them all. I loved their flaring nostrils, their quivering hindquarters, their wild manes and free spirits. I loved the fact that they were high-strung and misunderstood and unfathomably deep, like me. It wasn't so much that I wanted to ride them — I'd been trampled enough times by our Shetland pony to be past that — it was more that I wanted to be them. They were my brothers, my soul mates, my kin.
For an entire summer, I reveled in their box-canyon adventures, their high-plains shenanigans. I read their stories, watched their movies. I even scoured the Sears catalog for dresses made of National Velvet.
And then one day, as suddenly as it had arrived, my horse craziness disappeared. Or so I thought.
Back in the saddle
No sooner had our car pulled off the highway and started winding through the rolling fields and ramshackle farms that led to Emerald Downs, than I felt a long-dormant flutter, a delicate pattering in my chest like the distant hooves of a palomino galloping across a wide grassy field.
Horse-craziness was back.
Pulling into the parking lot, my friend Renate and I followed the sweet smell of horse droppings toward the stadium, where a set of escalators transported us into the thrumming heart of Auburn's Emerald Downs Race Track. Betting counters lined the walkways like troughs; the smell of beer, cigarette smoke and kettle corn wafted by, balloonlike. While Renate went to find a program, I wandered past glass display cases of horseshoes and diagrams of thoroughbreds, trying to acclimate myself to the strange, restless atmosphere.
Around me were all manner of people. Young couples with babies, old men with cigars, gangs of backslapping husbands, groups of high-fiving wives. Many of them had racing forms in their fists and pencils behind their ears. I stared at a diagrammed tote board, trying to absorb its secrets without detection. A jumble of numbers and letters and fractions stared back, inscrutable as mud. Just then I heard a familiar riff of golden trumpet notes — "Parade to the Post" — and the flutter in my chest began to pound anew. The first race was about to begin.
The roar of the crowd
Hurrying past the betting counters, we burst outside into borrowed California sunshine and slopped down on a metal bench not far from the edge of the dirt track. Off in the distance, I saw the colorful silks of the jockeys; behind them pranced their horses. Renate scrutinized her program, calling out horse names as saucy as retired vaudeville queens — Ragtime Ruthie, Vodka Martini, Spicy Stuff, Swing Baby. Apparently, weather patterns were out these days. Attitude was in.
I peered over Renate's shoulder at a clutch of hieroglyphic statistics, puzzling over the strange terms that shouted up at me: exacta, trifecta, claiming race, lasix. The first race was five furlongs and, according to the program, would be run by maidens. Before I could make sense of this, a bell sounded, the crowd murmured, and a voice high in the stands shouted "And they're off!"
I scanned the track ahead of me but saw only the tote board, bright numbers peppering its face. People began to jostle around me, shouting out horse names, but the track remained still. I saw a rabbit, peacefully hopping about the manicured lawn inside the rail. And then suddenly, exploding from the left side of the board, I saw a convoluted knot of silks and numbers and flashing hooves coming around the track toward me.
Dangerous Woman was in the lead, sang the announcer. Followed by Peeps, No. 6, ridden by Sandi Gann. Lovem and Leavem was jockeying for position. And Byeairmail, the favorite, was moving up. As the horses grew closer, I could hear their hooves thundering against the track, mixing with screams of encouragement, pleas for speed, desperate cries for divine intervention. And then they were in front of me, flying by in a tangled blur of dark brown, bright blue, white polka dots and wind. The crowd let loose a final roar, the announcer shouted incoherently, and, just like that, it was over. The horses disappeared down the track and then reappeared out of nowhere, out of breath, out of luck. Peeps stepped into the Winner's Circle, the crowd sighed and shifted, and a phalanx of green tractors began to flatten the field for the next race.
Slowly, I took a ragged breath.
After a while, the herald trumpeter sounded again, the horses made their way to the starting gate and the second race came and went, an easy victory for Knight in Silver, a 3-year-old who had never won two races, which the program felt compelled to proclaim in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
I couldn't stand it anymore. I had to have a closer look.
Cigars, manure and sweat
"Come on, come on. Tell me you feel it. Tell me you feel it."
An animated crowd pressed against the fence surrounding the paddock, where sleek racehorses in white tube socks paced around their stables like expectant fathers on a '50s sitcom. The air was thick with perfume, cigar smoke, horse manure and sweat. Bad horse jewelry was the order of the day.
"Are you tired, baby?" a man crooned to a black horse wearing a mask with eyeholes like some kind of equine superhero. "Tell me, are you tired?"
Teenage boys in slouching jeans leaned against the fence, staring stoically. Sixtyish women in bridle-pattern scarves cooed nervous encouragement. I began to realize I wasn't the only one who had gone a little horse crazy. The stadium seemed full of excited 9-year-old girls, some of them wearing Madras shorts and bad toupees.
Overhead, the announcer was discussing the breeding status of one horse, the ability of another to dominate on a sloppy track. So-and-so hadn't run a mile before; somebody else's half sister was a multiple stakes winner. I wondered how the horses felt having their bodies, their families, even their breeding capabilities dissected as zealously as an absent black sheep at a family reunion.
Suddenly, the crowd pulled apart like a bad seam, and a line of men strode down a walkway into the center of the garden. Their jaws were pure granite, their eyes glinting steel. They moved with the unmistakable grace of heroes despite their tiny statures and penchant for garish pastels. I felt my heart begin to flutter as the jockeys snatched up their horses' reins, waltzed them once around the court, then headed for the track. You could taste the mettle in the air. "There go the bravest men in the world," Renate said in hushed tones.
"Yeah, riding's really dangerous," I answered.
"That's not what I'm talking about." She opened her program and pointed to a page. I stared at it in wonder. Not only did these guys risk life and limb balanced atop galloping locomotives, they allowed their weight to be printed for all the world to see.
We watched them go, awestruck, then ran for the counters, practicing our wagers every step of the way.
"Third race. Emerald Downs," Renate whispered behind me.
"Don't they already know we're at Emerald Downs?" I whispered back.
"You have to say where you are," she hissed. "It says so in the book."
"Next." I looked up. A bored blonde with inch-long press-on nails stared back, expectantly.
"Two dollars to win on Ragtime Ruthie," I stammered. Seven dollars and one exotic wager later (according to Renate, who by that time had memorized the program), I was an official gambler. One race and 17 minutes later, I was an official winner with $3.80 in my pocket, half of which I promptly slapped down on Cup o' Fries (the snack, not the horse).
Renate and I devoured our fries in the hot sun, then milled about the stadium, taking pictures of placid helper horses, fiery Thoroughbreds, wiry jockeys clutching saddles the size of shoulder pads.
We talked to the herald trumpeter. We chatted with a pair of hot walkers. We got assurances from the woman guarding the Winner's Circle that she and other Emerald Downs employees were not weighed at the end of their shift like the poor jockeys were. We strategized, we bet. We flew out of our seats, delirious, as our pick for the sixth race furiously pounded down the home stretch.
The afternoon loped along, and I sat in its saddle, content.
Around me swirled bad rock music, screaming cellphones, the wailing of babies, the drone of overhead planes, but I was immune to it all. All I could hear was the wild music of hooves and the excited burble of other 9-year-olds — some in denim cut-offs, others in serge suits — discussing horses past and present, their every syllable rife with hopeless infatuation.
Man o' War, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Funny Cide. Horse names were whispered over and over like magical incantations and for a moment, I was transported onto a windswept island, surrounded by a retinue of powerful horse-gods, running, running, running. Only I wasn't alone. Businessmen in suits and teenage boys in slouching jeans and 60ish women in bad horse jewelry were running with me.
I had stumbled onto a portal of sorts, I realized. A portal into another world — horse world — where for a brief instant, I could once again thunder over the earth, dirt clods stinging my muzzle, wind tossing my mane. Only unlike the grade-school library that had transported me here 30 years ago, this portal was still around. It was only a half-hour away. There was a bus.
As I headed for the exit, I turned to watch the horses — my brothers — line up for the next race, noting their flaring nostrils, their quivering hindquarters, their wild manes and free spirits.
Then a bell sounded, the crowd murmured, and we were off.
Free-lance writer Diane Mapes lives in Seattle. She grew up on a farm in Skagit County, which explains the Shetland pony.