Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Glory of Horse Racing: Secretariat (2010) and an afternoon at Woodbine Race Track

For me, there may be nothing more beautiful on this Earth than the sight of a thoroughbred race horse, with jockey aboard, charging down the homestretch pushing and pushing to beat the other thoroughbreds in a turf race. Even as a young boy, I paid attention to the great Triple Crown in the US (Kentucky Derby/ Preakness/ Belmont Stakes) and Canada's own version (The Queen's Plate/ The Prince of Wales Stakes/The Breeder's Cup). The fine-toned, rippling muscles of these gorgeous animals, whether just standing in a paddock or galloping down the track have always caught my eye. I'm fortunate to remember watching Secretariat live on TV, one of the greatest horses ever, when he managed to win the Triple Crown in 1973

It was quite exciting when he won because it had not been done since Citation in 1948. And it has only been done twice since, Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Over the years, I've cheered on a variety of horses, some which managed to get the first two, but always failed at the longer and harder-to-achieve, Belmont Stakes. My favourite in recent years was Smarty Jones, a great horse considered “smallish” by thoroughbred standards, but who still managed to easily win the first two legs before being pipped at the wire by Birdstone at Belmont. I didn't even necessarily know I was doing this, but I've also discovered that I've always gone out of my way to watch horse racing films. Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979), Simon Wincer's Phar Lap (1983), Gary Ross's Seabiscuit (2003), Joe Johnston's Hidalgo (2003) and, of course, Randall Wallace's Secretariat (2010) which has just recently come to DVD. Some of these were great, such as Ballard's lyrical masterpiece; some are rousing entertainments (Hidalgo); some of them are sentimental crap (Seabiscuit – really unfortunate since it is based on an absolutely brilliant book written by Laura Hillenbrand); and some are old-fashioned, in the most gloriously positive sense (Secretariat). (A nod must be extended to my Critics at Large colleague Steve Vineberg for this description that he shared with Kevin Courrier; I couldn't agree more).

A scene from Black Stallion
Ironically, it is really only in the last six months that I finally realized how much I love horse racing and horse racing films. Sometimes you find yourself unconsciously attracted to something more than you really know. These feelings were always there (I remember reading Hillenbrand's book and as she was describing the racing in such perfect prose I was subconsciously rocking forward and back ever so slightly as if I was in the saddle), yet my love affair with it has only recently fully blossomed in my mind (and it's always been a spectator sport – I've only been on the back of a horse once, though now I want to try it again). I'm pretty sure I know why. I love speed. Whether it's motor racing, as I discussed in my blog from last year about my racing cousin, Nelson Monteiro; flying a glider which I've done twice; or when I drive fast myself in both my car or on my bicycle (on my bike, I love long, bump-free hills, but only when going down!), I've always liked the thrill of the fast, and race horses are beautifully fast.
John Malkovich & Diane Lane
Before I discuss my recent trip to finally see horse racing live, I should briefly talk about Wallace's film because it was what inspired me to finally go to the track. Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, a woman who inherits her father's losing horse farm which happens to include an under-performing horse named Secretariat. Seeing Secretariat's potential, she approaches an extremely eccentric trainer, Lucien Laurin (played by John Malkovich, something he does well – Malkovich playing an eccentric? Who'd a thunk it?), to train the horse and try to see if it can make some money for the cash-strapped operation. The rest, as they say, is history. Wallace gets a really wonderful hard-as-nails performance out of Lane, an under-appreciated actress who shines in whatever she's cast in. You accept that she believes, unlike Jeff Bridges’ terrible turn in Seabiscuit. There's the usual crisis in the form of the older brother (Dylan Walsh) who wants to sell the farm and Secretariat for quick money; another owner, with a talented horse, is a weasel and a loud mouth, etc. Yet Wallace balances the balls in the air and keeps the suspense fairly high considering we all know exactly how this film ends. Yes, it’s old-fashioned and it works so well because it is. 

At the end of it, my wife and I decided we should see the real thing and determined to go to Toronto's Woodbine Race Track. So, we did our research, downloaded newsletters about the upcoming weekend races, bought the Daily Racing Form and on Saturday, July 31st we headed out. Woodbine is a massive place with both horse racing (thoroughbred and harness – a sport I don't particularly like as it always seems so slow even though it's not) and slots. After a poor choice at first, we found seats right near the finish line on the second level. The seats were perfect as we had a great view of the charge down the backstretch.

At first, I couldn't understand why the stands were sparsely attended, or at least with so few people watching the race in person. Inside, around dozens of television screens, sat or stood a large group of people watching the races from across North America, including Saratoga in New York State and Fort Erie near Niagara Falls. These people were the hardcores. These were the people who were not there for the love of the horse or the love of the race, but the love of the bet. And it doesn't cost much to bet. You can wager as little as $2 on a horse to Win, Place (2nd) or Show (3rd) (and there's Trifectors, Supertrifectors, but you can look those up if you want to know what they are). Or you can do what we did for the first four races – just watch. Sure, we fantasy-picked winners (my wife picked two winners in the first four races we just observed), but the point for us was not the gambling, the point was to see these magnificent beasts run. I'm not one of those who believe that horses run because they are forced to; I believe that horses run because they love it. Why? Horses can be very, very stubborn animals. They don't want to do something if they don't want to. They run because they like it. They do it, I think, because they also like kicking the asses of the other horses. (Randall Wallace believes this as well since he makes that same point clear in Secretariat.) There's a seeming pride in these animals and they don't want anybody (anyhorse?) taking their pride of place on the track or the stable.

The view at Woodbine - photo by David Churchill
However, I'm also not oblivious to the danger for both horse and rider. More than one of these wonderful creatures have broken a leg in a race and had to be put down. Also, on our day, we witnessed a very odd occurrence. A horse, whose name I forget, was in the rail position at the starting gate. The jockey, the very talented Luis Contreras (he, in fact, this year became the first jockey in Canadian Triple Crown history to win the Triple Crown, but on two different horses), was aboard. At the call of “they're off,” the gates opened, this horse came out and immediately turned hard left and ran full start speed into the rail. Contreras seemed to have been tossed high in the air. It turned out, he saw it coming and he had time to leap off the back of this poor, confused horse. When it happened, a collective intake of breath could be heard around the stands. Clearly Contreras was fine, as he was in the next race (jockeys can sometimes run in 4 to 6 races in a day), and we were told, so was the horse. Unfortunately, I never found out if that was the truth. I hope so.

And the riders aren't always safe either. Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat (he's well-played in the film by Otto Thurwarth) to that Triple Crown, would later get tossed by a horse, leaving him a paraplegic. It's dangerous; that might be part of the appeal too.

David's winning ticket
As I said, we spent almost our whole afternoon (a 10-race program runs from about 1pm to 6pm with approximately 25 minutes between races) in the stands. We finally started to bet on races based on the age-old beginners approach: “I like that horsey's name.” That was my wife's approach. I used it, too, but I also tried to read and understand the racing form and the newsletter from one Jim Bannon. As I said, my wife picked two winners before we bet. When we finally started to bet, we won ... bupkiss. It was okay, though. We were only doing $2 bets (and knowing myself, that's all I'd ever do – I don't have the betting bug), therefore at the end of it we were down all of $18 (plus $25 for food and drinks). So, a thoroughly, entertaining afternoon cost us less than $45 (admittance and parking is free).

But what made the day, beyond the beautiful horses, of course, were some of the characters that surrounded us. Gone are the pot-bellied older white guys with cigars in their mouth and a straw fedora on their head. They have been replaced by other characters who are creating a new old school. There was a very friendly fellow who sat beside us. We talked a bit, but generally just small talk. We never asked him about races, but noticed that he never went to place his bet until just before post because that was when the final odds were determined. But our favourites were a group of Jamaican guys. Sitting only about 10 feet from us, between races they talked reasonably quietly amongst themselves and smoked spliff after spliff (it was very good smelling pot). But during the races, there was another story. As the horses rounded the final bend, these guys would be on their feet, slapping the back of empty seats and, in one case, yelling over and over again, “Drop the bomb!” Essentially, run fast.

Our appreciation of their enthusiasm was not universally held (an older couple plugged their ears when these guys got in full voice), but we thoroughly enjoyed their vocal pyrotechnics. It made the final seconds of the races even more exciting. What was also hilarious is how personally they took it when their horse, especially if it was a favourite, didn't win. One time, one of them tore up his tickets and threw them up in the air; another time, one of them muttered at the losing horse and glared at it for minutes after the race was over. It made the environment so, well, full of life. 

We had so much fun that three weeks later we went again. Our Jamaican friends were there again, but they were a bit more relaxed during the races. Parents brought cute babies or their young children, yet it didn't seem unseemly (these people were outside in the stands with us, not crowded around the TVs with the hardcores). Yes, the parents were betting, I guess (though I don't know for certain), but it seemed more a good way to spend an afternoon watching beautiful animals on display in all their glory. This time, we bet about the same (around $20, but we brought our own drinks and spent $6 for food) and this time we both managed to win two races each. We ended up making a $2.40 profit for our betting ways. Whoopee. We'll never get rich doing this, and for about four of the races we didn't bet, we just watched the thoroughbreds doing what they loved to do.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. On the evening of Tuesday, October 18, 2011, David will be holding an event for his novel, The Empire of Death, at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto). For information and tickets (cost $35, which includes a copy of the book, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres), call the store at 416-222-7658. Seating is limited to 25, so please register early.

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