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Authors: Kevin Chong

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BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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“He's got a cute little mug on him,” Randi admits, before lighting a smoke and addressing the foal, whom she later names Freddy, directly. “Dude, you better not be gibbled.”

AFTER DROPPING TODD off at a bus stop in New Westminster, Randi takes a winding on-ramp to the highway back to Hastings, where I'm parked and where Randi's friend and client Ardenne is awaiting her at the casino. The traffic is less gnarled on the way back. I'm happy to be up front with the window down. Even half of one of Randi's workdays exhausts me.

“Where did my smokes go?” she asks. “I might have lost them.”

This is the third time today that Randi has searched frantically for her smokes. She panics about her cigarettes the way some people worry about leaving the stove on.

“You probably misplaced them,” I suggest.

She finds the smokes in a pocket of her mailbag. “Okay, here they are.”

Randi tells me she's been smoking since she was twelve. “I quit once for seven years, it was all right,” she says, one side of her mouth dropping, looking unimpressed. “I always kind of wanted a smoke. I taught myself to knit because I couldn't stand not having something to do with my hands. I just can't sit around.”

The flow of traffic congeals as we approach some roadwork.

“What was your mom like?” I ask her as the roller coaster in Playland comes into view. It's been a question I wanted to ask for a while now.

“She was like a mom, you know what I mean?”

I nod.

“She stayed home with the kids. It's weird how that can happen and affect all sorts of things. I think that's why I can't stand people who are whining all the time and can't do nothing for themselves.”

Actually, the opposite is true. Randi almost completely surrounds herself with helpless creatures and people who both infuriate her and satisfy her need to be needed.

I don't say this, of course, but, this time at least, Randi seems to catch herself in a contradiction. “I mean, I might put up with you and pay for your stuff,” she says, “but I'll think of you as useless.”

LATER THAT WEEK, on the day of Blackie's fourth race that season, it's hard to say whether Randi's pessimism about the horse's chances is just her everyday pessimism, or whether she truly dislikes Blackie's chances against what she deems, with the exception of nine-year-old Grayross Gal, a “bunch of pigs.”

Trainers are routinely pessimistic the way horseplayers are perpetually optimistic. In either case, good luck merely confirms their disposition. A down-to-his-last-penny punter who hits a big bet thinks the universe has finally righted itself. A long-suffering trainer whose horse manages to win reminds herself of all the races where the same horse has lost running better.

“The vet scoped Blackie and said she has a paralyzed flapper,” Randi announces in her tack room. “That's why she lulls at the ends.”

A horse has two flappers in its larynx, which are made of cartilage and regulate the air that gets into its lungs. A common affliction among horses, a paralyzed flapper restricts a horse's oxygen intake and adversely affects its performance.

“Can you do anything about it?” I ask Randi.

She shakes her head. “You can give her some bronchial dilators, but you're not allowed to run on them. She's probably only getting eighty percent of her air, on one side.”

Even with this diagnosis, Randi's more worried that law of averages will work against Blackie, who has already put forth three good efforts and is due for a poor outing. “She's run hard three times already in the past six weeks,” she says. “That's not easy.”

I return to the frontside because I've invited my parents to the race. I made a reservation for 3:30 PM at Silks, the track restaurant, fully expecting them to be late. Tardiness runs in my bloodline, just like gout and nearsightedness. Inviting them here is something new for me. As a kid, I didn't really want my parents at my school concerts or games, lest it ruin that version of myself carefully constructed for the consumption of friends. Out of habit, this practice has extended into my adulthood. My life outside our family has always been related to them in a self-consciously offhand, casual way. In breaking out of this routine, I'm doing this to show them why I'm at the track, and also because it's Father's Day tomorrow.

When my parents arrive, I lead them to our table overlooking the finish line. We order lunch just as the horses are led through the post parade.

“Which one is yours?” my dad asks, looking out the plate-glass window.

“Number seven.”

My dad, in a checked blazer and turtleneck, peruses the racing program. “Why aren't you listed as an owner?” he asks me.

“The paperwork is still being processed.”

My dad sniffs. “Are you sure they didn't just take your money?”

My mother's amused that I have to own a horse in order to write about it. “I'm glad you're not writing about lion-taming,” she says. “Or homosexuality.”

I begin to gasp but swallow my astonishment. “Not at the moment.”

My father, still suspicious of my racing involvement, scans the room, as though he's afraid he'll be mugged. “When you wrote about the ladies of the night,” my dad says, referring to an article I wrote about survival sex workers for a women's magazine, “did you bring one home with you?”

I cringe and shake my head. On our trip to Macau in March, my dad wanted to take me and my mom to the place where the sex workers gathered to parade themselves in a circle. I had to beg my dad not to go. I really don't know what it is, maybe some kind of atavistic paternal yearning, but he seems to enjoy picturing me with a professional.

“The race is starting,” I tell them. “She's number seven.”

The horses emerge from the top of the lane. With Perez on her again, Blackie narrowly avoids a competitor bobbling out of the gate and weaves towards the rail as they head into the clubhouse turn and the jockeys flash their white breeches at us. At the first turn, Blackie is three-quarters of a length behind Grayross Gal, who's wearing white blinders.

“Twenty-three and change,” I announce. “She's still got gas in her tank.”

Perez keeps his lines low on Blackie, holding back the horse, whose mane is whipping back in pretty tendrils, from going at full speed. He loosens his grip at the half-mile mark, allowing the horse to make her move; he drops one hand from the reins and gives the horse a couple of swats. Rider and horse take a half-length lead over Grayross Gal at the top of the front stretch.

My mother yelps and my father bunches his hands together as Blackie builds on her lead. Blackie's knees start going higher, as though she knows her victory is already clinched. On replays, it definitely looks as though she's skipping to the finish.

Maybe the sweetest moments in life are those exhilarating seconds that precede your getting something you really, really want. Not getting what you want stinks, obviously. And getting what you want happens so infrequently it can be too dumbfounding to enjoy completely, it can lead to disappointment or some other unforeseen, ironic complications. But the time that elapses between knowing you're going to get something good and getting it is like a death march in reverse—a joy march. It's as if helium is running through your bloodstream, your head and your limbs feel like parade floats tethered to your feet. Your heart fills out your chest like a bag of microwave popcorn. Your face tingles as though you're mainlining champagne.

There are maybe ten seconds after Blackie takes the lead where her victory seems all but certain, where I can safely savour victory; it's like cheering for a team with two minutes left in the game and an insurmountable lead. If the average person were to add up those moments of bliss, would it even exceed the time it takes for him to get to work on any given day, or the time spent waiting on hold with the cable company? I doubt it.

“IT'S MOCHA TIME TO SCORE,” the announcer says from the loudspeakers. “GRAYROSS GAL SECOND, MYSTIC PASS THIRD.”

Not having trained or taken care of the horse, not even having been a fractional owner for more than two months, I don't really deserve to feel as proud as I do. It's not my style to act as though I care about things; I am not one to emote. But then I flash through all the times that life hasn't set up for me the way I wanted it to, all the close calls, turn-downs, coulda-beens, wish-I-hads, aches, and regrets. I turn to my parents beside me, who put up with my glowering teenage years and noisy guitar noodling, whose cars I dented, who put me through an expensive grad school, and whom I haven't repaid with grandchildren. I decide not to fight this feeling.

Even my father, who could never resist indulging my passions, no matter how foolish and expensive—I had a better guitar collection that any sixteen-year-old I knew—is swayed by my enthusiasm.

“I'm going down to the track for the winner's photo,” I tell my dad. “You want to join me?”

“That's okay,” he says. “Enjoy yourself.”

I bounce down the stairs between owner's boxes and to the apron, where I shake hands with Randi's crew and Blackie's other owners—people I only met in passing. We step into the winner's circle, which resembles a bus stop with its glass awning, where we each, in turn, give Randi a hug and shake the jockey's hand.

“I could get used to this,” I tell Randi, who's not so much excited as she is pleased that everyone around her is so happy.

Randi tells me to turn my head. “Look at the photographer.”

9 Sid Martin, Part One

A WEEK AFTER BLACKIE'S win, I'm still strutting as though I have a tallboy beer can for a dong—shoulders flung back, chin in the air, theoretical package up front like a blind man's cane. How soon before I need my own urethra bean extracted? When relating this victory, I begin by saying how richly undeserved it is, but then proceed to explain, with my eyes flashing like safety flares, how I had it coming to me.

Even while seated at my desk, I can barely lock down this cocky swing. It's past midnight when I drop my work—online research in preparation for an assignment in the Yukon—to begin writing my how-to manual on leadership and success: The Winning Ticket Inside You. The cover would have me in a leather jacket, holding a glass of champagne while sitting atop Blackie. My fingers prance along the keyboard at full speed:

CHAPTER ONE

Don't let your miserable bank balance fool you: it's not how much you invest, but how much you invest of yourself.

All my life the pulsing desire to become a professional sports owner persisted, if not in the foreground, then in the bowels of my hopes and aspirations. Not being even faintly interested in the nicknaming and group showering that denotes jock culture, I nonetheless loved competition, the talent portion of the pissing contest—when you go for accuracy, flair, and eye contact. I wanted to live, like the gamer at his frosting-smudged keyboard gaping at his onscreen avatar, through the exertions of finely trained athletes, whose physical cunning and hard-won skills were catalyzed by their unstinting impulse to outrace, evade, and topple their opponents, to share in their triumphs and the crushing disappointments that set up the victories sweeter than grape drink and barbecue sauce.

As I survey my Tudor-style estate with garden topiary in the shapes of arrowheads and sea cucumbers, my library filled with first editions of other bestselling manuals and literary erotica, my closet stuffed with never-worn socks, and as my super-stacked wife—a physics professor and former elbow model—brings me pancakes in bed after delivering our three beloved children to boarding school for their fall term, I recall how it all started when I bought a cheap thoroughbred named Mocha Time.

She was the horse no one believed in; I was the part owner who needed to learn how to believe in himself...

Of course, the scenario I present is fully delusional—at least for now. To make myself credible, I need triumphs that will lead to adversities that will make me hungry and grateful for the crowning triumph. To that end, I decide to buy into another racehorse.

The next day, while we're on her mail route, I tell Randi about my plan. We're now midway into the racing season and the weather has turned muggy. I hold together in the heat as well as a chocolate bar, so, to avoid turning into a sweet, brown puddle, I hide under trees while Randi slips through the squawky metal gates of another house.

“At the rate Blackie's going,” I tell Randi, early on the route, when I'm still chatty, “I'm going to break even—at least. So, I figure, why not double down?”

“Well, there's no guarantee she'll break even. You'd be lucky if that happens.”

“I know, I know.”

“The only horse I have is Sylvester. Unless you want to buy into Riley.”

“Well, I was thinking of maybe getting another trainer.”

“Oh,” she says, breaking into a smile. “Why not?”

“It might be fun to meet other people at the track. And also, I want to diversify my holdings.”

“Yeah, I figured you for somebody who won't go all in on one thing,” she says. “You kind of float around, don't you?”

“Yeah...” Why did I think it was a secret?

It doesn't take long for the heat to wear us both down. Saddled with a bag of mail on each of her hips, Randi starts staggering, her elbows pinned to her sides. (Canada Post forbids non-employees from handling the mail, so I can't help carry her bags.) Clutching mail to her chest, she approaches each door as though she were a mime pulling an imaginary plough. At one house, she finds a garden hose and douses her head; she seems no less relieved than the horses she waters down after a gallop. She perks up momentarily when the dogs on her route run up to their backyard gates and start yapping deliriously. To the animals that don't cost her money, she's the fun aunt, throwing three or four biscuits apiece.

“You know what I need?” she asks me after tossing out Milk-Bones. “I need my own cookie. The other day, someone gave me a cookie because I looked like I was going to fucking die. She said, ‘Oh, you look so awful, I brought you a cookie.' Well, I said, ‘Fuck, I was going to kill myself, you saved my life.'”

“Was it a good cookie?” I ask her.

“Oh, it was fucking awesome,” she says, laughing. “It had chocolate chips, pecan, and cranberry. And it was freshly baked.”

Randi's got a registered letter for this woman today, so if she's home, she's going to ask her for more cookies.

“I ain't shy that way,” she adds.

“Get on it, then.”

By the time we reach Adanac, a street with almost no shade, I can't be bothered to speak much. As she pulls out the registered mail, Randi turns to me: “This is the lady who gave me cookies.” I watch from the sidewalk as an elderly woman with glasses and a perm answers the door. She doesn't recognize Randi.

Randi presents the registered mail for her to sign. “The other day, your daughter gave me a cookie.”

“Yes?” the woman says, with an accent that I can't quite locate. She signs the package.

“They were really good cookies. You don't have any left over, do you?”

“Yes,” she says flatly, placing one hand on the edge of the door.

At this point, I could go for a midday sugar boost myself, but this woman takes the registered mail from Randi and shuts the door without even thanking her.

This snub makes Randi extra-generous with the next dog that comes mooching for a snack. Once she's completed her route, we get into her car and get iced coffee from a Starbucks drive thru, only a few blocks from Hastings.

“If you really want to buy another horse, you don't want one of them new-age guys,” Randi says between sips. “You need to find someone old school, someone who remembers how great racing used to be.”

“Who'd you suggest?” I ask.

She thinks, then her eyes pop. “What about Sid Martin?”

“Who's he?”

“Sid's from the old days. He was a jockey here, long time ago in the forties,” she says, as we turn onto Renfrew Street. “Then he became a big-shot trainer in California. I worked for him at Santa Anita in the seventies, but he only remembers me from when he came back here, about twenty years ago. Do you know he had a horse that finished third in the Kentucky Derby in the seventies?”

“Wow.”

“The same horse finished third in the Preakness and fourth at Belmont.”

“When's he at the track?” I ask.

“In the morning, like everyone else. We could look for him tomorrow.”

“Actually,” I say, “I'll be in Dawson City for an assignment.”

“You're always going places, aren't you?”

It's true. I'm always hot for an excuse to board a plane, especially when there's someone else footing the bill. Unlike Randi, I don't mind “visiting”—seeing the sights and drinking local beer—so long as I can leave before getting bored.

But when you're coming and leaving, again and again, it starts feeling as if you're not arriving anyplace new. You're going the same direction, around and around. Then again, maybe everything reminds me of horseracing these days.

I MEET WITH Sid Martin when I get back to town. At eighty, he is trim and precise in his appearance. His blue eyes seem granite-carved in a circumspect squint, and he keeps his top lip in a flat line, like a big-league coach who's accustomed to scrutiny from the cheap seats. Slightly built, he has a neatly tapered face, with a swoop of wavy white hair underneath his tweed flat cap. I find him outside Barn M and he leads me to his car. In a cardboard box, he has four thick albums' worth of material.

“That has everything you'll need to know. If it was this day and age, you'd never have these scrapbooks,” Martin says, cracking open one album. “The newspapers don't cover it anymore.”

By the opened rear door of his station wagon, we begin flipping through the carefully preserved collection of newspaper clippings, photos, letters, telegrams, get-well cards, and old racing programs. When I find out that Sid currently trains four horses, three of which he owns, I mention my desire to buy into another horse. “Would you be willing to sell a share of one of your horses?” I ask.

“Two of them are sick with this cough going around the track,” he says, brushing off my assistance and carrying the heavy box into the trunk of my car.

“I understand that a horse at the track died,” I say.

He nods. “I wouldn't be doing you any favours.”

Martin—who was born in 1929, the ninth of ten children, in New Brunswick, before moving to Vancouver at the age of four—suggests we sit down at Trackers for lunch. As he recounts his racing glories, he speaks in a low mumble that comes from his disciplinarian father, an upholsterer who served in the British Navy at fourteen. “I wouldn't dare say ‘Speak up' to him,” Martin says. “I talk as low as I do because of him.”

In his whispery voice, Martin explains how his entry into racing came through one of his brothers, who shared a tent in the army reserves with a prominent local bookmaker, Abe Forshaw, during World War II. Martin's brother told Forshaw about his runty younger brother, who was fourteen and weighed only seventy-five pounds, and the bookie gave Sid's brother a note to hand to his trainer Sleepy Armstrong, who ushered eventual Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden to riding. Sid started out as a hot walker and groom, making five bucks a week.

Martin only made it to Grade 8, passing off his aversion to book-learning as a family trait. “I told people I was in Grade 4 four times,” he jokes, “because they didn't want me in the same room as my dad.”

In re-telling his stories, Martin steadies his voice as he builds to his punchlines. The squinty blue eyes flash momentarily behind his square-ish, wire-frame glasses and when he laughs the tension drains from his face, which ripples as he smiles. You expect to hear an imaginary rim shot and cymbal crash after one of his better zingers—like that joke about his dad being a superannuated fourth-grade student, which I later find in a newspaper article published four decades earlier.

Under trainer George Irvine, Martin galloped in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and New York, where he remembers watching Triple Crown winner Assault and fellow champion Stymie “kick the hell out of each other” in training. It was at Jamaica in New York that Martin got his jockey's licence, though he received his first mount as an apprentice rider, or “bug boy,” in Seattle in 1947. At Longacres, he broke his maiden on his fourth mount on one of Irvine's horses, Latin Agent. (Like “backside,” the term “maiden” has a couple of meanings in racing parlance. It's used to describe horses, male and female, that have never won a race. A new jockey can also “break” his or her maiden with his first victory.)

“Martin went to work with a vengeance and poured through the stretch to a lip victory in a three-way photo,” reads one unattributed newspaper clipping in his scrapbook. “A live boy and apparent[ly] fearless, the curly-headed youngster seems destined for a chunk of fame on horseback.” One day that year, Martin would win on every one of his mounts, going five for five. “Don't ask me how it happened,” the teenaged Martin says in another clipping. “We just seemed to get there first—all five of us.” (He must have meant “all six of us”—or was misquoted.) That season, he was the leading apprentice and second overall rider at Longacres, and the leading rider at Playfair in Spokane.

Martin was a jockey for another year, racing at Lansdowne, the other track in Vancouver's suburbs, as well as Bay Meadows in California and Caliente in Mexico. In his third season, Martin—on the tall end for his profession and therefore prone to weight issues—found himself fighting horizontal expansion.

“Did you flip?” I ask Martin, using the innocuous-sounding jockey term for the habit of self-induced vomiting that helps desperate riders make weight. Flipping can leave riders malnourished and weak, and has been cited as a cause of rider fatalities.

Martin, who now weighs 138 pounds, says he dabbled briefly with flipping, “but there were riders who were riding thirty years and they did that every day.”

From those jockey days, Martin recalls extreme diets—one in which he ate only tomatoes and eggs—and running in a rubber suit to keep his weight under 115 pounds. After his second season, he decided not to ride, and let his weight climb to 152 pounds. “They talked me into trying to ride the third year,” Martin remembers. “I couldn't have an ounce of fat or liquid and the most I could get down to was 117 stripped—that means 122. The day before the races started, I quit. I ordered a steak and, while I was eating that steak, I ordered another one and, within three days, I was back to 150 pounds.”

For five years after he was finished as a rider, he hung around the track as a jockey's room attendant and an exercise rider and worked at a men's clothing store before he picked up his trainer's licence in 1954 and won big races at Hastings, including a one-two finish in the 1965 B.C. Premier's Championship with Costa Rica and Fleet Runner. (One of the horses Martin currently owns is named T Drive, the name of a local stakes winner he had in the 1950s. With the exception of famous horses—you can't, for instance, name your colt Seabiscuit—a thoroughbred's name can be recycled five years after the original horse finishes racing.)

In 1967, Colin Campbell, a local businessman who'd made his fortune building highways during the war, offered Martin a job as a private trainer for his horses at Santa Anita and Holly-wood Park. Martin was thirty-seven, married with a young family, and well established at Hastings when he accepted that job. “I didn't want to spend my life thinking ‘I could've been big league,'” he says.

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