Letter to a New Horseplayer

What Draws Us to the Track
By Claire Novak, Blood-Horse Writer

What draws us to the racetrack? That’s what people want to know. They don’t understand it; don’t get the obsession, the passion, the thrill. We try to enlighten them, but some things are inexplicable. It’s an experience, an encounter. You just have to feel it for yourself.

We first visit the track at different ages, for different reasons. At five, because our parents did. At 15, for the thrill of watching the runners. At 23, for the challenge of picking a winner. At 54, because a friend brings us along.

I was hooked when I was 13, watched a brilliant chestnut rolling down the Derby homestretch. Charismatic gave a crash-course in soaring hopes and, eventually, broken dreams. That was 11 years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Other times it feels like forever.

That’s how it is. We stick around, turn into exercise riders, security guards, clockers, trainers, railbirds. Before we know it, the years roll by. Looking back, we can name great races, greater runners. “I was there when…” “Do you remember…” We become a part of the game. The game becomes a part of us.

We learn about the racetrack. We learn about life. Everything we admire in the Thoroughbreds – determination, spirit, willpower – we seek to cultivate in ourselves. Sometimes we achieve success. Sometimes we fail. Whatever the results, like gutsy runners, we keep trying.

If you’re newly hooked on horse racing, don’t think it’ll be an easy ride. Horses disappoint. So do people. Nine times out of ten, what you expect to happen won’t. But that makes each victory sweeter, every hard-earned delivery more prized.

And somewhere along the line, I promise, it’ll hit you. You’ll be standing on the apron at Keeneland, or on the backside at Saratoga, or in the paddock at Churchill, or in the grandstand at Santa Anita, and there’ll be a moment when you understand.

You’ll realize that this sport is more than sport, this business is more than business, this game is more than game. You’ll realize that where you are in that moment is exactly where you should be. You’ll realize what draws us to the racetrack.

And you won’t ever want to leave.

Claire Novak
Turf Writer, ESPN and Blood-Horse
Twitter: @ClaireNovak
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One comment

  • I couldn’t have said it better, Claire! For me it was John Henry in the 1982 Big ‘Cap instead of Charismatic, but the lessons learned were the same. Racing is a sport that gets under your skin and permeates your life.

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