Can you feel the excitement in the air? Well, I can!  It’s time, once again, to dig out the hats and blow the dust out of the julep cups!

Today marks the 142nd annual running of The Kentucky Derby, the first, and most venerable, jewel in thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown. I look forward to this race, as well as the other two jewels, The Preakness and The Belmont, as if I were born under a blanket of red roses, clutching a racing form in my tiny fist.

Those of you who are long-time readers of this blog know that I was not. I’m a city girl, born and bred and my exposure to actual real live horses has been limited, at best. One of my best friends in high school knew horses, had horses and and rode well. She got me on one, once. It did not go well.  No, my fascination with all things equine began about nine years ago.

“…while searching for an enterprise appropriate to a character with a shady past, out of thin air was plucked a race horse. Since I knew absolutely nothing about racing or race horses, other than there has always been a shady pall that has hovered over it with stage whispered connections to organized crime. Other than that, I had to start from scratch. Luckily, I’m a whiz at research.”

I’m still a whiz at research, though some might call it a willingness or a propensity to follow Alice down the rabbit-hole.  (Did you know that the wearing of hats is a nod to both Southern belle charm and British custom?)

I told you Google was one of my favorite toys.

I get Google Alerts for Thoroughbred Racing and am a regular reader of blogs and publications like Thoroughbred Daily News (“The world’s leading daily bloodstock publication”). But research aside, I remember the conversation that started it all, with one of my co-writers, K. R. Brorman. Now, she has actual experience and wisdom, if not with thoroughbreds then horses in general and with “the business”. Thankfully she shared it with me.  I used her know-how then and will continue to do so, including her near encyclopedic knowledge of how to “kill things and make it look like natural causes”#. We spent long hours discussing the best way for nefarious goons to ensure a horse would be unfit to run, but that wouldn’t actually “hurt” the animal. I, at least, am a softie.

Our lead characters, mine, as well as those belonging to K.R. Brorman and C.C. Cedras, which have changed to one extent or another since we started writing together, still bet the fillies. Strong females after all have to stick together.

Just as we mourned the loss of Eight Belles*, we rooted for Rachel Alexandra**.  Yesterday, I cheered as Rachel’s daughter, Rachel’s Valentina, started the Oaks (the pre-Derby race for fillies only) heavily favorited at 7-2. Unfortunately she lost to Cathryn Sophia (what a grand name for a horse!).

Speaking of grand names, I still make my picks, and the occasional wager – I made my first in 2014, just weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, on a horse called Wicked Strong – based on the name. At least I’m not alone.  This year, I’m thinking seriously of putting money on My Man Sam (Do I really need to explain that?***), though he’s at 20-1.

As I’ve said before, I’ve fallen in love with the “Sport of Kings” and the athletes (both horse and rider) who compete. I get a kick out the fact that I recognize names of trainers, owners and jockeys. I’m sad that this year there will be no feisty Cajun rider called Calvin Borel, but then again, he may decide, as Gary Stevens did, that retirement is not for him. I’m a sucker for a Cinderella story, such as 2014 Kentucky Derby Winner California Chrome, who cost his connections (that’s how a horse’s owners and trainers are referred to in the game) a paltry $10,000 and has since earned more than $12.5 million.

Every time I watch a race I learn something new. Did you know that a horse is considered a “maiden” until they’ve won their first race? (There’s a horse, Trojan Nation, hoping to “break maiden” in the Derby this year. His owners had to pay a pretty hefty “supplemental fee” to get him in.) I also take mental pictures then store them away. An outrageous hat might spark a funny bit of dialogue that might lead, who knows where. I take notes that go into a huge file called, appropriately enough, “Horse Research”. It’s getting pretty thick. I should probably comb through it soon, but one never knows when the odd tidbit might come in handy. (That I’m a pack rat is a discussion for another day.)

Though my sister and nieces live just outside of Louisville, KY, I’ve never been to a Derby. It’s on my bucket list, but it will have to wait until I’m no longer employed by a University whose students insist on graduating in the spring. I’m in luck though, since Steve Wynn lost his bid to build a ginormous casino in Massachusetts, Suffolk Downs here in Boston will have three 2-day meets this year. I’m hoping for some eyes, if not hands, on research! I’ll definitely need a new hat.

How about you? Ever been to a race? If you’re a writer, to what lengths do you go to research a subject? Have you discovered a new hobby or hidden talent in the pursuit?

Kentucky Derby, horse racing, research

The field for the 2016 Kentucky Derby

#tip o’my Derby hat to C. C. Cedras

*2008, Eight Belles came in 2nd in the Kentucky Derby and then broke both of her front legs in front of a crowd of more than 150,000 and had to be euthanized.

**2009 Winner of the Preakness and Eclipse Awards American Thoroughbred Horse of the Year

*** Sam Heughan. Outlander. C’mon!