On a quiet Sunday morning, in the shy hours of a Kentucky day, I traced a path.
Before the hum of sound system checks and the call of vendors, before the rattle of gates and the cheer of the crowds, before the sun had noticed the morning dew, and, most desperately, before the passing of time had allowed the magic to fade into crumbled dirt and workman’s boots.
I stood at The Start and felt the power of a hundred hooves. I looked down and placed my own foot gingerly in the print before me, still soft and perfect in its outline, feeling a pang of guilt as the form collapsed to accommodate my weight. I let my eyes gaze down that historical lane, and then I walked.
And I listened.
In the hush of that morning I listened to story of the prints below. I followed along like an eager child, stopping in my own tracks at the dizzying magnitude of obstacles as they came into view, an obscene combination of beauty and terror, and for a moment I became lost in a memory of imagination.
I hear the disconnected reality of thousands of voices muted into a faint echo. The law of time suspended as motion slows and each stride becomes its own pulse. Nostrils widen, breath quickens, a bead of sweat falls away. And for a fleeting moment gravity patiently waits and there is only air. Perhaps a spectator’s gasp escapes the silence and an ear twitches to follow the sound. But then hoof and earth reunite, the ticking of the clock returns to its proper pace, and the raucous joy of fans is left behind in the wake of effort. A private conversation is shared with a pat on the neck in a single gesture of gratitude, encouragement, and trust.
I made my way around that famous course. Turn by turn, jump by jump, my own breathing becoming labored at times, until I reached the last. I paused at The Finish and looked back at the prints that had allowed, possibly even welcomed, my company. I quietly thanked them and a subtle nod of respect passed between us.
And then I stepped beyond the boundary and it was over. A gentle wave of sadness rippled through me as I suddenly became just a girl occupying space on a random clod of dirt. Around me there were dogs splashing, children climbing, workers coiling miles of cable, and memories of victory and defeat sinking into the earth to escape it all.
I traced a path of greatness that morning, a path built upon hope and struggle, of jubilance and sorrow. A path that many will dream of, but few will achieve.
As I walked away I submitted to a brief delay in my return to reality and took a sentimental glance over my shoulder. I was surprised to see a man standing alone and quiet at The Start. He gazed downward at the rounded outlines in the grass and tentatively took a step forward.
And I smiled.