Saturday, May 5, 2012

Oh the Sun Shines Bright...


I try to care about sports, but I really can't. My family members are all die-hard University of Kentucky basketball fans, and although I'm good at donning the blue when they make it into the Final Four, my heart just isn't in it the way others' are. I loved to root for the Mets when I lived in New York, but I think that was more about my gluttony for punishment than any true sportsmanship. The Superbowl? That's a great excuse to pig out on chips and chili.

But the Derby. The Derby is different. As a child I willingly watched the entire day of racing (the Derby is one of several races run that day). I marked up the little racing form, analyzing the silks, rooting for fillies and female jockeys, seeing which horses did well on turf and which ones ran better on sloppy tracks. I got so excited I could barely stand it when I thought about the fact that Captain Kirk was a mere hour away. I was curious about those strange infielders, and why they seemed so ecstatic to be covered in mud. I drooled over the gorgeous hats and dresses. I cried my eyes out at the little video they played of Dan Folgelberg's "Run for the Roses," set to footage of misty rolling hills and little foals learning how to walk. Lord. Even typing about it now brings a tear to my eye.

Why? I have no idea. It could be because of the millions of terrible memories I have of my dad, a few precious ones are the times he took us to Churchill Downs. Dad was an illegal bookie, or as he liked to call himself, "a professional gambler." This always makes people ooh and ahh with excitement and even sometimes envy. What an exciting life! Sure, if visiting your dad in jail, spending some years on food stamps, and having shady characters ask you to "take some numbers" when your dad couldn't answer the phone sounds like a healthy childhood.

Consequently I hated gambling. I hated everything it stood for. The angry, violent outbursts. The lies when my friends asked what Dad did for a living. The sneaking in shopping bags when we needed to buy school clothes. All because some stupid sporting event had robbed us of our money.

But at the track, I was a bonified gambling addict. Dad let me pick horses and even gave me $2 to hand to the people in the betting window. I imagine a child who looks very much like Stella saying to the clerk, "I'd like $2 to win on number 14, please." Adorable, if not a tiny bit disturbing.

We bet small money on the track, so Dad's notorious temper rarely showed. He was happy, like I was, to be around such beautiful horses, such crushing excitement. He'd take me right down to the track and pick me up so I could see the thoroughbreds run by. I could feel the pounding of their hooves in my chest. It made me shiver.

During some of our rare salad years (the roller coaster of gambling), we even co-owned a thoroughbred. A gorgeous filly named Fury's Way. We used to visit her on the backside, and she'd try to eat my hair. I said it was because it looked like straw. It made me giggle.

I guess I've had an epiphany writing this little blog. The Derby reminds me of the good parts of my childhood - horses, excitement, beauty. It's been a part of my life for 36 years. I've only ever missed it once - in 1996, when I lived in France and they had the NERVE not to show it on any of their stations. (I'm still mad about that.) Dave and I went to a wedding in Philadelphia once and had to attend a rehearsal dinner around the same time as the Derby. I refused to go the dinner until after we'd seen the race at a nearby sports bar. I schooled the bartender on how to make a proper julep and got pissy with the man next to me when he laughed at "My Old Kentucky Home."

So, the next time I get judgmental about someone who's freaking out over a basketball, football or baseball game, I'm going to remember myself today. Cooking Kentucky's traditional foods, highlighting my racing form, and crying every five minutes when I think about anything Derby related. Sports can touch the heart, I concede, and bring us so much joy.

May the best horse (mine) win!