Just to be clear, here: I'm no sports fan.
I don't follow sports. I don't participate in those sports days at work where you're supposed to wear your favorite team's jersey and compete for sports-related prizes. If the talk turns to sports, I immediately tune it out. Dead boring.
But even a disinterested person such as myself has a few favorites.
It may surprise you to learn that Nascar is among them.
My family is old Indiana redneck stock. The Indianapolis 500 was a big deal in my household (no, it's not Nascar, but it's a close cousin). During racing season, my dad always had the TV tuned to the races. And we used to watch them together avidly.
My dad, at one point in his life, had wanted to design stock cars for Nascar. He'd even dreamed of becoming a race car driver. One of my earliest memories is being at a go-cart race and sitting on the tailgate of our old blue pickup while my dad raced and my mom bit her nails. A lot of those drivers who were famous back in the '80s and '90s were people my dad knew personally.
I didn't know this until we were watching a race one day, and my dad started laughing at a maneuver A.J. Foyt whipped out. "He pulled that same trick on me in a race once," he said.
"YOU KNEW A.J. FOYT?" I shouted. "You raced with A.J. Foyt?"
He did indeed. A.J., in fact, was one of the major reasons my dad decided that being a rockstar racer was an impossible dream. A.J. was just too damned good.
So I still have a fondness for a good car race. I understand it on a tactical level, because my dad would explain what the drivers were doing and why. To me, it's not just a lot of cars going in circles around a track really fast. It's a nail-biting test of skill, determination, and a little bit o' luck.
Still. It's got nothing on my favorite sport: steeplechasing.
I had a dream, once. I wanted to become a steeplechase jockey. The only thing that really stopped me was the fact that you just don't get the opportunity to steeplechase in this country. We have flat racing. And that wasn't enough for me - I know it takes a lot of skill to maneuver 1,000+ pounds of excited equine around a track, but it's a whole different thing when that track has jumps in.
Thirty miles an hour over jumps, people. That's some seriously intense racing.
I used to take my poor pony out and teach him to jump. I think he enjoyed it - he certainly seemed to have fun making me do the jumping first, to demonstrate - and we'd play the Grand National in slow-motion regularly on weekends. The "jump" was a plywood board about 18 inches high, and my boy's speed was about equivalent to a geriatric gerbil, but it was still a thrill. There's nothing quite like the sensation of those muscles under you bunching for a leap. And this is still my dream: if I become a fabulously wealthy author, I shall have my own track, and my own hunters, and I'll be out there playing Grand National all over again, only this time with better steeds.
Blame Dick Francis for the obsession. He was a steeplechase jockey turned mystery writer, and the way he describes that communion between human and horse is intoxicating. I've owned horses. I know what he's talking about. Becoming one with another creature while doing something just a little bit reckless can be tremendous fun for the both of you.
I love the thunder of hooves over turf, and the sudden silence as rider and horse become airborne. I love watching those bodies merge. I love watching them strain and strive and do their level best to come out ahead. I've seen plenty of equine atheletes who glory in their skill. And I love that sparkle in their eyes as they strut off the track. They seem to know they just wowed all those silly humans. They'll put a little extra prance in their step, a little extra arch to the neck, going by the stands. Glorious show-offs. My pony was the same way. Total ham who loved nothing better than pulling a fast one on us.
A lot of talk takes place about the brutality of horse racing, and make no mistake: it is brutal. Especially steeplechasing, where a lot more horses and jockeys die than in regular old flat racing. A bleeding-heart liberal such as myself should probably not have the passion for it that I do. But I've also experienced the love between trainers, jockeys, owners, and horses. I know a lot of good people within the industry are working to minimize the risks and make things as humane as possible. That allows me to enjoy the beauty of it all.
So those are my favorites. How about yours?