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
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?
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
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
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.