Many institutions of Southern culture are vanishing. Moonshining, barn-raisings, hominy-poundings, quiltings, fox hunting, homecomings, and hog-killings are but memories. For 135 years, however, the Kentucky Derby has been a sustaining, if sometimes tawdry, vestige of Southern life. Its appeal, of course, extends far beyond the Old South. A few years ago, even the Queen of England visited the Derby.
I first saw the Derby on television as a young girl nearly 60 years ago. The picture was in black and white, but the Derby was in splendid Southern color. Beautiful women. Beautiful hats. Beautiful horses.
My East Tennessee childhood was filled with horses. It never once occurred to me that there would come a time when horses were no longer a part of our personal and communal lives. My first horse was Brownie, a lovely dappled pony the size of a house to my six-year-old eyes. My father made decisions about each horse and my riding ability and, without notice, would present me with a replacement. The former horse, no matter how much I loved it, would disappear.
“The pony is gone,” he said after he sold Brownie and bought Beauty. “You need a horse.” He would not tell me where Brownie went or even call his name. “Don’t name farm animals; they die.”
In this case, however, the horses weren’t dying or being slaughtered like hogs or beeves. Father, an inveterate trader, was simply selling them, trading up, ostensibly with me in mind.
Beauty, who replaced Brownie, was a chestnut mare. Her face was white and she had soulful eyes. But when I had owned her a year, Father announced, “Your horse is not letting you reach your full potential.” He didn’t call Beauty by name. I immediately understood that soon I’d come home from school and find my lovely mare gone.
When I was 12, Father bought Diablo. The seller told him Diablo was a three-gaited horse, but Father rode him and found five gaits. Diablo was a deal. Not only was he five-gaited, he was a jumper as well, which I soon discovered but knew to keep to myself.
I rode Diablo a couple of hours every day after school. We lived on bottomland next to the Holston River. A mile-long stretch of road ran to our house at the end. The land lay on one side of the road and Southern Railway’s train yard on the other. The bottomland was my training ground.
As my riding skills improved, it was not enough to put Diablo through his gaits. I yearned to jump. The soil of the bottomland was a thick limestone clay with gullies of varying width running perpendicular to the road. Soon Diablo and I were tempting fate. Every day we jumped increasingly wider gullies.
Over time, my confidence and Diablo’s increased. We developed a routine. After riding and then jumping smaller ditches, we returned to the gully with the widest span. We began jumping at its narrow end—riding and jumping, riding and jumping—working our way to the biggest jump. When we took the final leap of the day, we would be euphoric.
At the end of the afternoon, I rode Diablo to the barn and unsaddled him. As I rubbed him down, he would turn his head to nuzzle my hand or arm, seemingly in thanks. When I sponged water over him, he tossed his head. That gesture may be the single most joyful act I’ve ever witnessed. We both loved the riding and the cleaning up and the indescribable calm when it was over.
I fed Diablo and then went to the house for supper. Sometimes I came back to check out the hay in Diablo’s stall and give him a treat. Every night I mentally thought out jumps for the next day. And the next day, we did it all again. Life was sublime.
One day when I came home from school, the house was dark. The sky was overcast and misting rain. When my parents met me at the back door, I sensed trouble. They insisted we sit in the living room to talk. At my age, we didn’t sit in the living room, and we didn’t talk.
“Your horse is gone,” Father said. “We sold him. You weren’t responsible. A boss in the train yard saw you jumping ditches. Twice he saw you fall.”
“It’s for the best,” Mother added.
In my head, I screamed in protest. I wanted to say how many times Diablo and I jumped to safety and that we were always okay. That Diablo would never fall on me intentionally. That when we fell, we rolled apart. That the one time Diablo fell on me, the red clay was so soft that I was unhurt. Instead, I stood up, tears flowing down my cheeks. I knew there was nothing I could do or say that would change the decision. I wanted to be brave. And I wanted to show my parents that I was responsible enough to own Diablo. Holding back sobs, in a trembling voice, I said, “Fine.”
Of course it wasn’t.
I never mentioned Diablo again and neither did my parents. I never knew where they sent him. The loss was unbearable. After Diablo was gone, I cried myself to sleep for more than a year. My last thought at night was of Diablo, and my first thought in the morning was of him. I’ve never stopped grieving for Diablo. I never will.
Over the years, the intensity of the loss lessened, but in 2006, Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, stumbled in the Preakness. I saw him go down, and I began sobbing. Unable to watch the rerun, I fled the room. For close to a year, a nation followed Barbaro’s health. And a nation mourned when he died. The next year as the Kentucky Derby began, it was Barbaro on the minds of the spectators, but it was Barbaro and Diablo on mine. Two years later I watched in horror as the filly Eight Belles went down after the conclusion of the Derby and was euthanized. I could think only of Beauty, my chestnut mare.
In Tennessee, rural children of my generation usually had horses in their lives. In Middle and West Tennessee, horses were for riding to the hounds and racing. In East Tennessee, they were for work. The horse most East Tennessee children rode was an old one that had literally been put out to pasture. My cousins and I spent many Sunday afternoons trying to launch ourselves from a fence onto the back of our grandfather’s horse.
When Grandfather saw us, he would yell, “Leave that poor feller alone. He’s done enough work for this lifetime.” Horses were everywhere and an important part of our daily lives.
When Sir Winston Churchill once commented how everything had changed after the Second World War, he was asked what he thought we would most miss. After a pause, he replied, “Horses.” And those of us who remember, miss them terribly.
But for one day every year we celebrate horses. Beautiful women, the descendants of the beautiful women I saw on television as a child, link arms and sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” And as I watch the horses walk to the gates, for a grace note of a moment I remember Diablo, Beauty, Brownie and all the rest. Dark Star, Genuine Risk, Barbaro, and Eight Belles. All the pretty horses. God save the Kentucky Derby.