Photo: Konstantin Hofmann
Guest blogger Matthew Scott describes how a chance trip on the other side of the world ignited his lasting passion for horse racing.
Over the past 12 months, I have been getting asked quite frequently by friends and family, why is it that you have suddenly developed such a love for horse racing? This is my attempt to answer that question.
As I have started to follow this sport, the Sport of Kings, it has become evident that my interest has transformed. What started with mere curiosity has become an all out obsession. It all began with casual visits to the Sha Tin racetrack in Hong Kong, with no other goal other than finding an activity to cure my hangover from the night before. After staring at the odds board and trying to understand the arrays of numbers presented, I was able to decipher the pattern and knew what my next step should be. I waited for the next race, looked at the backlit board of odds, and walked to the betting window to place my wager. I had no idea what the horse was named, or what his racing record was, but there was some unknown feeling of assurance in the horse’s racing number and his paired odds, that to me, he seemed like a sure thing. So without hesitation I bet on him to win.
The next few minutes of anticipation were subtle, but you could feel the energy building with the crowds starting to congregate within sight of the track. The growing anticipation of watching the horses parade to the starting gate. Then with a short gap of silence you could almost hear your heartbeat slowly start to raise and feel the sweat start to condense in your palms. Then with a loud RINNNNNNNNNNNG they were off. 14 horses stampeding off clockwise around the turf track with my only thoughts on “Number 12.” As they rounded the final turn to come to the top of the home stretch, the thousands of people all came to their feet cheering and yelling at the top of their lungs with a fruitless effort of driving their horse faster. I too was a part of this mob just screaming “Go number 12! Go number 12! Go! Go! Go!” He crossed the line in 8th place, and never knowing his name, I realized my wager was lost forever. However, that 2 minutes sparked something eternal within me, that I had an immediate thirst that had to be quenched.
This event was only the beginning. As I sat there pondering where I had gone wrong, I just told myself, “there had to be more to it than just a blinking board of odds and screaming wilding with your hands in the air.” As naïve as that statement sounds, I took it upon myself to dive in, not knowing just how deep the hole really was.
I started with understanding the basics, colts vs geldings, length of a furlong, dirt vs turf. My investigations took me deeper, and the deeper I got, the more questions I had. With those questions came answers only proven by case studies of races. More and more horses following patterns. People developing theories or ideas, all disproven with results more random than lottery numbers. How does one pick a winner? This is question that people have been asking since thoroughbreds started racing hundreds of years ago.
But as my search for answer of how to pick the winner continued, I discovered that I was not in search of an equation or formula, but rather the answer to puzzle. This puzzle is what drives me, not only with racing, but with life. As an engineer, I have made a career around problem solving and trying to discover the answers to problems that would only lead to the next milestone. It is the drive to try and answer this puzzle that has allowed me to understand the beauty of this sport.
First I asked myself, what is passion? Passion can be described as things ranging from writing a novel to the look of love I can only find in my wife’s eyes. I could list off examples of passion for far longer than anyone would be willing to read, but to understand passion, we first must understand the context in which we are asking.
To a racehorse, life is nothing more than waking up, training, eating hay and oats, and going to sleep. They wake up, they run, they go to sleep. To a champion racehorse, however, life is so much more. Their purpose is their passion. They understand the situation, they understand the tension, they understand the stakes. They understand the glory of victory, and the agony of defeat. They run not because they were bred to run, not because a 110lb man is on their back whipping their back sides, but because they love it. They love what they do. They love the battles down the stretch against a game opponent, and finding the heart to drive themselves faster. They exert themselves so far and so hard, and for no other reason than to win.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend Super Saturday at Belmont Park this year, and I truly feel that I got to see something special. Aside from my trips to Sha Tin, and a few visits to Hollywood Park or Golden Gate Fields, I had never been to one of the more historical racetracks in the US. But in my brief amount of time there, I saw a race that personified my love for the sport. I have witnessed some amazing sports feats before in my life, crowning with Robin Ventura hitting a game winning grand slam at Dodger Stadium, but nothing like that cold, cloudy day at Belmont
During the 8th race, the Kelso Handicap, the outcome left more of a statement in mind than any crack of a ball hitting a bat. Watching the race unfold, with the heavily favored Uncle Mo leading from the gate, I figured I was just getting to see a good horse win a race. But when Jackson Bend came from 5 lengths back to pull aside Mo at the top of the stretch, I just remember hearing the escalating roar of the crowd, and myself jump to my feet screaming “Oh baby! We got ourselves a horse race!”
At that moment, it was if Uncle Mo heard me and just muttered to himself, “that new guy thinks Jackson Bend has a chance. HAHA, watch this!!!” At that moment Mo found another gear and pull away from Jackson Bend with ease, finishing 3 lengths clear with a time that just made my jaw drop. There were approximately 10,000 people in the Belmont stands that day (45,000 fewer than Dodger Stadium for the game winning grand slam), and I swear there was more energy than I have ever felt at another sporting event.
I have been a big fan of Uncle Mo as long as I have been following the sport, but figured he was just a good horse. After watching him run for 1:33 4/5 seconds, I knew he was much more than that. I had seen a champion racehorse for the first time in my life. The passion for nothing less than victory was nothing short of astonishing. The feeling of awe and disbelief, that would have had even an unknowing fan ask, “I just saw something special, didn’t I?”
I see something in racehorses that I wish I could find in myself. It is the pursuit of something pure. They don’t run for better contracts, endorsements, or greed. They don’t care if they are superstars. They only care about running, and every once in a while, you find that special horse, that will settle for nothing less than victory. Just being in their presence, you can sense their resolve, their endurance, their desire. I envy them. I only wish that I can find that inspiration within myself, and love what it is that I was born to do.
Next I asked, what is perfection? Is it no walks, no hits, and no errors? Sure, to a baseball fan. Is it a 2400? Sure, to a high school student. Is it the 9th Symphony? Sure, to a music lover. Is it 2 minutes and 24 seconds? Absolutely. It is the endless pursuit of something that can also be redefined or duplicated.
When looking for that next level of perfection, I feel we always find ourselves searching for flaws. An antagonist to the protagonist, the Yankees to the Red Sox, Sham to Secretariat. It is only when we see every tangible hurdle thrown at something, only to witness it overcome that we can throw our hands up and say, “that’s it, there is nothing left.”
It is only then that we can confidently say, “This is perfect.”
We are always searching for the next level of perfection. It is the reason we keep records of our past. They are just goals for others to strive for. It is up to the will within us all to determine if we can reach them.
I love that we can become so passionate about our beliefs, so ingrained in our arguments, so persistent of our dreams, that it becomes a lifestyle more than a hobby. So what is it that I love so much about horse racing? It is search for perfection, the solution to the puzzle, and the joy we experience when it is found. Oh, and the adrenaline rush of a good stretch drive is pretty cool too…