Ever since I spent a couple of years working on a book about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner Exterminator, I’ve been prey to an uncanny feeling of dipping in and out of centuries. I’ve never wanted to be a reenactor or a living history participant like the people who walk around Colonial Williamsburg with hoops and candles, but studying the World War I era made me understand sliding in time, how you could feel at home in another era. I looked up leghorn hats on eBay, wished my daughter would consider a middy blouse once in a while, and imagined my sturdy Paint mare with a milk horse’s blinkers.
But this past October I went to Maryland Million, Laurel Park’s day honoring Maryland horses and Maryland-focused races, to experience the opposite. I went to see something new. Laurel was celebrating renovations, and I hadn’t been in a while. It’s the track I like best. I adore its historic paddock, where Exterminator was saddled, and the greensward in the middle. (Laurel has a 142-foot wide turf course.) I also like that Laurel smells more like horses than many tracks; breathe in and you get hay and shavings, hose water and clean equine sweat. This is partially because the facility is small enough that you’re brushing up against horses a lot. If you have a child with you when you go down to the paddock to look at the horses getting ready for the next race, the outriders will bring their ponies over to say hello. Everyone pats them. The ponies, good sports, dip their heads and accept being petted. Afterward, at the rail, you stand next to the grooms and hotwalkers, who have halters and lead ropes looped over their shoulders. They cheer the loudest.
On Maryland Million day, all these things were going on, just like always, but the air was more electric. Upstairs, in the grandstand, there was an appealing, sunny seating area with a big couch and a big chessboard, so you could play a slow-moving game on a day punctuated by bursts of speed, the horsehead of the knight making sense, silhouetted in the glass that looked out on the track and the crowd below. The crowd was dressed-up and excited. Maryland’s a horsey state and you see a lot of people at the track who’ve already to the barn that day, wearing their paddock boots and Horseware jackets. The construction wasn’t quite done. There were some parts that still needed work, and if you wandered too far you could see sawdust in the sunlight and inhale woody construction.
The scene made me consider another festive time there, the month Laurel opened, in October of 1911. “Fine weather brought out the banner crowd of the meeting here this afternoon,” Daily Racing Form reported then. “The attendance marked a record in point of numbers and there was more life to the sport than on any previous day of the meeting.”
“Life to the sport”—that was it. Being there with a good, cheerful crowd started things. But Maryland Million Day seemed designed to have a shifting-time quality to it, reflecting, it felt to me, my own preoccupation with its past. There was a barbershop quartet, and people wandered out from the VIP area carrying Mid-Atlantic classic celebration plates of oysters and shrimp. It was such a pretty day, clear-skied and just-cool, that almost everyone was standing outside. From the window the viewing area appeared packed—later, I learned there were 21,722 people there.
I watched the races, checking my program to find my favorite local hero, four-time winner Maryland-bred horse of the year Ben’s Cat. As soon as the previous race was over, I hustled right to the paddock to watch him come in. So did a lot of people. He had post position 1, so I stood where I’d be able to see best, and I wasn’t the only one with that idea. We pushed together, crowding the gate. When Ben’s Cat walked in, his near-black coat shining, people surrounding me breathed differently. The air around us changed. I remembered that 10,000 people went to meet Exterminator—another seasoned, beloved gelding–one day, and being pushed to the front in that crowd for Ben’s Cat, gently jostled by the people on my sides, seemed like it must have been a similar moment. Quiet fell. “There he is,” one man said.
Ben’s Cat lost that day—came in dead last, as a matter of fact—but it didn’t matter. A day at the track can be all about the right-now, the this-fraction-of-a-second, and so much felt new on Maryland Million Day. There was the second-wind Juvenile victory from the flashy Greatbullsafire, and the bright colors of dress clothes and the snapping Maryland flags, strong with black, yellow and red, were fresh.
And then, there was Ben’s Cat, lordly, gleaming, and timeless.