Seven weeks ago, not long after it was revealed that Rachel Alexandra had undergone emergency surgery due to foaling complications, my husband and I were watching her races on YouTube. The best of her 2009 season flashed across our computer monitor—the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, the Mother Goose at Belmont Park, the Haskell at Monmouth, and the Woodward at Saratoga.
In the middle of it all, my husband said that he thought her Preakness and Haskell wins were the most impressive, and I said that I thought her Woodward was her best race since, although she didn’t win by daylight, she—a three-year-old filly—was able to defeat older males in one of the most prestigious races in the country. We then found her Woodward on YouTube and watched as Rachel seized the lead and raced along in split times of :22.85, :46.41, and 1:10.54, setting the pace up perfectly for deep closer Macho Again. Yet, as her pace stalkers tired and fell back, she was able to courageously keep the talented gray at bay to win by a head.
After the race, my husband appeared sad and said, “I wish you could hear the race call.” He then described the call for Rachel’s Woodward to me, and I told him that although it sounded awesome, for me, the experience of watching races has never been diminished simply because I can’t hear what is being said in the race call.
I’m aware that a great race call can, for some people, make the race. I also know—from what others have said—that a good race call can add to a race, while a poor one detracts from it. I have seen my husband laugh at or grimace while listening to bad race calls.
I know that some race calls—one in particular—are quoted time and time again, and I do greatly enjoy reading these quoted race calls. In Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s drawn-out description of Chic Anderson declaring that Secretariat is “moving like a TREMENDOUS machine” as the big red colt is en-route to demolishing the 1973 Belmont Stakes field—and the world record for 1-1/2 miles—is music to my eyes.
In the mid-90s, at the request of a Christmas list I wrote, my mom ordered VHS tapes of certain races for me. My absolute top request was Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes and although, by then, I had read and re-read who knows how many accounts of his remarkable performance in this race, nothing had prepared me for seeing it for myself. I noticed—and still notice—every little detail. The healthy sheen on the red colt’s powerful rump as he leaves the starting gate. The seagulls flying through the air shortly after he leaves Sham behind. The billowing NYRA and American flags. The two people sitting on a blanket on the outer turf course at the final turn. Secretariat seamlessly changing leads at the top of the stretch as Ron Turcotte sneaks a look back. And the countless hands coming up at the bottom of the screen, cheering and clapping in acknowledgement of the great performance unfurling on the homestretch below. If I turn the volume up and listen closely, I can hear the cheering of the crowd.
My mom also presented to me a typed transcript of the race call for Secretariat’s Belmont. In reading it after watching the race for the first few times, I found that it did not add to the race—it merely complemented it.
Although I will never hear a race call, I understand the people that stand in their booths above the track for hours and watch race after race after race through binoculars, day in and day out. I understand them because when I see a great performance on these same tracks, I do not need background narration to guide me through what is happening before my eyes. I see every little detail, I understand every fraction of a second, every move the jockeys make, and every expression the horses give. I see the perfect rhythm of Secretariat’s strides, I see the courage in Rachel Alexandra, I see the powerful surge of muscles in Zenyatta’s hindquarters, I see the flick of Winter Memories’ tail, and I see Royal Delta’s ears pricking as she takes the lead. It all comes together and creates something beautiful for my eyes, and that is all that I need.