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Authors: Kevin Chong

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BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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“I thought you'd never go into the family business,” I said to him, bending the card he handed me.

“It was hard to avoid,” he said, maybe a little defensively, as we watched his children playing in the backyard gazebo. “Plus, it was the only way I could afford to move back.”

Earlier in the year, Harris agreed to buy into Mocha Time with me, but he told me that his wife vetoed the decision. Since he only seemed to be humouring me when I talked about owning a horse, I doubt he mustered any resistance. Still, he joins me for her second race of the season, on Victoria Day. By the time the races start, the rain, a predictable groin-punch to long weekends in these parts, has stopped. Blackie is kept in the stable, facing the inside wall, so that she can stay calm before the race, so we head outside to buy some hot dogs and plastic cups of beer.

Settling onto the cleanest park bench we can find, Harris fixes his eyes on the jockey statues in the infield. Those painted, waist-high figurines, which have the names of horses and owners that won big races at Hastings—the B.C. Derby, the B.C. Cup—inscribed on them, are like what championship trophies are to sports teams. “If you win today,” he says, “do you get your name on a little man?”

I shake my head. “Uh-uh, I can't afford a horse like that.”

“Right, those are the big-time races,” he says. “And in the race you're in, if your horse loses, they take her away from you?”

“I've already told you that.” While the class of race Blackie finds herself in is the most common type of competition at the tracks, it's still excruciatingly difficult to explain.

Unlike the horses in stakes and allowance races, the ones in claimers can be purchased for a set price before the races begin, and races are classified according to price range. The rationale for this is to ensure a competitive contest. Because horses of equivalent prices race together, someone entering his $50,000 horse might have a greater chance with horses running at the $5,000 level, but he would also see his horse snatched away at a fraction of her true value.

When your horse is claimed, you find out only when a red tag is placed on the horse's bridle immediately after the race. Any prize money earned in the race that day still goes to the original owner, who also receives the money from the claim. And even in the unlikely case that a horse breaks its leg in that race, it still belongs to the person who files the claim.

The nature of the claiming races strongly encourages a dispassionate approach by owners and trainers to their horses. Racehorses are like stocks: they should be sold high and purchased low. A smart trainer who knows a horse's best gallops belong to bygone summers would race her at a price where she might be offloaded. Often enough, a horse inspires more emotion than equities. A prideful owner, for instance, will hold off from running an expensive horse that's never met expectations at a lower price.

At one of the betting windows under the grandstand, I bet $20 across—three $20 bets on the horse to win, place, and show—on Blackie. (Officially, owners are only supposed to bet on their own horses. In reality, there's no one watching if you bet against yourself.) We return to our bench to watch the horses march in the post parade. Some march calmly without any apparent anticipation; others step with spiteful-seeming unruliness.

“Can I ask you something?” Harris says. “Would you laugh if I wanted to start writing again?”

“That'd be good,” I say. “But isn't the housing market heating back up?”

“It is, but what if I were telling you I wrote a novel this past winter, when nothing was selling?”

“I'd be impressed,” I say after a long pause.

“Are you willing to read it?” he asks me as we watch the horses load into the gate.

“Of course,” I say, turning away from him. “The race is starting.”

Blackie starts sixth from the rail, with Fernando Perez, a twenty-three-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, riding her, in a field of eight horses. “HERE THEY GO!” the announcer growls, as the horses pop out of the gate. “MOCHA TIME TAKES AN EARLY LEAD. MOVING THROUGH IS TRIOLA. YOU'REJUSTLIKEME, SHE WANTS TO GET THROUGH.”

As the horses blow by us, their heads bobbing forward and their manes streaking, I stutter back from the fence. Blackie leads at the clubhouse turn—the first turn—followed closely by the race favourite, a horse with the ungainly name of Peacebethejourney. (The Jockey Club in New York, which officially approves the names of every thoroughbred in North America, limits names submitted by owners to eighteen characters, blanks included, which accounts for the popularity of compacted names like Peacebethejourney.) The horses lock into each other, testing themselves against the other, neither letting up.

Mocha Time runs the first two furlongs in 22.92 seconds. Over the course of a race, the average time for a horse to run a furlong is about twelve seconds—a time that grows harder to beat as the furlongs add up. Given her level, at the pace she's going, she'll have nothing left by the end of the sprint. We lose sight of the horses behind the tote board. When the horses emerge again, bundled tightly like a bunch of grapes, Randi's little mare has managed to fend off Peacebethejourney up front, but that effort turns out to be too gruelling.

A horse has only finite amounts of acceleration and determination, which must be rationed judiciously by the jockey. In the final turn, when a race becomes serious and the horses that have been carefully held back by their riders are finally sent, the other favourite, Sultry Eyes, moves into second by the rail and starts charging from inside.

“SULTRY EYES TRYING TO CLOSE UP ON THE INSIDE, NOW WILL BURST THROUGH,” the announcer blurts out as Blackie is passed, “SULTRY EYES TO SCORE, MOCHA TIME SECOND.”

“No no no,” I yelp, head folding towards my lap. “No no no.”

“Oh, man,” Harris says, “I'm sorry. I thought she was going to win it.”

I nod.

“Second's not so bad,” he says limply. “Now that I've seen a race, I can see how it might beat owning a studio apartment with a view of a sulphur plant.”

“Yeah.”

“Or a carriage house with a recently replaced boiler room.”

“Yeah.”

“You know, it's only your second race as an owner.”

Across the fence, we see the jockey of the winning horse shaking hands with the trainer after dismounting. Then he greets the owner of the horse, who has gathered for the winner's photo with his towheaded family, who move into portrait formation as though choreographed. To my eyes, they assemble for the picture with a baffling lack of excitement, like a frequent flyer going through a metal detector for the sixth time that week.

Envy dimples the skin on my back. I feel like the lonely guy in the movie who walks by happy couples laughing together on park benches, or the horny dude on the beach who sees T. & A. everywhere his eyes fall. I want to photo bomb this portrait, force myself into the frame, and pretend to dry-heave as the shutter snaps. More than I envy the owner's wealth, I envy and resent the ease he possesses. The track belongs to people like him.

I should be counting my money instead, the $63 I make on my place and show bets and my share of $2,200 for second place. But, for the first time, I understand why you'd want to win a race. It means beating people like the ones I see right now. I want my own winner's photo, I want my name on a statue of a jockey—and I want it now. Is there a term to describe suddenly coveting something you had never previously considered coveting? The Germans must have a compound word to describe it, something that might literally translate into “heart-yearning that is backdated.” In this language, all we have is “that's racing.”

4 Making My List

ONE AFTERNOON, AFTER I watch the horses exercise again, Randi invites me to follow her on her mail route the next day.

“It'll be fun,” she says. “You'll get to see a day in the life of a postie.”

“But it'll ruin the mystery for me,” I say. “Fine, I'll go.”

Nick gives me the side-eye. “She's always trying to get people to follow her on her route,” he snickers. “You're the newest sucker.”

Like Randi, Nick started out at the track as a teenager; in his case, he came to the track shortly after his family arrived from England. He was a jockey's agent last year, lining up mounts for a rider, but told me he didn't like the deception that came with it—telling two trainers, for instance, that his rider is available for, say, the sixth race, and then stiffing one of them. This April, he's been working with the overflow horses of another trainer.

The next day, Randi picks me up a few blocks from the track in her car. She unlocks the passenger door of the mini-Jeep, a two-door four-by-four parked outside the stables. Before climbing in, I need to move a shoulder bag full of mail to the back seat; a box of granola bars has been thrown onto the dashboard and a box of dog cookies sits opened on the floor of the passenger-side seat. “All my friends know if you want to hang around with me, you've got to be fucking doing something. I don't do that ‘visiting' very well.”

We drive eight blocks from the track, pulling over on a residential street lined with stucco-covered bungalows and their carefully groomed lawns. Right now, while other neighbourhoods in the city are covered in cherry blossoms that are as festive as candy wrappers, the streets here are largely treeless. Though many of the homes here are half a century old, there's an open, suburban feel to the area.

“Four hundred and fifty-six houses every stinking day,” Randi groans, looping the strap of the shoulder bag over her neck and tossing a cigarette into a gutter. “Once I've done the horses, that's my main objective, I'm already fucking tired, and then I come out here and I've got five more hours to go, right?”

Randi used to work as a trainer full time, but started at Canada Post in the off-season almost twenty years ago. Delivering mail gives her a salary and a pension, but its predictability drives Randi almost as bonkers as the crisis-a-second free-jam at the track. Her two-job day starts in the stables, where she feeds, cleans, and works with her horses. Then she goes to the post office to sort through her mail, and drops sacks of postal matter at various storage boxes on her route. In the afternoon, she delivers the mail she's already sorted, then returns to the track to serve her animals their dinners in the early evening.

To train a horse for an owner, Randi gets $55 a day during the season. From that she pays for the horses' feed and bedding. Every horse eats hay, about half a bale a day. The hay is about ten bucks a bale. Oats, which give a racehorse the protein it needs for sprinting, cost $16 for a thirty-three-kilogram bag. A thoroughbred eats about a bucket a day.

Because she runs her stable like a halfway house and hospice for both ne'er-do-well horses and delinquent humans, Randi's income is drained by the horses she owns herself, especially those who don't perform well. Like Riley, who was spooked by a pile of dirt and hurt a ligament before the season began. Then there are the delinquent owners who fall behind on their bills, people who haunt the backside like fruit flies when their horse is doing well but stop answering her calls the instant their horse is sick or not earning cheques.

I watch Randi hauling up and down steps and through creaky gates, cutting across lawns to reach side entrances. “If I didn't own any horses and had all pay horses and delivered the mail, I'd be making five hundred bucks a day,” she says, almost as though she's scheming. “And if I weren't so tired, I'd get a band together.”

In the near past, Randi and some other racetrackers formed a band that played at backside parties. Randi would sing Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan songs. “This was back when I was fun—when the whole track was more fun,” she says. “Do you want to hear me sing Nina Simone?”

I expect her to sing raspy, like Janis Joplin, but her voice has a jazzy burnish, and for a second she's neither that growly horsewoman nor the beleaguered postal worker. “I want a little sugar in my bowl / I want a little sweetness down in my soul,” she sings, “I could stand some lovin' oh so so bad / I feel so funny, I feel so sad.”

“Not bad,” I tell her.

She smiles. “Not bad, right?”

I follow Randi as she criss-crosses the residential street, which ends with a wire fence that faces the highway, so she doesn't have to back-track. Some people have laid out orange plastic netting on their lawns to keep raccoons and skunks from tearing them up.

“You'd think Christmas would be the worst with all the cards, but everybody's nice to you so it's not that bad,” she tells me. I close the gate behind her as she leaves. “January is usually the worst month, because that's when all those financial things and shit come out, and income tax forms and flyers.” She shakes her head. “Fucking flyers.”

“When people write, ‘No Flyers' on their mailbox,” I ask her, “does that mean you have to carry that crap around? Or can you dump it?”

“Well, now they're making people actually write in.”

I shake my head angrily. “You have to write to Canada Post and say, ‘I don't want flyers'?”

“Yeah, but some people like them though. They get fucking irate if they don't get their flyers. They'll phone in and say, ‘I didn't get my fucking McDonald's coupons.'”

“That's so stupid.”

“You see how you learn to hate this after a while?” she asks.

This rhetorical question comes as we pass a fence bearing a sign that reads, “PLEASE PICK UP AFTER YOUR DOG! IT'S THE LAW!” The lettering for the hand-painted sign is done in loopy script. It is hysterically oversized and more visually offensive than any animal droppings, an emblem of the myopic sense of propriety that accompanies proprietorship.

“I kind of hate it already,” I say.

She smiles. “Yeah, you don't look like someone who works very hard. You move kind of slow.”

“People get used to it. I'm like a foreign movie.”

“Yeah, Nick is that way, too. Don't get me wrong, it's not like he's totally useless or anything, but he reminds me of you.”

I like Randi's friend well enough not to be fazed by the comparison. Actually, it's unfair to Nick to lump him with me. After all, I've never held a nine-to-five job at an office that blocks my access to Facebook, much less worked the hours a horseman needs to clock.

And yet I can't completely dismiss her link. Like Nick, I'm still waiting for the big score. I spend afternoons trying to think of get-rich novelty books (Barry Kotter, Child Investment Wizard!) and wannabe viral websites. If, in my mind, owning a horse is a sideways attempt at legitimacy, it also represents a gamble. If there's anything that I have in common with a racetracker, it would be that I've lived my life in constant readiness, on call, for that big score. I work hard, and I like working hard, but have also given up much to pursue that mythical jackpot.

As mailboxes and slots blur into each other, Randi tells me how she came to horseracing as a teenager, a few years after her mother's death. “My dad owned a resort on Quadra Island and was doing pretty good,” she tells me, as though she were talking about the family of an acquaintance. “Then my mom died. Life sucks.”

While Randi's two brothers were old enough to manage on their own, she and her younger sister were shuttled between aunts. Knowing Randi loved animals, one of her aunts took her to the track as a teenager. At the time, she was a fan of Forego, the gelding who finished fourth to Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby and later became a champion as a mature horse. Everyone else was a fan of Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner, but it's no coincidence Randi chose to follow the late bloomer, the horse that everyone had given up on.

Randi started out as gambler—a good one, as she tells it. She'd methodically chart the performances of her horses on her bedroom wall. She'd keep notes on the horses that had finished poorly because of bad luck, and not because they were pigs, and bet on them in the next race. Eventually, an aunt suggested she move to the backside and find work at the track. After residing in the stables at Hastings (known as Exhibition Park in the 1970s), she lived and worked at racecourses in California and Florida.

When so many equines come and go in your life, some staying with you for only a couple of weeks before being claimed by another trainer, you learn to treat animals differently. You still love them, but you don't love them individually like pets; you love them collectively the way a teacher dotes on successive waves of pupils, you love them even when keeping an eye on how much money each one is bringing in, you love them as part of your job.

In her life, though, Randi has had only one exception to that rule—a gelding named Charlie that she owned in the early eighties. The horse had a short racing career with only nineteen starts and career earnings of $14,502, but Randi owned the horse in her early twenties and loved him more than anything she's ever owned or anyone she's ever known.

To Randi, Charlie wasn't just a pet, he was a best friend. When she lived at the track, they would eat dinner together: she would get a slice of pizza and take it into his stall and hang out while he finished his oats. “He used to be sick all the time and I'd fix him up,” she recalls. “Seems like all the ones that have problems you end up liking most, if they're good about it.”

With other horses, Randi finds them new homes when they finish racing. Another favourite, a horse named Clydie, was sold to a young equestrian rider. She tries to keep tabs on her darlings, but intentionally loses track of them after about a year, once she knows they've settled in. Otherwise, she'd go crazy trying to maintain files on them all.

But she kept Charlie around, taking extra work to pay his stable bills. “He loved me,” Randi insists. “He would run up to me at the farm when he saw me.” With Randi caring for her, Charlie would live almost to the age of thirty—about as long as a horse can be expected to live.

Charlie died from laminitis, an incurable disease that causes a horse's hooves to deteriorate chronically. After exhausting the available remedies and treatments, Randi had to put down her horse. She and a friend drove down with a trailer to take the horse to the vet. When Charlie saw Randi, his ears pricked up. Thoroughbreds live for excitement, the stimulation of new tasks and places, and even at his advanced age, he was hoping his Randi would take him somewhere fun.

She couldn't bear the idea of her horse being dumped into a vat and turned into fertilizer, so after Charlie was euthanized, she paid $1,500 to have the horse cremated. Charlie's ashes, heavy as hell in a white plastic bucket, are kept in a closet in her house.

In Randi's tack room is a picture of a bay-coloured horse in a pasture; he looks as though his racing years have long receded. Attached to the photo is a pink bow on which someone has written: “To Randi—Love, Charlie.”

Randi finishes the first leg of her route and I linger at one of the grey mailboxes where she fills up her emptied shoulder bag with mail from another sack. Before I make my excuse to leave, a grey cat appears on the sidewalk.

“Here, lookit,” she says to me, before turning to the cat. “Here, baby.”

The cat takes a step towards us, then hops back.

“She's pregnant, you see?” Randi says as she crouches down to the cat, who just looks fat to me, and reaches into her shoulder bag for a handful of cat food, which she scatters onto the pavement. The cat reads the kibble on the ground like a menu before gobbling it down. “She's always starving when I see her, so I save her some of my own cat's food. We're getting to the fun part of my route, where we see all my animals—all the dogs.”

I figure I have time to meet her dogs, but then my dad calls.

“Are you at home?” he asks.

“No, why?”

“I'm at Kal Tire, buying new tires for myself right now,” he says. “If you come down now, I'll buy you a new set.”

“I've got to go,” I tell Randi, who's still crouched over someone else's cat. “I'll walk with you another time.”

THE NIGHT AFTER my first mail route with Randi, I sleep easy and hard. For this deskbound hermit, being outside, exposed to fresh air and other people, is in itself exhausting. I need the alarm to wake me up for an 11 AM meeting the next day. While I'd rather be at the track, I have a coffee date with an editor who's back from a work furlough; he's convinced that he'll keep his job if he loses ten pounds and is midway through a cleanse in which he consumes only honey in water. Out of solidarity, I lay off the piece of banana bread he buys me.

Luckily, I have work of my own right now: a profile here, a couple of book reviews there, and also some teaching. Any day, I can stop looking for employment under the “Adult Gigs” category on Craigslist. Later, in the afternoon, I do a hotel-room interview with an American rock star who's playing a concert the next day to promote a new album inspired by the Iraq War and his divorce. I'm not a fan of the rock star's work—too much yowling—and haven't prepared well for my interview beyond a cursory Google search.

Before leaving the room to get a latte, the publicist tells me we have an entire hour. The piece, for a men's lifestyle website, is to be only four hundred words long and, twenty-five minutes into our conversation, I have all the quotes I need and have run through my list of questions. Slouching on a cognac-coloured leather couch with his feet on the coffee table of his sitting room, the rock star is shorter than I expected but amiable, answering most of my questions with stifled yawns, then apologizing twice for his jet lag. He's gracious and articulate, but wears his own skin gingerly, as though it's been worn raw by handlers and concert photographers. I have friends from high school who would swoon at this opportunity; here I am, killing time. I watch him smoking American Spirits as I flip through my notes and eye the fruit plate by his canvas sneakers.

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