Horse Track Blog

Saturday, August 20, 2011

THAT’S HOW THEY ROLL IN THE COMMONWEALTH

By John Day

NEW YORK—The Kentucky love affair with horses and racing courses through the Commonwealth like the limestone veins of rock that bookend both shoulders of the expressway along I-64 in the heart of the Bluegrass.

The Derby is the pinnacle of racing-related activity each year in May, but thousands of Kentuckians are both capable of and willing to have an informed conversation about races like today’s Alabama at Saratoga or talk knowingly about the abbreviated meet at Royal Ascot north of London.

In the mid-80’s, I returned to Louisville for a good friend’s August wedding and experienced one of those unrehearsed moments that reflect how deeply thoroughbreds shape daily life there.

Whenever the Alabama rolls around on the Saratoga calendar, it reminds me of how many truly spectacular fillies have run in the race. A roster of past winners—and losers, since Saratoga has been the venue for inexplicable losses ever since Upset beat Man ‘O War—could fill a distaff wing of the Racing Hall of Fame…which conveniently is located across Union Avenue from the hallowed racetrack.

At that long-forgotten Louisville VFW hall nearly 30 years ago, I quietly left the raucous wedding reception just after 5:30 in order to get in front of a television to see that year’s running of the Alabama.

“Could you please put on the horserace?” I asked the bartender in a separate part of the VFW.

“Sure. What race is it?” he asked.

“The Alabama,” I told him.

He obligingly walked to the other end of the bar and changed the channel on the television. “How many fillies are running?” he asked me casually when he returned. The fact that the bartender knew the conditions of the Alabama without having to ask is impressive in and of itself.

“Five.”

The bartender quietly reached under the bar and proceeded to place five numbered pills on top of the bar. He looked across at those seated and said, “You five,” pointing at me and four others. “Five dollars each on the bar.”

We reached into our pockets and fished around until we each produced a $5 bill. We placed the worn bills next to our beverages and Kentucky native son Abraham Lincoln’s face shared our view of the post parade on the TV. The bartender systematically placed all five pills into a shaker, gave it a few martini-worthy tumbles and then pulled out one pill per bettor and put it in front of each of us.

I can’t recall which horse won the Alabama that year, but I do recall that I didn’t have the winning pill in front of me. The woman who had been lucky enough to win jumped up and down excitedly, claimed her winnings from off the bar and tipped the bartender $5 before returning to the reception.

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