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Andy Plattner

Arazi in the Deep South

I grew up around horse racing and thoroughbred tracks. My father was general manager at Florida Downs (now Tampa Bay Downs) and Latonia (now Turfway). Even when he went into a different line of business, he owned race horses himself; they were looked after by a trainer named Bob Wylie.

Our family has lived year round in Kentucky for the past twenty years or so. I've worked at the race track and on our farm in Frankfort. When I was twenty-seven years old, I decided to see what else was out in the world besides horses. The breeding business in Kentucky had gone sour--it didn't seem to have the future it once promised.

I applied for graduate schools, this type of thing, wound up being accepted to one in Mississippi. My family was fairly shocked. No race horses in Mississippi, they said. What will you do?

When I moved to Mississippi, I saw they were correct. There weren't many horses, let alone race horses, in proximity to our little university town. Just old cowponies and pleasure horses scattered in small pastures.

The closest place for thoroughbreds was the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, one hundred miles south. Starting in late fall when the Fairgrounds opened, I'd drive there every Saturday I he'd enough money for gas and the daily double.

Still, I was pretty homesick for horse racing. Talk about certain horses or riders was always in the air back in Kentucky. The sport is many people's vocation, recession, depression or otherwise. You'd fill up for gas somewhere and the attendant would barely took up from the day's entries at Ellis Park to take your money. How many winners did Pat Day ride last Saturday? you could ask him. And he'd know.

In Mississippi, this was not the case. I worked at a catfish restaurant to help pay for school, and after work a few of us would sit around one of the tables and have coffee. A couple busboys played high school basketball. One of the grease cooks was a linebacker for Pearl River Junior College. These people were my best friends. Conversations would go, generally, like this:

That new coach talks like Bear Bryant. What's his name?

Stallings.

Did he know the Bear? He talks like the Bear.

He doesn't have a hat.

State might beat Alabama this year.

That ain't gonna happen in your lifetime, son, Stallings or the man on the moon.

The only connection I had to horse racing outside trips to the Fairgrounds concerned sporadic reports from ESPN about the French wonder horse, Arazi. I'd be sitting there watching highlights of Michael Jordan or Dale Earnhardt and then there'd be a three second clip of a small chestnut horse galloping through morning fog.

This was Arazi. If he wasn't galloping, he'd be walking in the shed row at trainer Francois Boutin's barn or looking uncertainly from his stall at a group of reporters or well-wishers. Arazi was going to be racing's next legend. He was coming to America in late April to begin his final preparation for the Kentucky Derby. The media interest for this horse was as great as anyone had seen since Secretariat.

Arazi first came to America the previous fall. He was a two year old, had arrived to race in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Arazi had won six of seven races in Europe prior to the Breeder's Cup and was one of the favorites.

What Arazi did in the Breeder's Cup looked spectacular. Trailing the Field early, Arazi began to pick up horses heading for the final turn. He was a windcutter--a rifle shot. Coming for the top of the stretch, he'd reached the front. Other jockeys had their whips blazing; Arazi's jockey, Pat Valenzuelas, sat calmly. The only real riding Valenzuela had to do was ease the horse up near the finish line. They were that far in front.

The horse media went berserk for Arazi after that. You couldn't buy a Racing Form that didn't update something about the horse. Arazi had a minor operation for knee chips and then was flown back to France where he was going to rest, recuperate, then begin his training for the Kentucky Derby in May. There'd be a photograph of Arazi at his barn. Arazi would sneeze. Arazi would sleep.

Racing truly needed a superhorse. The boom of the early eighties was over, perhaps forever. Horsemen I knew, had heard about, were broke, out of business. Great, historic farms like Calumet and Spendthrift were sinking. Race tracks were dealing with intense competition from state lotteries, video poker machines and, looming on the horizon, casino gambling.

If this weren't enough, race horses themselves had become more fragile over the years. Weight-carrying warriors like Kelso, or my childhood hero, Forego, seemed like wooden tennis rackets or leather football helmets--images of the distant past. Distance of major races had to be shortened, the time between them lengthened.

Breeders had been trying to come up with a faster animal and what we'd wound up with was a more brittle one. A terrible scar was left by the brilliant filly Go for Wand's accident in the Breeder's Cup the year before Arazi's.

Racing needed a savior and a half. I doubted it would come in the form of Arazi A sport can be rescued--look at Bird/Magic and the NBA--but this small chestnut with the funny name seemed loaded with question marks to me. The horses he'd beaten in the BC Juvenile were of questionable ability and the running time of the race was slow. When I saw Arazi on television I didn't see Secretariat.

This is a fact: there might not be another Secretariat, not for a long while. There's been some good horses since him, Seattle Slew, Affirmed/Alydar, Lady's Secret; but anytime people got into the comparing game with Secretariat, saying this horse or that one might be on his level, they always were silenced when Secretariat's 31-length win in the Belmont was mentioned. The first half of this century had Man O'War; the last half, Secretariat. It is difficult to believe the horse of our lifetime might be twenty plus years behind us now. Maybe this fact only increases the desire for another.

Arazi only raced once in the spring preparing for the Derby. It was a race in France against a small field and he won easily. Press attention seemed to intensify. This one race is all the horse needs, trainer Boutin said through an interpreter.

Arazi won't race again until Kentucky. Another doubt was raised consequently: the Derby is a physically demanding race for a young horse. A series of prep races was the norm in bringing a horse up to it.

I'd tell anybody within earshot I thought what Arazi had was a bad case of Easy Goer Syndrome. Most remember Easy Goer, a powerful Secretariat-esque chestnut who raced a couple years before Arazi came along. Easy Goer was based in New York and enjoyed great media adulation there. He stormed past most of his competition as a two year old.

However, when Easy Goer came to Churchill Downs for his edition of the Breeder's Cup Juvenile, he was beaten by an obscure, ironically named colt, It Is True. This set the pattern for Easy Goer: he couldn't win outside New York. He lost the Derby the following spring, then the Preakness--both times as the heavy favorite He couldn't win the Breeder's Cup Classic that fall in Miami. The horse had turned out to be a one pitch slugger. A curve or a slider and Easy Goer was history.

Arazi's just as overrated, I'd tell my friends at the catfish restaurant. The Derby, I said, is the race that'll prove me out.

They'd stare at me. The thing is, one of them would say after a moment, how did Dale Brown at LSU have Shaq at center those two years and not win the NCAA?

I was an exile. Nobody in Mississippi cared about the Derby. I had theories and no audience. I attempted to carry on in good humor. One evening after work, a couple days before I was going to drive up to Kentucky for the Derby, the boys and I were sitting around a table at the restaurant, having coffee. At one point, the guy who played football for Pearl River JC, a big kid named Clint, sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.

I saw some horse last night on TV, he said. Some Eurapeen horse.

Arazi, I said.

It was on channel seven, he said. He's gonna run in the Kentucky Derby, right? The same thing you're goin' to?

Right, I said.

That's the horse you've been talkin' about, right? Clint said.

Right, I said.

Clint sat forward. Well, how's he gonna do?

I froze a little. It was the first time somebody had asked me about horse racing since I'd moved here and I was a little lost for words. I guess I don't really know, I said.

How's that? Clint said.

I drew a breath. I sat back in my chair. Well, I said, it's like this. I talked for a while, took my time. I felt at home in a way I hadn't before. And I thought the boys really were interested, either that or they were decent enough to appear that way.

The boys at the table all chipped in and decided to make two $5 win bets: one on Arazi and one on the seven horse, Clint's lucky number, which, naturally turned out to be Lil E. Tee, who won the Derby at 17 to 1.

There were explanations why Arazi failed in the Derby: he raced wide, the crowd made him anxious, he wasn't fit. It didn't seem to matter, really.

For my part, I wasn't glad he lost; I just wasn't surprised. A lot of horse people I talked to before the race weren't either. So, as it turned out, the media had concocted this Arazi legend. Where I found fault with this, I also understood it was Arazi who'd brought horse racing into my catfish restaurant in Mississippi. I almost felt grateful. Still, I was no different than most, wanted my heroes to be the real thing; didn't need to be told when I was in the presence of greatness.

The edition of that year's Derby was particularly vivid because of the anticipation over Arazi was almost as fantastic as my first Derby, when I took my girlfriend, Anna James. We sat in the bleachers on the clubhouse turn and cheered wildly as Gato Del Sol came from dead last to win at 19 to 1. I was so excited the cigarette I was smoking burned right down to the skin on my finger.

The morning after Arazi's Derby, I woke up and had coffee with my dad before getting in the car and heading back for Mississippi. We watched a Sunday morning program that, in anticipation of Arazi winning (or losing), was running a piece about Secretariat. There was Secretariat on grainy color film winning the Derby, then the Preakness. I'd seen the film of the Belmont twenty times; it still sent a chill down my spine. And despite the fact Arazi had gone from legend to myth in the length of the Churchill Downs stretch--a place where a lot of legends have disappeared into the shadows--he'd stirred the ghost of Secretariat, was significant in this way.

I asked my dad about Secretariat. When did you know? I said.

He smiled. You knew, he said.

In a while, I had to get in my car and head back for Mississippi. The Fairgrounds was closed and it figured to be a long, hot summer.

I was fairly tired from the Derby and all the driving, but as I was heading through Alabama I had an idea. There was a sort of new track in Birmingham; I'd driven right by the signs on my way to Kentucky. This time I decided to stop. The track was nice. I was pretty thrilled to be there.

How long will it be before another Secretariat? Another Arazi, even?

I watched the last few races. I could've easily stayed for more. The janitor had to throw me out.

Andy Plattner has published fiction in the Paris Review and elsewhere. He's completing a doctorate in creative writing at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Martha Conway

DON'T LOOK

I am reading the Blip Magazine Archive on the Web with mixed feelings. I don't mean the content--the content is good--I mean the fact of it here. On the one hand, the Blip Magazine Archive is an established literary journal which will legitimize the Web. On the other hand, the Blip Magazine Archive is an established literary journal which will legitimize the Web.

In the already legitimate paper publishing industry there is a certain prevailing attitude about what one reads on the internet -- crap is a word often bandied -- that safeguards it from much of the literati. I like that. And I like the folks who are not afraid, who plunge right in regardless of warnings -- the geeks, the students, the bureaucrats, the technophile artists; in short, the people like me.

Geeks like me take secret pleasure in finding wonderful, creative sites, such as Levi Asher's Queensboro Ballads, or the unabashedly silly Spatula City. Since I am not a member of the literati, when I find good writing on the Web I feel covert and out of my class, like a slave learning how to read. I want to teach other slaves to read, and I don't want any of us to get caught by the Establishment. So I am glad whenever the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker comes out with yet another article expressing distaste for the internet as a whole. Yeah, you're not missing anything, I want to tell them. Go away, it's not really fun.

But the Establishment _is_ creeping in, slowly. The Paris Review, the New Yorker, Houghton Mifflin, Knopf. The Paris Review has a terrible web site that is made up of gifs with blurry text, as if they don't yet understand production and layout for this new medium, or simply could not learn how to code. And the New Yorker, which maintains a small gopher site with excerpts from its current issue and ordering information, has really only a token presence. Their gopher site is no more than advertisement, and a New Yorker staff person told me he suspected they would never publish full text on-line.

This is good news. In fact, as I spoke to various journals and publishing houses, this is the news I received over and over -- that the net is or would be used as a marketing tool, not as a publishing milieu.

Large publishing houses such as Houghton Mifflin and Penguin, which both have attractive, link-laden Web sites, are publishing catalogues, ordering information, a few excerpts, but not complete texts. Nor will they in the near future. Similarly, Farrar Straus Giroux, which currently has no presence on the internet, is planning to do something somewhere on the net at sometime. However, I was told that there will be no whole texts on-line and no "keep your eye out for the next chapter" business. For that, you must go to the bookstore and plunk down your cash.

And this is the crux of the problem. Back in the paper world, the literati (like the Mafia) serve a useful function: they select what is good and charge for the reading thereof, thus forcing readers to pay for "protection" from crap. But how will they get paid for this on the net? On the production side, high print costs and distribution difficulties should make an electronic alternative attractive for publishers, but again the issue returns to money. These places are businesses, after all, and it would be foolish to expect them to give something away for free. Also, real problems such as copyright laws and intellectual property rights just won't go away. But I suspect publishers would not care so much about writers' rights if the profit potential was real.

Smaller venues might be more of a threat, because they are getting paid so little anyway they might as well give it away. But even they are shy when it comes to publishing full texts on-line. Ploughshares, which will have a Web site up by the end of the summer (but no full texts), is mainly hoping the site will draw a new audience for their paper journal. Story is not on the internet, nor are there any concrete plans to become so, but wanted to know who else was here. And when I asked a woman from the New England Review if they were planning to publish on the net, she said, "It has never crossed our minds."

The real dangers are the places like Gutter Press, which publishes The Quarterly. They not only have full (albeit short) texts on their Web site, they also have a Web name distinct from their press name -- Gutter Voice. Okay so it's not so different, but it demonstrates a shift in attitude. And that new attitude is: we are connected to, but distinct from, our paper edition. Currently Gutter Voice counts 50 visitors per day.

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