Monday, August 24, 2009

Land of Wild Steeds and Miniature Men

Yesterday, Claire B. and I were told to dress-up: we were going to the races.

You see, Claire B's grandparents own three horses, which they keep and frequently race at Monmouth Park, NJ. They were heading to the Park that day (despite the fact that their horse had actually been pulled from the race) and invited us to tag along. How could we not? Horse racing is associated with so much popular imagery: binoculars, parasols, suit jackets and bow ties. There's Audrey Hepburn, sitting in the stands in her ostentatious black and white ball gown in "My Fair Lady"; there's Nicely Nicely who so famously bets on Paul Revere in "Guys and Dolls"; there's the alluring draw of the betting tables that propels the action in "The Sting"; there's the legend that was Seabiscuit and the legend that will one day be Barbaro; and, of course, there's the beautifully muscled steeds, captured mid-run by Degas and his quick-moving paintbrush. So there we were. Dressed in our Sunday best, Claire B. and I were at the races.

It was what I expected, at first: large white buildings, people in elegant straw hats, well-manicured greens and signs above the betting tables that boasted "cigars, snacks and air conditioning." The park had a very traditional feel to it.

Though, as we walked between rows of brightly colored lawn jockeys—those 12" statues featuring little white men in riding boots with fabulous posture—I couldn't help but think of an episode of "The Simpsons." It featured evil jockeys who resembled the Keebler elves... I couldn't get their chant out of my head: We are the jockeys, jockeys are we, we live underground in a fiberglass tree... The mythic prestige of going to the races was beginning to fade. By the time we sat down in our box above the crowd, it was nearly gone.

While somehow grand and illustrious, horse racing was also somewhat absurd. Each person in attendance was given a pamphlet, which detailed the ranking, age, gender, family lineage and genetic make-up of creatures with names that sounded like cheesey romance novels—"True Love," "Little Dovefeather," "Meadow Blue"—and names that were just ridiculous in nature—"Essence of Time," "Hanna Banana," "Indian War Dance." Then, of course, there were the names that were just plain obscure: "Thenputitback," "Hobbitinthehole," "Myprincesssallyson." Imagine men in panama hats, holding thick cigars, and saying in deep raspy voices, "I've got $200 on 'Little Dovefeather,'" or the announcer yelling, "'Hobbitinthehole' falls back and 'Myprincesssallyson' takes the lead!" What a mouth full. (Meanwhile, I couldn't stop the jockey anthem from replaying in my head... We live underground in a fiberglass tree...)

Oddly enough, it wasn't until I stared down into the arena that the obscurity of the whole experience really set in. When you see a Degas, you see the horse at eye-level, in the midst of intense action, and you see a fiercely determined jockey hunched over on top. When you see a horse race from up in the stands, you see the horses and jockeys in action for about two minutes, but most of the time you see the interim; you see wild, chestnut-colored beasts unsaddled, walking among little teeney men in shiny florescent uniforms. The contrast is surprising. It seems completely irrational.

I found it hard to make sense of such a strange confluence of dissimilar things: bombastic gamblers, sissy horse names, Eliza Doolittle, Keebler elves, wild steeds and miniature men... but, in the end, I think that's what's most fun about going to the races.

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to make it a day at the races. Heaven knows, I've lived near a racetrack most of my lifetime. Famous ones! I grew up between the Big A, namely Aqueduct, and Belmont in Queens, NY. Now, I could easily drive to Santa Anita or Del Mar from my current nest in Los Angeles. I remember from my childhood the racing results as they were reported on the six o'clock news. The sports segment would end the the race announcer calling the race of the day. "Here they come, spinning about the turn..." The good old days. The races don't seem to be as much a part of the fabric of our daily sports intake anymore. I remember the bachelor barber, Milton, who lived in my old neighborhood. The story went he lost in all to the horses, but that never stopped him from studying the racing form every day in hopes of getting it all back. My dad went a few times with him and other neighborhood cronies for some comaraderie and perhaps a winning bet. My father considered himself an unlucky man, and was cautious with his money, so he wasn't much of bettor. I would still like to go some day to the track just for the experience of feeling the rush of the crowd's excitement and the athletic rush of the equine beauties around the oval track. Maybe it'll be the Big A, Monmouth, or Del Mar...