2004-2005 was the first year that I paid attention to horse racing year round. I’d spent much of the summer of 2004 at Saratoga, and I developed my first major horse crush, on Afleet Alex.
I was there for his Sanford. I think I bet him, but in memories like this, we always do, don’t we?
And I was there for his Hopeful, which is when I became utterly charmed, watching him cruising through the slop, then “zig-zagging his way through the stretch at Saratoga,” as Tom Durkin put it. Despite that crazy run, he always looked like he knew exactly what he was doing, always in control, always steadily moving forward.
So I watched through the fall and the spring; I watched him finish second, and I watched him win, and I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had a Derby horse. My parents were visiting the weekend of the Rebel, and we stayed home to watch the race before going out to dinner. We watched him finish last, and my father said, “So much for your Derby horse,” as he turned off the television. I blamed, emotionally, the rider change; I said that there had to be something wrong for him to run that way. I blurted my vindication when the news came out that he’d been sick.
I watched that tantalizingly close finish in the Derby, still believing that he was the best horse, refusing, almost, to believe that he’d lost. (Sometimes, in my head, Afleet Alex really did win the Triple Crown.)
And then came the Preakness.
My birthday is at the end of May; a friend with an April birthday and I decided that we’d have a joint celebration at our favorite Brooklyn bar (how could I not love a bar that had the same name as my cat?). It was a Significant Birthday for both of us, and we invited tons of people.
In those days before internet wagering (at least for us), we stopped at the local OTB to place our bets and buy three $2 win tickets on every horse in the race, to give out as party favors. During that spring of New York racing, some friends had bestowed on me the nickname Scrappy T, thinking it an apt moniker; I bet Afleet Alex to win and Scrappy T to place, and I boxed them in an exacta.
The party was great: the bar’s proprietors had surprised me with a birthday cake, it was a gorgeous day, and dozens of our friends had turned out to celebrate with us. But as the race got closer, I got that horrible pit-of-my-stomach, oh-my-god-what-if-he-loses, oh-please-let-him-win-and-please-let-him-come-home-safe feeling.
The good folks at Floyd pulled down the big screen, projected the race, turned off the music, and turned up the volume. The party-goers clutched their party favor tickets, and we watched.
Watching the replay now, I realize that I’d somehow forgotten how Afleet Alex sailed up the rail, impossibly quickly, going outside, then trying to go back in…
And then that feeling in my stomach exploded, because in the time it took for my eyes to transmit to my brain what I was seeing, the thought formed: “He’s not only going to lose. He’s going to break down.”
But somehow, miraculously, he didn’t, and the thought transformed: “He’s not only not going to break down. He’s going to win…” and he gathered himself up and ran himself right into Preakness history.
My horse won. My horse won, as no other horse had done. My horse won, as no other horse had done, on my birthday. And I had won a pot of money. The drinks were on me.
Now we had one more thing to celebrate, and celebrate we did. Those people holding the #12 party favor ticket were pretty psyched, too.
Later, as the party wound down, I pulled out my winning tickets…to discover that they weren’t winning.
The clerk at the OTB had punched in the wrong numbers, or maybe I had. There was no #12 on my tickets. I have blocked out whatever number it in fact was.
It was crushing; the win, that exacta, would have meant about $300, far more than I’d ever, at that point, considered winning on a horse race. It ached for a long time.
But, oh, my, it was a heck of a party.