This post will be slightly different from my usual Spiritual Sundays posts, as this is more inspirational that spiritual. I have had the privilege to have a front-row seat for an unfolding story that has warmed my heart and made me believe that maybe- just maybe- dreams can come true. It is a story of dreams deferred, hope ignited, heartbreak, and hope rekindled once again. I hope that this story warms your heart as it has mine, and I hope it causes you to stop and think about what you believed was possible.
I wrote the first part of this story at about this same time last year, in response to a tragedy:
I just had to take a moment this evening to write about the terrible tragedy that occurred at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby, yesterday afternoon. It may have been hundreds of miles away, but it was close to my heart.
The Kentucky Derby had always been something of an event in my home growing up. My mother spent a good part of her childhood at the Santa Anita racetrack, perching on the rail, mingling with jockeys, sneaking into barns to peak at champion thoroughbreds. She dreamed of one day galloping a horse along the back stretch at breakneck speeds, a fantasy she played out as she would fly with her horse Dina across the desert wilderness of 1960s Southern California. One of my favorite pictures of my mom is mostly a blur- the landscape around her fading into a wash of colors, the only thing in focus is a beautiful young woman crouched atop her speeding mare, hair blowing in the wind and a smile that seems ready to erupt into a squeal of pure delight.
Despite her passion, however, racing had always remained a spectator sport for my mom. She has had horses off and on throughout her life, mostly as a hobby, occasionally as a means of employment, always content to just be near the magnificent creatures that she loved. The blue grass of Kentucky seemed to be a watercolor dream that we got to share with her once a year, the first Saturday in May, when the TV came on, bringing the championship horses back into vivid color, and she would giddily pore over each entry in the Kentucky Derby.
The yearly event was always something I enjoyed, because I too share in my mom's passion for horses. But more than anything I think I just loved to see her so excited about it. As I have grown and moved away from home, I'll admit, I've missed a few years. But this year was different.
Earlier last year, my mom had the opportunity, for her 60th birthday, to travel to Kentucky. For a few days, she lived the dream. She toured the barns, she walked Churchill Downs, and she attended the Keeneland Sales. I spoke with her on the phone, once or twice during her trip- very briefly, of course- and she sounded nearly breathless with excitement, trying to tell me everything at once, yet hurrying to speak quickly so that she could get off the phone and re-immerse herself in the atmosphere. I couldn't help but smile during those conversations, thinking that my mom sure didn't seem like she had just turned sixty. It was the trip of a lifetime.
Shortly after that trip of a lifetime, my mom stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime. Her name was All Her Tricks, an unassuming bay thoroughbred mare with an elderly owner who was ready to retire. She was a beautiful horse, at a ridiculously low price. A price that became even more ridiculous as my mom started to research her bloodlines, consisting of Thoroughbred racing royalty. It was too good to be true, but there she was, the mount to carry my mom right into her blue grass watercolor fantasy. Perhaps it is true that when you have a dream and the time is right, the whole universe really does conspire to help you achieve it.
And so Tricks joined the rest of my mom's brood, a shining Thoroughbred princess living just down the barn aisle from a Tennessee Walker, an Arabian, an elderly Morab, and a middle-aged quarter horse. Tricks was kind enough not to be judgmental, and she quickly found her place amongst the herd as my mom worked just as quickly to find her a suitable mate.
After some months of trial and error, a handsome (and somewhat famous) stallion named Birdstone was courted and Tricks moved away to be with the hopeful soon-to-be father of her foal. Just weeks before the Kentucky Derby, my mom sent me a message with the exciting news- Tricks was expecting! An ultrasound had confirmed that she was with foal.
And so the Kentucky Derby arrived, this time with more excitement in our family than usual, because not only had we set a foot a foot in the racing world, but our little girl Tricks had family running in the race! My mom called me with the names- watch out for Eight Belles- she's Tricks' aunt (sister of her mother) and Visionaire- he's Tricks' half brother.
I watched all of the pre-race coverage, and talked with my mom on the phone while we watched together. Every time Eight Belles would come up, we'd get a little giddy. I listened to the commentators make their predictions, and I thought to myself, Eight Belles is going to do better than they think. They just don't think she'll do well because she's the filly and all the commentators are guys so they're just sexist. She's going to do better than they think. I just had a feeling about it.
As the race began, I held my breath, but I was smiling inside. My inner smile turned into an outward grin as the pack approached the final stretch and our little filly Eight Belles- seeming more like a family member to me than just another racehorse- made her move to second. I hadn't expected her to win, but watching her hold that second place just made my heart leap for joy. It was as if she and I had shared in a secret, and I had just known she could do it. As she crossed the finish line taking second place, my heart was galloping right along with her and I cheered aloud, "She did it! She got second! That's my girl!!" I was sure that somehow sweet pregnant Tricks was proud of her aunt and the valiant race she had run against the guys. I was basking in the glow of her accomplishment when Big Brown spooked, throwing his jockey, and the commentator said that a horse was down on the track.
I was immediately concerned, and then they said it was Eight Belles. My heart caught and I strained to see and hear what was going on. I know enough about horses to know that if a horse is down- really down and not getting up- that something is terribly wrong. Still, there was a voice in my head that wouldn't let me believe it could be that bad. I mean, she had just run an incredible race, healthy, strong, beautiful Belles- maybe she just had a sprain, and she's just tired so she can't get up quite yet...? I kept my breathing even and my thoughts careful, even as I heard the words, "heart attack," and "aneurism." Then the news came from a shocked and flustered vet- two broken ankles, had to be euthanized. Two broken ankles? How could she break them both? Euthanized? It took a moment for the word to register. Eight Belles was dead. Less than 2 minutes after a glorious finish and she was now lifeless on the very ground her hooves had pounded moments before.
I collapsed to my knees in front of the television, my hand clasped over my mouth, tears brimming behind my eyes. I just didn't understand. It didn't make any sense.
I waited nearly a half hour before I called my mom. I know her well enough to know that she wasn't going to be able to talk for awhile after something like that. She would collapse in tears to even hear of a horse being hurt in a book or a movie. And for it to be Eight Belles, the filly that represented the dream she had held in her heart for so many years- I just knew that it would be too much for her to bear. As I reeled from the tragedy of it, I fought with the need to get more information and the aching desire to turn off the tv. Why were all of these people celebrating? Didn't they see what had just happened? Why are they laughing and hugging one another? I was confused with the dissonance between the cheery images on the screen and the shock and pain that filled my heart. Certainly they couldn't be blamed- their dreams had just been realized. But for another trainer, another jockey, another owner and their family, their dreams had just been shattered into a million awful pieces. It didn't take long for me to see that I wouldn't get any more information from the television, and I turned it off, unable to watch the ceremony in the winner's circle. Big Brown will go for the Triple Crown; Eight Belles would never run again.
There are many people placing blame in this tragedy, faulting the jockey, the trainers, the breeders. But at the end of the day, at the end of that race, at the end of the finish line, Eight Belles was a beautiful thoroughbred who ran the race of her life. I know horses well enough to know that they won't do anything well that they don't want to do. And Eight Belles wanted that race- you could see it. Perhaps she didn't plan the ending, but I doubt she would regret it. She will live on in our hearts and our memories, and perhaps in the tiny heartbeat of a little foal whose great-aunt was a true champion.
Well, that little foal was born in the early morning chill of March this year, a beautiful little brown colt with red eyelashes. He is strong and playful, and has been given the barn name of Little Red while his official registered thoroughbred name is awaiting approval by the Jockey Club. On a visit to my mom in March, I got to see him frolicking about in a late spring snow and pestering his poor mom to death. He already loves to run, and I can only imagine what he'll do when finally put on flat ground away from the hills of West Virginia. He is spunky, yet eager to please, and was still a little shy around strangers when we first met. However, he warmed right up to my 4-year-old son- probably just happy to see someone around who was smaller than he is!
Last week, with the Kentucky Derby approaching once again, my mom called me with news- she wanted me to know that, as a newspaper article had put it, "the 'birds' are coming to town"! Two of Birdstone's babies, Little Red's half-brothers Summer Bird and Mine That Bird, would be running in the Kentucky Derby. Both would be long shots, but to even be eligible for the Kentucky Derby a horse has to be in the top 20 horses in the nation, as far as their earnings go, so it was definitely a boost of confidence in our hopes for the value in Little Red's breeding.
I wasn't able to watch the Derby yesterday, as I had a prior commitment to attend a dinner at church. But I watched all the pre-race coverage, hearing very little about the largely unknown "Birds", and called my mom before I left to ask her to call me on my cell to let me know how the race turned out. I reluctantly turned off the television after the national anthem had been sung and headed out the door.
Post time was at 6:24, and as I talked and laughed with friends at dinner, I alternated between checking my watch and my phone, eagerly awaiting the call. After all, it was the Kentucky Derby- you just never know what might happen. Just after 6:30 my phone rang. I stepped out in the hall before answering. My mom's voice came over the line, cracking with emotion as she said, "Kasey?" Suddenly remembering last year's outcome, my heart started to sink, but then she said in a voice thick with emotion, "Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby! He WON!" I was in shock. I said, "WHAT? HE WON? HOLY CRAP!"
I tried to get more information but the cell phone reception inside the church was bad, and my phone dropped the call. I immediately ran outside to call her back. I couldn't get ahold of her for awhile, but I kept trying because I was dying to know the details. When we were finally able to talk again, she filled me in: he was a 50-1 long shot, came from out of nowhere, and cleared the rest of the pack by 6 3/4 lengths. It was remarkable.
When I got home, I couldn't help but laugh when I watched the footage, because it was so improbable, yet so incredible. I was also so in awe of the fact that cute Little Red, goofing off in a field on a hill in West Virginia had a big brother who just won the biggest horse race in the world, and did it in such a miraculous and astonishing way that his name will go down in history. I thought of my mom, of her dream that seemed to be growing bigger and closer by the second. A dream that had been deferred for so many years, and was now being realized during a time of her life in which most people are planning their retirement.
This story has certainly not ended- really, it is just beginning. And it gives me hope that when we believe in our dreams, even with a guarded caution, they can come true. We can even put them off until we are sixty years old and still have a chance to do what might seem to be impossible. My mom is not a sheik in Dubai, nor is she a millionaire on a breeding farm in Kentucky. She's just someone who listened to her heart and followed her gut, did her homework and crossed her fingers, and hoped for the best but didn't hold her breath. Her story is just beginning, and I can't wait to find out the end.
My mom in DC in front of one of her favorite statues. You GO, Mom!