On horse races & polo

Watching a horse race often makes me cry.  There’s always a story behind the story and often, you learn of these “back” stories when watching the pre-race events on television.  You learn about the jockey, the horse, the owners and the trainers. Each story is a tear-jerker and I love hearing about them.

Here’s what you don’t know.  Often, the jockey has only met the horse once or twice before a race…certainly that’s not the case for the the BIG races, like the Preakness or the Kentucky Derby because the horse has been at that particular track for a week gearing up for his big day, but such is the case in the regular races. This is why when people say they admire the jockey, I’m a little miffed.  He’s a jockey.  He can take any horse and work that horse to its highest potential.  He has a “way” with horses and that is precisely why he is hired by the trainers.  Each track has a bevy of jockeys who work at that track.  The horses move through the circuit, entering races in multiple cities, and the jockeys are hired for that particular day’s race with that particular horse.

The people behind that big beautiful machine of a horse is the trainer, who has taken on the horse and spent every day working the horse and preparing him for his racing career.  Though the horses in the Preakness or the Derby are often only 3 years old, most horses race for several years thereafter, earning a substantial amount of money before they are sold or put out to pasture.

I’ve always purchased my horses off the track.  Why?  They like to work.  They have a winning mentality and they like the game.  We have polo ponies, which are Standardbreds.  Standardbreds are the horses that are used in trotting races.  These guys have tremendously strong hind quarters and can turn on a dime and make excellent polo ponies.  They are not, technically, ponies and stand, typically, 16 hands tall.  We also have Thoroughbreds.  These guys like to compete and like jumping.  My daughters spent their growing up years in the hunter/jumper circuit.  Our horse, Jamais dit Jamais, a Thoroughbred, was a granddaughter of Secretariat.  They tried her on the track but she didn’t have “it”.  She was sold shortly after her racing career began…sold to us.

My love affair with horses and polo began with my father.  While many Earls don’t have real jobs other than their stint in the military, many do.  After my father’s military career he retired when he was in his mid 30′s.  That left him plenty of free time to work on his avocations.  He was very competitive on the polo field and kept a bevy of polo ponies in the “mews”, or stables.  My father was also a secret “epicurian”…he enjoyed working in the kitchen when nobody was looking (sometimes he’d sneak in with me and we’d make some amazing dish, and those kitchen stories are many).  He also liked supervising the chef’s kitchen gardens and the purveying the estate grounds, supervising work and working on many laborious tasks.

A polo field is 9 acres and we had a polo field and bandstand seating as well as a beautifully shaded observation area for luncheons.  As a result, many of the polo matches were played at our home.  I liked the “formalness” of the first games of the season.  A nice sit=down meal was always served after the match.  Dressing up, running around with the other kids and visiting with the adults was always something my brothers and I looked forward to.  I am thinking this is where I first learned about being a gracious hostess, too.  For the most part, polo matches are informal events where friends visit with friends.  Unlike, say, a game of football, where all eyes are on the field, fans of polo matches are frequently just there to be social.

Me with Polo Friends

I practiced polo as a teen-ager and I’ve been playing polo since my college days.  I played on my college team.  Here in California we play in Ojai during the summer months (near where Michael Jackson’s Neverland was and where Oprah lives in Montecito).  In the winter, we play in Wellington, Florida where it turns into a playground for the well-heeled in December.  Our horses are trucked all over the country and then we fly in to play.  I’ve made all of my lifetime friends, and many clients, on the polo field.  I have a team of 8 polo ponies and they are like family to us.

Last year, one of our major teams lost nearly 30 horses and many others were sick shortly after the vet gave them all booster shots in Wellington.  It was an event that killed almost all of us emotionally, we were so devastated. It was an amazing loss.

It’s no doubt horses are expensive to “keep” in certain parts of the United States, particularly if you are in or near a big city.  Feeding, shoeing and vet costs are regular monthly expenses…a bit like sending a child to a private school.  Taking lessons can also be an expensive proposition, in most cases, running about $800 per month, per child.

I have a friend (who feels almost like a sister) who recently decided that she loved horses and, now in her 50′s, starting taking lessons, keeping a horse and going to the stables every day.  Her life and her level of happiness have changed.  What she had realized is that she had always been deprived of this yearning, both as a child (her parents couldn’t afford it) and, when she became a mother,( she could not afford it).  You know how that goes.  Now, with her children gone, she decided to give herself this pleasure she had always wanted and her life is much richer because of it.

Of course, most of us can’t have horses in our lives or experience the peace of sitting underneath the shade of a tree just to “be” in their presence.  Horses are peaceful, gentle beings.  Few are dangerous to be around.  Mine have always followed me around the property when we are off season.  They like being in the presence of people.  If you’ve ever a chance, find a way to experience a horse.  Your life will be changed.   Your happiness level will increase and you’ll wonder, why have I never done this before.

Go to the race track.  Go down to the testing area where the horses are held before each race.  You can get very close.  You can’t touch them but you can watch them.  You can watch the jockeys and the trainers.  You won’t experience the “peace” there, but you’ll get to see them.

I don’t know if you’ll cry the next time you watch a huge horse race like I do.  I hope you know how hard each one of these amazing athletes work when they get ready for that 1.5 minutes of time.  Hearing the back stories before the race always warms my heart.

Your friend,

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