Sunday, May 02, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Kentucky Derby...

I love watching thoroughbred horses race. There's something about them running that makes you realize what you're often missing about the world around you. They are incredibly beautiful creatures, a marvel in every sense of the word. Even standing still, if a thoroughbred doesn't evoke a feeling of reverence, there's something wrong with you, I'd say.

It's amazing that an 800- pound animal can run on what amounts to delicate toothpicks and not come up lame more often. I hate watching that, and it's happened a few times in recent Derbys, and I always fear that someone's coming out that gate and spilling ass over teakettle. Fortunately, it didn't happen this year.

I really don't know much about horse racing, except to say that it regularly proves the adage that "animals can make fools of us all", and my interest is strictly limited to the "Big Races". I can go months without thinking of thoroughbred racing, but when the Triple Crown races or the Breeder's Cup roll around, I'm there to watch. It's too great a spectacle not to, and not because of the foppish dandies trying to outdo one another with their outrageous hats and costumes (those people make me sick, and I don't care if it's tradition), but because the horses are just so heartbreakingly-beautiful. I've seen a great deal to make me wonder in my lifetime -- Stonehenge, the night sky from the top of a desert mountain, tornadoes up close, the power of Niagara Falls -- but nothing evokes a greater sense of awe and astonishment than a thoroughbred in full stride.

My paternal grandfather -- we called him "Poppy" -- liked "to play the ponies" as they say, and used to bring me to Belmont and Aqueduct racetracks here in New York. I was a very small boy then, maybe 5 or 6, but in any case it was before my parents divorced, and I doubt I remember much about the actual races, except that they were almost always exciting. But I do remember a special day when he took me to the track and told me to pick a horse off the sheet. I think it was the first time he'd ever bestowed that honor upon me (usually, he would try to explain the gobbledeegook on the racing form to a very small boy who couldn't give a shit.Maybe he was testing me to see if I'd absorbed his lessons?). I can remember the horse's name -- Smoked Salmon, a grey. Always bet on the greys, he told me! -- and that he placed a $10 bet on it to win, a considerable sum in the early 70's....and we won.

I don't think I've ever had a better ice-cream cone in my life. I remember he gave me half the winnings, maybe $20 or $25 dollars, too. Which I remember thinking was a tremendous sum of cash at the time.

In later years, after my parents divorced, my paternal grandfather became estranged, and probably not by choice. I never saw him again after my father's death when I was 13 (probably because my mother held so much animosity towards my father's family that she kept us children from having contact with them. I never even went to my father's funeral because of it) , and often thought about him, but had no means by which to find him. It wasn't long after, I think, that he'd been consigned to a Nursing Home, and I was never told about it, or even told which one he was in. Come to think of it, being a youngster, it probably never even occurred to me to ask. I don't know if that's just the stupidity and thoughtlessness of youth, or whether my mother had poisoned my mind against him. More likely, it was a case of "out-of-sight-out-of-mind".

I feel guilty about it, sometimes. I think I would be a truly rotten person if I didn't. But that changes nothing, and it doesn't bring Poppy back.

I think about the times when I was a very small child and I would sit in his lap, and Poppy would talk to me. He would show me his ring. It was a gold ring, with I an opal in it if I can remember, and he would tell me that because I was his first grandson that it would one day be mine. I never got that ring, and I never got to say goodbye to a decent man who only later in life did I begin to realize that I truly loved. But, I would like to think that he gave me something after all -- it's just that it doesn't become apparent until I hear the trumpet calling the horses to the gate, and is usually forgotten after the race is over.

That's a habit I'm going to break today.

Today is my 43rd Birthday, and I think I'll spend some of it remembering a man who didn't live to see it, but who managed to give me a valuable gift anyway. In fact, I believe I will be thinking about a lot of people who gave me similar gifts who aren't here anymore. Instead of celebrating Me, I will celebrate Them. That's something I had never considered before. When I blow out those candles later, there will be a special wish for the dearly departed.

And now you can see why thoroughbred horses are such noble beasts; they've gotten me to stop thinking about myself, if only for one day. If only they had a similar effect on everyone....

1 comment:

Sabra said...

What a beautiful birthday present, Matthew. I'd say one of the best that one can give to oneself, really.

Big Birthday wishes to you and a hug, too!