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Authors: Kevin Chong

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BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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Of course, 2–3–6 wins. I gather enough courage to return to the backstretch and run into Randi in a stall with Sylvester.

“There you are,” she said. “I was wondering where you were. I thought I'd scared you off the other day.”

“What are you talking about?” I say, feigning nonchalance as I pet Sylvester, whose eyes look bloodshot. “Did you see Alex's numbers pay out in the eighth race?”

Randi laughs. “Yeah, but they were the favourites.”

“Still,” I say. “What's wrong with Sylvester's eyes? It looks like he has hay fever.”

Randi doesn't look too concerned. “Probably got some dirt in them.”

I head into the break room, where Shawn and Nick are watching a replay of Sylvester's race on the simulcast. The horses are running down the stretch.

“I hit the super on that one,” Shawn says proudly. (For a superfecta, you pick the first four horses in correct order. Generally one makes more than one superfecta bet in order to hit it.) “Keyed Sylvester in with a bunch of others.”

The replay of the fifth race starts playing.

“My sister bet on the four-horse,” Nick says. “I tried to convince her otherwise, but she liked the name.”

“Sucker bet,” Shawn says.

I don't mention how I bet on the four-horse. Alex enters the break room, looking as he always does, crazed and amused.

“Did you bet 2–3–6 on the last race?” I ask him.

“Of course I did,” he says. “It only paid $54.10, but those are my numbers. Like I told you, the key to it is consistency.”

A WEEK AFTER sending Carole Serene a picture of Sylvester and a list of questions, I get a response from her by email. “I enjoyed Sylvester very much; he has wonderful, gentle energy and wisdom, and a very cute nature,” she writes to me. After Randi and I have time to “live with this information,” she suggests that we arrange a follow-up communication.

The accompanying Word document reads like the transcript of an interview. The conversation starts with Carole asking Seth for permission to speak with Sylvester. Then it's Carole and Sylvester on the line:

CAROLE SERENE: Randi and Kevin have a great deal of affection for you and they want to be sure you are well and happy, so they have said it would be okay for you and me to talk so you can tell me if there's anything concerning you, or if you hurt anywhere, and how you feel generally about your life right now.

SYLVESTER: Oh I see, my goodness, this is a surprise for me. I'm just a horse here, so many horses here, and I didn't think I was special to anyone. Are we going to talk about me?

CAROLE SERENE: Yes, we are here to talk about you, only you. How do you feel about Randi?

SYLVESTER: Oh yes, Randi is good to me and we are friends. She takes good care of me and I have good food and she looks after my legs nicely.

CAROLE SERENE: Does she understand your mind too?

SYLVESTER: Oh yes, I think, she does know what is in my mind. Sometimes I am thinking something and she knows I am going to do it. She's quite smart you know.

Carole then asks Sylvester if he's disappointed when he loses a race:

SYLVESTER: Oh no, we take turns, you know. Some days we feel good and go faster than others and some days we hurt somewhere and can't, so we know that is how it will be. Some people here are disappointed sometimes, but I know I do my best always.

CAROLE SERENE: You used to get hormones before races, do you miss that?

SYLVESTER: What are hormones?

CAROLE SERENE: I believe it was something, maybe in your feed, that helped you to be stronger and run faster. Do you miss having that to help you run?

SYLVESTER: I don't know about that, I just eat and run and eat what I'm given...

Then Carole asks Sylvester how he feels about Blackie:

SYLVESTER: Oh, well, I do think that she is okay. Maybe not my favourite.

CAROLE SERENE: Does it bother you that she gets so much attention?

SYLVESTER: Well it shouldn't, no, but I like my time with Randi so much, well, you know, I am bad about this maybe. Well, I don't have to be silly about her attention to her, I know, because she likes me very much and I know it.

CAROLE SERENE: Well, you have just talked yourself out of jealousy haven't you? [Pause] Never mind, it's okay.

Later on in her transcript, Carole asks the question I'm dying to have answered:

CAROLE SERENE: Kevin has asked if you were upset when you were gelded and how has it changed your life?

SYLVESTER: Gelded?

CAROLE SERENE: Yes, castrated.

SYLVESTER: Oh that, well not very nice you know—not nice at all and we did not like this at all and it hurt and I thought I had been a bad horse and was being punished. Was I?

CAROLE SERENE: No, Sylvester, not at all, you were not a bad horse.

It's surprising to me a horse would not understand the word “gelded,” and yet know the word “castrated”—then again, is this the right moment to approach the situation logically? For a moment my skepticism builds, but then I get to the point in the transcript that concerns Sylvester's health. Carole hasn't met Sylvester, nor has she been given any information on his physical ailments outside of the questions about hormones.

CAROLE SERENE: How are your legs?

SYLVESTER: Oh, sometimes they are very good and other times, well, you know. I get swelling and soreness.

CAROLE SERENE: How are your eyes, Sylvester?

SYLVESTER: Why do you ask?

CAROLE SERENE: Not sure, I was just compelled to ask about your eyes, anything to tell me?

SYLVESTER: Well, they hurt sometimes.

CAROLE SERENE: What kind of hurt?

SYLVESTER: Kind of scratchy.

CAROLE SERENE: What does that look like for you, seeing funny?

SYLVESTER: Blurry a bit.

CAROLE SERENE: You know what, Randi will read this and if she doesn't already know, she will watch for this and take care of it for you.

SYLVESTER: Thank you.

14 See the World

CELESTE AND I were in Louisville, Kentucky, when we started talking about our next trip. We left the breed ing tour in time to catch the last few races that day at Churchill Downs, before spending the night at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. Under the hand-painted plaster-relief ceiling in its airy lobby lounge, we sampled a flight of bourbons in a high-backed love seat as teenagers on their prom night slipped into the hotel ballroom, which was shuddering with Top-Forty hits. We went back to our room, watched downloaded 30 Rock episodes lying on my bed.

“Last night in Lexington, I was half-asleep and didn't know where I was,” Celeste admitted in the dark, from her own bed. “I thought I heard something, so I got up and saw you standing over the toilet taking a leak.”

“What's so funny?” I asked. “Didn't like what you saw?”

“It's been a while since I shared my space with anyone,” she said. “I've missed it.”

“Do you ever think about—” I started. “Never mind.”

“What?”

“Do you ever think about what it would be like if we did it?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“But I always thought it would ruin our friendship.”

I groaned. “Before this week, I hadn't seen you in nine years. What kind of friendship is that?”

“True enough,” she admitted, “but I'm still getting over my breakup.”

“Well then, what are you doing later?” I asked. “Maybe in August?”

“I don't have anything planned this summer,” she said, after mulling it over. “It's possible.”

From this tepid reply, the wheels start grinding on another long-distance excursion. I decide this trip has to be racing-related so I can write it off; I also need an alibi to hang this trip on, lest my Kleenex-soft plans with Celeste fall through.

And, of course, they do. It's July, and we're on Skype. Celeste doesn't have a camera so I stare at a blank screen while she watches me eat buttered toast in a sleeveless undershirt.

“Um, sorry about my appearance,” I say into my laptop. “It's hot out here.”

“How dare you?” says the voice in fake outrage. “I'm wearing makeup to talk to you. I bought a new dress for our Skype session.”

I smile. “And yet you can't get a webcam?”

“I actually put masking tape over it; there's only so much technology I can handle.”

We trade quips until the issue of the trip comes up. “Are we still on for August?”

“You know, I don't think I can make it.”

I'd braced for this; I half expected it. “Yeah, you're probably busy.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Plus, the guy I started dating and I are going to Ireland in the fall, and I can't really afford two trips.”

I hadn't expected that. “Oh.”

“Yeah, it just sort of happened. We've got a really intense physical connection, but he can be so antagonistic. Plus, he keeps a gun in the glove compartment of his car, which is pretty fucked up.”

I realize that Celeste can see how crestfallen I look online; now I wish my own webcam was disabled. “Oh.”

“I know you don't want to hear about it,” she says. “I'm sorry.”

“Then why do you tell me about it?”

“I don't have many people I can talk to.”

Relating this exchange, I realize there's a version of it that's fairer to Celeste and less self-serving to me, a version that more forcefully portrays yours fondly as someone who can't take a hint, but I'm unable to offer it. Until that moment, there has been a corner of my heart reserved for her; after that conversation, it clears up. At least I'm grateful for that.

In front of my computer, I stare down at my to-do list with determination:

1.
BECOME A HOME OWNER
BOUGHT A RACEHORSE

2.
FIND TRUE LOVE
VISITED A BREEDING SHED

3. SETTLE DOWN & START A FAMILY

4. SEE THE WORLD

5.
LEARN ANOTHER LANGUAGE
TALKED LIKE A RAILBIRD

6.
START A RETIREMENT PLAN
REDUCED GAMBLING LOSSES

7.
GET A TATTOO
SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED GETTING A TATTOO

Looking back on my trip to Kentucky, I decide that maybe it wasn't about finding true love; maybe it was about seeing the world.

DESPITE THIS INEVITABLE disappointment, I can't escape feeling that I need to see more of that world. Except for my horse, there's nothing keeping me here this summer.

A week after my conversation with Celeste, I spend the evening browsing online for airfares and hotel deals while drinking Pimm's in Jamaican ginger ale with mint. It's about 3 AM when I finally go to bed. Out of habit, I've left my computer on, with the chat feature for my online profile still set on “available.” When the chat program chirps awake, I consider letting this new message go unanswered. But I'm too curious about who might be saying hello this late. So I step back out of bed towards my desk.

LINDA LEE: Your late nights online will shorten your life.

KC: I will die of happiness. What are you doing up so early?

LINDA LEE: Coffee, yoga (I tried to fight it), then work.

KC: How long has it been since we last talked?

LINDA LEE: You mean, when was that supremely awkward goodbye? I dunno. I was waiting for you to make the first move.

KC: I'm not so forward nowadays. What have you been up to?

LINDA LEE: Being a librarian. Busy with work, personal bullshit.

KC: Personal BS = Your relationship status changed?

LINDA LEE: How nice of you to point that out.

KC: Moving on...

LINDA LEE: So, how about you? Are you up late trawling for a hookup?

KC: Uhh, actually, I was about to go to sleep.

LINDA LEE: I was reminded of you the other day.

KC: Good or bad?

LINDA LEE: Sort of good. Someone on the bus was complaining about a prize-winning book you hated. He sounded like you, too. Kinda funny, mostly whiney.

KC: Which book?

LINDA LEE: I forget now. I'll remember once we finish chatting.

KC: “Chatting.”

One of the places I'd been thinking of visiting was the track in Saratoga Springs, New York, in time for the Travers Stakes. A side trip to Toronto wouldn't be too far out of the way, would it?

KC: It's funny you're messaging me now. I was going to contact you to say I will be in Toronto at the end of the month. Are you around?

LINDA LEE: Well, I live here...

KC: Okay, would you consent to see me?

LINDA LEE: Consent? You want me to donate a kidney?

KC: Drinks?

LINDA LEE: Uhhhhhhh, maybe not.

KC: Oh.

LINDA LEE: I'll be on a cleanse.

KC: Really? Until the end of the month?

LINDA LEE: I'm waiting until you get here to start it.

Maybe this trip won't be about seeing the world; maybe it'll be about finding true love. I guess I'm either a romantic or an idiot—probably both.

LINDA LEE AND I met while she was completing a library sciences degree. The first couple of times I saw her I forgot her name but knew she was the person I ran into everywhere I went. The impression she eventually made on me was that she was evasive; she said as little as possible without seeming either shy or above-it-all. This I found hard to resist, but then I came on too strong, was turned away, and was left to waddle to a shadowy corner of the room. Later on I saw her again with friends at a bar and we kept talking until there was nobody left.

My favourite memory of Linda Lee occurred a month after that, when we drove down to the Oregon coast and slept on the beach in only the duvet I snatched off my bed. While crossing the border, we'd bought fireworks from a roadside stand and tried to set them off that night, but the matches we had wouldn't light in the ocean breeze. A tall dude in dreadlocks appeared, like a shaman in Birkenstocks, from the swatch of hippies at the bonfire in the distance, handing us a log that was lit at one end. She took his torch and started lighting up our stash—the first bottle rocket shot out sideways towards the ocean. That was when I knew I had fallen hard for Linda Lee. She was a librarian with the heart of a shoplifting runaway.

When I was hanging around her, Linda Lee was still recovering from a broken engagement. I pretended I didn't care how she was half-present and fiercely independent. She liked me and didn't want to like me. It's funny, in an awful way, how another person's ambivalence firms up my own resolve: my heart sits on one end of a teeter-totter.

To make things worse, I was desperately trying to cram every possible bit of incident and chaos into my life to atone for my overly studious, incident-starved youth. I was behaving with the kind of reckless abandon I'd always valued in principle but could rarely muster myself. These were all conditions that allowed Linda Lee and me to accidentally conceive a child.

OVER THE NEXT month, I book my ticket and my rental vehicle, post-haste, and then get on a plane. We settle for breakfast at a diner near the house where I'm staying. She arrives at the booth still wearing her bike helmet, apologizing for her lateness as she shucks off the orange reflective vest that covers her wispy frame like a sandwich board. She's grown her hair out in the past two years, but then I know that from poring over her online photo albums. In fact, the first half-dozen things I ask her about, like her job, the well-being of her parents, her cat, even the knitting blog she used to maintain, all elicit answers I already possess and she likely knows I possess. But I ask them anyway, just to enter this information into our public record. She orders a western omelette, which she consumes head down, like she's reading a book.

“Why are you smiling?” she asks me.

I pick away at my pancakes, but there's no point brushing it off. She'll pester me until I tell her; so I tell her. “You always eat strangely,” I say. “You treat breakfast like a mid-term.”

Her eyes fall on me like thumbtacks into corkboard. “You used that line before,” she says, the corners of her mouth turning down. “It was funnier the first time.”

“Sorry, I'm out of practice.”

She eats like that to avoid eye contact, the same reason she draws on coasters at bars and knits mittens on streetcars. But today she's also eating quickly because she's in a hurry. When she's done, she apologizes again for having to leave to run an off-day errand. As kiss-offs go, it could be worse. At her insistence, we split the bill. Outside on the sidewalk, I watch her unlock her bike.

“This wasn't as bad as I thought it would be,” she says. “How long are you here for?”

“I've got plans tonight,” I say, “and Thursday.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“I was planning to go to the track,” I say. “No one wants to go with me.”

“Woodbine?” she asks me, buckling her helmet strap.

“Yeah,” I admit reluctantly, “but we could go somewhere else.”

“No, I'm cool with that,” she says before pushing off into traffic. “Text me the details.”

THE NEXT EVENING, when I arrive in my rental car, Linda Lee is waiting for me outside of her apartment in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood. “I knew it would be you when I saw the car pull up two feet from the curb,” she says, stepping into the car. “You're even wishy-washy about parking.” It's the last week of August, and it's not quite warm enough to wear a track-appropriate frock, but she has on a wide-brimmed hat and a string of pearls as well as her T-shirt, cardigan, and jeans.

“You know what I'm excited about?” she asks me as we pull away. “Gambling.”

I nod rabidly. “I've gone five days without a bet.”

“I was in Atlantic City last year before my sister's stagette and won $1,200 on the slots,” she says. “It was better than falling in love. Have you gotten any better at playing the ponies?”

“Marginally,” I say, wincing at her reference to our last trip to a racecourse.

“And did you bring a map?” she says. “I don't know how to get to Woodbine.”

I point to the GPS mounted on the air vent. “We've got this. I bought it last year when I almost drove into a ditch heading to a wedding in the suburbs while trying to read the Google Maps printout on the steering wheel.” In its stern, Midwest-American female voice, the GPS directs me onto the Gardiner Expressway. “Now I have no trouble getting to weddings, but this thing's not much of a date.”

She points at the machine. “She's bossy. How do you put up with her?”

She groans as we ascend the expressway on-ramp and find our place in the late rush-hour traffic. “When are you going to New York?” she asks me.

I already mentioned that I was leaving two days from now. “Friday.”

“Who are you bringing with you?” she asks, and I sense an opening for an invitation.

“No one,” I tell her. In fact, the idea of driving alone for twelve hours straight terrifies me. “What are your plans this weekend?”

She hesitates. “There are a couple of things.”

“Can you get out of them?” I ask.

“Maybe.”

“When was the last time you went on a last-second road trip?” I ask her.

“I don't care to say.”

From the highway, we see the track, a glass and concrete structure painted the same kind of industrial, mustard colour that you'd see on a suburban entertainment complex with auditorium seating and food courts.

The original Woodbine was in the east end of the city, launched in 1874 by a local businessman, Joseph Duggan, who named it after a pub he once owned. New Woodbine Racetrack opened in 1956 and was the location of Secretariat's last race in 1973 and a Breeders' Cup in 1996; it still hosts the Queen's Plate, the oldest continuously run stakes in North America.

Inside, I squeal at the sight of the three different racing ovals that make up the track. There's an inside dirt track that runs seven-eighths of a mile for harness racing, then a mile-long synthetic racing oval, one of only nine artificial surfaces in North America for thoroughbreds. The outermost track, the E.P. Taylor turf course, is a mile and a half long—a gargantuan length for North American racing. It acquired its name from the tycoon who not only founded the Jockey Club of Canada, but also owned Northern Dancer.

BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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