An Interview with Elizabeth Wade
1. How did you get introduced to horse racing?
I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, into a sports-centered family; my dad’s a career athlete, and my childhood home had a portrait of Secretariat in the living room. (It’s now hanging in my house in Virginia, about thirty minutes from Secretariat’s birthplace.) I’m not sure there was a formal introduction so much as horse racing was simply part of my world; like going to the grocery store or celebrating birthdays, it was just always part of the life.
I did, however, take to it perhaps more fervently than some other Kentuckians. As an adolescent, I saved up my babysitting money to buy a subscription to The Blood Horse, the industry’s weekly magazine. After finishing my homework, I’d write out pedigrees, repeating names—My Charmer, Mumtaz Begum, Princequillo—to embed them in my memory.
2. What horse is your favorite horse of all time and why?
I could tell you about my first mare, about meeting Rahy or sobbing over Go For Wand. I could talk about the relics: Secretariat’s mane, Man O’ War’s hoof, the way that Claiborne Farm keeps each stallion’s nameplate on his stall door, reminding visitors that Unbridled’s space was also Easy Goer’s and Bold Ruler’s. There were the horses on the family farm—the foundation mare, her descendants, the first homebred stakes winner. The filly who cracked my ribs. The one who first swept me into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. The first derby winner I picked all on my own. The one who never won anything. The I one named in my high school yearbook’s senior quote.
But truthfully, my favorite horse is always the next one.
After all, that’s why I keep watching—in faith that we haven’t yet seen the greatest, that someday a new athlete will eclipse everything we’ve ever known, that records will be broken and new dynasties will emerge. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have quit watching horse racing after Personal Ensign’s last race, abandoned Alabama football after Bear Bryant retired. To me, being a sports fan isn’t so much about loving a particular athlete; it’s about loving the contest, the possibility, the promise of each new season.
3. What is your favorite snack to go along with watching races?
My 101-year-old grandmother’s boozy slush, which I secretly believe originated when the family wanted to throw a Derby party, didn’t have money to make proper juleps, and decided to toss everything they had (fruit, several kinds of liquor, soda) into a frozen concoction. As Granny Wade says, “After 3 days it is ready for a celebration!”
4. Out of the triple crown races, which is your favorite?
Every year on Preakness day, if the Derby winner doesn’t come in first, this guy I don’t know but who runs in some of the same social media circles as I do tweets something like “No reason to watch the Belmont now.” His view is diametrically opposed to mine, because it implies that the races only count in relation to one another, that the only reason to watch is the chance of a Triple Crown and not the race itself.
It’s worth noting that the races existed separately before they were part of the Triple Crown. And each race does something different: the Kentucky Derby’s a mile and a quarter; the Preakness, a mile and three-sixteenths; the Belmont, a mile and a half. Along with the Travers Stakes, which is at Saratoga each August, they offer an important test of the three-year old crop.
So I don’t have an individual favorite—but for what it’s worth, I’m convinced it’s bad luck to get married on Belmont day.
By Any Other Name
In other words, Sir Barton won the Triple Crown before it actually existed.
For most of my life, I had an inside glimpse at horse racing, thanks to my aunt Betsy and her husband David, who owned a thoroughbred farm in Bourbon County, Kentucky, which, despite its name—and its claim as the birthplace of the spirit—was for many years a dry county. You could live in Bourbon County, but you could not actually buy bourbon there.
According to the Jockey Club, the organization that governs thoroughbred racing in America, a racehorse’s name must be under eighteen characters, spaces included. If a horse wins enough important races, its name cannot be reused for a set number of years. Horses that win one of the races in the American Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, or the Belmont Stakes) are declared to have “permanent names,” those that can never be registered for another thoroughbred.
As a child, I understood that I was named for my aunt, even though my name is Elizabeth, not Betsy.
When I read lists of horses that had won the Kentucky Derby, I saw the name of the farm where Betsy lived, and I did not immediately understand that this was not her farm, did not understand that the farm’s name had been recycled by a previous owner, who reassigned the title from one stretch of land to another. So I believed as a child that the family farm had produced Kentucky Derby winners, which is true—if it is true at all—only by some sort of transitive property, the way most major league baseball teams recognize numbers retired by earlier versions of their franchise. (Warren Spahn never played for Atlanta, for example, but here, geography’s irrelevant: no Brave will ever wear Spahn’s #21.)
Only one Triple Crown winner (Gallant Fox, 1930) has sired another (Omaha, 1935).
Betsy married David when I was six years old, before I understood that groom had multiple meanings. (It would take years for me to discover the OED, to realize that we have Shakespeare to blame for equating wives with animals in need of minding or taming.)
Eventually, I had a pony of my own, an Arabian whose registered name was Mariah’s Mistral. When I got her, I learned that mistral was the French word for wind. But most people who worked the horse show circuit in 1980s Alabama did not know French, and every time I won a class, my excitement was tempered by their pronunciation. In first place, Elizabeth Wade on Mariah’s Menstrual, they’d proclaim over the loudspeaker, and as the judge placed the ribbon on my pony’s bridle, I felt my face flame with embarrassment.
Only two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), have had the same owner (Calumet Farm) and jockey (Eddie Arcaro).
Many farm owners made their fortunes in business, and eventually I learned that Calumet Farm was linked to Calumet baking powder. Similarly, before it was renamed Jif, my favorite peanut butter had been developed by W.T. Young, the owner of Overbrook Farm.
After a while, mom quit making me accompany her to the grocery, claiming I was old enough to stay home alone. But I wondered sometimes if it was because of the interest I developed in her purchases, how I learned that things were all connected, how the choices we made at the Delchamps Supermarket in Northport, Alabama, might affect the fate of the racehorses I watched in subsequent seasons.
According to owner Penny Chenery, the 1973 Triple Crown winner was christened after the Jockey Club rejected several initial suggestions for his name. Eventually, the farm secretary drew inspiration from her former workplace, the United Nations, and submitted the name Secretariat.
The Jockey Club registered the colt, and thirty-four years later, he holds records for the fastest ever Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
From 1985-2012, though, Secretariat did not hold the Preakness record, as Pimlico racetrack’s official clock malfunctioned during the race. Eventually 21st century digital technology enabled more precise calculations, so nearly four decades after his race—and fifteen years after his death—Secretariat was awarded the stakes record.
David and Betsy welcomed me to the farm any time I asked, and for many years I felt as if their home were my own. Over the years, I met their friends, learned Betsy’s recipes for fresh bread, for cheese soufflé. When I received my AP Calculus score, they celebrated by taking me out for Chinese food—the first time I’d ever eaten it. Now, each time I prepare to travel, I still follow the same mental checklist Betsy taught me for closing up the house: take out the trash, empty the refrigerator, adjust the thermostat.
For years I followed David around the farm, watching as the veterinarian performed ultrasounds to see if the mares were in foal, learning how to administer a weanling’s medicine and pack an abscessed hoof with a tobacco poultice, hand-walking the yearlings before the summer sales, waking after a few hours’ sleep to watch a mare foal before dawn.
That’s probably why I found it so jarring whenever David introduced me to people. “This is Betsy’s niece, Elizabeth,” he’d say, before continuing with his conversation.
It happened for decades, and I always noticed, though I never said anything about it. I imagined his reasoning, that he was signaling that I was not one of his own siblings’ children. But every time he said the words, even though I believed I understood, I felt denied, unclaimed, reminded that somehow even though he was my uncle, I was not fully his niece.
Karen and Mickey Taylor spent $17,500 on Seattle Slew, who earned over $1.2 million on the racetrack and remains the only undefeated Triple Crown winner.
The Taylors were from the Pacific Northwest and wanted to name the horse after the area’s timber industry, whose workers sent logs down sloughs or chutes.
The OED lists the pronunciation of slough as rhyming with cow; the American Heritage Dictionary has it rhyming with chew.
The Taylors disliked the spelling, so they decided to change it to slew—a word that now appears in countless thoroughbred names, thanks to the horse’s success as a sire.
I first met Seattle Slew on a visit with David to Three Chimneys Farm, where Slew spent most of his stallion career. There, I learned about the woman who exercised the stallions each morning, and I decided that one day I’d take over her job.
As I approached college, I assumed I’d end up in Kentucky. When, one night at dinner, I announced I was headed to North Carolina, my mother was so shocked that she dropped her fork. Retrospectively, I know my eighteen-year-old self chose well: I established my own identity without trading on family connections, and I’ve found more professional success and fulfillment than I expected. But I’ve never since felt ambition like that I had when I was sixteen and believed that one day I would exercise race horses.
In the winner’s circle of each Triple Crown race, the victor wears a floral blanket: roses at Churchill Downs, carnations at Belmont Park.
At Pimlico, the flowers are still called black-eyed Susans, although naturalists have begun referring to the blossoms as brown-eyed to avoid connotations of violence.
I was one of the last people Betsy called when she and David separated. I knew that after my kids, this would hit you hardest, she said, and I believe she was right.
The divorce has taken time. Mostly, I try not to ask questions, try just to listen when she or one of her kids needs to talk, but I know that they have sold the farm and divided the household possessions. I know that Betsy kept a terra cotta rabbit I gave her as a thank-you gift during the last summer I lived at the farm, and I know that my cousins have stored many of their things at our grandparents’ house.
I know, too, that one day soon, David will no longer be my uncle—not legally, and not really logistically, either. I know I should change my language, calling him my aunt’s ex-husband or my cousins’ dad. But every time I think about it, I hear his voice—Betsy’s niece—and I cannot yet do it.
At some point, I’d resigned myself to the idea that there would be no more Triple Crown winners. Industry insiders have long claimed that the modern thoroughbred has been so bred for speed that it can no longer overcome the parameters of the Triple Crown. There’s been talk of extending the schedule (the races currently take place over a grueling five-week period) or shortening the Belmont Stakes (it’s the only American race of its caliber to span a mile and a half) to make the feat more realistic, but someone always resists.
And then came 2015 and American Pharoah. I’d heard rumblings early in the season, but I remained skeptical. By the time he won the first two, I had seen enough to be hopeful. I planned a trip home to Alabama, wanting to be with my family if he actually won the Triple Crown. My mother, brother-in-law, and I watched the Belmont in my parents’ living room, and I cried as I witnessed the first Triple Crown winner in nearly forty years.
After the winner’s circle photographs with the blanket of carnations, track officials draped a customized blanket over the colt, embroidered American Pharaoh. The track used the dictionary spelling, but that’s not how it appears in the official Jockey Club registry. Lots of conversations—and some blame—ensued, but apparently the owners held a contest to name the foal, then submitted the winning suggestion with a typo. Whether they introduced the error or simply copied it from the submission may never be clear.
The photographs are clear though, recorded for all of history: the most recent Triple Crown winner wore a blanket that misspelled his own already-misspelled name.
After the 2015 Triple Crown, the Jockey Club issued a more straightforward ruling, adding both American Pharoah and American Pharaoh to its list of permanent names, ensuring definitively that even if we someday see another horse of his caliber, spectators will never hear a name like his again.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about all this, about how we edit and err, how we cleave and claim, name and deny.
And I’ve thought a lot about the farm, how it wasn’t mine by any officially recognized criteria—birth or the law—but felt like mine, because I chose it. It held firsts—my first sip of beer, my first taste of Virginia Woolf’s words.
And it held endings, too. Sometimes I think about the place on the farm where we buried my pony, or how the farm was the last place I saw my brother outside of a hospital, and I let myself acknowledge that I, too, have lost something in all this.
Most of the time, though, one dominant memory surfaces from my years on the farm: a June Saturday in 1991, when we sat in the kitchen, watching the Mother Goose Stakes, a race in what was then known as the filly Triple Crown. (Although fillies can run in races for colts, it’s not common.) That year, the fillies’ races had been particularly exciting, due to two horses: the previous year’s undefeated two-year old champion, Meadow Star, and a bay owned by MC Hammer, Lite Light. Meadow Star had won the first race, and in the Mother Goose, she ran easily on the lead for much of the race. Lite Light made a valiant run around the turn, coming from far back in the field to challenge Meadow Star. They raced under the finish line so close together that the crowd didn’t actually know who had won. Neither did the race stewards; it took them six minutes to study the photo and declare Meadow Star the victor.
In today’s world of instant replays, six minutes doesn’t sound that long, but it was fairly unprecedented then, and on that Saturday afternoon, crowded around the small, portable television in the farm kitchen, it felt interminable. I didn’t yet understand how you could watch something unfold, study the evidence, and still not know how to make sense of it, how to speak about it with any kind of finality.