It took me a while to post this, as it is by far the most personal thing I have ever shared on the internet, but I feel it would be an injustice to Blackie to omit the reasons he was such a substantial influence in my life. In reality, this is not a blog post about Better Talk Now – those who knew the horse far more than I have written beautiful tributes to him already, – this is a blog post about the profound impact he had on me, personally.
I’d like to thank Herringswell Stables for their care of Blackie during and after his racing career, and for their generosity in sharing him with his legions of loyal fans. I’d also like to thank Graham Motion for responding to a letter written years ago by a teenage girl whose life was changed by his superstar gelding. I still treasure the letter (now laminated) and photographs I received in reply.
If you ask anyone about how they got into racing, many people will answer with a story of “the horse” – the first horse that captured their imagination and piqued their interest in the sport. They remember the exact moment they fell in love with the majestic Thoroughbreds that all racing fans adore and admire. This is a tribute to the horse that sparked that passion inside of me, and the story of how the flame he lit illuminated the darkest chasms of my life, and still blesses me with light and warmth when I need it most.
On October 30th, 2004 – exactly two weeks after my 11th birthday, – my life was forever changed by a tenacious, nearly-black gelding by the name of Better Talk Now.
Like many 11-year-old girls, I was in love with horses. I’d read The Black Stallion when I was nine, and that was all it took. Being a bookish sort of kid, within those two years I had learned all about the various breeds and disciplines, and even color genetics of horses. So it was only natural that when my father, a horseplayer, sat down to watch the 2004 Breeders’ Cup, I sat down too. It was a day that would change – and, dare I say, save – my life.
Watching the horses warm up for the penultimate race of the day, the Breeders’ Cup Turf, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the prettiest black horse I’d ever seen. I vaguely recognized the name, Better Talk Now, and remembered that I had seen him win a race earlier that year (a race which I now know was the Sword Dancer Invitational). That was more than enough reason for me to declare him my pick in the race. Dad warned me that the pretty black horse was the largest price in the field of eight, dismissed by the public at nearly 30-1, but my mind was made up. The rest, as they say, is history.
Exactly 2:29.70 after they left the starting gate, that pretty black horse made an exhilarating rally from last to cross the wire in front of the heavily favored Kitten’s Joy. After a stewards’ inquiry into the stretch run (which I’ll admit that I don’t remember at all; I must’ve been too caught up in celebrating), Bushwood Stable’s Better Talk Now was declared the official winner (sadly, Dad didn’t trust little Jess’ opinion enough to profit from the $57.80 win payout). It was the beginning of the rest of my life.
I began to read and watch anything and everything about Thoroughbred racing I could get my eyes on. I asked my father to teach me how to read the racing form, and begged my parents to go out to dinner at The Cracked Claw, a local restaurant/OTB. I watched TVG whenever my dad did, and even when he wasn’t, I could be found watching videos of past greats on YouTube, and waiting eagerly to see the black horse of my dreams run again.
Fast-forward a few years, and six graded stakes wins for Better Talk Now from sixteen starts, later, and you will find me, now thirteen, in the depths of what I can only call hell.
Anxiety and depression had taken control of my life. I lived in constant fear of everything and nothing at the same time. I was questioning whether my life was worth living, and whether my loved ones might be better off if I had never existed.
Don’t get me wrong, now, my life was an exceptionally comfortable one. I had a loving and supportive family throughout my childhood, I was bright and well-liked by peers and adults alike, and most things came easily to me. I was privileged in every sense of the word. If you’ve never suffered mental illness, you may not understand how I could tell you these things in the same breath I confess that I often wish I didn’t exist. You may not understand how I can say I love my friends and family with all my heart, but there are days when I wish that I didn’t care how they would feel if I died. Depression is not an inability to “look on the bright side” – it’s seeing it with full clarity, yet finding yourself unable to step from the shadows into the sun.
I spent a very long month in ninth grade locked in my basement, stricken with an irrational but overwhelming panic at the sight of anyone besides my parents, including my two younger sisters. My chest would pound and I would tremble when the dogs barked or someone shut a door just a little too loudly. I was constantly on edge. My brain and body didn’t bother assessing threats; it went straight to blind panic at anything out of place. I knew, somewhere in my mind, that I was overreacting, that the loud noise I heard was just my dogs, that the person standing in front of me was the baby sister that I loved, yet I couldn’t seem to convince myself that I wasn’t in some inexplicable danger. I felt guilty about my anxiety, knowing that I was hurting my family, but I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile my emotions, and subsequent reactions, with my perception of reality.
While I spent that month in my basement, though, one thing never changed. I still watched racing nearly every day. I still waited to see Better Talk Now race again. It was the one thing that still gave me joy – even if it was a dulled, diluted version of the real thing – in a world that seemed devoid of any kind of happiness.
Though I eventually overcame my illness enough to face the real world once again, anxiety and depression were the theme of my high school career. I spent much of both freshman and sophomore year on various home hospitalization programs, and only attended half days through the rest of sophomore and into my junior year, keeping up with school work despite my abbreviated time in the building. In November of 11th grade, three months after Better Talk Now had finished his career with a painfully close second to Telling in the Sword Dancer, I left school for good. I had my degree in hand by March.
I credit Better Talk Now, and the passion he inspired within me, for getting me through those years. If it hadn’t been for horse racing, the ongoing narrative of what happens next, and the hope that just maybe I could be involved in that drama some day, I don’t know how I would have fared. I sincerely believe that things might have turned out differently. In 2009, in the midst of my struggles, I was asked to be a guest on TVG via telephone before the Kentucky Derby. I had been a frequent e-mailer (seeing as my school day was over about the time The Morning Line came on every day), and one day I got an email from producer Donyelle Taylor asking me if I would be willing to call in for a live interview. I was thrilled, albeit terrified at the same time, but racing was the one thing I would not let mental illness take from me, and I accepted. I was asked to return two weeks later as a guest on site at Pimlico for the Black-Eyed Susan. I pushed aside my hopelessness and inner discord, and embraced the one thing that made me believe that I was not as worthless as I felt. My passion for racing overcame my self-doubt, and the experience was wonderful.
I was lucky enough to meet my hero twice before his passing last week, and he was still as beautiful in retirement as he was on the racetrack, at Fair Hill with his well-known companion Gala Spinaway. I can’t help but feel a bit of kinship with his quirky, willful, sometimes-difficult personality; I’m sure there are plenty of people who would use the same words to describe me. Sometimes I still fall short, sometimes the pace just doesn’t favor my style, but I refuse to quit before the wire. Maybe I could seek a different, more “normal” career, try to show more tactical speed, but I’m not going to let anyone hustle me out of the gate with cries of “you’re so smart, you could go to school and be a doctor,” or “don’t you think it’s impractical to be so set a career in horse racing?” I’ll admit that, like Better Talk Now, I can be stubbornly inflexible in certain aspects of life.
Thanks to Better Talk Now, I have been blessed with experiences beyond the wildest dreams of the 11-year-old girl who first fell in love with the pretty black horse on the television screen. I interned with NYRA for two summers at Saratoga, I worked for TVG and was paid to be on-site for American Pharoah’s wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and I’ve met countless incredible people and lifelong friends in the racing industry. The equanimity I feel at the racetrack, when I’m in my element, has helped to improve my confidence in everyday life as well. I question every emotion I have with the aggressiveness of an interrogation, for fear of believing in lies the way I did as a teenager, but my love of racing is the one thing inside of me that I trust implicitly. I still struggle daily with the same depression and anxiety that plagued me back then, but between therapy and medication, I’ve learned to cope a little bit better. Racing gives me the motivation I need to continue to overcome my weaknesses.
Thanks to Better Talk Now, there is one part of my life where I am confident and at peace, a reprieve from the ever-present burden of mental illness. Thanks to Better Talk Now, there is something in my life of self-imposed objectivity, uncertainty and cross-examination that I have complete and utter faith in, no analysis required. Thanks to Better Talk Now, I have a reason to keep living.
Rest in peace, Blackie, and thank you for everything.