Scenes From My First Fall at Hawthorne
By Nicolle Neulist
By Nicolle Neulist
I have followed horse racing peripherally since I was a child and have become a more avid fan of the sport in the last year or two. I had gone to the races at Arlington a handful of times since 2007 and was starting to go more frequently as the summer meet drew to a close, but I was definitely not going to the races enough or following the horses there enough to say I followed the meet closely.
This fall's meet at Hawthorne, however, was a different story. I took my first trip there on October 5 for the Hawthorne Derby and went out to the track most weekends through the course of the meet, which came to a close on December 29. During the week, when I couldn't make it out there, I often watched the races on the live stream feed. It was the first time I had kept close track of an entire meet and it only made me love the sport more and want to continue following the meets at my two local Thoroughbred tracks.
No day during the meet was a bad day; any day gets a lot brighter when I have the chance to watch horses run. However, there were a few highlights during the meet that I will remember for years to come.
I had never been out to Hawthorne Racecourse until Hawthorne Derby day. It was the first weekend of the fall meet, the only day they were doing evening racing, and only one of two graded stakes they were hosting during the course of the meet. I figured that it was a good day to visit the track. The weather that afternoon was horrible and I was drenched with rain when I got off the bus and walked toward the grandstand. However, a little – or a lot of – rain was not going to stop me from enjoying the races, or from enjoying my first trip to somewhere that has quickly become my happy place.
The Hawthorne Derby was exciting, and I was a little star struck seeing Charming Kitten since I had never before seen in person a horse that had even run in the Kentucky Derby. However, my favorite part of the night was the end of the Indian Maid Handicap, the other stakes being run that night. I was standing by the finish line; at Hawthorne, the finish line is very close to the winner's circle. Despite the small field (the heavy rains took the race off the turf, and scratches ensued), the race was exciting. In the end it was Twist of Silver, the second-longest shot in the field, who prevailed by just a neck.
There was a woman standing not too far from me, closer to the winner's circle. She was dressed up, wearing high heels, which stood out, as Hawthorne is definitely a working-class track and people there tend to dress casually. She was extremely excited throughout the race and when it was announced that Twist of Silver had won the race, she was jumping and screaming and cheering despite the high heels she was wearing. I then saw her proceed to the winner's circle; she was one of the horse's connections! I have seen many connections since then, but never have I seen one so exuberant about their horse's victory. It was heartening then, and makes me smile whenever I think of it.
If I am ever lucky enough to own a racehorse, I want to be that happy every time my horse wins.
This fall's Hawthorne meet was the first time I ever spent time in the paddock between the races. I didn't know what to look for at first and I am still no expert at equine behavior or conformation, but I am starting to be able to identify when a horse is looking good before a race, or possibly not so great. The paddock is also a lot of fun just because you can get up close to the horses; I will admit, often I get distracted from my handicapping because I'm just enjoying looking at the horses. Since I haven't spent a lot of time around horses in my life, being around them is still breathtaking, new, and exciting. I hope that never goes away.
About two-thirds of the way through the season, I was down in the paddock before a race. A groom was walking a bay gelding through the paddock and he looked beautiful! He was significantly more alert and ready to run than any of the other horses who were preparing for the race. I wasn't sure if he was one of the horses I had picked or not, since he wasn't wearing a saddlecloth yet and the groom wasn't wearing a numbered vest. I didn't care if I had picked that horse on paper or not; if I hadn't, I was revising my picks, because he looked like he had a really nice race ahead of him.
A conversation between the track handicapper and the groom who was walking him answered that question. Turns out, this horse wasn't even running in the race; he was new to the track and just schooling in the paddock. I also learned in their conversation that the horse was named Eyeseeyou, and only had one eye – his left. I didn't even notice that when he was walking around the paddock. All I saw was a racehorse who wanted to race.
So Eyeseeyou didn't have a big race – or any race – ahead of him that day. A few weeks later, however, I was back at Hawthorne. He was running and I was happy to see him in the program. He looked alert and ready to run, just as he had when he was schooling. He was as ready to run as his behavior in the paddock indicated, holding the lead for most of the race and just getting caught by another horse closing on him. It was still a strong second and I was glad to see that he not only looked ready in the paddock, but also had the good run I was hoping to see.
My Favorite Race
Oddly enough, my most memorable race of the Hawthorne fall meet was one for which I wasn't present.
I've been following Frostbite Falls since the summer, when I saw him race at Arlington back in August and he's one of my two favorite horses on the local circuit right now. Not only is he a gorgeous gelding, but as a lover of cold weather I love his name as well. The reasons I love a particular horse can be a little arbitrary, but whatever they may be, the fact remains that I love this horse. I like to be there in person when he runs, but if I can't, I will always watch over the live stream.
He was racing on the same day as the Hawthorne Gold Cup in the fifth race, a $14,000 claiming race. Thanksgiving weekend plans meant I could not go to the races, but I was determined to watch him race. I was on a bus at post time, but through the magic of Horse Races Now, I could see it. I didn't have headphones, so I couldn't hear the call, but the visuals were all I truly needed. I was glued to my phone, silently willing him to win as post time approached and the horses entered the gate.
He broke fast, ran straight to the lead, and stayed there. The whole time, I'm encouraging him under my breath: "Go, go, go!" "Wire them! Wire them!" "You can do it!" I knew he couldn't hear me. I knew I was on a northbound city bus and not at the racetrack. It didn't matter; all I wanted was for this horse I loved to stay up there and win this race.
And he stayed ahead. There was a strong challenge from the late-closing J.Z.'s Crafty Boy, but it was too little, too late. Frostbite Falls dug in enough. He held on all the way up to the wire and prevailed by half a length.
It was his second career win; his first had been a maiden win his first time out. I didn't even know who he was until his second race. I had never seen him win until this race, and it was sweet! I didn't care if other passengers on the bus thought I looked silly. I broke into a huge grin and mouthed my cheers and accolades for Frostbite Falls at the screen as I watched him gallop out. He had won, I had seen it happen, and all was right with the world.
January is now here, and Hawthorne Racecourse is dark until February 21. It will be strange to spend my next few Saturdays somewhere other than the racetrack. There will be plenty of races to watch at other tracks over the next month and a half, but I'm going to miss being able to see the horses run in person. Still, it was exciting and rewarding to follow the fall meet, and I am looking forward to more exciting races and happy memories when the spring meet starts.