09/11/2009 11:20AM

Short Story


I'm not a big fan of the "bucket list" concept. Getting to the end of it would court the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Here's some cool things to do, and when I've done them I am outta here!" But what if I didn't kick off when that last item was checked? Which could happen, unless that last wish was something like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane without a parachute, or running with the bulls at Pamplona wearing swim fins and a red cape.

On the other hand, any self-respecting racing fan has a wish list of racetracks and races to visit and witness at some point, beginning usually with Churchill Downs, Longchamp, Santa Anita and Belmont Park, the Triple Crown events, the Melbourne Cup and the Breeders' Cup, and maybe even the Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Invitational Handicap at Fairplex Park (catch it on Sept. 27).


Last Monday, I got to check off the $2 million All American Quarter Horse Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, in a town where the population and elevation both come in at around 7,000. Good friends would suggest I'd lost my mind, especially since seeing it meant missing the Del Mar Futurity for the first time since, like, 1971, when it was a grass race (California, just trying to be different). I've never been a camp follower of the quarter horse sport in general. I know this sounds simplistic, but there seems to be only one variable beyond the comparable abilities of the participants. Either you get out of the gate clean, or you don't. The rest is running for a bus. There is also the issue of duration. Life is way too short--watching quarter horses makes it feel even shorter. My favorite line of the visit was shared by a couple who also leaned toward the thoroughbed side of equine endeavor. While trying to squeeze in a peek at the Hopeful from Saratoga on a TV monitor, a nearby patron looked at the screen and wondered, "How long is this race anyway?"

These are my issues, and I've had to live with the fact that I've probably missed a lot of great moments right here in Southern California at Los Alamitos, the West Coast home of the sport. Since the trip to New Mexico was planned to behold Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird lead the post parade for the All American and then watch him train, anything else, I figured, would be gravy.

Nothing, though, could have prepared me for what transpired. The Kentucky Derby crowd is loud, especially at the beginning and end of the race. But there are more than 100,000 of them, all drinking since dawn, so there should be some serious volumn. The All American crowd is loud, real loud, for the entire 21 seconds of the race, and the level of intensity is magnified by the setting of the track, which sits at the side of a valley. Think of the sound blaring forth from the L.A. Symphony in the Hollywood Bowl. The other day there were about 23,000 at the track, which is a record. I stood near the finish line, on the infield side, and suddenly they were upon me, blurs of colors slapping the tight, red track wet from the mountain rain. Running Brook Gal won it by a length and one-half, comparable to Mine That Bird's 6 3/4-length win in the Kentucky Derby. It was a romp. Deleriously happy people began crowding the winner's circle shouting "Utah! Utah!" which is where the winner was from, and something you rarely hear at Aqueduct or Philadelphia Park. But I blinked. I begged them to go out and do it again.