Growing up, there weren’t many places that I fit in. I couldn’t play sports, I was smart but hopelessly unorganized, and for the longest time, I had no social skills to speak of. In a society where kids were encouraged to think outside the box, I was so far off as to be completely awkward. I can probably count on one hand the number of true friends I had throughout elementary school.
In the third grade, I wasn’t bothered by my lack of social connections. I was content to sit in my own mind, creating imaginary worlds and occasionally putting them down on paper. I loved movies, I loved music, and I loved animals. I especially loved horses, and finally, after some convincing, I got to go to a horse camp and start riding lessons. It was a dream come true.
Despite my affiliation with a horse sport, I don’t spend as much time around the animals as I should. They were my saving grace through the seemingly impossible struggles that early puberty and middle school tossed me. My friends came and went, the boys never liked me…but the horses were always there. They were a constant. And though I watch them on a screen almost every day, the thing I miss most is their comforting physical presence that helped me through so much as a young girl.
Then, on one fated family trip, I picked up the USA Today that had been shoved under the hotel room door and saw a horse on the cover. Not just any horse – a racehorse. It was 2004, and only one racehorse was making this sort of headlines. His name was Smarty Jones, and for me, it was love at first sight.
99% of my readers will know who Smarty Jones was and what he accomplished, but for the newcomers in the crowd, or those who have forgotten, let me tell you – Smarty was a fabulous racehorse, undefeated in eight starts, and aiming to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner, the first since Affirmed in 1978. The country adored him. The little liver chestnut was popular and charismatic, and I eagerly joined the mindset that he, too, would capture American racing’s most prestigious prize.
Of course, he didn’t. He fell short to Birdstone in the shadow of the wire; I always watch this replay on the edge of my seat, hoping, praying, that maybe my chestnut hero will reach the wire before his rival. Despite the defeat, my heart had been won. And it clicked, as I began to watch more races, peruse racing forms, and study pedigrees…that this was finally a place that I belonged.
Sure, as with all loves that we harbor in our hearts, I’ve taken this sport for granted. Forgotten it, even. In high school, when I was neck-deep in music and drama, I rarely had the will to devote any time to horses. My knowledge sat in a drawer, waiting for me to dig it up again come Kentucky Derby week or Breeders’ Cup weekend. Who knows how far I’d be if I had never shelved my love of racing? That is a question that I’m not willing to answer, for I’m happy with where I am.
But there was a time, last winter, where I was so low as to feel like no one wanted me. Tears in my eyes watching old horse races, I realized that nothing had changed – horses were still a constant, and they were waiting for me to welcome them back fully into my life.
Not only did I welcome them back in…I made them my life. And that has changed me for the better.
This sport has made me a better person a thousand times over. It gives me a purpose, a place to fit in, and a chance to meet the most wonderful people in the world. It’s true love that I feel when I watch the horses fly by or when I see the jubilant smiles of fans just like me. It dragged me out of my shell and molded me into a human being that is worth something. It’s so nice to feel like you’re worth something.
Young me spent hours in school forgetting math problems and instead penning lists of Kentucky Derby winners. Young me never cared for the amusement park in town but yearned to go to the racetrack just down the road. Young me gazed around the bluegrass of Lexington on a warm summer day, content in the knowledge that this was a place that understood people like me.
Now older me spends hours writing about my love, horse racing, and I’m lucky enough to get paid to do it! God, I love so much about this sport, and love it so much that it hurts. Because no matter who comes in and out of my life, or where I am in the world, the horses will always be there to put a smile on my face and joy in my heart.
And that, my friends, is why I do what I do.