The Kentucky Derby Saturday was the first sporting event my 2-year-old daughter ever showed an interest in, and what she was interested in was the girl horse.
Daisy and her big brother were whacking each other around a little bit so I asked her if she wanted to come sit with me and watch the horse race. Horses? She’s a little girl. You bet, pop. Buster joined us a few seconds later. He was not going to be left alone to play with that toy that, moments earlier, he’d been trying to brain his sister to win exclusive rights to.
Living on TiVo time, we fast-forwarded through most of the long, long, holy smokes is it still going on long pre-race show on NBC until we got to some actual non-celebrity equine content, the horses being saddled and the riders going up in the paddock, then the post parade.
The first time Eight Belles appeared on-screen, I said, “That’s a girl horse.” I explained that female horses don’t run in the Derby very often and why, and that there have only been a few fillies — Buster: What’s a filly — who have won the Kentucky Derby. What’s a derby.
Daisy was suddenly interested, Buster too but less so. Every time a new picture of a horse came up, Daisy said, “Is that a girl horse?” No. No, and 19 times no. There she is. There’s the girl horse, with the green blanket.
We skipped some more. That post parade does take a little time, seen through the eyes of a 2- and a 5-year-old. We stopped to listen to “My Old Kentucky Home,” and what’s the deal with me getting choked up at that moment every year? I’m not a horse racing guy, not from Kentucky, don’t like the song, am never affected by it if I happen to hear it the other 364. But on Derby Day, it always gives me a little catch.
And they’re off. Daisy kept asking where the girl horse was. Is that the girl horse? We looked for her in the crowd, and then she was among the leaders. Is that the girl horse in front? Is the girl horse going to win? Where’s the girl horse?
I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know. We were watching on a small TV. Wait, OK, no. She’s not going to win. Big Brown roared down the home stretch. But she finished second. Not bad. Hey, kids, they went boy-girl-boy. Well boy-girl-boy-boy-boy 14 more boys.
Where’s the girl horse?
Daisy was still looking for her. Buster had fortunately been distracted by something, because he’s old enough to follow the reports. Eight Belles had broken down after the race and there she was, at a distance, lying on the track. NBC’s Donna Barton Brothers, aboard a horse, interviewed Kent Desormeaux aboard Big Brown. Is that the girl horse?
No. Let’s go make dinner.
My little girl’s first experience with sports, her first identification with someone or something in the world that means so much to me, and it’s with a horse that breaks down and dies minutes after she first lays eyes on her. I suppose there are lessons to be taught and learned here, about impermanence and loss, death, mourning, maybe about putting too much emotional stock in the actions of others, which are beyond our control.
There are conversations to be had about the exploitation of animals for our entertainment, too. Those are good conversations to have, but maybe not with someone who talks to a six-inch hunk of synthetic fabric in the shape of a pig like it’s a real person.
I’m not ready to try to explain life and death to my 2-year-old until I have to, and I don’t have to over the girl horse. I’d just end up making her sad about something she doesn’t even understand — not that I do either.
I’m waiting for her now to ask me if she can see the girl horse again. Through the wonder of DVR technology, the answer will be yes. We’ll watch the girl horse again, watch her saddle up and parade, watch her settle into the first pack of horses around the first turn, disappear for a while, appear again among the leaders just as Big Brown makes his move and pull away in second behind Big Brown at the top of the stretch.
We’ll watch for a good couple of minutes before announcer Tom Hammond mentions that Eight Belles is injured. I’ll hit stop before then. There’ll be plenty of time for Daisy to be sad about things she doesn’t understand, to get a little misty over some random song and not know why.