The 21st horse
He was 17th as they came around the final turn. 17th out of 20. Everything had to line up perfectly for him to make his way through the pack without incident, see an opening toward the rail that allowed him a shorter distance to the finish, and the top two began to tire because the pace had been record-breakingly fast from the beginning. He had the final push they did not. He actually wasn’t even supposed to be in the race – he was 21st and only 20 horses get in. But another horse canceled and he was the next up. The last time a least likely horse won the Derby was in 1913. This one’s name is Rich Strike. His owners acquired him for $30,000 – seems like a lot to me but I guess in elite horse racing circles, not so much. He hadn’t won much of anything else in previous races, but the owners said looking back you would see him in the last part of any race move from 15th to 6th or 11th to 4th. It’s sorta like he would wake up and decide he wanted to really run.
“Everyone” is saying how much we love underdog stories – or maybe underhorse stories. “Everyone” is saying in horse racing it’s finally all about the heart of the horse. If they’re trained well at such an elite level, the modicum of difference is the heart. “Everyone” is saying we needed a story like this. Last year’s winner was found later to have illegal drug enhancement and then suddenly died in December. Really? We humans are often such a greedy lot, even with innocent animals. Not a stellar moment, probably not the only one. 80 to 1 odds. “Everyone” says how unlikely it was to ever happen, and since it’s been since 1913, we’ll be long-dead before it happens again. You know a movie is coming. I still remember Sea-Biscuit.
I think part of why “everyone” loves a story like this is the unexpected and innocent nature of how it happened. So much of our lives seem set-up to predict ahead of time what’s likely to happen. And when something outside of the usual circumstances splashes itself in the midst of our pre-programmed, pre-set, most likely outcomes, we are reminded that maybe not completely everything revolves around our ability to control all the circumstances at all times and in all places.
I’m not ready to say it was miraculous, it was a horse race after all. I am willing to say it was a welcome and surprising shot of hope in a world where hope is too often lacking. Hope in the strength of heart. Hope that the impossible may not always be out of reach. Hope that regardless of how unimportant or not so powerful we may feel, perhaps our small acts of kindness and generosity make a bigger difference in the world than we realize.
Everyone knows the Kentucky Derby only happens once a year. I wonder if somehow we in the faith community haven’t let “everyone” know that the story of the unexpected, in faith, happens every day! You know, the last shall be first, the least among us is the greatest? Yes, I’m a pastor so there’s a faith base to every reality. But it’s true, we know that right? We live the story of the brilliant and unexpected reality of a carpenter opening his heart to receive all that he met into the heart of an eternal promise and a God of grace who opens the doors of life to all people. That’s not once a year where we wear hats and drink mint juleps – I wonder if that might increase our Easter attendance, hmmm – it’s not a rare event, but a lifestyle that is possible each and every day. Hope is possible every. single. day.
Have we lost the passion of that message? Because we disagree on so many things. Because we have different expectations about life. Because we come from different places with different experiences. Because we simply feel disagreeable, disgruntled, and disappointed so someone needs to be blamed?
An underdogged, underpriced, undervalued, disregarded horse who shouldn’t even have been in such an elite race, wins. Because there isn’t a way to put odds on a horse’s heart. There isn’t a way to put odds on human hearts either. Human hearts can change, can muster up courage we never knew we had, can remain open when all else tells us to be closed, can be tender even when the likelihood is getting hurt. In other words, there’s no account for the human heart having unreasonable hope. Odds are that may not make a difference, maybe even 80 to 1 . . . but what if, once in a lifetime, once in a century, once in a God who never gives up on humanity, it does? What if, in fact, it does?