So often when I tell people I went to the Kentucky Derby last year, I get the same question.
"Did you wear a big hat?"
I wear hats all the time, but not big ones. A few days a week, whether it’s to hide a bad hair day or keep my buzzed (or bald) head warm, I’ll wear a baseball cap. The sophisticated millinery so many people wear on big race days, however, has never been my style.
More than that, fancy hats are fraught with reminders of the preconceived notions that almost stopped me from pursuing the sport that has become my life.
On the day of the 2013 Arlington Million, I left my apartment intending to cross something fun off my bucket list. I came home with an enduring passion.
My jeans and a t-shirt made me look a ragtag invader amid the sea of people in sundresses and fascinators, in bowlers and suits. No matter — I had the time of my life. I loved being around the horses. I loved the competition. I could not wait to get back to the track for another day of live racing.
But, was there really a place for me there?
Horse racing was the Sport of Kings, after all. It was for dukes, earls, and peers dancing the Ascot Gavotte. It was for the tactfully elated groups from England and Australia and Kentucky, accepting flower garlands and silver bowls in the winners’ circle. It was for the seersucker suburbanites on the rail enjoying a fancy day out. It was for people who could unironically pull off a fancy hat.
I was not one of those people, but I was finding so many other reasons to be pulled toward the sport regardless.
Horse racing was a perfect sport for trivia nerds like me, between pedigrees and names and race records. Even before the racing bug had actually bitten me, I had already read up enough about it that I was That Friend who could answer all the casual questions that arose in conversation (or at pub quiz) during Derby season. Everyone wanted me on their pub quiz team during the first week of May.
What few attempts I had made to handicap races had been intriguing, as well. I had always enjoyed math, puzzles, logic, and a bit of gambling. Like so many who were college students during the days of Chris Moneymaker, I spent my share of nights at the poker table. Analyzing and playing horse races had a similar blend of luck and skill, but gave me a bit more time to formulate and act upon my opinions.
And, it had horses.
I was never horse-crazy growing up. I went on a trail ride or two in my younger years, as a thing to do with friends, but that was it. Whatever switch in my head that could turn me from "horses are okay" to "I need horses in my life!" flipped on that trip to the Million. That day I had realised that I really enjoyed watching horses run, and that I needed to see their faces, their ears, their stride on a regular basis. Going to the track was the only way a public transit-dependent urban dweller like me could be around horses.
But, I was a blue-haired, gender-neutral queer. I cleaned up okay in a blazer and slacks when necessary, but I wasn't what anyone pictures as the stereotypical horse racing person. Would there really be a place for me in a sport that so many viewed as an overly formal blast from the past? Would I fit into an audience that seemed to be so full of Dresses And Suits, of Fascinators And Derbies, of Ladies And Gentlemen, when I so strongly identified with the space between?
Despite all that intrigued me about horse racing, if I was going to have to become someone else in order to actively enjoy it, it was not going to be worth it. I feared the worst. Still, the sport’s lure was strong enough that I had to try. I just hoped my enthusiasm would be enough for me to find a place.
I started going to the track far more often. I learned more about handicapping, bit by bit. I started talking to people on Twitter about horse racing. Twitter was good for some things, but too short for others, so I started writing about racing in longer form as well.
What I learned from watching, tweeting, and writing about the races helped me build the confidence to talk to more people in person about racing, in person. That was scary, but just about every interaction went to show that my fears were unfounded.
Day in and day out, the people I met did not care that my identity or presentation did not fit the narrow bounds that I had feared were in place at the racetrack. They cared that I was enthusiastic. They cared that I was willing to learn. Sure, I had to swap the jeans for slacks in order to do interviews on the bigger race days. But, I didn’t have to give up my core identity in order to nurture my burgeoning love of horse racing.
So, did I wear a big hat to the Derby last year?
No, absolutely not. I didn’t wear a hat at all.
I did, however, dye my buzzcut a nice green colour to match Keen Ice’s silks. It was festive, but far more me.