How I became a racing fan for life

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 18th, 2014

Whenever anyone asks where my interest in racing comes from, my quickfire reply is, "Atavism" -- a throwback to my distant ancestors, a timed-release inheritance of their historic bond with the horse. But the proximate cause is the 1981 Kentucky Derby.

My grandmother noticed in the TV listings that the Kentucky Derby was coming on that first Saturday afternoon in May. She mentioned that I might like to watch it, considering that I'd been collecting Breyer model horses.

By some inscrutable working of my nine-year-old mind, or perhaps divine providence, I gravitated toward Pleasant Colony during the post parade, and watched in amazement as he rallied to the lead in the stretch. Woodchopper gave me a fright with his late thrust, but my new hero held him at bay. Thus was born a racing fan for life.

The Preakness two weeks later was a much more nerve-wracking experience. Unlike the Derby, when I was a passive spectator with no expectations, now things were getting serious. I had an ardent rooting interest, so something called "the odds" began to seem very important. What did those numbers mean for his chances? Were they good or bad? To ease my anxiety, I made up a little ditty and sang it ad nauseam: "Pleasant Colony's gonna win the Preakness! I know, 'cause he doesn't have a weakness!" I'll spare you the rest of it.

After Pleasant Colony lived up to my hopes at Pimlico, surely he'd win the Belmont too, and achieve this magnificent feat called the Triple Crown. My confidence was unbounded. That only made his loss that much harder to absorb, and I was inconsolable when he finished third. Little did I know then that would be the first of many racing heartbreaks, Triple Crown and otherwise.

Nevertheless, the sport had utterly captivated me, and opened up whole new worlds to discover. I saw on the network broadcasts that Pleasant Colony's parents were His Majesty and Sun Colony. Who were they, and who were their parents, and what did all of them ever do? A born genealogical snob, I already thought in terms of pedigree, but didn't know how to learn about it.

A classmate by the name of Cassandra happened to have a copy of the Thoroughbred Record, which she generously gave to me. By another happy coincidence, that issue included a story on Obraztsovy, and I was elated to see that he was by His Majesty -- the same sire as Pleasant Colony. A familiar name in a sea of unknown ones! He was in turn by someone named *Ribot, who had a stylish asterisk by his name that incited a riot of curiosity. I pored incessantly over all of the pedigree charts in that issue and began to wonder about the names that kept cropping up. Who was this Nearco? He must have been important.

Aside from the pedigrees, my maiden voyage through that time-honored periodical also disclosed the existence of racetracks around the world. You mean that this isn't just an American sport? Even more horses to study and follow!

Then began my investigation into books about racing. I checked out Suzanne Wilding and Anthony Del Balso's The Triple Crown Winners repeatedly from the school library, and renewed it as many times as possible before having to return it, wait, and start the borrowing cycle all over again. Since I was the only kid who kept wanting it, the school librarian was kind enough to let my mom buy it from them -- the first acquisition for my personal racing library.

The final element in this newfound fandom was going to my local racetrack, the historic New Orleans Fair Grounds. Not content with merely studying the program, I had to go to the paddock, and then make a beeline to the rail, for every single race.

I was compelled to get as close as possible to these horses, especially the ones who had some pedigree connection -- however tenuous -- to champions. So ran my childish logic: although All Along was way out of reach, at least here was someone else by her sire Targowice! Imports were by definition fascinating for being exotic, and for bringing me vicariously to the great foreign racecourses.

Three decades later, I'm still learning, and still enthralled by pedigrees and internationals.