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I grew up in Indiana, Indianapolis to be exact. The month of May was always an exciting time for my brother and me. Every year we went to time trials, practices and of course the race itself. (That would be the Indianapolis 500. THE race.) The sound of Indy cars whizzing around a track, no matter what race I’m watching, takes me right back to that time. I say this so that you’ll believe me when I tell you that I know a little about auto racing, at least of the Indy variety.

Today, the first Saturday in May, in a state just south of Indiana, a very different race is being run. I write this as I sit here watching the pre-race television coverage for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t grow up as a fan of thoroughbred racing, although I consider myself one now. My love for the Sport of Kings is actually an off-shoot of my writing.

Several years ago, while searching for an enterprise appropriate to a character with a shady past, out of thin air was plucked a race horse. Since I knew absolutely nothing about racing or race horses, other than there has always been a shady pall that has hovered over it with stage whispered connections to organized crime. Other than that, I had to start from scratch. Luckily, I’m a whiz at research.

My virtual travels have taken me to a lot of the major race tracks in the US, including Churchill Downs, Aquaduct, Santa Anita and Belmont Park to name a few. I’ve learned about dirt vs grass, mud, slow tracks and fast tracks.

I’ve become familiar with the names of elite trainers like Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas as well as the names of the winningest training and stud farms like Winstar and Calumet.

I’ve learned the difference between a Grade III and a Grade I stakes race, what it takes to be eligible for a Triple Crown race like the Kentucky Derby as well as Classics like the Breeder’s Cup.

I know the difference between mechanical insemination and natural cover, what the gestation period is for a horse, the dangers involved as well as how a foal comes into the world.

I’ve done all of this so that my characters could speak naturally and intelligently about these subjects. One horse has since become six. They own a renowned race track as well as a stud. (Not as uncommon as it sounds for the owner of a race horse to own a track. His (or her) horses will just not be allowed to race at that park.)

Along the way, watching races like today’s Kentucky Derby, I’ve fallen in love with the sport and the athletes – the horses. Thoroughbred horses are magnificent animals. I am completely besotted with these contradictions of awesome power and delicate grace; a thousand pounds of sheer muscle covered in a velvet cloak sitting atop gangly, fragile and almost delicate legs.

When I, as a viewer, experience the triumphs and tragedies associated with the sport, so do my “people”. In 2008 when the filly Eight Belles came in second in the Derby and then broke both of her front legs in front of a crowd of more than 150,000 horrified onlookers, my characters and their narrative mirrored my thoughts…

“Yeah? How’d my filly do?” A pause followed that stretched into a long silence “J? Baby you there?”

“Wow. I didn’t think this would be this hard.” She heard him pour into a glass and take a drink before continuing, “Eight Belles came in second.”

“That’s great! Best showing for a filly in the Derby for what…” K was walking by the table and she waved her over.

“She’d already passed the finish line. All her rider had to do was pull up and they’d go home happy…”

“Oh no…what happened?” She reached for K’s hand.

“What is it? Is Jacks okay?” Hobbes nodded.

“There was no way to save her. She broke both her front ankles and there was nothin’ they could do.”

Tears sprang to her eyes and K squeezed her hand as she searched her face.

“Oh my God…That’s horrible. Right there on the track? I can’t imagine how Rick {Porter} and Larry{Jones} are right now. Have you talked to them?

“Yeah, briefly. Not good. Rick’s daughter-in-law’s pregnant. She fainted and had to be taken to hospital. It’s not the usual party atmosphere around here.”

“No, I can believe that. Where are you?”

“Hotel. I have some things to take care of. I’ll call you later.”

She closed her phone and looked at K.

“H? What is it? You’re scaring me.”

Squeezing K’s fingers, she replayed the conversation she’d just had.

“I could hear the emotion in his voice. When’s the last time you could say that?”

“Oh honey…”

Hobbes dabbed the moisture from under her eyelashes “We need to find out if there’s some sort of fund being setup in her name…”

“If not, maybe we could start one.”

“Yeah. Because otherwise, I’m not touching that money. I couldn’t.”

K rubbed the top of Hobbes’ hand, “We’ll find out on Monday. In the meantime… “ A waiter appeared at that moment with a tray of champagne. She took one and handed another to Hobbes “To Eight Belles.”

“To Eight Belles.”

******

“…Hey baby. I thought you weren’t coming home til tomorrow.” Her eyes were still closed as she nestled into the warmth of his arms.

His lips were on her neck as he whispered, “Nothin’ to stay away for. And what I need is right here.”

“Mmmm…sweet talker. You okay?”

“I don’t know what I am. I don’t think so, no.”

She opened her eyes and turned to face him. “Tell me.”

After a long pause he blew out a breath “I saw it. Once Big Brown crossed the finish, I knew the filly was second… I was usin’ the binos to see where Colonel John was. She went down…I mean just folded… and I knew it was bad. And then they had to destroy her right there…”

“They’re just so damn fragile… I keep thinking it could happen to one of ours…”

“I know, me too. And God knows we’d be devastated if anythin’ happened to one of ’em…but I can’t…we can’t think like that. This is the business we’re in.”

“I know. And our horses live good lives, but there aren’t any guarantees… for any of us. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow…”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.” She put a hand on his cheek “I’m trying to say ‘be here now’. Don’t take a minute of it for granted. You ought to know that, Mr. Nine Lives.

Watching today’s event, I’m moved by the story of trainer Bob Baffert, who has two horses in today’s race, and his recovery from a serious heart attack mere months ago as well as the story of owner Phyllis Wythe, wheelchair-bound since 2001 due to a degenerative condition linked to a 1962 car crash in which she suffered a broken neck, who sold the favorite at post time, Union Rags, as a yearling in 2010 for $145,000 but had a dream that she HAD to have that horse and bought him back for nearly 3x that amount.

I root for riders like Calvin Borrel, the wiry little Cajun who has literally pulled himself up by his bootstraps and has won the Derby three times and is trying for a fourth. The names become familiar as if we’re old friends.

It’s a good thing I’m not actually betting on this race. I always have a difficult time picking just one. I usually go with a sentimental favorite. Like D’Tara because his name had Tara in it and I’m a fan of Margaret Mitchell (this reasoning also ended up coming out of a character’s mouth), or a filly, just because. Today I rooted for Union Rags and Bodemeister (a Baffert horse). The favorite started slowly and never recovered, as happens time and again. Bodemeister had the lead until the last 1/8 of a mile when I’ll Have Another surged ahead. Like I said, good thing I didn’t bet the rent.

Oh well, in two weeks we’re on to the Preakness. My people will definitely be coming with me.

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