Friday, May 9, 2008

Horse Season

It's horse season again! Two weeks ago, we saw the Kentucky Derby and the Rolex Three-Day Event and Saturday will be the Preakness. We can't turn on the TV without a deluge of commercials for the racetracks at Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos and Del Mar. No wonder I have equines on my mind these days. Okay, I'll confess that I think about horses more than the average person but here is why horses can be fun for everyone:

1. Who wouldn't want to spend a Saturday sitting under the sun, sipping beer and betting--legally--on the mightiest steed on the track?
2. Haute couture hats at the Kentucky Derby
3. Degas' paintings of the races (like the one to the right)
4. Equestrian-influenced fashion: Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Coach and so many others. Tall boots, anyone?
5. Horsepower
6. Real cowboys. And the ones in movies too.
7. Budweiser Clydesdales
8. There was a time when horses were necessary for: transportation, war, farming, cutting cattle (they still are), policing and fire fighting, hunting, delivering mail (remember the Pony Express?) and coal mining, just to name a few.
9. Just imagine: 120 years ago, men would regularly stand around in stables talking about the magnificence of live animals the way they now make a beeline for the garage to stare at a new car engine. Don't believe me? Read Anna Karenina.
10. Horse-related vacations, like a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park

Since, after all, this blog is called "Dine & Travel" and we are now officially in celebration of what I deem to be horse season, I thought I might take this opportunity to tell you about a recent family trip to the Kentucky Horse Park (via Cincinnati). We took the easy drive across the Ohio-Kentucky boarder and 90-minutes after our mid-morning Starbucks stop we pulled into equestrian Mecca. Green rolling hills lined with 30 miles of pristine white fences and frolicking mares and foals greeted us. A quick spin in the car around the large complex revealed home offices of more than 30 equine associations and breed registries, forming what they call an "equine village," the "horse capital of the world."

The day was glorious. Blue skies and puffy white clouds overhead; miles and miles of horses, stables, museums and gift shops to explore on the ground. We could have spent a week there (I would definitely recommend multiple days). We were lucky to fit some of the main attractions into a half-day visit. After lunch, we toured on foot the dressage complex, three different barns, the farrier shop, tack shop and the International Museum of the Horse. By 3:15, we had wandered to the Breeds Barn to see the "Parade of Breeds."

We happened to visit the park the day of the memorial service for John Henry who was an unlikely champion gelding that had been retired after winning $6.5 million in his career as a racehorse. We wandered through the horse cemetery and up to the Hall of Champions where a crowd was dissipating. Dozens of flower arrangements decorated John Henry's former stall and photographs and cards dedicated to his memory filled an entire wall. He was buried in front of the hall, not far from his paddock.

The depth and breadth of the relationship between man and horse was palpable the day of our visit. We saw working draft horses, prancing dressage competitors and retired racehorses. We saw grooms and farriers and trainers and riders who have dedicated their lives to honoring the equestrian spirit. We saw life-sized monuments of legendary stallions and mourning admirers of John Henry, a superstar known for his crankiness and imperfections. Horses offer more than just the companionship expected of a beloved pet. The equine has served man and fallen for man in a way that no other animal ever has. They give with their hearts whatever is asked of them. They are depended upon. Horses embody the heart and spirit of strength, freedom, beauty, athleticism and capability and, with these things, hope. We left the park that day with a greater appreciation for the rich history of man and horse and the partnership between them that has built nations.