“The best horse doesn’t always win the race.”
— Irish saying
It was Philip’s first time at the racetrack.
He clutched his ticket in both of his sweaty hands as he wandered away from the booth. The area wasn’t as noisy as he had been expecting – the din was scarcely more than that of a restaurant – but still quite overwhelming.
The smell of manure was quite strong, and Philip tried not to look disgusted. He knew his entire demeanor already screamed “newbie,” and he didn’t want to worsen that impression.
Still, he remained quite near the entrance, uncertain of what to do or where to go next. It was his father who had shoved a fistful of dollar bills into his hand that morning, eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep and excess of drink. “Put it all on Ohana for me, kid,” he’d rasped. “It means ‘family’ or some shit. Good luck for us, eh?” His attempted wink had turned into a full sleepy blink, then a snore, and Philip had tiptoed out of the house a few minutes later, grabbing his jacket and shoes on the way. His mother had never allowed him to visit the track, with or without his father, but after she’d passed away last year, well . . . a lot of rules were no longer enforced.
Philip had barely turned eighteen, and his gangly frame and big ears made him look even younger, but the clerk in the ticket office hadn’t even asked for his license. She had just taken the wad of cash, counted it out with an ease similar to that of a casino dealer, and handed him a piece of paper with “OHANA – RACE 2” on it.
“Race 1, about to start,” boomed a loudspeaker, making Philip jump. Anxiety rushed through him. His race was next – how would he know if he won? He was about to go back to the ticket booth, as embarrassing as that would be, when he overheard a passing couple.
“Let’s sit over here this time for the second race.”
With a quick glance around, Philip followed them a few dozen feet behind.
What he had taken to be walls were actually the backs of the grandstands, and the entire track suddenly opened up in front of him. It was a perfect oval and full of clean-looking dirt (if such a paradoxical thing could be said). These particular seats were right near the starting gate, where horses were already patiently waiting. Philip supposed they were for the first race, and so he found a empty spot just behind the couple. They seemed to be regulars, and he wanted to be as well informed as possible – even if it meant eavesdropping.
“Lovely day for it,” the woman said. She seemed to be in her fifties and looked hale and strong. Her partner had a similar build.
“Quite agree,” said the man. He ran a hand idly through grey-streaked black hair.
The woman was flipping through some sort of pamphlet. “Looks like Ohana might transcend today.”
“Really?” The man looked thoughtful. “Been awhile since the last, hasn’t it?”
“Indeed. We’re in for a real show today, if it’s true.” She sounded delighted and tucked her ticket into her pamphlet, almost as if she wasn’t going to need it any more.
Philip was totally confused. Transcend? What did that mean? He may have been completely ignorant to most horse racing terms, but he was sure he’d never heard that word before.
“Are you new?”
It took Philip a moment to realize that the woman was talking to him. “Pardon?”
She seemed to sense his nervousness, for she smiled kindly. “I said, are you new?”
“Er, yes. My first time,” he said, awkwardly holding up his now rather limp ticket.
“Who’d you bet on?” said the man, turning around with an equally kind look on his face.
The woman gave a little exclamation. “Oh! How exciting! And your first time, too! Marvelous!”
Philip stared. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, she’s likely to transcend today. It’s her last race, you know. And she’s the most likely to do it. None of the others are even close to her perfection!”
In the background, a countdown had begun, and then with a loud blast of noise, the horses burst from the starting gate, their jockeys mere blobs of color.
Barely paying attention, Philip asked the woman, “What does transcend mean?”
Her eyes twinkled merrily. “Oh, you’ll see.”
She didn’t say anything more, nor seemed inclined to as she turned back toward the track. Bewildered, Philip stared at her back, then at the man, who gave a playful shrug and also turned around.
Having no idea what just happened, Philip had no choice but to suppress his curiosity and watch the end of Race 1. A huge stallion called Barnaby won, sweat gleaming on his enormous flanks. A flurry of people left the stands, some ecstatic, others resigned. The empty seats were soon filled when the loudspeaker announced Race 2. There were slightly more people for this race, but none looked as excited as the couple in front of him, and a glance at a passerby’s ticket showed that they were betting on a different horse entirely. Clearly, this transcend thing was either a joke – or perhaps the couple knew something the others didn’t?
Philip chased this thought around until he was startled from his reverie by another announcement. Race 2 was about to begin!
Sitting up, he scanned the starting gate for Ohana, Number 5. There she was – and the woman had been right; she was a beauty. Philip’s eye for horses was rather myopic, but even he could see that the mare was tall and strong and perfectly proportioned. And strangely, she was also jockey-less. No one seemed to call attention to this, even when the countdown began.
“THREE, TWO, ONE – AND THEY’RE OFF!”
With another bang, the gates opened and horses flew out in a streak of color and flying dirt. Ohana easily overtook the pack and was out in front in seconds. The rest of the crowd now seemed to notice that she was without a rider, but instead of indignation, a low hush settled.
Thoroughly confused, Philip watched Ohana closely as she made the second turn. It was eerily silent in the stands; everyone seemed to understand what was happening – or rather, what was about to happen – except for him.
He was beginning to think this was some sort of peculiar ceremony when suddenly Ohana began to glow. Her glossy black coat seemed to spark, as if made of electricity, and her tail and mane glittered. As she made the last turn, the air around her body rippled with all the colors of the rainbow, and she no longer seemed to be touching the ground.
Ohana rounded the final curve, looking nothing so much as a streak of light and color, and then she was at the finish line. With brilliant, blinding flash, she disappeared.
There was nothing left of the horse; not even the dirt looked disturbed. A few moments later, the other horses zoomed by, but there was no trumpet cry of victory, no announcement. Just reverent silence. The jockeys dismounted quietly and led their horses away.
After an eternity’s pause, the loudspeaker shattered the quiet. “Race 3 will begin momentarily.”
As if emerging from a spell, the crowd suddenly began talking again, though still in hushed tones.
“What a day to be alive.”
“So glad we came today.”
“Once in a lifetime, you know.”
Philip was awed, stunned, hopelessly confused – and worried. Ohana hadn’t won (or had she?), but neither had she lost. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he came home empty-handed. After all, his father had to know the risks, right? But how would Philip explain what had happened?
“Wasn’t that wonderful?” said the woman. She was smiling broadly, which lit up her whole face.
The man looked absurdly proud, as if he has orchestrated the whole thing. “Truly amazing!” He looked at Philip. “Did you enjoy it, young man?”
Philip nodded, still stunned. It had been truly amazing. But now reality had resumed, and all the worries with it. He glanced at his crumpled ticket.
The woman nodded knowingly. “Don’t worry, you get your money back. Everyone does. Transcendent races don’t really count, you see.”
Relief flooded him, staggering when he stood up. The same amount of money was better than none. But that still left some questions.
“What just happened? Where did Ohana go?”
The man and woman exchanged glances. “A better place, my dear,” the woman said, and patted him on the arm as she and her partner walked away.
As Philip stared at their retreating backs, he could’ve sworn he saw the faintest glimmer of color in their dark coats – almost like a rainbow.
Whoo! So I was listening to Alton Brown’s podcast for the first time today (I know it’s no longer being updated, but I’m slow), and his guest was Bobby Flay, who apparently is a big horse racing guy. That was the inspiration for this story, and I apologize for any inconsistencies or flat-out wrong descriptions. I know next to nothing about horse racing and have never been to a track. I’m pretty sure everything I do know is from like, Seabiscuit, or whatever film. Hope y’all liked it anyway! xP