'Secretariat' Proves Toddlers Belong at the Racetrack

Andrew Dalton

Disney's new Secretariat movie has me excited but suspicious. Diane Lane is eternally appealing -- except maybe in a Nicholas Sparks movie -- and John Malkovich looks amazing in his pimpish get-up.

But as a film I just don't think you can top the video of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. Watch it and watch it again. Probably the greatest single performance in the history of sports. Makes me cry more than even The Notebook.

Which is why, as the autumn racing season begins, you should take your toddler to the horse races.

I know, it seems odd to take your beloved little ones to the home of chain-smoking degenerate gamblers and other Bukowski types. But the racetrack is truly a family place, and not "family" in the sense of for kids but truly all ages: For parents there is drinking and gambling, and for even the smallest kids there are, well, let me list the things:

  • Horses!: Is there anything both young girls and boys can rally around more? And thoroughbreds are shiny and gorgeous, and smaller than you'd think. At some tracks the outriders -- the assistants on horseback who guide the race horses before and after races -- let kids come right up and pet their ponies on the nose.
  • Great outfits: Horses are decked out with braids and the cool-looking headgear known as blinkers. Each has a distinctive saddle cloth color, and one will always be your kid's favorite. And jockeys' bright silk outfits get them picking favorites, too. 
  • The names: Read the program with your kid and they'll inevitably find a name that delights them. Princess Jasmine. Turbo Ninja. Our first time at the races my Eleanor saw a horse named Eleanor Rose and was absolutely smitten.
  • The adoration: That first time I took my daughter as a toddler, she was in her squirreliest and screamiest phase. I was worried after many bad public experiences at restaurants and stores. But every single adult -- from the ushers to the window clerks to the stable grooms -- absolutely doted on my girl. They don't get to see kids much these days.
  • Wide open spaces: Tracks are full of terraced patios, grassy areas, and fountains where the kids can run freely. Many have actual playgrounds in the infield and special days with carnival attractions.
  • Athletes their own age: If you take your kids to the track for this fall season, the majority of races will be made up of 2-year-old and 3-year-old ... horses. It's really awesome to be able to tell a 3-year-old girl that an entire race is made up girls just her age. That doesn't happen at a Dodger game.

(Quick horse lesson for you to share with a child: A girl horse is called a filly until she's 5, then she's called a mare. A boy horse is called a colt until he's 5, then he's just called a horse. A horse of any age with his nuts cut off is called a gelding. Maybe leave that part out.)

Virtually every major city has a thoroughbred track. The loveliest are Saratoga in the New York area, Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, and my own Santa Anita Park here in Arcadia, California. But they've all got their own forms of beauty, if only for the beautiful animals.

Oh and every track I know of is free for everyone under 18, and usually less than 10 bucks for grown-ups.

A few caveats: Yes, they sometimes put horses down. It's the dark side of the sport, as everyone learned with Barbaro and Eight Belles a few years ago. It's not likely to happen, but it could be a disturbing experience for you. It's not likely to be for your child, because they are so discreet about it. No shotguns at the finish line. They are vanned off and euthanized. I'd have a story ready though, just in case.

And these places also occasionally have bad parents, who let their kids run wild while they gamble. I've seen one enterprising pair of toddlers somehow make their way into the winner's circle several times in one day. But even that can be good for your kids. They can get a good lesson in independence from the ragamuffin set. 

Would you take your toddler to a horse race?


Image via makelessnoise/Flickr

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