Most babies take nine months,” my grandfather used to say, “but the first one can come anytime.” My parents got married in a shotgun wedding at the courthouse in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. Six months later I was born, one of those miracle first babies. It was the ’70s. Even a guy like my Papaw — an upstanding Lion, a yellow-dog Democrat, and a God-fearing Baptist — wasn’t going to judge his only daughter’s sinful ways. The country wasn’t the same one he grew up in anymore. America had lost the war, the president had resigned, and after a 25-year drought there had been, unbelievably, not one but two Triple Crowns.
Racehorses cheat on their birthdays, too. Every thoroughbred racehorse ages a year on January 1 no matter what day they were actually born. When Mine That Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby, a race restricted to three-year-olds, he was actually only two — still just over a week away from his biological third birthday. I was there that day. I’d be lying if I told you I had him. Hell, I think I had every horse in the race but Mine That Bird. I must have lost $200 on that one race alone. It hardly mattered. I watched the race standing on a chair on “Millionaire’s Row,” a few rows in back of Bob Baffert, the trainer of the horse that was favored to win that year — Pioneer of the Nile.
My dad told me to bet on Pioneer of the Nile for him. He was supposed to be there with us. My friends and I had gathered in Louisville that year to celebrate my bachelor party. It was my first trip to the Derby — a major milestone in the life of a guy who was practically raised at the racetrack. I had invited my father, himself a lifelong horse racing fan. A friend of mine who was the union president out at Churchill Downs got me a couple of clubhouse passes so that I could take my dad to the Derby in style. Even though he had only been diagnosed with his disease about a month earlier, we all figured he’d still be able to make the trip. He had handled radiation like a hoss. I remember the day of the Arkansas Derby that April when my dad and I ran in to Johnny Buttons out at the track. Johnny had throat cancer a few years before. He offered my dad some encouragement.
“Jimmy, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he rasped — his vocal cords long ago fried by free radicals. “This radiation is gonna kick your ass. But if I can beat it, then God knows you can beat it.”
“Did you have to get a peg tube?” Dad was still pretty stressed about the idea of pouring his food into his belly through a tube.
“Yeah, I had one of those motherfuckers. I poured Budweiser in it. Gets you drunk that much faster.”
They laughed, shook hands. As we walked away my dad says to me, wide-eyed, “Johnny Buttons is a scrawny little guy. I’m surprised he beat it.” Over the next several weeks as he went through radiation he often brought up the fact that “even Johnny Buttons beat cancer.” Can you believe it, a little guy like that?
I used the clubhouse passes to sneak my friends into “Millionaire’s Row” one-by-one. We slipped in the back of the crowd and stood on the chairs as everyone stood up to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Out there in Louisville, they cry when they play that song. I had no trouble joining in.
There’s a tradition in horse racing to name a horse some clever amalgam of the names of its sire and dam. For instance: Funny Cide is the son of Distorted Humor and Belle’s Good Cide. Tiger Walk, one of the runners in this year’s Preakness, is the son of Tale of the Cat and Majestic Trail. Fewer and fewer owners are following this convention, particularly at this level of racing, choosing instead to give their horses unique names with personal sentimental value. Bodemeister, the horse favored to win this year’s Kentucky Derby, was one such horse. Bodemeister’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, chose to name the horse after Bode Baffert, Bob Baffert’s 7-year-old son.
A little over a month before the 2012 Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert suffered a heart attack in Dubai. The situation was serious enough that Bode said “good-bye, Daddy” to his father. Baffert recovered and committed himself not only to a healthier lifestyle, but to training the star of his barn and the horse that carried his son’s name to the Winner’s Circle at Churchill Downs. When Bob Baffert came out of the tunnel thronged by television cameras for the walkover before the Kentucky Derby, Bode was there alongside him holding his hand.
I was right there with him. I had bet hard against Bodemeister in the Arkansas Derby, not giving much chance to a horse so lightly raced, and giving an edge to the impressive winner of the Southwest Stakes, Secret Circle. I figured to get that money back by betting big on Bodemeister to win the Kentucky Derby. After his nine-and-a-half-length romp in Arkansas I figured him to be a world-beater, the best I’d seen since Curlin. I singled him on all my pick-4 tickets, I was that sure.
I suppose I forgot that, legend though he was, Curlin didn’t win the Kentucky Derby. Bodemeister ran an impressive but disappointing second place to the long-shot I’ll Have Another. After the race, reporters cornered Baffert in the paddock to ask him about the loss.
“I was watching my little son, Bode. I feel so bad for him … ”
He couldn’t finish the thought, choked up. He abruptly walked away from the interview in tears.
Bodemeister is the son of a horse named Empire Maker, one hell of a good racehorse. At this level of racing, just about every horse is the son of one hell of a good racehorse. Breeding is a big part of the sport. You can connect most graded stakes winners to each other through common bloodlines. Some horseplayers use breeding as a betting angle: what percentage of this sire’s offspring have won at this particular level at this particular distance, etc. For me the section of the horse’s past performance chart that lays out the pedigree is just an exercise in nostalgia. It offers an opportunity to make terrible bets in the service of settling old scores.
Empire Maker, just like his son Bodemeister, showed up at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May the favorite to win the Derby. We all believed in 2003 that Empire Maker could end the drought and win the Triple Crown. None of us, at least nobody who I kept company with, had money on the 13-1 Funny Cide, the too-small New York–bred gelding who was purchased at auction for the price of a used car and owned by a bunch of upstate schoolteachers or plumbers or some shit. It was the damndest thing, that little horse.
In the Preakness that year I switched sides and bet on Funny Cide to win. It made no difference that Empire Maker wasn’t running in the Preakness, choosing instead to go to New York and wait for the Belmont; a bet on Funny Cide was still probably a bad bet. His win in Kentucky, like so many other long shots before him, just had to be a fluke. These long-shot winners never went on to capture the Preakness, their weaknesses were inevitably exposed, their lucky trips didn’t avail themselves twice. I couldn’t bet against the “gutsy gelding,” though. To root against him was to root against the Triple Crown. That’s the thing about this game — you’re allowed to bet with your heart from time to time. In the Preakness Stakes, you’re practically obligated to.
The Preakness Stakes is the middle child of the Triple Crown. It carries none of the pomp of the Kentucky Derby and none of the historical significance of the Belmont Stakes. At best it is a stopover on the way to history. Most of the time, depending on who won, the Preakness was just another horse race. This fact didn’t keep the crowds away from the 2012 Preakness. Despite struggling with low attendance in recent years, this year a record-setting crowd of 121,309 race fans came out to Pimlico on a blistering hot summer day. Many of them came to see Wiz Khalifa and Maroon 5 in the infield. At least a few came to see if I’ll Have Another was the real deal or just another long-shot fluke.
Bob Baffert wasted no time after the Kentucky Derby in announcing that he’d be taking Bodemeister to Baltimore to rematch with I’ll Have Another in the Preakness, rather than following in Empire Maker’s footsteps and waiting until the Belmont. I wasted no time in planning my trip down from Brooklyn to be there in person — my first ever Preakness Stakes.
My seat for the Preakness was in a walled-off section of the infield called the “Top of the Stretch” — a special section of bleachers erected right next to the starting gate. It seemed a good vantage point. Not the best seat in the house, but the best available to someone who waits until the last minute to buy his ticket to a major American sporting event. To get there, I needed to walk through a tunnel under the racetrack that led to the infield. While the infield at the Kentucky Derby can be accurately described as “rowdy,” the infield at the Preakness is nothing short of fucking terrifying. On my way in to the tunnel I passed a caravan of emergency medical vehicles rushing in with sirens blaring and a phalanx of police coming out leading a young, shirtless, bloody man in handcuffs followed by a crowd of young men chanting “We Are! Penn State!”
The “Top of the Stretch” was much tamer than the rest of the infield. My fellow “Top of the Stretch”–ers were a grab bag of race fans. The racing club from Cambridge College was there, decked head-to-toe in seersucker, pastels, bow ties, and straw hats. A joint bachelor-bachelorette party was there. The groom-to-be’s Easter-yellow shirt was already ruined by wine stains and it wasn’t even noon. Seated directly in front of me was an older couple who were aggravated at the crowd of young people who were congregating in the grass in front of them and blocking their view.
“Where’s the guy, the security guy?” the man asked his wife, irritated.
“He’s over there spraying sunblock on those girls.” She pointed over at the next set of bleachers, where a young man in a red polo shirt was kneeling down and spraying sunblock on the feet of a trio of giggling women in bright dresses and gigantic hats.
“Hey! Security!” the man in front of me hollered. The security guy looked up and held up one finger as if to say “wait a minute.” A young man in his twenties sitting next to the angry man spoke up.
“Is this your first Preakness?” the young man asked.
The older guy looked at the kid in disbelief. He turned to look at his wife and they laughed. The answer should have been obvious. All the clues were there. His ratty, frayed-at-the-edges Preakness shirt; his unmistakable purse-lipped Maryland accent; the half-dozen empty Black Eyed Susan glasses that lay in the grass around his feet. He turned back around to face the kid.
“Thirty-fourth,” the man said with no small amount of self-satisfaction.
“Well, is this your first year at the ‘Top of the Stretch’? Because it’s my third, and they always do this.”
The older man narrowed his eyes.
Thirty-four Preaknesses ago was, as far as first Preaknesses go, a pretty damn good first Preakness. That was 1978, the year that Affirmed beat Alydar in an incredible rematch on his way to becoming the 11th Triple Crown winner; the third winner in the ’70s and the last winner for the next 34 years.
In 1978, if a guy in Hot Springs, Arkansas, wanted to get a bet down on a horse race that wasn’t being run at the Oaklawn Park, he needed to talk to a guy at the old Longshot Saloon. That’s exactly what my old man did. Unemployed and a baby under one arm, he walked up to that bar and laid his diaper money on Alydar to win the rematch. He had no sentimentality for a Triple Crown. They had already had two of them in the last five years. He just figured it to be a good bet. It helped that he was a sucker for dramatic closers like Alydar. “I loved that horse,” he would later tell me. “He’d sit way back in the back and then take off in the stretch like a shot — bam!”
My father watched the 1978 Preakness in an armchair in front of the television, baby cradled in his arms. He lost the diaper money. It didn’t matter. He told me it was an unforgettable race, one of the best he’d ever seen. It was 34 Preaknesses ago. My first Preakness.
It was an hour to go until the 2012 Preakness and I still hadn’t placed a bet. I got a text from my friend Peter.
“Put $100 to win on the 8 horse for Rob for me.”
It was our friend Rob’s birthday. I showed the text to my friend Dave.
“The 8 horse?” he scrunched up his face. “Who the hell is that?”
We looked up at the tote board. The 8 was 15-1. I wasn’t sure Peter didn’t make a mistake so I texted him back.
“8? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. He’s having a baby.”
It was true. Rob and his wife, Neha, were expecting their first child. I wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything. I texted back, “OK, you got a bet but for my birthday I’ll take a check.”
“You should just book his action,” Dave suggested. He meant I shouldn’t place the bet and collect the $100 when the horse lost. Of course it would also mean paying out the $1,500 in the unlikely case that the horse won. I looked down at the Racing Form at the number eight — Daddy Nose Best.
“Fuck that.” I bet $100 to win on Bodemeister and $120 to win on Daddy Nose Best — $100 for Peter and $20 for myself, just in case.
I wasn’t going to watch the Preakness from the “Top of the Stretch.” I used my press pass to maneuver my way up to stand on the apron right on the finish line. I settled into a crowd of Latinos who were well in the bag and screaming at the top of their lungs for Mario Gutierrez, the Mexican-Canadian jockey on I’ll Have Another.
“The Mexican’s going to make history!”
I stood next to a little girl standing on her chair to see over the crowd. When the horses came by in the Preakness post-parade, her father pointed out Bodemeister to her.
“¿Mira que tan fuerte es?” he said to her. “Él es tan fuerte.”
Then he pointed at I’ll Have Another.
“El caballo de Mario es mucho más pequeño,” he told her, referring to Gutierrez. He was right. Up close it was striking how much smaller and thinner I’ll Have Another was compared to the barrel-chested Bodemeister.
“Si él es más pequeño puede correr más rápido,” she told her father, matter-of-factly.
I smiled at him. “Your daughter knows a lot about horses.”
He rolled his eyes. “Y todas otras cosas, amigo.” We laughed. He showed me his apprentice license and told me he was a jockey. He said the crowd I was standing in were friends and family of Mario Gutierrez. He asked me who I was betting on.
“I’ll Have Another!” I lied enthusiastically.
My wife, Katie, and I decided we’d start trying to get pregnant before the wedding. The first one can come anytime. We were a few months away from the wedding when my father was diagnosed. They gave him six months. We knew we’d want kids eventually, although neither of us had ever considered having one so soon. Life has a funny way of not giving a fuck about your plans, though. Perhaps the good Lord wouldn’t be as forgiving of my folks as my Papaw was. Surely He’d find it in His grace to forgive my and Katie’s transgressions. I felt it my corporeal duty, giving this man a grandchild. If it meant an eternity in Hell, then that’s just how that shit would have to go down.
On a breezy Saturday night in July, Katie and I wed in Fort Tryon Park. My father made the trip in a wheelchair, but he mustered the strength to dance with my mother during the first dance. The rain held off until the very last song, when, on cue, the sky opened up and poured. Everyone cries at weddings, I told myself.
We departed for our honeymoon unimpregnated. A month later we were back in Saratoga Springs, this time for someone else’s wedding that just happened to be on Travers weekend. We dressed up, went to the racetrack and watched the Travers Stakes, then raced over to the wedding. As soon as we arrived, Katie and I went out on the veranda overlooking Lake George to call my dad.
“I’ve got some good news, pop. We’re pregnant.”
“That is some good news.” His voice was gravelly, the tumors in his neck swelling up against his windpipe.
“But look, she’s not out of the first trimester, so we’re not telling anyone yet.”
“To hell with all that,” he growled. “I’m telling this whole town.”
I hung up the phone and gave Katie the bad news.
“He’s going to tell everyone.”
She smiled and wrapped her arms around my neck. She led me by the hand back inside where all the wedding guests were squatting down close to the floor, midway through the bridge of “Shout.” We walked to the middle of the dance floor and joined in for the big finish. I suppose every wedding is different, but I don’t remember anyone crying.
As expected, Bodemeister led the whole way, setting an easy pace at every quarter mile. I’ll Have Another sat back about four lengths, but the slowish pace favored the front-runner. When the horses rounded the final turn into the stretch, Bodemeister surged forward. It looked like it was a wrap. I’ll Have Another was about three wide on the outside. From our spot on the apron you could see the race head-on, which made it hard to see just how many lengths Mario had to make up to catch Bodemeister.
“¡Él viene!” someone yelled.
I’ll Have Another was flying down the track, gaining on the charging Bodemeister. The section I was in lost their goddamn minds. The two horses hit the wire side-by-side, but we were right there. We all saw it.
Our baby was two weeks late. Despite Katie’s desire for a completely natural childbirth, we were forced to schedule an appointment to go to the hospital on Friday morning to be induced. Thursday night she went into labor.
We arrived at the hospital on the Upper East Side around midnight and Katie spent the next 30 hours in agonizing, epidural-free, pitosin-induced, bone-chilling pain with an encore of three solid hours of pushing. Eventually we got our son out of her body and onto her breast. The doctor used her finger to clear the baby’s mouth so he could try to latch. He sucked in a mighty gulp of air. He wailed with all his might. August James, grandson of James-who-was-born-in-August, announced his arrival.
Eight months earlier Katie and I were in Arkansas for Labor Day weekend. My father’s condition had worsened and my mother called everyone home fearing the worst. The house was filled with family and friends. People came and went, sitting at his side and holding his hand and saying “I love you” and “hang in there” and “you look good.” After three straight days of this, both of my parents seemed exhausted. The first chance we got, Katie and I cajoled my mother into taking a break. Dad had fallen asleep for a nap. The house was full of people.
“Why don’t you go eat something and relax and let us sit with Dad for a little bit while he sleeps?” Katie and I crawled into bed on either side of him. I looked at my reluctant mother and gave her a reassuring smile. She relented. Some food and rest sounded nice, actually, she said skeptically. As soon as she left the room and closed the door on us I knew it would happen. His last breath sounded different than the others. It was ferocious, empty.
The Friday before the Belmont Stakes, I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, called a press conference out by the barns. By then the rumors had already been confirmed — I’ll Have Another would scratch from the race. Once again, for the 35th straight year, there would be no Triple Crown. Helicopters flew overhead while O’Neill addressed the swarm of reporters. The horse had developed tendinitis. He could still race, but O’Neill and the doctor believed it wouldn’t be in the horse’s best interest. They were pulling him out of the race.
“Though it’s far from tragic, no one died or anything like that,” O’Neill exclaimed over the noise of the helicopters. “But it’s extremely disappointing, and I feel so sorry for the whole team.”
I called my wife to tell her the news.
“That’s terrible,” she said.
“It’s the right call. His responsibility is to that horse, not to history.”
“Should we still go?”
“Absolutely.” I laughed. “It’s Gus’s first Belmont.”
In the wake of I’ll Have Another’s aborted run for the Triple Crown, more than a few writers have tried to make the case that horse racing is dead. They talk about low attendance at racetracks, breakdowns, doping scandals, and unsavory characters among connections. Without a Triple Crown, they argue, the sport will continue to spiral into irrelevance.
The 2012 Belmont set the record for attendance in a non–Triple Crown year, with the second-largest on-track betting handle ever. The 85,811 people who showed up at Belmont that Saturday were as loud and excited as any Belmont crowd I had ever seen, save for 2003 — the year Empire Maker left Funny Cide, and all of America’s hopes for an underdog Triple Crown, in his dust.
Katie and I tossed a blanket on the ground next to the playground in the track’s backyard and kicked back in the sun while Gus played chase with the other horseplayers’ kids. We chatted with other parents about kids, families, horses. It was as fun as a day in Central Park, but with daily doubles.
It isn’t the most popular sport in America, and it isn’t without its problems, but fans of horse racing have a unique passion for the game. We feel like more than just spectators and passive participants in the sport. And it is larger than just gambling. Families, traditions, memories, we find them all intertwined with these horsemen, these animals. When we read the Daily Racing Form and see the sires and mares, we see moments, relatives, blood. For those of us raised at the racetrack, the track is so much more than stoopers and Swisher Sweets. The track is heartbreak and triumph, misfortune and luck — both ours and the horses we cheer on. The track is the ever-growing totem of our lives. In a powerful way, the track is home.
Gus just learned to say “horse” a few weeks ago while we watched the replay of the Kentucky Derby. On Belmont day he was anxious to see a horse up close. I carried him up to the rail during the post-parade. A groom walked one of the ponies over to the fence for him to pet. He nervously put his hand on the pony’s star. The horse nodded his muzzle. Gus jerked his hand back and laughed. The groom walked the pony away and Gus pointed his index finger into his palm, sign language for “more.”
“More horse, daddy.”
The crowd enthusiastically sang along with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as the 11 horses entered in the Belmont Stakes made their way to the starting gate. Because the race is a mile and a half, the horses start right on the home stretch rather than in the chute on the far side of the track. We were pressed up against the fence at the clubhouse turn, Gus sitting up on the rail and squirming to climb out of my arms and over the fence. We had a head-on view of the starting gate. The gate workers yelled their all-clears, the crowd roared, the bell rang, the gate sprang. In the span of a single moment all 11 horses thundered by us in a pack, their hooves digging deep into the dirt and shaking the ground around us. In an instant they had rounded the first turn, and then it was quiet. Gus’s eyes were big as saucers. He pressed his finger into his palm.
Bodemeister would never run another race. Working out at Del Mar a couple of weeks ago, the colt stumbled and injured his shoulder. The decision to retire him was difficult. Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat had their eyes on this November’s Breeder’s Cup Classic, a race the horse would surely have been among the favorites to win.
“[Every] end is a new beginning,” Zayat said in expressing his disappointment in the end of such a brilliant horse’s career. “We’ll now look forward with great anticipation to racing little Bodes in the future.”
Zayat has owned some of the sport’s greatest modern champions, but he considers Bodemeister the most brilliant horse he has ever owned. Bodemeister retires after two wins in six races. Two races fewer than his sire Empire Maker’s eight, and 18 fewer than his grandsire Unbridled’s 24, including the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. The toughness doesn’t seem to pass on, but the spirit is manifest.
I woke up sometime on Saturday evening after sleeping between two chairs in the hospital. Katie was still asleep, her body and mind still recovering from being pushed to their limits. The baby was sleeping, too, swaddled tightly in his hospital blanket. I scooped him up and carried him down the hall to the visitors room. I turned on NBC just in time — the horses were loading into the starting gate.
“That one’s Super Saver,” I whispered. “He’s the Derby winner. He’s the one we want.”
Two minutes later we sat there watching Bob Baffert stand proudly by as his horse Lookin at Lucky was draped in Black Eyed Susans. He had his revenge on the Kentucky Derby winner that had beaten his favored horse. There would be no Triple Crown.
Soon after Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, his Cuban-born Hall of Fame trainer, Laz Barrera, expressed ambivalence about the experience. “It was the best five weeks of my life; it was the worst five weeks of my life. So much pressure. So much pressure.”
Barrera felt the problem with the Triple Crown contest was that it was too much to bear in too short a span — for both horse and trainer alike. “[In] the Triple Crown you have to train the horses too hard. That’s why there are so many horses in the Derby and so few left by the Belmont.”
Even in reflection and even at the highest of points, the anxiety did not subside. After watching the replay of Affirmed’s history-making run in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, Barrera felt a combination of elated and sick. “I got a migraine headache. It was a great race. The greatest I have ever seen.”
There was nothing spectacular about Lookin at Lucky’s race in the 2010 Preakness. There was nothing historic, nothing significant about it. There won’t be a statue erected. It was just another horse race.
I looked down at my sleeping August. My body ached, my stomach wrenched, my head pounded. My heart was full enough to burst.
“Just wait,” I whispered.