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Authors: Kevin Chong

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BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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In the end, owning a condo was more of a commitment than I could handle. And maybe it was more than I needed. Why make a U-turn in my life when a couple of left turns around the park would do? Moreover, buying a condo didn't offer enough razzmatazz for my cash outlay, and razzmatazz, after all, was my crack. I needed ownership plus sizzle. From this criterion, I began searching for a suitable alternative: a cabin, a houseboat, a lot. It was during a lager-fuelled brainstorming session that a friend who knew about my casual interest in horseracing arranged a meeting with her co-worker at Canada Post. This co-worker trained racehorses on the side and was willing to sell a share of her cheap thoroughbred.

Randi and I met at the track in the off-season. It was a cold night and Jerome's, the below-ground racetrack bar, was sparsely occupied. Only the diehards, the barnacles of the front-side (betting areas), were there watching daytime simulcasts from Australia. Randi, who was wearing a thick turtleneck sweater, sat at the bar, talking to an insurance salesman and thoroughbred owner who explained how one could deduct the cost of buying and maintaining a horse, even write off part of it as a depreciating asset under livestock. “I'm taking it easy now, but back when I was making one-hundred-fifty, two-hundred grand, there was no better tax shelter; I owned half a dozen horses and it actually saved me money,” said the insurance salesman, who wore a dry-cleaned denim shirt underneath a windbreaker. “Some people have RRSPs; I own horses.”

The insurance salesman left to make a bet. “I'm not saying that guy was lying to you,” Randi said, “but a lot of racetrackers exaggerate some of the time. The first thing I should tell you is not to believe everything everyone says here. You know what I'm saying?”

I bought Randi, who rarely drinks, a hot-buttered rum. We relocated to the far end of the bar, away from the winter-season punters, where I asked her about her horses. “They're all trouble, all the time,” she told me. “I know you want a story out of it, but I can't sell you Sylvester, because he's too expensive. He's my favourite. Riley's hurt himself before that cocksucker's ever ran a race. Tell you what? I can give you a piece of Blackie.”

“I could afford maybe a hoof,” I offered. “Maybe a hank of mane.”

She ignored my wisecrack. “She's no fucking Ruffian or anything, but she tries her little guts out.” She wrinkled her face into her glass mug as though its contents were cough syrup. “So, was your dad into racing?” she asks me.

“Uh-uh, he doesn't gamble.”

“Your mom?”

“Just mah-jong.”

“So how the fuck did you hear of the track?”

“In high school, I read all these books by Charles Bukowski,” I told her. “He always wrote about going to the track in L.A.” The skid-row bard's autobiographical stories about journeyman gamblers—guys who punched into Hollywood Park, day in, day out, like factory workers—still carried weight for me, even while his depictions of damaged women and flophouses now only induced skin-crawling visions of chlamydia and bedbugs.

Randi seemed amused by my aspirations to be a seedy bookworm. “Post Office was pretty good,” she said, referring to his autobiographical novel about his much-loathed career delivering the mail. “I always tell people if they want to know how fucking miserable it is to work at the post office, they should read that book.”

I followed Randi outside for a smoke. In the winter chill with a view of the empty paddock, my toes numb in my dress socks, I half-hacked through the cigarette that I cadged from her.

She eyed me eyeing her, trying to surmise my shit from my truth, as I tried to extract the vitriol from her small talk. I set my squint at her as some hay-pitching carnie fixing on her mark—a four-eyed chucklehead who turned people into fictional entities. Who was ripping off whom?

From this uneasy first get-together, I agreed to buy a share of her horse. Actually, there was no suspense there. Before even meeting Randi, I'd decided it was the perfect purchase. I could have that taste of ownership that I recently ached for, but also, at the same time, a piece of a four-legged thrill machine. I would get a laminated pass into a world that had always fascinated me from afar, while joining what I felt were rarefied ranks. People might want to read about it.

I would write Randi a cheque for a four-figure sum. I didn't invest a huge chunk of my savings, nor did I promise to hold onto my share of the horse beyond the year. When that first race was being run, I hadn't yet written the cheque. I could still back out, I reminded myself.

I was like that—cautious in my irresponsibility, astutely unwise, committed to keeping my options open.

“DON'T GO BEING all disappointed,” Randi says, the ever-present cigarette hanging out of her mouth as Mocha Time is put in the gate. She's already warned me that Blackie won't be as sharp as the others, who have all competed since the season began three weeks ago. “She's as good as any of the other horses, but they have a fitness edge.”

We settle into a spot with Nick, a jockey's agent and licensed trainer, by the top of the stretch as post time approaches. In his forties, Nick is solidly built, has curly, greying hair and a half-obscured British accent. He helps out with Randi's horses, takes care of a lot of her on-track business, including the paperwork for some of her horses.

“I'll be happy if she finishes in the middle of the pack,” says Nick.

The six-and-a-half-furlong race (a furlong is an eighth of a mile), for fillies and mares three years and up (fillies become mares when they turn four), lasts under a minute and a half on Hastings's dirt track. The horses are loaded into green iron gates located on a chute that leads into the top of the front stretch. The gates open and they fire out, thousand-pound animals running at thirty-five miles an hour. Starting seven places from the rail, Blackie is vying for fourth with a couple of horses at the start of the first turn, running on the outside edge of the frontrunners, and fading further into the pack as the race straightens out to the backstretch—the far straightaway. “Oh, this is not good,” says Nick. “She's hung out bad.”

“That's no good?” I say, echoing Nick like a dweebish toddler.

Randi shakes her head. “When you get hung out wide, you lose too much ground.” Translation: a horse that manages to hug the inside fence runs a shorter race than one that runs outside.

As we begin to lose sight of the horses behind the tote board, Blackie gathers speed and falls just behind the two favourites, often referred to as “the chalk,” of the race. Even in her red saddle cloth, she's hard to pick out in the distance.

“THEY'RE MIDWAY THROUGH THE BACKSTRETCH NOW AND PEACEBETHEJOURNEY COMES WITH THE LEAD,” the announcer, Dan Jukich, who calls the race the way you'd imagine an auctioneer would call a hockey game, barks on the PA, the cadences of his voice galloping along with the horses, “LADY VITESSE RIGHT THERE ON HER OUTSIDE, MOCHA TIME WITH ONLY A THREE-QUARTERS DISADVANTAGE IN THIRD.”

“She's running okay, but she's going to tire out,” Nick says, snorting ruefully. As he leans back to catch the horses as they return to view, it seems like his prediction will bear out. At the top of the front stretch, Blackie is overtaken by an eight-year-old mare named Sultry Eyes. “She's going to split the field, just like I thought.”

“Come on!” I say, testing out a yelp cautiously, the way I would a taser or a curling iron.

All around us, people are bouncing around with their tickets; as horses are picked off, so are these bettors, who shoot their eyes away from the racing oval in disgust. The horses streak towards the finish line, and there's little uncertainty that my bet is toast, but Blackie doesn't fade as badly as Nick predicted. In fact, she manages to hang on, in a photo finish, for fourth—good enough for a $600 sliver of the purse. Of that, I get $60.

Randi nods nonchalantly, as though she saw it coming. Like all the horsemen I later meet, she never lets on being fazed. “That wasn't so bad,” she says, moving to her horse, hands in her hip pockets. “Like I was saying to you, it's not easy for a horse to win. So many things have to work out right.”

Nick hustles past her. Farther on, he runs onto the track and takes Blackie's leads from the jockey, Keveh Nicholls. I watch them as they disappear into the barn.

Flashing my owner's licence at the security desk, I step through a door by the paddock off the edge of the track, down a long, concrete corridor, and slip into the stable area, a village of olive-grey, single-storey barns with corrugated tin roofs. Outside their shed row, Blackie is being held in place by Alex, an eighty-year-old hot walker who lives in Randi's tack room. A hot walker's job is to lead the horse around the area known as the “backside” to cool her off. While Alex struggles to keep her in place, Nick hoses her down.

The horse is excited, like a schoolyard brawler who's socked his first glee club member of the new school year. She shuffles sideways on the paved road as she's being hosed. Nick moves roughly in step with her. I back away from this terrifying animal until I'm at a shouting distance.

“We need to calm her down,” Nick tells me, “from all the adrenalin.”

“Is she happy about how she did?” I ask.

“She ran wide, which means if she ran on the rail she'd be ahead by six lengths,” says Alex, offering his gummy smile. Alex is not much more than five feet tall and is wearing, as he always does, long johns under shorts, taped-up workboots, a plaid shirt, and a fading Belmont Stakes baseball cap. Prior to residing at the track, he lived in a trailer at the junkyard.

“She was not discouraged,” Nick explains. “You know what I mean?”

“What does that mean?” I ask him.

“That there's hope.”

Hope, I will later learn, is a kind of currency at the track; people always seem happy to carry it in their pocket. Everyone but me. I'm already living on hope. Is it too greedy of me to ask for more—to have, and not hope?

2 Backside

HEADS OUT OF their stalls, a row of horses eye me down like nosy neighbours as I approach them in Barn A. It's a pleasant surprise that the backside (or backstretch—the same name for the far lane in the racing oval) area doesn't have the piercing outhouse odours of a petting zoo on a summer day, but gives off earthier, more wholesome scents: hay, sweat, and liniment oil. After my underwhelmed reaction to the first race, I figure I should redouble my efforts to fall in love with racing. To that end, I've come to Randi's shed row, with her permission, to see how horsemen really behave.

Each barn is made up of a couple of shed rows, which are occupied by different stables, each of those headed by a different trainer and its own private fiefdom. Although the number is always in flux, Randi currently trains about eight horses, three of which she co-owns. Collectively, these horses, at any given moment, nurse a barrage of ailments—knees with chips in them, sore ankles and hooves—that are related to the strain of horse-racing and the fact the animals are bred for speed, not sturdiness.

By comparison, some of the bigger trainers at Hastings, the ones at the top of the standings in the programs, have upwards of fifty horses. The larger, more impersonal stables operate like small contracting outfits, with men and women in plaid shirts trudging single-mindedly, not wanting to make eye contact, lest I distract them with my artful badinage. As they lead sweaty horses, the hot walkers yell “centre” or “coming through the middle” as they pass through the corridor that bisects the barn. Alex strides by, singing to Sylvester as they loop the barn.

“I can't talk to you right now,” Randi says on my first visit at eight in the morning, holding a clump of dung on her pitchfork as she stands in an empty stall. “No questions.”

“I'm not asking any questions.”

“You're always asking questions.”

Feeling unloved, I leave Barn A for the stands by the top of the track's backstretch. Some of the horses are galloped or “breezed”—given a brisk jog around the oval. Others are “ponied,” which is when a horse is escorted around the track by someone on a pony. The horses thud along the packed-dirt course. The exercise riders press their knees into the horses' sides and thrust their asses in the air, forming a wishbone, upside-down Y silhouette. Trainers, who determine the correct sequence of gallops, pony rides, and workouts to prepare their horse for a race, linger in the stands or in a corner of the track, sometimes with binoculars in their hands. A gallop or breeze is more of a jog than a sprint, twice around the track, and used to keep a horse conditioned. A work or work handily is a more intense run that's paced closer to actual race speed—when a horse is run at eighty-five percent of full race speed.

A horse bucks its rider into the dirt and goes zooming around the course until another mounted rider grabs his reins. I see Blackie, who doesn't like being galloped, being ponied by Mikey the exercise rider. As Blackie and Mikey and his pony approach the owner's box, I nod at them as though they're waiting for my approval. None of them, of course, notice.

It was Nick and a friend who bought Blackie cheap as a two-year-old from a horseman liquidating his holdings. The horse was sired by a successful local stud named Vying Victor, who retired as a four-year-old with $537,414 in earnings and was a top-ten sire in North America as recently as 1997.

Through Victor, Blackie has Northern Dancer, the twentieth century's most prolific sire, in her bloodline. That's not really saying much. Being related to him is like a Mormon being related to Brigham Young, who had fifty-six children and today has six hundred namesakes listed in the Salt Lake City phone book alone.

Nick has a taste for wheeling and dealing, and the horse was thought to be a potential champion, a distressed property that had been overlooked by others. As a two-year-old, Mocha Time, who likes to run up front in a race, won at allowance—a mid-level type of race between claiming and stakes races. But in her third year, she showed little talent and Nick wanted to dump her. As Randi tells it, she was the single person with the patience and perseverance to salvage the horse's career. Last year, Blackie won over $20,000, which was enough to pay her way, even if it wasn't the big jackpot originally envisioned.

The sun is out and I linger in it even after Blackie is returned to the stable. As the horses pass, I notice the exercise riders, also known as gallop boys and gallop girls, singing to their horses; others cluck at them; another repeats to the horse, “concentrate, concentrate.” The horses breathe noticeably harder on their second time around the racing oval. Sometimes, the gallop boys will rein back their mounts lest they use up too much energy before a race.

When I return to Barn A, Blackie is back in her stable; she's still panting and her coat is damp.

“Hey,” I say, with the same unnaturally bright tone I use with my parents' dog. “Nice run.”

The horse's eyes pass across me quickly, then she swoops her snowshoe-sized head into her stall to grab a bite of hay. So far, all my interactions with the horse have invited unwanted high-school memories. If I come with peppermints bought from the tack shop, she'll deign to take the candy from my hand, and I'll feel as though she's just allowed me the privilege of doing her math homework for her.

It's not as though I need her to fawn over me—that would be nice, of course—and it's not as though I've spent much time around her. I don't expect her to stamp her feet when she sees me, and pine for me when I'm away—that, too, would be nice. The other horses let me pet them; and I don't even help pay for their oats.

“Who do you think you are?” I ask her, trying to joke off my frustration. “Ruffian? Zenyatta? I guess you're not totally wrong to be high on yourself. I mean, you're not that bad for a cheap horse.”

She sticks her head out again. It's as though I've caught her attention with my backhanded compliments. But when I lean in to pet her snout, she lifts her head so it's out of reach.

IN THE CONVERTED stall she uses as a break room, Randi keeps a loaf of Wonder Bread, cans of coffee grounds, a mini fridge, a container of Tums, and a couple of chairs and couches. The walls are blanketed with winner's photos, newspaper clippings, and snapshots of her friends and some of the horses she's trained. On the door, where other trainers might have custom-made signs for their stables, she keeps a World War II–era Rosie the Riveter poster. It's not so much an office as it is a clubhouse, lived in to the point where the clutter feels deliberate, glacially forged. I'm hanging around here when Randi pokes in her nose.

“Where is everyone?” she asks me. The cigarette in her mouth isn't so much like an extra appendage as it's like an external life-support system—like the portable ventilators that weak-lunged people carry with them. She's holding a jar of ointment, a paintbrush, and a rolled-up bandage. “Where did everyone go?”

“I'm here,” I say, knowing that she needs someone useful.

“I need someone useful,” says Randi, whose ancestry is half Swedish and half Italian. The Swedish part of her bloodline, to borrow a horseracing term, comes out in her dark blond hair and steep nose; her Italian half comes out in her caramel complexion, the big, deep-set eyes, and her temperament.

She gives me the once-over, from my dress shoes to my glasses. “Actually, maybe you can help me,” she says. “All you've got to do is hold May.”

I reluctantly follow Randi into the stall. May, whose official name is Athena Estates, was nicknamed for her birth month. She's a brown filly owned by a chicken farmer. I take her bridle and try to conceal my trembling.

“Is May the one who's got chips in her knees?” I ask.

Randi crouches down to the stable floor. “No, that's Sylvester.”

“And that's the one you give bute, too?” I ask, referring to the analgesic, as I grin at the horse, whose eyes have the shape and colour of chocolate hedgehogs.

“No, that's Legend. It lubricates his joints.”

I'm pleased by how easy May is to handle. I tell myself the horse and I are in perfect harmony. Could I be the pied piper of the shed row? I've soothed her by matching her power and unruly energy to my own masculine grace and sensuality, like a horse-whispering Kenny G. One day soon, I vow to myself, this will be Blackie and me.

But then Randi bursts our smooth-jazz mind-meld.

“You know what?” Randi says to me, picking herself off the ground. “I'm going to give you a lip chain to keep her from moving around.”

“I'm getting used to this,” I say. “Do we really need a lip chain? Also, what's a lip chain?”

Randi returns with a leather strap attached to a chain. “I can't have her fucking this up,” she says. “I'm telling you, if she fucks this up, she's going to be sore.”

She slips the lip chain under May's mouth and around her top lip, then over the top of her head, and hands me the lead. “It's your own fault, May,” she says to the horse. “I can't have you moving around. You're bad all the time.”

“Is this like a choker for a dog?” I ask her.

“It's going to keep her attention. Now I'm going to tie her up. Now don't pull on it too hard but make sure she stays still.” She ties the horse to the inside wall.

“If you want, you can go like this with your other hand and close her eye so she doesn't see me doing it,” she adds, cupping her hand around one of May's big brown eyes.

With eyes on each side of its face, a horse is able to see three hundred degrees around—which is why blinders are often put on horses to focus them. Equines also have trouble seeing objects directly in front of and behind them. And while their night vision is superior to humans', they have difficulty seeing the colours green and yellow.

I try covering May's eye.

“You're not doing it right,” Randi says.

“Sorry.”

“Just cup it.”

The thing is, I thought I was cupping it. How could I screw that up? Now I no longer feel as though I am communing with an animal. Randi crouches down to the stall floor and, with the paintbrush, starts swabbing something that smells vaguely like nail-polish remover on May's left front leg. Pigeons and other small birds who sneak into the barn and poop in the stalls chirp and croak above us.

“What's that ointment called?” I ask her.

“Oh, this is just alcohol.”

She starts to apply the cool cast, a slimy-looking medicated bandage that she rolls around May's leg.

The horse fusses. “Pull on the lip chain,” she tells me.

I give the chain a little tug. I'm sorry, I think-speak to the horse. Please don't kick me; we've still got a good thing going, right? Randi tries again to get the cool cast on May, but she keeps moving her leg.

Randi begins screaming.

“Oh, this is NOT HAPPENING. I fucking HATE this,” she says. “If she stands still, this would be no fucking problem. You can't fuck this up.” She looks up at the horse. “YOU FUCKING COW! Forget it, I'm fucking choked. Too many questions. I'm fucking grumpy now. She wrecked my fucking cast. I got to get someone else to help me.”

“Sorry about that.”

“It's not your fault,” she says. “I'm aggravated. There's no one here. It'd be real simple if I had help.”

I linger in the stall as Randi grumbles. Months later, I'll learn that the owner had already stiffed Randi on several thousand dollars; she was stressed, in part, because she knew that the horse's performance was the only way she'd make back some of that money. “What am I going to do—kill it?” Randi will say. “It's not her fault.” Later on, I'll realize how this episode is, in some ways, atypical. But right now, I'm a little terrified.

A minute later, Randi returns, unable to find anyone else to help her, so we try it again. She takes the lead of the lip chain from me and gives it a sharp yank. “Go like that.” I go like that.

She notices that I've been letting the lead dangle. “You hold it around, so they don't step on it and then pull their face,” she says, folding the free lead in her hand. “I'm giving you the crash course. Because if I namby-pamby around, it's no fucking good, you know what I mean?”

I nod, mostly because I don't want her yelling at me.

“It takes two fucking minutes if they stand still. We don't want the cast to dry out either, because it'll cut the circulation to their tendon.”

This time the horse stands still enough for her to get the cast on, which she holds in place with an elastic bandage. The horse looks pleased to be finished, as does Randi.

“May, that wasn't so fucking bad, now was it?” Randi says to her, voice growing pillowy. The horse snorts, as though to concede her point.

My first day in the backside has left me feeling more comfortable around horses, but more afraid of Randi.

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