Authors: Kevin Chong
Tags: #BIO026000, #SPO021000
“Keep yourself in the best of company, and your horse in the worst.”
ON THE FIRST Saturday that May, Hastings Racecourse feels as festive as a can of mushroom soup. Under a low-pressure system, the careworn racetrack is almost fullâif you're seeing double. I'm perched on a park bench on the outer lip of the undersized dirt track, opposite the tote board, which tallies bets and odds and post times in blinking lights, next to the infield's duck pond. Right now, the actual racing oval sits empty during an extended intermission in the card while the Kentucky Derby is being contested kitty-corner across the continent.
From the bleacher seats in the grandstand, painted the same military green as the barns in the distance, a conga line of bachelor party attendees, toting wallet chains and tribal tattoos with their turned-brim fedoras and Hawaiian shirts, the body spray wafting in their wake like a propane leak, tumble down the aisle to the beer tent. They pass the box seats reserved for the families of the owners, the faux-jolly lumber magnates in jeans and windbreakers. Outdoors, I conclude, is for the few youthful poseurs present today.
I'd gladly lump myself with the railbirds, the silver-haired punters, who are all watching the real action onscreen in one of the dozens of simulcast screens playing in the grandstand basement. The stout, moustache-bearing guy next to me, who smells more of coffee than beer or mint julep, is chatty like an expectant daddy. When our eyes meet looking down from the screen, he taps his program. “I've got seven keyed to four, five, and fifteen on a triactor,” he says proudly. “The seven-horse came off the pace to win in Arkansas three weeks ago.”
“I bet on seven, too,” I admit reluctantly, knowing it will feed our bond. (Mutuel betting at the racetrack means our fortunes will be won from or lost to those who bet on other horses. Like poker, gamblers play against each other and not the house, which only pulls in a rake.) “It's been a while since I've had a good day.”
“I hear you,” he says. “Last time I got lucky was the seventies. I was at the border with an ounce of hash in a Thermos and they searched the car ahead of me.”
“Why do you keep coming back?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Every day is new.”
As the horses are escorted into the gates, I step away and blend back into the crowd. Planted there, we cock back our heads like we're at the dentist's, making polygonal, root-canal faces as we clutch our mutuel tickets. On that Saturday that May, 153,563 people in Louisville are packed together, in the stands and infield at Churchill Downs, to watch million-dollar racehorses run for two minutes. As I look around, the crowd isn't nearly as drunk, as event-attired, or as hyped-up as the people at the Derby. On the plus side, no one in this half-filled track can be seen publicly urinating.
If anyone's making a puddle around me, it's because of prostate surgery. After all, the primary demographic at Hastings Racecourse is old and male, equal parts white or Asian, plus a sprinkling of men who mutter to themselves in nicotine-scorched Caribbean English. In their fraying argyle sweaters, their tweed blazers and baseball caps, their sensible sneakers and fanny packs, these horseplayers squint away at their copies of the Daily Racing Form, cross out the low-paying favourites from their copies of the racing programâwhich details the performance history of every contestant, equine and man, from a trainer's winning percentage to a horse's prize earningsâwith emphatic X's, and sift through the shifting onscreen odds. All of them take one collective gasp as the horses onscreen pop out of the gates like corks from champagne bottles.
For most of the broadcast, the pacesetter is a horse named Regal Ransom. It's only at the top of the stretch that another three-year-old called Mine That Bird threads his way to the rail and begins to pull away from the pack. The announcer for the NBC broadcast seems to disregard the 50-to-1 long shot until, in the final stretch, when his victory is nearly cemented, he takes notice and his voice rises abruptly like an airbag that inflates two beats after fatal impact.
It should be an exciting finale, but all those around me groan as their wagers are snuffed out. “You think that horse even knows it won?” says the guy next to me, tearing up his mutuel tickets. “Horse won a million-dollar race and all it'll get is a bag of carrots.”
Onscreen, the commentators gnaw through the gristle of the bet-busting finale while the winning horse idles on the toffee-coloured Kentucky dirt track, calm and unimpressed, as his rider inhales the boozy grandstand cheers. The horse I bet $10 to win, Dunkirk, stumbled out of the gate. And Papa Clem, the seven-horse I bet to show (i.e., finish in the top three) was edged out for bronze at the wire. In real life, I don't part with money this easily. I take out movies from the library and purchase toner-refill kits for my printer on eBay; I buy the coffee that's on sale, not the kind I really like. Gambling, then, is self-betrayalâlike being an Amish astronaut.
Hateful notions spin-cycle within my skull. I curse out the horses as million-dollar pigs, pedigreed abominations. I curse out the jockeys as pampered, albeit skilfully waxed, tree monkeys. And then I curse out the over-biting, rheumy-eyed oldsters around me who've won moneyâmy useful, young-man moneyâtoday, wishing eight o'clock dinners and kidney stones on them all. No wonder this sport is dying, made irrelevant to today's gambler by looser gaming restrictions and more expedient methods of wagering: online poker, Internet sports betting, virtual backgammon, video slots, and, of course, casinos within walking distance. A half-hour passes between races at any track; living in this hurry-hurry world, people can't lose their money fast enough.
Of course, my sense of being financially violated is compounded by the fact that I'm here to see my own horse, which I bought with my own money, race for the very first time with me as her owner. What seemed enticing as a wouldn't-it-be-nice scheme now feels disorienting and costly.
I join the bettors outside on the apron, the paved area between the track and the grandstand. Like its aging clientele, Hastings is not without charm, but is far from its most dapper, dewiest prime. Beyond the newly installed slot machines, the racecourse, built in 1889, wears its recent paint job like a threadbare but freshly pressed suit. Behind the grandstand you'll find the outdated hockey rink and the charmingly creaky amusement park, which sits quietly until the summer, when the annual fair, the Pacific National Exhibition, lets city kids pet farm animals and eat deep-fried Oreos. Beyond the track's dirt oval, the immense, eggplant-purple mountains squat on their haunches behind the Cascadia Terminal and the ships in the port. It's a tycoon-pricey view in a predominantly working-class neighbourhood; if the city were drawn from scratch today, the track wouldn't be allowed these sightlines.
A pre-recorded fanfare trills over the PA. The four-legged land yachts float down the front stretch in single file. One of these horses, my horse, is a five-year-old, bay-coloured mare with a white star between her eyes. Her official name is Mocha Time, but she has been nicknamed “Blackie” by her trainer, Randi.
Later, I will learn that Mocha Time likes bananas; that she has the equine personality of a biker chick; that she was considered promising, then, before she was rehabilitated by Randi, deemed a glue-factory candidate; that she earns her keep as a bottom claimer, the lowest rung of racehorse, by substituting raw exertion for ability; that she makes cheques despite an ungainly gallop. But, when I see her then, she's just another horse.
“Why are you looking like someone fucking died?” Randi asks. She's a lanky, outwardly gruff woman, in her forties, with large, deep-set eyes. She speaks with a drawl, almost from the side of her mouth. “You should be excited.”
“I lost some money.”
“Big deal. Anybody else who'd have a horse racing would be thrilled.”
I shake my head vigorously. “If I were any more excited, I'd be in diapers,” I insist.
In truth, “excited” isn't exactly how I feel. It's more like a low-level agitation that comes when I insert myself into a place I don't belong, among people I don't fully trust; among people who, in turn, see me as a disingenuous boob. I also feel the guilt that comes when I'm unable to share the excitement felt by others, because I've spent an entire life trying to conceal emotion and avoiding collective outbursts of feeling. Like during many of my endeavours, I've entered a self-obsessive state that makes me wonder whether, instead of a heart buried in my chest cavity, scientists of tomorrow will find a double-stuffed baked potato.
So, in fact, “excited” is only partly how I feel.
AS FAR BACK as I can remember, I always never wanted to own a racehorse. In fact, as a child, I never wanted to own a racing greyhound, too. Oh, and one of my earliest memories was not wanting to own a sailboat, Jet Ski, catamaran, or canoe.
To me, those kinds of big-ticket possessions represented immodesty and waste. They signified inessential responsibilities, beyond the responsibilitiesâfamily, friends, dog, and workâthat you would be damned to shuck. These were items that weighed you down, even while they're meant to make you feel as though you weren't weighed down.
Why, then, did I buy a horse? Off the top, I should come clean. As an author, journalist, and all-around enthusiast, I wanted something to write about, an assignment that would double as an opportunity to be cool. Other writers visited war zones or camped out at research libraries for years at a time. I wrote about safari resorts and high-end slow cookers. In articles and in memoir, I'd cannibalized my life in comfortable locales. Owning a horse was, in a way, just another opportunity for self-exploitation. In the back of my mind (and in the front of it), I was hoping to squeeze a book out of it.
But that was only part of it. The other part of the explanation requires some backstory. At thirty-three, I'd run through my adult life avoiding commitment. I'd never had a full-time job; most of my boy-girl relationships had expired before I needed to change water filters. This made me happy, or at least not unhappy.
Then, late in 2008, my father was hospitalized twice. The first time, a bleeding ulcer spun itself into a silent heart attack.
My mother called me with the news. “The doctor says it was fatal.”
Everything inside me clenched; the pores on my skin closed. “What?”
“I said, the doctor says he's stable.”
A month later, his kidneys stopped working. At one point during the second ER visit, my father clutched my hand in his hospital bed. “If I go,” he told me behind his oxygen mask, “I want to be cremated. I have an insurance policy with your Uncle Eddie, and another one from work.”
“That's not going to happen,” I said, squirming, as always, in moments of great sincerity. “It's not.”
My father nodded, if only to make things easier for me.
While he eventually recovered, his illness left me quaking for weeks afterwards. The personal freedom that I'd fought so hard to maintain exposed me. I saw myself not as free, but untetheredâlike a tent that hasn't been fastened to ground, batted into the trees by a strong wind. The idea of being weighed down with possessionsâif not by a family or a jobâwas newly tantalizing.
Stupidly, stupidly, I felt I could acquire stabilityâstupidly, I knowâby buying real estate and taking on a mortgage. At least I didn't find a mail-order bride (check back in five years). I scoured online listings for a condo I could afford as a self-employed writer. Through my own cautious spending and fastidious receipt-keeping, I had enough pocketed for a down payment on a one-bedroom or studio apartment in the kind of older building with a lobby appointed with pea-green shag carpeting, plastic plants, and thirty-year-old copies of National Geographic.
Leave it to me to buy at a time when most people were avoiding large purchases. My father's run of poor health had roughly coincided with the 2008 plunge in global financial markets. Real-estate prices had already begun to drop, but, in Vancouver, actual crack houses selling for half a million dollars incited bidding wars. In that period, editors I had worked for regularly were telling me that their budgets had been restricted; others were given unpaid work furloughs or laid off altogether. I had every reason to sit on my savings and see how bad the year would go.
Even with all that in mind, I was determined to own property. My friend Harris, a real-estate agent, took me on as a client with the same mixture of contrarian pity, showboating, and sense of challenge that a lawyer might have representing a skinhead in a murder trial. The two of us spent five consecutive weekends perusing condos in my price range.
After drifting in and out of a batch of cramped, soupy-smelling condos, I began to dread each coming Saturday. To live in a place that was half as nice as the moderately nice apartment I currently rented, I'd deplete my savings to make mortgage payments that were one and a half times my monthly rent.
What finally turned me off from home ownership was a visit I made to one condoâa “great starter”âthat was supposed to come with a bedroom and an office. When Harris and I arrived, the selling agent was attending to a dithering couple in their twenties who wanted to know whether their Australian sheep dog would qualify as a medium-sized dog, the kind allowed by the strata.
“The maximum weight is thirty pounds,” the realtor said.
“How much does our dog weigh?” the woman asked her domestic partner.
“Forty,” he said. “No, thirty-five.”
The realtor's eyes ripened like manure. “Could you put him on a diet?”
When the agent was free, I asked her about the office. She led me to a narrow, windowless room off the kitchen that looked like a walk-in closet.
“You slide the desk in sideways,” Harris told me helpfully. “This could be the perfect place for you to look at porn and write impulsive emails.”
Flop sweat clouded my forehead. Remaining at the edge of the room, I imagined someone locking me inside it and forcing me to write book reviews and press releases until my captor was ready to harvest my skin.