Signal Hill Farms is far away from the everyday. The training of thoroughbred racehorses begins before the first glimpse of morning light. Elite equine athletes come onto the track with an immensity that seems borrowed from mythology. Jogging dutifully toward the backside, the early set of horses slips into the darkness, affording us a brief moment for bracing coffee and a bit of a doughnut nabbed from the box we left for the crew back at the stable. Quick, look left, here they come crashing through the fog a quarter mile down the track. The rhythm of their pounding footfalls and the rush of their lung exhaust reminds us that these are animals built for flight. At full bore we try to appreciate the complexity of their mechanical action but it comes at the cost of missing the simple grace of it all because before we know it they are galloping out. We follow them to the wash rack where a cool bath meets their hot and heaving barrel chests. The air is wet and fragrantly sour with animal steam. Groomed beneath a fitted blanket, the horses return to their stalls for the resupply of oats and hay. A meek human hand can offer a chunk of carrot and experience the most basic of earthly connections.
Afternoons don’t remember the mornings. High society turns out for the festive pomp of a race affair. Our athletes parade in the paddock with pride and adrenaline, testament to a passion for their work. The understated majesty of the thoroughbred stands in contrast to the flashy jockeys, who are adorned in the colorful surcoats of each horse’s benefactor. The trainers are almost unrecognizable since morning, now in proper attire. Upon the steward's command of “riders up”, the trainer gives his jockey a boost to his mount and cedes to fate the many months of hard work, care, and planning. Spectators make their final wagering assessments as the horses warm up on the track. Money changes hands, computers whir, odds are fine tuned, and yet not a single horse knows or cares which is favored. At post time, the eager engines are commandeered into tight starting slots. A bell rings and the gates fly open. What unfolds is a two-minute novella recounted differently by every scribe in the park.
Raw capitalism are house rules in the thoroughbred industry. The public auctions of young unraced thoroughbreds is where we jump perilously into the game. These sales are thrilling and worthy spectacles in their own right. At the premier sale of yearlings each September in Kentucky, some 5,000 juveniles make their debut in the auction ring. Our preparation requires a careful study of pedigrees, while holding horsemens’ hunches accountable to statistical data. The result is a “short-list” of prospects that are physically evaluated on the sale grounds. Most are scratched quickly as they are found wanting. We remain keen on few and have a humble budget with which to pursue those. We meet our recruits at the sale pavilion where the auctioneer's chant dares us to play. We raise our paddle but often our bid is posted for mere seconds on the tote board before being swatted away. When we are sitting on the high bid, our hearts thump audibly in our heads as we hope for the hammer to fall. Oddly, we congratulate ourselves for a successful purchase even though the laws of probabilities forebode a financial loss. Nevertheless, we celebrate our dreams before reality crashes the party. Our new steed will need an honorable moniker to suit its many forthcoming stakes victories!