If you look back in time, you’ll see that tomorrow is a pretty important date in the history of the Earth. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched – carrying the first men to ever step foot on the surface of the moon. On July 16, 1980, the Republican Party nominated Ronald Reagan for president. And on July 16, 1990, Ukraine declared its independence.
Famous birthdays on July 16 include comedian Will Ferrell, Michael Flatley (Lord of the Dance), and popcorn-hero Orville Redenbacher.
Songs that reached #1 on July 16 include Bette Davis Eyes (1981), by Kim Carnes; Bye Bye Love (1957), by The Everly Brothers; and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (1973), by Jim Croce.
With all of those brilliantly-researched nuggets of history notwithstanding, July 16, 2010 is a pretty special day in my life: It’s the 25th anniversary of something that we’re not going to talk about. And it’s the fifth anniversary of one of the biggest reasons why I’m at where I’m at today:
On Saturday, July 16, 2005, I turned 20 years old. Being extremely superstitious, I was really looking forward to that year because the number 20 has always been good to me. It was my baseball number from the time I was 10 until I graduated high school. It continues to be my lucky number to this day. And it was even the number of the plane that single-handedly destroyed the alien spaceship at the end of Independence Day – one of my favorite movies of all time.
I knew something good was going to happen that year. I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly.
First the first time ever on a non-Haskell Day, I had advanced plans to spend Saturday, July 16, 2005 at Monmouth Park. The reason: Hotstufanthensome was running in the Elkwood Stakes. I had bet on him (purely because of his name) when he won an allowance race on Haskell Day 2004. I then made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to the track on June 26, 2005 when I saw his name in the Monmouth Park entries in that morning’s Asbury Park Press.
Following his win on June 26, I tried to find out where Hotstufanthensome was running next – that was the first time I ever did any sort of racing research. Through a combination of Monmouth Park barn notes and Daily Racing Form articles, I learned that the Elkwood was the expected next target. Passing on a day of fishing – which is no small feat in the Skirka household – my dad and I decided to instead spend the day at Monmouth Park. And what a day it turned out to be.
I vividly remember standing by the paddock waiting for Hotstufanthensome to come into the saddling area. At that point in time, I wasn’t the most knowledgeable person in the world about racing – in fact, far from it. But what I saw next remains to this day one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Hotstufanthensome entered the walking ring with the swagger of Muhammad Ali before a big fight. He wasn’t “on his toes,” he was dancing. Just by looking at him and the way he was acting, I knew he was going to win. What happened next, didn’t help to change my opinion.
Hotstufanthensome was saddled and return to parade around the walking ring while his trainer Norman Pointer gave directions to jockey Rajiv Maragh. As the horses waited to be mounted, Pointer’s assistant walked to the rail of the walking ring – I’m assuming to one of his friends – pointed to Hotstufanthensome, and actually said the phrase, “Bet on this horse.” It was like I was watching some sort of bad Disney movie. Here I am, at the track for the first “real” time – all for one specific horse – and that horse comes in looking like synch winner with assistant trainers begging friends to go to the windows. I was planning on betting anyway, but after witnessing those turn of events, I pulled an extra ten out of my wallet, and off we went to watch the race.
I didn’t know it when I went home that night and had a piece of ice cream cake, or even a month later, but July 16, 2005 was a pretty important date in my life. I think it was the first time that I realized horse racing is more than just beautiful animals running in circles. I realized that – just like baseball, football, etc. – horse racing is filled with athletes who I could follow closely and become a fan of. Just like I cheered for Warrick Dunn, Grant Hill and Mike Mussina in their respective sports, I started cheering for Hotstufanthensome.
In the beginning, I cheered for Hotstuf because of his name. But eventually I fell in love – not because he won me money, but because I saw in him some of the things that I liked most about myself. Despite his name, Hotstufanthensome wasn’t the prettiest horse stabled at Monmouth Park. He wasn’t bulging with muscles. And he didn’t sell for $1 million at auction. But he was blue-collar through and through. He did give absolutely everything he had every single time. And he hated to lose. I remember a trainer once telling me that after a narrow loss, Hotstuf returned to his barn kicking and squealing because he didn’t get his picture taken after the race. Let’s just say I can relate to that.
As has been well-documented on this blog, my passion for Hotstufanthensome eventually transformed into a passion for the entire sport of horse racing. Tomorrow, exactly five years after that historic day, I’ll be working at Monmouth Park Racetrack during a twilight Friday card of the $50 million Elite Summer Meet – who woulda thunk it? As for Hotstufanthensome, he was retired earlier this year and is enjoying life on a farm somewhere. He never even knew I existed, but I owe so much that I have to him.
On Friday, July 16, 2010, I’ll celebrate a couple things, most important being Hotstufanthensome’s win in the 2005 Elkwood Stakes. It was the second time I had ever been to Monmouth Park on a non-Haskell Day. It was probably one of the biggest reasons why I am where I am today. And it was one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.
Brad Thomas’ Why I Like Horse Racing Part III
One of the beauties of horse racing is that things have a way of evening out. You just have to hang around long enough to give the worm a chance to turn.
Years ago, I would take a back staircase up to the top floor of a racetrack after watching the horses in the paddock before each race. Every once in a while, I would cross paths with the bugler as he was going out to or returning from playing the call to post.
He’d ask who I liked. I would give him the winner. EVERY SINGLE TIME! At 50-1. At 5-1. At 20-1. At 2-1. Sometimes the double. At other times the exacta. It didn’t matter if I bet it myself or passed the race, whatever I told him was golden.
The guy never said thank you. Never bought me a ticket. Never sent me a fruit basket for Christmas. Oh, but when he’d see me turning the corner, he would unconsciously genuflect. But then, like any self-respecting racetracker, he’d catch himself and merely drool with anticipation and shake with greed.
I knew another track worker. The nicest guy in the world. We’d buy each other coffee and exchange small favors. I really liked him. But I couldn’t give him a winner if both our lives depended on it. It was absolutely brutal. Sometimes the horses managed to finish the race. Sometimes they didn’t. I apologized profusely and repeatedly. I spent extra time handicapping and went out of my way to find him when I thought I had something good. It just didn’t matter. Any other horse first, my pick for him – nowhere!
The fellow bore the barren burden like a prince. He never complained. Never mocked me. Never ran away when he saw me. Indeed, he always was uncommonly pleasant. What a great guy.
Then one day he told me he was leaving for a new job. We reminisced a bit and I again apologized for my pitiful picks. He chuckled a little, smiled sweetly, and gave me a slight wink.
“Ah, don’t sweat it,” he soothed. “I’m best friends with the bugler.”