The movie Seabiscuit is the closest I’ve ever come to visiting a racetrack. I’ve watched the movie at least four times, yet I never tire of the great story of that horse and his people.
Since I’m not really a betting person and I don’t speak racehorse language, it never really occurred to me to visit Canterbury Park. My thinking was I’d rather spend my money on a new purse, pair of shoes, or, better yet, groceries.
Friday night that changed.
Overcast skies and a steady wind would take nothing from what turned out to be a beautiful, inspiring and stirring opening night.
I went to the racetrack early with photographer and friend, Brady Willette. We were lucky to get access to the “backside,” where the horses, trainers, owners, grooms and hotwalkers live similar stories that endeared me to Seabiscuit.
Backside at Canterbury Park
There we met horse owner Michael Ferraro, a U.S. bank executive, and his daughter Kayla. The energy in the stables was high. As one of Ferraro’s horses pinned back his ears, bucked, whinnied, and jumped around his stall, I was certain he would leap over the stall ropes and start his own race. Kayla was quick to calm him with quiet, reassuring words and a rub on his neck.
Kayla calms an exited horse.
Not all the horses were ready to spring from their stalls. One of Michael’s horses, Whiskey Decision was curious but calm.
Whiskey Decision. He’d race later that evening, coming in 4th place in the 6th race.
At another set of stables, we met owner and trainer Virginia Peters. A retired public school teacher from Jordan, Minnesota, Virginia was readying her horse Manlee Spirit, who would run in the 1st race.
With a serene excitement, Virginia talked with us as if it wasn’t 45 minutes to first post. All her racehorses are “homebred” -- born from mares on her farm. She’s been there for each foal birth, and broke every one herself. When the thoroughbreds are done with their racing careers, she takes them out trail riding: “I’m still kind of wild for an old girl,” she says.
Owner and trainer, Virginia Peters.
On to the track to watch the pre-race pageantry and see the paddock area where the jockeys mount their horses before each race.
Pre-race pageantry, Canterbury Park.
Then came the races.
I’ve always marveled at the physique of horses, and at the racetrack, I was able to stand practically right next to them. I was awestruck with the sheer beauty, splendor and size of these magnificent animals.
The jockeys embody all the physical elements that are perfect match for unleashing the power of the horses. Slight in weight and height, but packed with muscle and endurance, seeing them up close next to the horses was nothing short of inspiring. I didn’t speak with any of them, but I’m guessing that to ride these horses, their strength and prowess are met equally with fortitude and dexterity of mind and heart.
Jockey Lori Keith on Marathon Moon (3rd race).
For this non-handicapper, betting on a budget was great fun. My instinct is always to root for the underdog, which probably isn’t the best formula for getting ahead. Understanding my inclinations, however, my husband (with whom we joined later), did some quick analysis and number crunching and by the third race, never wagering more than $5/bet, we were up $33. Not bad for novices.
How do others pick horses? Some choose by names, color. Handicappers look at breeding, past performance, and watch the horses in the paddock. We sat with a friend who, in her younger years, did fox hunting in England. How did she pick the horses? As they trotted onto the track, she’d stand up, squint her eyes, look at the horses’ form and gait, and 5 seconds later announce her picks: “3, 6 and 8. That’s who I pick.” She didn’t know their names, breeding or race history, but she knew what she saw, and she had a good eye—at least one pick would always show (finish in the top three).
The absolute best part, though? The last furlong of the race. The crowd starts cheering louder, yelling names, shouting numbers, jumping up and down.
And then seconds later, the finish line.
Every race finish felt like my heart stopped beating and the earth stopped spinning, for just that little moment. The moment the first nose crossed the line.
All photos copyright EQUUS Lifestyle/Brady Willette.