There seems to be little effort to attract spectators to Pimlico for the current meet leading up to the Preakness, and that’s a shame. Horses paraded through the paddock, walked to the gate, then dashing from the gate and sprinting down the stretch, all on a sunny spring afternoon — few things charge the senses like a race among the most beautiful animals in the world.
People in the Baltimore region need to know what they’re missing.
The pandemic has made us a little rusty when it comes to actual experiences. Being a spectator among spectators again takes getting used to. There’s still an awkwardness about it.
But even before the coronavirus, Americans had retreated from the weekday races.
I understand it as a generational or cultural gap — not enough Americans introduced to the inviting prospect of a day at the races. But certainly the racing interests could do more to put the idea in our heads.
I think there were more people at my wedding than at Pimlico on Thursday.
Not everyone can take an afternoon off, that’s understood. But the spring meet is so limited — just 23 racing dates between April 22 and May 31 — getting to Pimlico should be promoted as a fleeting opportunity to see the horses up close. And once Pimlico is redeveloped, according to plan, the spring meet might be even more limited. So you need to get there if you’ve always been meaning to.
“It’s a spectacle, it takes your breath away,” says Hugh McMahon, the jockey-turned-trainer who speaks about racing with both passion and a British accent. “You have a jockey and a thousand-pound beast working cooperatively to win a race. Where else but in horse racing do you have that? It’s absolutely thrilling.”
One of the horses McMahon trains is a 3-year-old filly named Hope Has A Name.
I was drawn to her because I am a superstitious bettor influenced by names and numbers, and Hope Has a Name was the No. 5 horse in the 5th race.
The oddsmaker had her at 6-to-1. She had competed only in two races, but finished third in one of them. Plus, her sire was Dialed In, a stakes winner who had been the favorite in the Kentucky Derby of 2011. (He finished eighth, then fourth in the Preakness.)
All that made me willing to bet on Hope Has a Name.
But when I went to see the filly in the Pimlico paddock, where horses are saddled and paraded for spectators, she wasn’t there. She was instead outside, on the track, and struggling with her handler. Apparently the filly wanted nothing to do with the paddock and her 10 opponents.
“That paddock is very confined and she felt intimidated there,” says McMahon.
At one point in her struggles the filly went down on the sandy track, and McMahon had a veterinarian examine her. She was still fit to run, but it took several minutes to calm her. For a moment, I thought she might be scratched from the race. But McMahon decided to run her, a way of telling a horse to get back on her horse.
Since his adolescence in England, McMahon has ridden or trained thousands of thoroughbreds. In the 15 years since he became a Maryland-based trainer, his horses have won more than 1,000 races.
“Some horses just have a nervous disposition,” he says. “And [Hope Has a Name] is still a baby, you know?”
As the other riders and their mounts headed for the starting gate, jockey Katie Davis waited patiently for Hope’s handler to steady her. Then, in an instant, Davis was up, patting the horse on the neck and ears and speaking to her.
Davis felt the horse relax and walk more confidently on the way to the starting gate.
By the time all 11 horses were loaded, I thought the No. 5 horse had no chance in the race — too stressed and worn out to finish in the money.
But I completely underestimated her, and I love to be wrong that way.
Hope broke from the gate boldly, took the lead briefly, then hung just off the lead as two slightly older fillies battled at the front. Davis made a nice move to the outside in the stretch and Hope Has a Name finished third, a respectable performance in an exciting race.
“I was proud of her, she showed some courage,” Davis said. “If she didn’t want to run, she wouldn’t have.”
“Horses are competitive,” McMahon said. “They sense the competition.”
Pleased with the way Hope ran past her difficulties, McMahon plans to race her again later this month in Delaware.
He then offered something I recognized as horse lover’s poetry, when those who work with thoroughbreds are moved to reflection and eloquence. Hope’s struggles and performance got McMahon to go there.
“You know,” he said, “the dynamic between the horsemen and the horse, it’s a passion, it’s a love … and the horses respond to that.
“The most gracious, the most magnificent of animals is the horse, and the care they get is intensive — from the groom, the hot walker, the jockey, all the dedicated carers.”
“That filly today,” he said of Hope, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, “she’ll go in her stall, and we can go in there and kiss her on the muzzle and her eyes will soften, and we’ll soothe her. There is something special going on between the horse and the carer.”