Curtis: Through stressful times, be thankful for horse racing

Curtis: Through stressful times, be thankful for horse racing
Photo: Sue Kawcinski/Eclipse Sportswire

Horse racing has had an incredible year, from the contentious Derby trail that led to the long-shot bomb winner, from Flightlines stirring Met Mile victory to his dominating Classic run.

When looking at the things I am thankful for in this sport, I also considered the heartwarming story of Cody’s Wish and the epic battles between Malathaat and Clairière.

But what I realized I am most thankful for this year is the racing cycle itself.

In a year of terrible personal loss, I could count on the racing calendar to keep my head and heart out of the depths of despair.

Early in the year, as the newly turned 3-year-olds began to stretch out and the Pegasus World Cup drew top older horses for one last hurrah, a troubling unease began to smolder at the edges of my consciousness. My mother was sick, and she seemed to be getting worse.

As late winter gave way to spring, the Derby trail heated up, and I began making weekly journeys to help out at the family homestead. I had to catch Epicenter's rise to the top of the crop  between trips to the pharmacy and visits with home health aides. Dad was optimistic that mom would make a recovery, if only the right doctor saw her.

I watched the Kentucky Derby from mom's hospital room. She was awake at that time, though hooked up to frightening machines. My sister flew in from Denver to be with her. As the horses thundered down the stretch, I clapped "Go, go, Epicenter!" and then I saw a red horse streaking up the rail. "Oh, mom! That’s the top long shot!" I cried, amid claps. And then as Rich Strike advanced and continued to power past the leaders, I hollered, "No, don’t win!"

Mom, nonverbal by this point, rolled her eyes and snorted.

I wish I could say that the magic of the Kentucky Derby cured my mom. But that only happens in movies. She transferred to a hospice-care center Preakness week. Dad hardly left her side. I put miles on my car going from Kentucky to Tennessee, keeping one eye on the road and another on the works videos coming through on Twitter.

Mom slipped away from this world Belmont Stakes week.

These sacred Triple Crown races, always a high point in the year for me, now carry the contours of deep sorrow. Mom was my biggest cheerleader, strongest supporter and most passionate advocate. She didn’t know the first thing about horse racing, but she knew I loved it, so she set out to learn what she could about it. Along the way she met horsepeople, petted so many pony noses and grew so proud of her daughter.

After her funeral, dad, sister and I had to figure out how to live without one of the most robust personalities in our lives. I dealt with the loss by going to the races. There’s nothing better than focusing on PPs and beautiful horses to take the mind off of upsetting things you can't change.

The highs of great performances, combined with a few winning tickets, can work wonders. And you know, as each week goes by, that these horses are prepping for the Breeders' Cup in the fall. And, oh, that impressive juvenile has Derby buzz.

As this year draws to a close and the chill of winter creeps back in, I find myself more than ever thankful for the framework of this sport to hang the fixtures of my life. Because no matter how crushing today might be, there's another race with another winner – and another story to tell about a horse.

Candice Curtis, a lifelong horse-racing fan and player, is the email marketing manager for Horse Racing Nation and is based in Louisville, Ky.

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