I hadn’t expected to go to the race, since I was the new hand at Northwind. But apparently people sometimes pull mean tricks on racehorses that are favored to win, and our entrant, Chinook, was in need of extra security. So off I went! I think some of the hands who had to stay behind were jealous, but it’s not my fault Eli picked me, and they can complain to him if they think anything was unfair about it.
Churchill Downs is about a day away if you’re willing to ride hard. Chinook was already up there with his trainer, groom and jockey, getting used to the track and resting up, so there was no real need to take the train. Those of us going up for the weekend opted to ride, and we made pretty good time, alternating between trotting and walking, dodging other riders, as well as bicyclists, wagons and the occasional coal diesel truck, all on the way to Louisville.
I wasn’t too impressed with what I saw of Louisville. It was just another small city, ringed with decayed and burned-over suburbs. But I got to see some old airplanes when we passed the abandoned airport. And when we came upon Churchill Downs at sunset, I was amazed. It was huge. And it has two big steeples sticking out of it, like a church. No wonder everyone treats it like a sacred place.
And it is sacred! In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve discovered all kinds of statues and markers to horses, jockeys and other famous people and events. The whole place is a giant memorial to horse racing, with the Derby as the main religious event.
Apparently Churchill Downs was once in danger.
“Somebody tried to blow the place up during the resource wars,” Eli told me as we drew near the rings of stables.
“Why would anyone want to blow up a race track?”
“Because it’s a symbol. It would make us mad.”
“Who tried to do it?”
Sabine cut in with a small shake of her head. “Well, the whites accused the blacks. Then the blacks accused the whites of creating the plot as an excuse to blame the blacks. Everyone suspected foreign terrorists, especially the Muslims. And the conspiracy theorists thought the feds were doing it, in the expectation that we would blame their enemy of the moment and rally to the cause.”
“Okay. So who did it, really?”
“That’s the funny part,” Eli said. “As it turned out, it was just some crazy guy, acting on his own. He heard voices in his head.”
“He thought he was a horse,” Sabine added. “And he was later committed to an institution.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “One crazy guy who thought he was a horse nearly started a local war?”
“So they say,” Eli said. “It seem silly now, but everyone was afraid in those days, and there were a lot of rumors going around.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad they figured out the truth in time. I once knew a guy who heard voices in his head, but they never told him to hurt anyone. And he certainly didn’t think he was a horse.”
When we got to our assigned stables, I got to meet our Derby entrant, Chinook. He’s a fine dark bay with black stockings and a wicked gleam in his eye. He looks fast just standing in his stall with a mouthful of hay. He stares at you, sizing you up, as if everyone who approaches is competition.
My job is to help keep him safe. I have to make sure no one who isn’t from Northwind comes near enough to touch him or tamper with his food or water. One of the special tricks I was told to look out for was someone who might try to pet his nose and slip a sponge in his nostril while I'm not looking. The sponge would interfere with his breathing and cause him to lose the race, and it might even cause an infection that could kill him.
People take this race very seriously if they're willing to kill horses to win!
So that’s what I’m doing right now— guarding a horse and making sure no one comes near. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I said I wanted to work with horses, but it’s something.
And best of all, I’ll get to watch the race! Everyone tells me it’s very traditional, so I’m looking forward to it.