Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Horses and the Screen

I’m heading to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania today to write a story for Mountain Home Magazine about a horse, a horse bought by a Civil War general, Wellsboro’s own war horse. Naturally, I had to go see “War Horse,” before Regal Cinemas sent it out to pasture.

One showing, 9:20, Friday night. That’s 20 minutes past my bed time. Oh, boy.

Alex Brown wrote a great review through the eyes of a horseman. Also, he did some classic reporting, finding out the real name of Joey, the leading horse of the movie, and what his racing career was like.

All I can do is write a review through the eyes of a story teller. A couple things struck me: why doesn’t the popularity of a racehorse or war horse on the big screen translate to the racetrack or literature? With the exception of “Seabiscuit” (because of Laura Hillenbrand’s talent) and “Secretariat” (because it was Secretariat), no book on racing has had any type of success. My feeling is that the horse is a visual creature.

Words, no matter the ability of Hillenbrand or William Nack, never measure up to seeing these animals in motion.

Another was the movie’s superb illustration of how horses are the universal tongue of man. For the purposes of viewer-accessibility the Germans and the French all speak English, but even if they were forced to speak their native languages, any time Joey bound them, they spoke the same language. This horse changed hands more times than a nickel claimer.

Add to that director Steven Spielberg sure knows how to make you shake your head at the travesty of war. When the British, using the antiquated bayonet charge across no-man’s land, while the Germans sat tight in forts with Gatling guns, mowed the British down like grass. It was, as history books say, a war of attrition.

Just about any scene when Joey breaks free and hits his stride, the movie picks up pace. His tack hung off him like shackles as he ran riderless, avoiding the bullets that claimed his jockey. His maniacal run across no-man’s land and into a web of tangled barbed wire symbolized how torn Joey was, that he could only be freed by a truce, that his bleeding caused a cease fire.

At about the time of this movie’s nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, HBO launches “Luck,” a racetrack drama created by famed television producer and writer David Milch. Listen to what he had to tell NPR’s Dave Davies about the show here.

Milch told Davies about his trip to Saratoga Race Course with his father, “The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler ... but it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off."

What this tells us is that racetrack is an immensely valuable story telling platform with different shades of people with different motives and motivations, as I tried to illustrate in “Six Weeks in Saratoga.” (Shameless plug? Yes, but I feel awesome right now.)

Normally I don’t care that I don’t have cable, but I’ll actually miss the idea of not watching “Luck,” because it will have all the elements that drive narrative: gray characters played by world-class actors, conflict, and perhaps the greatest engine in all of story telling—thoroughbred race horses.

Brendan O'Meara uses his 140 characters to his advantage on Twitter.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Un-Like Mother, Like Daughter

At first I had an idea about writing about the exclusionary tone Mike Watchmaker took in this column about the presumption that turf writers with an Eclipse ballot didn’t take it seriously, by Watchmaker’s standards. So what if some folks wanted Rapid Redux to be Horse of the Year? That’s their choice and just because he’s not a stakes-caliber horse shouldn’t demerit the few who chose to vote for him. I’m sure they’d make an educated case. It’s that type of voice from the older guard of turf writers and handicappers I’ve found disheartening. I guess this means I'm not "reasonable." I like to think I am, but to each his own.

What should happen on January 22, 2012 at 2:40 p.m.? Rachel Alexandra delivered a 125 pound (!) colt at Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, KY. According to a press release he climbed to his feet about 90 minutes after birth and Rachel Alexandra kindly took to him.

Unlike her own mother.

Rachel Alexandra, as famously documented in this story, was orphaned by her mother Lotta Kim. When Lotta Kim dropped Rachel Alexandra she wanted nothing to do with her. The folks at Heaven Trees Farm promptly escorted a nurse mare (a nasty mare, to the humans at least) to Rachel Alexandra and the two hit it off.

“I am thrilled with the good news of Rachel's safe delivery and health of the handsome colt that resembles her. For me and my children, this colt represents Jess’ dream – to raise and race the best,” said Banke in the release. “Co-owner Hal McCormick and I look forward to watching him develop and are excited to see him carry the Stonestreet silks as his Mom and Dad did before him.”

Horse racing has a way of beating you down. Horse deaths, horse slaughter, late odds changes on the tote, uncouth training practices. Maddening though it is, January and February provide new blood. Horse racing forever renews itself, at times ad nauseum, but, at times like these, that renewal couldn’t be more welcome.

The three-year-old stakes are upon us and mares are delivering foals from our favorite champions. If Jess Jackson were alive today he’d be one happy fedora-wearing-mountain-naming-vintner. Everything he stood for in racing came down to Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

Curlin represented a majestically campaigned three and four year old, a tribute to longevity and endurance while racing. He symbolized a global triumph, and guts (Man o’War, a game second to a Breeders’ Cup Turf champion in Red Rocks).

Rachel Alexandra was a tribute to a capitalistic coup. When told that Rachel Alexandra had the speed to wheel back two weeks later against the boys in the 2009 Preakness, Jackson wrestled her away from Dolphus Morrison to blast this filly into the stratosphere. She sparked an unprecedented debate as to who was better, her or Zenyatta (I think we can all agree who turned out to be the better race mare).

And that’s the kind of debate Jackson was all about. Whether he opined about synthetic “plastic” surfaces or held out to the last second on the projected race of a horse, this new colt shoulders the impossible burden of all his dreams and we are the lucky ones who get to watch it unfold.

Brendan O'Meara tweets.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

‘Grace’ takes cake

The thought of live-blogging the Eclipse Awards crossed my mind for today’s entry, but live blogs or its predecessor—the timed Diary—seem so, bloggish. Twitter has replaced the live blog simultaneously allowing readers to interact in a time line and follow the quips of the author. God bless the hashtag. Also, let’s not forget, it’s the Eclipse Awards. Live-blogging the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet holds more appeal.

The Eclipse Awards had Jeannine Edwards hosting it, but making the all-too-often-used diatribe about her electric eyes and punchy delivery seems so, live-bloggish. That was so one paragraph ago.

The Eclipse Awards feel more stuffed than a turkey, but its purpose must be to celebrate the year that was this way we can take a sledge hammer to the walls, tear down the framework, dig up the foundation, laugh about that time you saw your friend count his gambling winnings (1 minute in), laugh at your other friend who still can’t get over losing a 2008 Pick 4 when Intangaroo nosed Hystericalady; then pour a new foundation, erect another framework, drill up some drywall because you remember that one time you worked with drywall, and do some other things. Put your feet up. You can’t rise up until you’ve hit rock bottom. So to the bottom we must flee, but in recalling 2011, you realize you’re already there. How was it that Animal Kingdom still had a shot at Champion Three-Year-Old male? And then won it. Heck, I think I’d have voted for him too. Ten furlongs never go out of style.

You start to recall the names of horses from earlier in the year: Mucho Macho Man. Twinspired. Brilliant Speed. Toby’s Corner. Sway Away. Comma to the Top. Archarcharch. Twice the Appeal. Soldat.

You remember Havre de Grace battling—but eventually losing to—Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap and you nearly let loose your bladder, down the leg, soaking your highwaters; you get the brilliant idea to write a book about her called, “Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Four-Year-Old Filly Havre de Grace Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year,” there’s still time, so you need to pull for this because three females winning Horse of the Year in a row isn’t the kind of threesome you dreamed about but it will do. In fact, they make you think of the great Triangle offense where you’d put Zenyatta in the post, Havre de Grace at forward, and Rachel Alexandra the guard in the corner. Let Chuck Klosterman tell you about it.

But Havre de Grace snatched 166 votes and there wasn’t much suspense abound (Acclamation finished second with 26 votes). Let’s take a look at her curriculum vitae for 2011:

5 for 7

Grade 3 Azeri

Grade 1 Apple Blossom

Grade 3 Obeah Stakes

Grade 1 Woodward Stakes

Grade 1 Beldame Invitational

Her two losses came in the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap to Blind Luck and a game-loss in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Not to mention that she redeemed trainer Larry Jones and finally let this man put to bed the ghost of Eight Belles. A big, heavy ghost.

Havre de Grace had the best year, start to finish, and that’s what an award as lofty as Horse of the Year represents. Many of the other awards default to a winner of a certain race (Hansen) or, strangely, in the case of this year’s three year olds (Animal Kingdom). Her season ends with a period, not an exclamation point (perhaps a question mark?), and maybe that's why it's been so hard to pick the ultimate winner.

Looking at the winners of Eclipse Awards we know that Hansen, My Miss Aurelia, Havre de Grace, Animal Kingdom, and Royal Delta will all be back, among others. So 2012 is looking up already.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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