Horses and humans have had a relationship for at least 5,000 years – it hasn’t always been a good one on our part, but there are few humans who can deny the attraction of their beauty and grace in motion.
Horse racing is one of the most ancient sports. Nomadic tribesmen in Central Asia have been racing horses since their earliest domestication. What is considered modern racing started in the 12th century, when English Knights returned from crusades with Arabian horses. The Thoroughbred horse came from breeding Arabian stallions with English mares, combining speed with endurance.
Ada Limón (1976 –) is the author of The Hurting Kind, The Carrying, Bright Dead Things, Sharks in the Rivers, and Lucky Wreck. In 2015, Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the National Book crticis circle Award. On 12 July 2022, she was named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States by the Librarian of Congress.
To read Ada Limón’s poem “American Pharoah” click
by Ada Limón
Despite the morning’s gray static of rain,
we drive to Churchill Downs at 6 a.m.,
eyes still swollen shut with sleep. I say,
Remember when I used to think everything
was getting better and better? Now, I think
it’s just getting worse and worse. I know it’s not
what I’m supposed to say as we machine our
way through the silent seventy minutes on 64
over pavement still fractured from the winter’s
wreckage. I’m tired. I’ve had vertigo for five
months and on my first day home, he’s shaken
me awake to see this horse, not even race, but
work. He gives me his jacket as we face
the deluge from car to the twin spire turnstiles,
and once deep in the fern-green grandstands, I see
the crowd. A few hundred maybe, black umbrellas,
cameras, and notepads, wet-winged eager early birds
come to see this Kentucky-bred bay colt with his
chewed-off tail train to end the almost 40-year
American Triple Crown drought. A man next to us,
some horseracing heavy, ticks off a list of reasons
why this horse—his speed-laden pedigree, muscle
and bone recovery, et cetera, et cetera—could never
win the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.
Then, the horse with his misspelled name comes out,
first just casually cantering with his lead horse,
and next, a brief break in the storm, and he’s racing
against no one but himself and the official clocker,
monstrously fast and head down so we can see
that faded star flash on his forehead like this
is real gladness. As the horse eases up and we
close our mouths to swallow, the heavy next to us
folds his arms, says what I want to say too: I take it all back.
“American Pharoah” © 2015 by Ada Limón. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner