Once I went a-riding on the high-wire gondola during the World's Fair. My companion was a jockey, and I remember well how terrified he was. When we finally came to ground, I slowly pried his fingers out of my arm and commented how odd to find such terror in someone who regularly risks his life. "Yeah," he answered, "well, everybody's brave about something."
True enough, but consider: 1,200 pounds of irrational instinct, running as fast as anything of blood and heart can run across a mile of this planet and you, Jack, thing of ever-so-slightness, trying this second to coax it into running slower, trying the next second to coax it into running faster, all by the way you are squeezing with your legs, pumping with your arms.
On every side, all around, other half-tons beginning to move faster or beginning to move slower. All that force, carried along on legs so lean your mama would envy them and carried along with enough latent terror that the shape of a shadow could cause the swerve or jump that rips apart the delicate balance that riding is, taking it down to where all those skinny legs are stabbing the ground with enough might to fracture or fragment just about anything a man or woman could touch on their own body and plenty they couldn't reach. Down to danger, breathless danger.
Visit the race-track paddock, where horse and rider meet up. In the paddock, some of the horses drool and some sweat, and when they move around the walking ring and you see them from the back, their left rear foot circles, swings, looks likely to clip their right rear foot. People who bet on races look at the horses in the paddock. Some horses look like hell and yet run like there were hellhounds at their heels. Those who watch know you can't always tell by looks.
A door opens and out saunter the jockeys, all bright and shiny. Those who study these things say that never-ridden horses buck and plunge because their ancestral memories are telling them that the things on their backs have fangs and claws and fearsome appetites. These jockeys have become the new things on their backs, and this is such a special deal -- this intimate harmony of horsemanship -- that these tiny things, whose bodies cannot compete with the magnificent bodies that bear them, try to beautify themselves with color and nylon. Or else they might not be noticed at all.
Waiting in the paddock are owners and trainers, so on the ground the jockeys are schmoozers, candidates looking for votes. But once they're up -- the trainer usually reaches down to take a booted foot and boost -- things change. In that short space, the commoner becomes aristocrat, the man becomes centaur.
When they leave the paddock, horses and riders begin a light promenade escorted by outriders aboard horses that are called ponies. Some of the racehorses are skittish, some lethargic. The riders of each look equally blase and self-assured.
The racers move into the starting gate. Everywhere else in the world, the time of the horse has passed. Here all has stood still and the time of the horse is still now.
The gates fly open. For 5,000 years, history was made on horseback. This is a wee commemorative of all that, an evoking of whipping wind and flashing scenery.
There is no sound like it, really. There is the gurgle of a motorcycle on a 3 a.m. highway and that is a most free sound. There is a lonesome-whistle sound of the trim passenger train highballing through the countryside. But it's the team of thoroughbred and rider that binds freedom and control into a unity of speed in a way that none of these other things can. And the sound they make together is their own.
During the race there's not much talking. Mostly yips and yelps, with a few high, boyish whistles. The hooves drumming the ground -- you can feel that sound.
On the backstretch, the bottom half of the equation is alive and moving, all motion and excitement, while the top half, sitting chilly, travels hunched and curled like a rigid question mark.
On the turn for home, jocks are doing a quick and hard read of the situation, the possibilities. Races are all alike and all different, and the best riders are the ones who most often know how and when.
In the stretch now, the ride becomes more dynamic, expressive, hands and arms working, whips flailing.
After it's all over, the animals know how they've done, but nobody asks. A few jockeys look happy; some seem relieved. Others are screwing on the fabricator's face because now is the time for the explanation to a trainer, the telling for one who didn't ride what the ride was about and why nobody really, human or animal, was the reason things didn't go so good. Maybe next time, boss?
And they head back to the jock's room, not nearly so big as they just were, except maybe on the inside, where for less than a couple of minutes they were in contact with the gods.
On the great days, they were maybe doing something that the gods themselves wouldn't mind doing.