“Sometimes you just want to be the kind of person who’s attended horse races.”
Joel Sadler had never been to a horse race. Neither had his old college pal, Philip Sasser. But it felt like something the 30-somethings needed to do, a void in their personas that had to be filled.
They must be horse-racing people.
“And today,” Sasser said, “We are in fact those people.”
Sasser drove from Raleigh and Sadler from Charleston for Saturday’s Colonial Cup steeplechase at the Springdale Racecourse in Camden.
“The springtime (race) feels kind of like for dandies and people in pastel and seersucker and stuff like that,” Sasser said. “This seems more like sort of the true believers who go to things like this.”
They fell right in step with their fellow racegoers, including “true believers” such as Tyler Havens Sanders, of Belmont, N.C., and about 50 members of her family.
For the past eight years, the Colonial Cup has been her family’s Thanksgiving celebration. They ate and drank with one another and welcomed friends and strangers alike to their elaborate infield tailgate, where the spread included oysters and caramel apples.
“It’s all about family and fun,” Sanders said.
Clever names and racing games
What would Sadler name a race horse if he had one?
He and Sasser had already discussed the topic, an appropriate conversation for their first horse-racing experience.
“‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!’ That’s the name of my horse,” Sadler said, referring to the popular National Public Radio game show. “And I would insist that the jockey only respond to the name Peter Sagal, who is the host of that show.”
If anything, his horse’s name would fit right in among the others with unique backstories of their own.
Take, for instance, Sue and George Sensor’s 5-year-old horse Top Striker.
His sire, Van Nistelrooy, was named for the now-retired international soccer star Ruud van Nistelrooy, a Dutch player who is considered one of the Premier League’s best-ever strikers – a top striker, if you will. The horse’s son, then, carried on the legacy.
In Saturday’s actual Colonial Cup race – one of about a half-dozen races during the day – Top Striker kept pace among the leaders for the majority of the course before falling out of the top three in an exciting finish. Another of the Sensors’ horses, 5-year-old All Knight, finished third in the Maiden Hurdle in just the second start of his career.
The Sensors, of Camden, have owned race horses for nearly 35 years. Horse racing was “an instant addiction,” Sue Sensor said.
When looking to buy a potential racer, Sensor said the first thing she does is look at a horse’s eye.
“You can tell a lot, I think,” she said. “If they have a big, soft, what I call a liquid eye, that just looks kind, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be terribly fast. But it’s an indication of what their personality’s going to be.”
For steeplechase horses especially, she said, there’s no particular shape or size that makes a great racer. In fact, it’s difficult to know how well a young horse will perform on the racetrack.
“The only thing you can’t really ever predict is how much they have the desire to do what we want them to do,” Sensor said. “They can have all the ability in the world, but if they don’t have the heart to do it, you know, it’s a lost cause.”
‘For the love of it’
Seven-year-old Demonstrative has appeared to be a horse with the right heart to race.
The winner of three out of this year’s six National Steeplechase Association Grade I contests and the certain winner of the season’s top horse honors, he pulled out a third-place finish in the season-ending Colonial Cup.
His jockey, 38-year-old Robbie Walsh of Ireland, is a third-generation rider who has ridden racers since his childhood.
“It’s pretty thrilling. It’s exciting. It’s a buzz,” Walsh said. “You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for the love of it. I mean, you’ve got to love doing it because it comes with its trials and tribulations as well, between watching your weight and getting hurt. But it’s quite thrilling.”
It was a thrilling day for Sasser and Sadler as well. Enough so, at least, that they don’t plan to be one-time-only horse-racing people.
They’re already looking forward to next year.
“This is officially the first-annual event,” Sadler declared.