is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Remembering Eight Belles

Eight Bells, 1887
Eight Bells is the name of one of Winslow Homer's best-known paintings and the last of the series of great sea pictures that had commenced with The Life Line three years earlier, was completed in 1886 but not shown until 1888. The title refers to the sounding of eight bells done at the hours of four, eight, and twelve a.m. and p.m. Two sailors dominate the foreground, but the details of the ship and its riggings have been minimized. In the etching Homer has de-emphasized the background rigging and sky even further to underscore the figures' monumentality.

Homer's depiction seems to transcend "mere realism" and reveal an element of heroism in the mundane activities of his protagonists. A contemporary critic noted that the artist "has caught the color and motion of the greenish waves, white-capped and rolling, the strength of the dark clouds broken with a rift of sunlight, and the sturdy, manly character of the sailors at the rail. In short, he has seen and told in a strong painter's manner what there was of beauty and interest in the scene."

A filly by the name of Eight Belles, was the second place finisher of the 134th Running of the Kentucky Derby in 2008. It was a memorable Derby, a gorgeous day filled everything wonderful. I had two mint juleps. I saw everything unfold...and I wrote about it.

* * * * * * *
Eight Belles. Or was it 8 bells? It was 8:00 on Saturday morning when my buddy Tom Eisenhauer and I were stopping at Starbucks in Shelbyville to get a few lattes, and check in with Enzina Mastrippolito, a/k/a "Z," who had asked us to help her with some ancillary work at the Derby. Tom was excited about working for the one of the best equine photographers in the business, and I was thrilled to be working with Enzina again. We had worked together at The Thoroughbred Record years ago, where Z taught me all I know about pedigrees, publishing and proofreading. In fact, I still use the proofreading instructions that Z taught me, even when marking my choir music. She is filled with a tremendous amount of information, and is happy to dispense it if you should ask. She is a great "boss," and an even better friend to have. In fact, I've often said that when I grow up, I want to be just like Z. So, our anticipation last Saturday morning was so palpable, we didn't need espresso to get us going, but we stopped anyway, grabbing a few Danishes for good measure.

As Luck would have it, once we got to Louisville and had boarded the media shuttle bus headed to Churchill Downs, I realized that Evan Hammonds, the Executive Editor of the Blood-Horse was sitting just beside us. Ever the gentleman, Evan led us directly to the Paddock Pavilion, where Z was busy watching Google chart her Kentucky Oaks photos from the day before, but ready to give us our orders as to what our tasks of the day would be. Matt Barton, one of Z’s crew, then gave us a tour of the Downs, inside and out, and was so very kind to point out to us that we should savor the moment and take it all in. Since it was still fairly early, the crowds had not yet made their way to Churchill, so we kind of felt as if we had the place all to ourselves! No pushing or wrangling to get anywhere, we were free to tour the starting gate area, the finish line, the backstretch -- it was a wonderful, glorious morning, and everyone couldn't have been kinder, from the security personnel to the other photographers, I truly enjoyed meeting everyone I met on Derby Day, even the couple that I had to kick out of the bathroom stall in the ladies' room as well as the guy who almost fell on me while acting crazy during the shuttle ride back to our car after the last race.

Of course, even though the sun was shining and the morning's races were getting underway, I could still see the clouds looming in the distance, not knowing what they or the day would bring. There was only one sure thing, and that was that I definitely was going to bet on The Filly. My sister Karen had placed a bet on her to win, I bet her across the board, and over the course of the 9 races that led up to the Derby, I found very few ladies who'd not bet on Eight Belles. It was a day for The Filly to shine, to show those boys that she could cut the mustard. We just knew she could and would do it. Isn't it funny how we often impose our gender issues on these occasions?

Now let me say this. I have a great love for Thoroughbreds and racing. When I was a kid, Derby Day was the one 'holiday' that the whole family got along. There were never any expectations, nobody had to stuff a turkey, no gifts to buy -- all we had to do was be there, pick a name out of a hat, put a quarter in the bowl and sit back and enjoy a julep (or two) before the race. The biggest worry on Derby Day was usually scoring some good mint, but somehow Dad always found some and made his classic cocktail for the whole family. The kids would get cola and mint on ice, the adults would get the real kicker. Ahh, Derby Day memories. Good Times...or was it Early Times?

Throughout the day, I stood by my post just beyond the finish line, beside Jerry Bailey and the ESPN commentators' booth, ready to trigger the remote on Z's camera there. Of course, I chatted with the crowd, got to know the fellow photographers standing there, occasionally someone from another magazine would come up and ask me who I was with. I would proudly let them know I was helping out a friend from The Thoroughbred Times, but also, I was there to write an article for Ace Weekly.

I have known a few photographers in my day, and I have to say, most of them are extremely kind, caring, compassionate people. It was no surprise then, when Eight Belles fell while galloping out after the Derby, that the photographers around me needed to know what was going on. I'd called my editor in Lexington and Rhonda quickly surfed the channels, only to tell me that nobody was covering it. I then phoned my friend who was in Louisville, and was watching the coverage on WAVE-TV, and she gave me the sad news. We had no idea, so I relayed that news to the photographers around me, that Eight Belles had broken her two front ankles and was being euthanized on the track. They quickly ran to get what photos they could, but the look of anguish on their face was indescribable, and I'll never forget it. That pain was soon to be felt in nations all over the world, and as the news spread around Churchill, it was as if everything was in slow motion. Awesome and awful all at once.

Considering how powerful and strong Thoroughbreds are, and the speed at which they travel, you only have to look at their ankles -- which are about the size of a human ankle -- to realize how and why these things happen. It's not that I am dismissing the tragedy, because I was only yards away from her when Eight Belles went down and I too was devastated. Eight Belles was a Queen in the Sport of Kings and the loss of this tremendous horse was heartbreaking to everyone, her owners and trainers, certainly, but also the entire Churchill crowd and the entire world that was watching as she ran her last race.

My niece, Susannah made the comment after watching the Eight Belles tragedy, that it was so sad, "because they sang 'weep no more, my lady,' and they had to put her down at her Old Kentucky Home!" Pretty smart for a 12 year old, but wow, when my sister told me that Susannah had said that, it really brought the focus of the entire issue home to my heart and mind. Girls have to try harder. We encounter bias every day, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. I’m pretty sure, though, that Eight Belles enjoyed racing, that is what she was bred to do. I believe she went down in a blaze of glory, doing what she loved best and beating 18 out of 19 of the colts. On the drive home, I could help but think of Stephen Foster lyrics...Weep No More, My Lady, and"Oh Susannah, Oh don’t you cry for me!" I will never forget that journey back to Lexington, I was numb, and the Makers Mark had worn off 30 seconds after the Derby ended.

By the by, Big Brown won the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, and Eight Belles beat all the other horses save him. I loved going to this Derby. It was a magnificent day of learning and watching others react to the jubilation of the day, but at the end it was surreal to witness the triumph and joy of the Winner's Circle of Churchill Downs yet tears, grief and sorrow in The Filly's barn that was felt all across the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How beautifully written. I cried again. Thank you.