She experiences it each spring while moving through the barns recently filled with arrivals for the upcoming meet, while she talks with trainers, grooms and anyone else attached to a particular stable.
Their stories are often a little piece of her story, a tale born in youth, nurtured in young adulthood and thereafter cherished. Like baseball’s spring training or football’s training camp, this is the time of year filled with hope and confidence, and always connected to a unique partner, the horse, that remarkable animal that has always fascinated writers who care about these magnificent creatures. Hard-core handicappers chafe at such notions, mere sentimentality to persons devoted to the numbers and the bottom line of horse racing.
Yet, anyone can bet a horse race; few can feel and express the poetic dynamics that make racing much more than numbers, that make it fascinating drama even to the multitudes that have never placed a wager. Take the American Pharoah saga as an example.
Rachel Blount is such a person, someone who not only grew up with horses, but is able to write about them and the people in the sport with depth, understanding and feeling. She has been writing about racing in Minnesota for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune since the rebirth of racing in 1995, visiting the barns at the start of the season, searching out the human interest stories that abound there and so many other places in this Sport of Kings, which is more honestly the sport of serfs and vassals and other attendants without whom the activity would not take place. Yet horses all alone make this sport possible in its most basic sense. Did they not race of their own accord across the American prairies long before they were confined to barns and stalls?
Rachel Blount has known that from childhood, growing up as she did in a small community in central Iowa and later in the surrounding countryside when horses joined the family. “I grew up with quarter horses,” she said. “And we eventually had room to breed a couple and raise them on 13 acres west of Des Moines.” It started with a 42-inch Shetland Pony. “He was named Runaway and we got him for $5,” she recalled. “My (oldest) brother and I grew up with him.”
Eventually, quarter horses joined the family and made it possible to ride the trails and the surrounding woods with friends. Then there were the countless weekend trips to horse shows throughout Iowa, offering a wider window to the equine world. But the rules were established right there in rural Des Moines. “I learned the first rule of horsemanship was that I didn’t eat or shower until the horse was completely taken care of, bathed, fed and knee deep in straw,” Rachel recalled With that kind of foundation in the horse world, she headed off to the University of Notre Dame, acquiring a degree in American Studies without a clue about her future until the final year. She had worked in high school and in South Bend on the school newspapers, as a writer and photographer, and that pointed the way to the University of Missouri for a master’s degree in journalism.
Hired at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after completing an internship there, she got her first chance to write about horse racing when the track in Birmingham, Ala. opened shortly thereafter. She covered steeple chase races on a couple of occasions and polo as well.
Blount was hired to cover the Minnesota North Stars at the Tribune in 1990, and became the paper’s turf writer when racing resumed in Shakopee in 1995. She is about to embark on her 10th assignment to the Olympics and has covered the Kentucky Derby eight times and witnessed the Triple Crown efforts by Real Quiet, Silver Charm and Charismatic.
Canterbury has provided its own memories for the track’s newest Hall of Fame journalist. “I remember KZ Bay well, Paul Nolan bringing in that horse,” she said. “That was really exciting. And the Claiming Crowns were always fun with their festive atmospheres. It was like a big event, right here in our own state.”
Foremost though has always been opening week, the chance to say hello to acquaintances and to make new ones. “I’ve always enjoyed the backside the first week of the season,” she said. “It was always fun to call on Mark Stancato, to see what’s new, what’s different, to see familiar faces and meet some new ones. It’s an exciting time of year with so much hope and possibility.”
And, of course, the horses.
“It’s always fun to see which ones like peppermints and which ones like to be petted,” she said.
What Blount likes best about horse racing is its accessibility to a panorama of human interest stories. “It’s a dream for a writer,” she said. “Jockeys, the dangers they face; every year the trainers find a way to hope regardless of what has happened, and the grooms who just live for the horses. I have a great respect for those people, who share their feelings for the horses. It’s very special.”
To such an extent that Rachel sometimes surprises people when, upon discovering she is a sportswriter, ask what assignment she treasures most. Is it the Twins, the Vikings, the Olympics, just what is it?
“Horse racing,” she tells them.
by JIM WELLS