Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Derby

I was a girl who dreamt of horses.
Every Christmas and birthday that came around would find me leaving a carefully-folded sheaf of paper (or two) atop my parents' pillows. (Yes, I was destined to be a writer, without doubt.)

I held my breath and waited for them to find the letter that oh-so-pleadingly detailed the reasons I needed a horse of my own.

My parents never caved.

The gods smiled on me though and I ended up working summers on a ranch from age ten through high school. For someone who never had her own horse, I've spent more time riding than most.

I don't ride much anymore, and I always feel a bit of a loss because of it. I usually can tell when I've gone too long without spending time around horses because the dreams come back. They are always the same. I'm back at the ranch, helping saddle and bridle horses, prepping for a trek out into the forest, but obstacle after obstacle arises - each delaying our departure - and inevitably I don't ever get to ride.

On this day, each year without fail, horses fill my mind.

It's Derby Day.

That young girl who loved horses, loved everything about them. I followed the two-year-old racing circuit closely, awaiting its culmination on the first Saturday in May. And I was convinced that some divine symbol rested in the fact that the last Triple Crown Winner appeared in the year I was born. On the list I kept of things I wanted to do in life, a trip to the Kentucky Derby numbered among them.

I made it to the Derby - twice. It was not what I expected.

I'd always thought of the Kentucky Derby as something of a horse lover's Holy Grail. It's not.

The first trip I made was with a friend from Louisville. We were in our early twenties, and she took me to the infield.

For anyone not indoctrinated into the revelries associated with the Derby, the infield is something of a gathering point for the common folk. A heavily-inebriated crowd partakes in what resembles a mixture of Mardi Gras and spring break. My maiden voyage to Churchill Downs presented me with more flashed breasts than thoroughbreds.

Having recently gone through college life, I took it in stride. But the tiny horse-obsessed girl inside of me felt as though the inner sanctum of horse heaven had been violated.

The second trip I made to the Derby happened the following year. The corporate honchos I worked for had two extra tickets to the Grand Stand, and offered them to me. And I thought my redemptive Derby trip had arrived.

But lo, disappointment once again.

Instead of a drunken, hot press of half-naked bodies in the infield, I was surrounded by a drunken, hot press of starched-linen bodies topped with silly hats. And still no horses.

(I present "Kentucky Derby Barbie," and yeah, it really was kinda like that...sigh)

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to actually watch the race if you attend the Kentucky Derby.

But I did it. I made my long-envisioned pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby, twice. Neither experience lived up to the sacred horse-worshipping experience that I had wanted to partake in.

It made me wonder about the way we create ideals as children, pin our hopes on far-reaching expeditions that will somehow make us the human beings we long to be. How often does the reality bear pale resemblance to the beauty of our dreams?

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