Churchill Downs put on a stellar card of racing the night of June 15th, 2013, featuring champions Royal Delta and Fort Larned. I had previously attended one of their night cards, the popular “Downs After Dark,” but not for years. That made the evening still somewhat of a novelty, but what was really different about it was it marked my nephew’s first time at the track.
As a racing fan for almost as long as I can remember, part of me knew it would only be a matter of time before I’d take him to the track. I didn’t want to influence him one way or the other, but I fervently hoped he’d enjoy the experience. I wavered a bit about taking him to night racing; he is just seven, after all, and I remembered the emphasis being a bit more of a party atmosphere than usual. And there was the matter of bedtimes: the last race went off at 11 p.m.
Yet I consulted with his mom and decided to go after all. I wanted him to see Fort Larned and Royal Delta for himself, as much as I wanted to see them for me. Maybe it wouldn’t matter to him now, but down the road it just might.
Turns out taking him to the races that night was a perfect call, the best introduction I could have hoped for. I had not told him a lot about the track beforehand; I wanted him to experience it on his own terms, with no preconceived notions or my thoughts coloring his way of seeing it.
Immediately, we were given the temporary use of another patron’s Junior Jockey Club ticket, letting my nephew get in free. It seemed aligned already to make his first time at the races good from start to finish. I then noticed quite a few families had brought their kids, and the kids were enthused and interested, and the party atmosphere continued around them yet that family-freindly atmosphere remained. Naturally, I probably never noticed this previously due to not having a child along.
THe best part of all, from my nephew’s perspective, was getting to see champions. That piqued his interest more than anything else, though he enjoyed reading the program and learning about the horses and asking me all the questions he could think of, and I explained things he had not thought to ask as well.
I couldn’t have been more delighted to see him take such an interest in the sport I’ve loved as long as I can remember. It was really my first time getting to introduce someone to the track, and I fully got to experience how fulfilling it can be to bring a potential fan and watch them leave absolutely enamored with racing.
For me, it was all about him that day. As much as I thrilled to the races – Royal Delta’s appearance in the paddock, and feisty, head-tossing Fort Larned’s dominant win – what mattered most was seeing how my nephew experienced it. It was a new dimension, seeing it all through his eyes, like going for the first time myself.
I remember when I was his age, and I was just beginning to really watch racing. I made lists of horses entered in races, and wrote down little tidbits of information the TV announcers passed along about them. I saw an echo of that thirst for information in my nephew his first day at the track: he pored over the program, announcing every horse’s name as they passed by. I told him a bit of how to decipher the other information entered for each horse, and was so proud when he was prescient enough to notice Rosie Napravnik entered in most races, before I’d even had a chance to tell him she is one of the best female jockeys ever, and a serious contender for top jockey of any gender. To learn it, discover it for himself, seemed the best tactic….
When he saw Fort Larned enter the paddock, he wanted to bet on him, and we were thrilled to watch him romp home in dominating fashion. My nephew caught the excitement coursing through me, that had also rippled through Fort Larned in the paddock, and shouted with joy beneath the Twin Spires, illuminated against the black of night on this evening where they glowed white, like the clothes we wore in keeping with Churchill Downs’ theme.
We returned to the hotel, a few dollars richer and with a love of racing in place for both of us. It was better than I even imagined. As we left, a man gave my nephew a pair of illuminated glasses that had been part of a giveaway, and the kindness continued…
I was proud all over again when we reached our room, and he eagerly settled on the racing channel TVG over cartoons or anything else he could have chosen. It was a chance to explain about Quarter Horse racing and Standardbred racing, since that’s what was being shown at the time.
We returned to Churchill the next day, for a few more races and for him to see the Derby Museum. He already knew from our walk around Churchill the previous night that Orb had won this year’s Derby, and now was his chance to see what the Derby was really all about. I told him over 23,000 people had been at the races last night, but how to impress upon him what 150,000 people crammed into that same area is like? It’s hard to imagine, if you’ve never been among it. I still remember my first Derby and watching an elderly couple looking around them in disbelief at the packed house. It was enough to be overwhelming for anyone, especially the first time they go. For that reason, I didn’t think words could explain it. Video could show it and let him absorb a bit of what it’s like. But to quote the famous phrase, “until you’ve been to the Derby and seen it with your own eyes, you ain’t been nowhere and you ain’t seen nothing.”
So true; but we still watched “The Greatest Race” to let him get that taste of what it’s all about. This video still sends Derby fever racing through my veins, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend six renewals so far. Yet, this is as close as I would bring him for a long time – to see it on this screen. I just can’t contemplate putting a young child into that crush of people, even if it were my decision to make.
He does say he wants to go to the Derby now. I hope he holds onto that across the years and racing remains something we share and both love, that can be our special thing. I didn’t even get to go to a live race until I was 18, and my first Derby was when I was 29. But if he is still a fan when he is an older teenager, I definitely hope we go to a Derby together. It’s not a promise I can make now, but it is one I hope to make somewhere down the road.
We passed the late morning and early afternoon exploring the museum (he loved the stimulated racing game), watching a few races, and participating in a painting class as part of the track’s Family Fun Day on a balcony overlooking the paddock. We also left with a pair of jockey goggles – after several “no’s” the night before and that day, I was able to find a jockey who kindly agreed to give him that special souvenir. He was so thrilled to have them that he bought a jockey whip in the track gift shop with his winnings from Fort Larned’s victory and said he wanted to be a jockey. Well, he’s likely to be too tall for that, but who am I to discourage dreams? It’s so much of what racing is built upon, and I am so pleased to see they resonated with him too.
I think a big kudos is in order for Churchill Downs, for the “After Dark” program and the Family Fun Day. It couldn’t have been any easier to seamlessly introduce and launch a new passion for my nephew, with their stellar group of runners and activities to pique his interest.
Back in Lexington that same day, we explored Keeneland and I showed him the difference between Polytrack and Churchill’s dirt surface. We walked through the barns and saw Java’s War in Kenny McPeek’s barn, same corner stall, as if time had almost stood still since I last saw him there one April morning the day he won the Blue Grass Stakes.
It was the end of a whirlwind, perfect trip, and he went home to Tennessee to play horse racing with his toy cars. Gives me hope we meet up at the track through the years, and he does get to see racing at Keeneland too when he’s older and not constrained by school, as he asked me if he could do.
Until then, I will send him DVD’s of races of Wise Dan, Fort Larned, and Royal Delta, as long as they continue racing, and our enthusiasm for the sport will be transmitted across the miles, until he can return to Kentucky.