On one of my trips to Kentucky in the past couple of years, I chatted a bit with a friendly thoroughbred trainer. At least, he started out friendly. I’m not sure which statement of mine soured his mood the most.
My first faux pas was admitting that I was from Connecticut. A standard question first asked of visitors is “Where are you from?” So, I told the truth.
Later, after I’d told my husband about the incident, he shook his head. “When you’re in Kentucky,” he said, “you’re from Williamstown (a small town in northern KY where I grew up.) You only live in Connecticut.”
Yeah, well. Hindsight. And two brains are better than one, ya know?
But what cooked my goose was my question. Of all the questions about racing that a lady from Connecticut might have asked, I’m sure he never expected this one.
I hadn’t planned to ask my question. Otherwise, I would have drafted a version of it and then memorized it. And I would have researched points to support my claim.
Back when I was a newspaper reporter, my approach was less Lesley Stahl and more Lt. Columbo. I’d offer up a lot of “softball” questions before slipping in the tough one. Preceding that hard question would be a little deferential tap-dancing.
“Okay. My boss will kill me if I don’t ask this question. You know how it is to get sweated from the top down. He’ll send me right back here, so let’s save us both some time … ”
Too bad I was out of practice when I went to Kentucky. My question for the horse trainer just dribbed out in bits and pieces. I started out with about how racing is so international, especially these days, and that Australia’s two-mile long Melbourne Cup was then just around the corner. (I was in KY in October. The Melbourne Cup is run in November.)
So, came the question, if we’re having trouble getting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners across the finish line first in the Belmont, then maybe we should start breeding to some of these Melbourne Cup winners? Some of these, and I used the term, “stayers?”
And, with a bright smile, I waited for the answer. Because I was asking for an opinion, a variation on a question I’ve seen discussed in the racing press. Were American horse breeders concentrating too much on early speed? Was that the reason why we weren’t getting Triple Crown winners anymore?
Little did I know that I’d apparently asked the verbal equivalent of firing a mortar at the twin spires of Churchill Downs.
His face flashed a florid red, and he went off on a rant about how Kentucky horses have the finest pedigrees in the world. About how Queen Elizabeth brings mares to breed to Kentucky stallions. About how Arab sheiks and princes, as well as Irish racing corporations, all have farms in Kentucky’s Bluegrass.
While he ranted and his face got redder, I shrank a little. Because, after all, I’m from polite-small-town Williamstown, Kentucky, not in-your-face, three-hours-from “Noo Yawk” City central Connecticut.
So, he basically said as he wrapped up, those Australians can have their stayers because we have the best horses in the world. Right here. It’s all about pedigree. Next question!
While someone asked what a gelding is, or some other horse-world basic, I stepped back into the shadows to catch my breath.
Hindsight is great. Because I should have countered with: “So, why do YOU think we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner in thirty years?”
Because that’s what I really wish I’d asked. And the essence of what I meant to say.
Preaching to the choir
Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that he was preaching to the choir.
For a decades-long Connecticut Yankee, I’m proud of Kentucky’s horses. The Kentucky Derby is akin to a religious holiday in my house, so demands on my time on the First Saturday in May are not taken lightly. Every so often, I go to pay homage to Kentucky’s horses in person. My trips to the Bluegrass might well be considered a pilgrimage.
Not only that, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I won’t identify where I was or disclose the identity of the trainer. After all, although he’s a northerner by birth, he’s a Kentuckian now, so we are paisan.
I felt stung that, because I’d shown enough respect for thoroughbred racing to have asked such a thoughtful a question demonstrating how much I think about the sport, he’d retaliate and blow me off like that.
Of course, a Connecticut Yankee probably could have taken it. Out-of-practice, or not.