It might have
been any farm along the turnpike. Wide fields, bright green under the Kentucky
sky; a four-barred gate between white fences marked the farm lane. Oxmoor: as
the car turned in, a roadside marker gave the name. Sheep lay along the
right-hand fence, a day-old lamb sprawled on its mother's back. Herefords
cooled their bellies in the stream.
To the left
across a meadow a heavy barrier rose. At second look this was no farm barrier,
it was a brush hurdle. A big one, sure enough, and not put up for cows either.
"Well yes," says my weekend host, "a steeplechase course. We've run
an autumn steeplechase here for years."
I knew this was
horse country. Who doesn't know it? I had traveled from tidewater Virginia by
slow train, very slow indeed. I had seen the white barred fences out Lexington
way, the rolling pastures, smooth as a golf course, where young colts, standing
by their mothers, lifted their heads to watch the train. At breakfast in the
dining car a spectacled woman who might have been a Baptist preacher's wife had
leaned across the table to say with solemn emphasis, vowels proudly
unreconstructed, "Ah think every red-blooded American should go to at least
one Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs."
I had been often
in country where cow was queen, quite lately in country where pig was king, but
never before in country where horse—fast-running Thoroughbred horse—was king.
Even so, I hadn't expected a steeplechase in my host's front yard. Do they run
right round the house? I wanted to ask. Up the front steps maybe, and through
But I said
nothing. With horse people the best clue, for the uninitiated, is silence.
Respectful silence. That night at bedtime the fields lay thick-black under the
stars, no sound from earth or sky. With a sigh of comfort I slipped in bed,
snapped off the table light. This was Sunday, April 28. Six days before the
Derby. Plenty to see and do before that great day. And most of it out of doors
in the hot blue balmy Kentucky weather. In the name of Arthur Daley, Whitney
Tower, Red Smith, Audax Minor, what a beautiful, beautiful assignment.
The last sound I
heard before drifting off was the whinny of a horse outside of my bedroom
At 7 next morning
we are at Churchill Downs, slipping in the back way, four of five of us,
strolling past the barns to the track. It is coolish, the wind feels wet. Few
spectators are out. Even the press is still asleep—or riding planes across the
continent to Louisville. The colts, come past from the horse barns one at a
time, pulling at the bridle, feeling good, showing off a little. "Track's a
bit heavy today," a trainer says. But the colts feel the soft dirt
underfoot, dance sidewise and wheel, trying what they can do. Jockeys and
exercise boys are dressed easy for this early workout, in faded jeans and
windbreakers, visored caps turned backward. They talk to their mounts, gentling
them. "Ho, baby. All ri-ight now, little queen." The rider's voice is
quiet but his rein is taut. Control, balance. Odd, how these qualities can make
themselves felt across 75 feet of track and down from rider to humble spectator
standing with her sneakers in the dirt.
The exercise boy
turns his animal's head to the backstretch, straightens his legs that were
jackknifed in the stirrups and with one flowing movement rises to full height
and bends forward. As he does so the colt begins to run. So perfectly
synchronized is the motion of man and beast, so rapid and yet so unhurried,
that a person catches her breath watching. ("You, a literary-type woman,
going to the Derby?" one's friends at home had asked incredulously.
"What on earth for?")
But this was what
for: I knew it in mounting excitement.... Round the curve four colts streak
toward us up the track, their hoofs soft thunder on the dirt. An old simile,
the thunder of hoofs, an old excitement in a traditional situation. But not old
to us, nor to any with ears and eyes and with feet to climb a grandstand or
stand by a wide dirt track.... The four colts are gone, out of sight, the sound
is gone. "Turn his head loose, Tennessee," a trainer calls to a Negro
exercise boy, riding onto the track. A dark bay horse comes from the barns,
ridden by a jockey in an orange cotton shirt. The jockey wears no hat, his dark
hair is oiled and smoothly brushed. All eyes turn. This is Willie Hartack, who
last year rode Barbizon to victory in the $168,400 Garden State.
friendly. "How you, Willie." Willie inclines his head, taking his time.
"What do you know," he answers easily. There is no interrogation to it,
no inflection; the syllables are blurred as if one word, not four, was spoken.
It is the greeting of a king to his subjects, courteous, noncommittal. What do
you know. I find myself repeating it admiringly, under my breath.... What do
you know? How you, Willie?