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Every morning before daylight, my husband makes espressos for us in our hideaway at the foot of the Hollywood Hills.  And we decide what kind of music we’ll start the day with and then we sit at our round Pee-Wee Hermanesque table and wake up together under the ever intent gaze of two racehorses, Real Quiet and Free House, battling down the stretch of the 1998 Pimlico Special.  Framed in mahogany roped wood and set in rust-hued linen, a gift from my brother. A moment...immortalized.  We’d played that race together, the three of us...$100 exacta box, which means either horse can win, and either horse can run second.  And I put another $50 straight exacta that said Real Quiet had to win, because I believed.  We all three did.  And we watched together from the rail of the club house at Hollywood Park on the jumbotron. That anticipation and excitement...and those hugs and cheers and dances that came after are what possess our poets.  They are everything you could hope for.  They are what people talk about when they’re old.

 

***

 

The racetrack laid hold of my brother, my husband and me in the winter of 1998.  We didn’t know anything except that it was pretty.  And different.  Unlike anything we’d seen before.

 

We didn’t know the Kentucky Derby was a few months away and that everything was pointing towards it.  That in horseracing, all the hopes and dreams are always pointing towards it. 

 

We didn’t know how to pronounce the jockey’s name when a freelance photographer told us to keep an eye on Kent Desormeaux because he would be aboard the winner of the Kentucky Derby that year.

 

The horse was a cheap $17,000 claimer.  So bowlegged and narrow they nicknamed him “The Fish.”  Real Quiet wasn’t the buzz horse.  In fact, he was the arguably the least special horse in the field.  And we were gathered around an outdoor monitor in General Admission at Santa Anita that first Saturday in May, our first Saturday in May, when that bay colt came flying down the stretch with Kent Desormeaux in the irons, pointing to the heavens as he and Real Quiet crossed the finish line first at odds of 8-1.  

 

We were the only ones cheering.  It wasn’t the first time we’d won at the track, but it was the first time we’d bet on a horse because of the horse.  Not the way he looked on paper…or the way he looked in the paddock…but the horse…that we were beginning to love.  That funny looking horse that loved to run fast.  There are no mirrors in a barn and Real Quiet never knew he didn’t look much like a racehorse.  He didn’t know he was a longshot and most people didn’t believe he was the calibre of horse that could accomplish what he was training to do.  It had taken him seven races to figure it out…seven losses before he learned how to do it.  Now, at the age of 3, he only knew how to fly.

 

We were sure that Real Quiet was going to win the next two legs of the Triple Crown.  And two weeks later, when the Preakness was run, he beat Victory Gallop, the same horse he’d beat in the Kentucky Derby, by 2 ¼ lengths to take the second jewel of the Triple Crown. 

 

When the field was drawn for the Belmont, and we saw that the only thing standing between Real Quiet and the first Triple Crown winner in twenty years was Victory Gallop, we got ready to celebrate history being made.  We wanted to see only the 12th ever winner of the elusive Crown…and who better than our bowlegged bay.

 

We forgot…or maybe we didn’t realize yet…this was horseracing…and what looks like it should it happen, rarely does.  Real Quiet lost the Belmont by a nose…the smallest margin ever to separate a horse from the Crown.

 

Over the course of his three year career, he won or place in 17 of his 20 starts, and earned $3.2 million before being sent out to stud in 2000. 

 

Every year, come Derby time, if you listen, you’ll hear the commentators talk about him.  They’ll tell you the same story you just read.  Those of us who love this sport will never forget what almost happened.  History deflected by a nose.  Ironic that such a champion as this is forever linked to a loss.  One small fraction of a second that deceives our memory and fixes him there as the opposite of what he was. 

 

The truth is, even if Real Quiet had finished dead last, it wouldn’t have mattered.  Sure it makes a better story…but it had already happened by then.  We had fallen in love.  We had followed Real Quiet through some wardrobe we never even noticed into the fairytale of horseracing.  The adventure had begun.  And everything about it…every little snort, stomp and whinny told us this was ours.  All of this. 

 

The news of his death came in slow motion.  My brother called on his way to work in Macon, Georgia to tell me.  Said “Real Quiet passed,” a word I’d never heard him use.

 

I read that he’d fallen on his shoulder and the fall drove his shoulder blade into his cervical spine. His stallion manager said when he took Real Quiet to the paddock that day, he’d “walked toward his water, stood out in the middle of the paddock, and looked across the field to some mares on the hill like he always does.”

 

And as it got dark here that night, I realized that an era had passed for us too.  The sweet early days of the sport of kings…when nothing thrilled us more than to see Real Quiet take on Free House, in all his grey glory.  We were discovering.  Rising and falling.  Winning and losing.  Hoping and praying.  Revelling in the hooves thundering down…the snort, the stomp, the whinny…the days of Real Quiet.

 

That framed cover of the Daily Racing Form is before me now as I return to that terrain.  It now has a Los Angeles Marathon medal hung over the corner...another finish line crossed...another gift from my brother, who decided a long time ago never to stop adding brick upon brick to his unrepeatable life.  He’s broadened his horizon.  We all have.  But we will always return to the paddock...stand and look out across the field to the hill...looking for Real Quiet.
 

R.I.P.

by Delight Underwood



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