By Worth Parker, Editor at Large
Within Zen Buddhism there is a word, shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” Shoshin requires approaching new things with curiosity; shedding preconceptions in pursuit of truth. Perhaps shoshin has only been made possible for me by the fact that I’ve aged beyond the fear of appearing incompetent, a condition I easily accepted once I recognized it as chronic. Now I try to say “yes” to as many opportunities as possible, with failure only a concern if it means death or injury. Mine may be a haphazard means of manifesting zen, but it is no less sincere for that. Admitting incompetence frees me to acknowledge the stunning number of things I do not know but would like to. Now I seek opportunities to not know things. I seek wonder as a profession. I sit in the presence of expertise and ask questions I hope reveal me as merely inexperienced rather than thoughtless.
So it was I said an enthusiastic, “yes!” when given the chance to attend the 2022 Breeders' Cup, an annually moving two-day race series of Grade One Thoroughbred horses from around the world. This year the Breeders' Cup was held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, featuring race purses of up to $6,000,000. I have been blessed these last few years, to have any number of experiences after which experts assured me I was now spoiled for anything else. The Breeders' Cup as a first exposure to horse racing seemed likely to make that list.
There is an airport in Lexington, directly across Versailles Road from Keeneland, but I had to fly into Louisville. From our box in the stands the next day, the long row of private jets shunted to the edge of the runway for parking made clear to me why. But even landing seventy miles away, there was a palpable emotional charge in the air. From Louisville to Lexington, the Breeders' Cup felt all consuming. It’s a sensation I recognized from years spent running ultra-endurance races: nervousness, excitement, the imminent realization of years of preparation decided in a moment, and the anticipation of ecstasy and anguish in equal measure. In a word, it was the feeling of purpose, and I believe everyone on my plane was expressing theirs in some fashion. We could have diverted to Lexington without inconveniencing anyone; journalists, race fans, or folks like my seatmate, who described himself as a professional gambler. But despite that individually momentous confluence of purpose, all of us were of little import compared to the breeders, trainers, jockeys, and horses who came together at Keeneland for the thunderously explosive expression of their own.
Keeneland’s pastoral setting stands in verdant contrast to the electricity of the crowd and the power of the horses. As I approached the complex, Lexington’s typical suburban edges opened to the rolling pastures of classic breeding farms that put me in mind of galloping horses. Soon enough that image would become manifest, though with a focus not found in the wildness of a herd. But a trip to Keeneland is worth taking a moment to stray from the essential purpose of the visit; to drink in the surroundings in which it is expressed.
There are numerous reasons to visit Keeneland, a National Historic Landmark. Racing is the obvious draw. One could have seen the Rolling Stones Farewell Tour for the cost of a single day in a box seat, a price point drawing a dedicated crowd. But horse sales at the largest Thoroughbred auction house in the world bring the globe’s most prominent horse buyers and sellers four times during the year. This year’s November sale brought a record $205 million. But for most people, the Breeders' Cup offers the simple cachet of just being there, and the stands were filled with people seeking that pleasure.
I grew up in Athens, Georgia, close enough to Sanford Stadium to hear the Saturday football crowd on game day if I was not actually there. SEC football is a cultural experience in which everyone should partake at least once. There are rituals. There are culinary expectations. There is mania. But even with that behind me, the Breeders' Cup is, if you’ll pardon the too apt metaphor, a horse of another color. The crowd at Keeneland is a fascinating mélange of the world’s most elite racing enterprises, the aforementioned professional gamblers, people for whom the social scene is as much a draw as the horses, and people just looking for an interesting day. It is a lovely place to be a beginner, especially if you have an expert guide. Being professionally paired with photographer and friend Andy Hyslop for the second time since we found ourselves in a muddy field in Arkansas amongst thousands of snow goose decoys was a pleasure. That Andy grew up in horseracing was a serendipity. As we walked amongst a sea of men in raucously colorful suits and women wearing feathered and beribboned “fascinators,” he explained the basics,
“Allowance races are basically just a straight price race for say, $30,000. A claiming race is a real gambler’s race because if you enter a horse in a claiming race for $20,000, that is the price of that horse and people have to risk losing or buying it for $20,000 even if they don’t like the result. Those claims have to be made prior to the race and once the gate opens that’s your horse no matter what. When you have a horse running for the first time you look for a race that has maidens. Maidens are non-winners, once you win, you can’t race that horse in those races anymore. But basically, what you’re going to see today starting about 3 o’clock are all graded stakes races. Grades are one, two, and three, with one being the best. For the Breeders' Cup, everything is at one. It's not a typical day at the races. These are the best horses in the world. As a horse fan and somebody who just really likes the sport, this is what you want to see.”
En route to join the Tom Beckbe contingent in the box seats, Andy and I paused to watch horses and jockeys parade beneath “Morrie,” the white barked sycamore centering the race complex’s paddock. Morrie is as old as Keeneland; a tree of otherworldly beauty offering a canopy to some of the world’s most exquisite animals for almost a century now. Morrie’s leaves had yet to fully drop and though the Breeders' Cup signature color is purple, the overwhelming tones in the paddock belonged to the tree, red and orange and yellow with the last hint of summer’s green. It seemed portentous, in a place where hope and dreams race neck and neck with training and preparation, both a micro second away from victory at any given moment. Regardless of palette, it was such an idyllic setting on a fall morning, it seemed wholly appropriate that the Keeneland ATM only spits out $100 bills. In a world this perfect who would have need of anything less?
By the time we sat, Andy had attempted to explain parimutuel betting to me, an almost non-gambler who barely finished high school math as a college student, “It’s against the track, you’re betting against everyone else here.” It really didn’t take so, settling in for my first ever horserace, I smiled and nodded and decided to keep my wagers low, in line with my comprehension. Waiting for the first race, we ate Burgoo, a thick stew I was informed I could not leave Kentucky without eating. It reminded me of beef stew made with a nod to Brunswick stew and it would have been perfect for a cold day. However, Day One of the Breeders' Cup dawned warm, rendering Burgoo more of cultural than constitutional requirement. And that’s in line with Keeneland, a place resistant to changes that would lessen its classic charms; where they only recently added speakers and eschew contract food service, preferring to keep it in house. That kind of adherence to tradition speaks to me. It means whatever it is I’m exposed to in pursuit of shoshin gives me insight into the draw for true adherents. It also lends Keeneland an air of gentility born of acknowledging what was here before was good enough and may yet prove to better than what is to come.
The first race’s finish brought with it an unexpected well of emotion. Perhaps it was the rising roar of the crowd or the burgeoning acceleration of the announcer’s voice. Maybe it was the almost incomprehensible way the jockeys seemed to hover above horses that seemed both effortless and muscularly kinetic. Again and again, horses rumbled past us and I learned what a deeply passionate pursuit is horse racing. When one race ended in a close finish people stood as motionless as 50,000 can, the words “dead heat” rippled across the crowd like people pointing out an assassin. A man near us pulled at his hair and moaned. Then came a final call that provoked disappointment and satisfaction alike and I finally felt moved to place a bet. Under Andy’s coaching, I put money on a horse called Forte.
With the clang of the bell, the reverberation of gates springing open, and “They’re off!” I was engaged in horseracing in a new way. The first half mile was of no great interest. The horses were across the infield from me and the finish still too remote. Then I heard, “Forte from the midfield…Forte on the move now,” and the pounding multitude was coming into clear view.
“Forte is pushing forward…Cave Rock and Forte…Forte…Forte and Cave Rock……Forte! Forte! Forte!”
And then, but for a moment, we were all golden and whole, elevated above the norms of life. Risen past play dates and school car lines and home mortgages, we were washed in the shining light of victory amongst high fives and hugs in a moment worth far more than the pittance I’d won. I was up on the day, for a moment playing with house money. Unexpected tears again welled in my eyes at Forte’s display of power, speed, and selfless effort. Perhaps it’s decades of watching young Americans giving their all for the nation without the expectation of laurels. Maybe it’s the purity that is the exclusive province of animals, one in which humans may intrude but never truly belong. No matter the origin, it’s a phenomenon seemingly more and more common for me these days, one not easily explained by the stakes offered by a token bet. Forte beat the favorite for a $2,000,000 purse. I heard a man nearby say a friend was up $58,000 on the day. My $16.80 winnings felt no less sweet for their paucity.
Even in the moments between races, those two-minute maelstroms we were there to see, there was satisfaction. A friend of Andy’s, one who deals in horses for a living, stopped by the box. Though he was happy to expound upon the good and bad of the business, with a hot dog and a mixed drink in hand and sitting in a ray of sunlight, he said, “I wish this day would never end. I would sit here all day, forever.”
Of course, tiny victories are of little consequence in a place where the fastest horse in the world is set to run. Flightline was the name on everyone’s lips. People spoke the horse’s name in the same breath as victory, as if it were a foregone conclusion. And for good reason. But for someone with shoshin, someone who still doesn’t understand the calculation of odds, or how parimutuel betting works, or how I lost my entire surplus by betting four horses in some kind of complexity in which two of my horses were in the top three but it somehow didn’t matter, it all came down to the rolling rumble of the horses, the manic howl of the crowd, one final quarter mile, and 8 ¼ lengths.
I cannot speak to what makes a great horse. I know nothing of training or bloodlines or the economics of whether a champion continues racing or moves to pasture. I simply know, in my shoshin, watching the fastest horse on earth give everything he had, simply because he can, because he has but one purpose: to be the fastest horse on earth…well, there were tears.