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Authors: Kevin Chong

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My Year of the Racehorse (9 page)

BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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But I won't get to see Randi clean an unaltered horse this afternoon; dreams don't always come true. The next thoroughbred on her list, a two-year-old named TJ, has never had his business cleaned before. “Are you ready, little dude?” she says to him. “Don't kick me.”

Randi reaches down and the horse is so startled he hops back, splaying his hind legs. Randi tells me to stand back, in case she's forced to jump out of the stall. Some horses behave so badly when their penises are cleaned that they need to be tranquilized. Eventually, though, TJ settles down. Maybe it's the classic-rock station on the shed row radio playing AC/DC's “You Shook Me All Night Long” that soothes him.

“When they're two, they're like teenagers in human years,” I suggest.

“They're more like eight-year-old kids,” Randi says. “They're still willing to learn.”

Daryl nods in agreement. “They're adolescents.”

“Look at this shit,” she says, showing me some of the gunk that she's cleaned from the shaft of the horse's penis.

Both Daryl and I groan in disgust. “It looks like burnt cheese,” I tell her.

“That's why they pay me the big bucks,” she says, before leaning back in. “Now I'm going to go for the bean.”

The bean is the name for the hard lump of smegma that builds up on the tip of the horse's urethra—where he pees. Randi pulls out TJ's bean and holds it for me to inspect like the prize inside the chocolate egg.

“It's white and bent,” I say. “It's like a cashew.”

Randi laughs. “You're good at describing things.”

“Yes, I have the most useless talents.”

The biggest challenge of the afternoon is a big four-year-old named Tex who's never had his dink cleaned before. He pins his ears back—normally the sign of an angry horse—when Randi reaches down.

“She's putting her life in his hands,” says Daryl, who's not sure I appreciate the skill involved. “When they tense up, she backs off. You have to do it by feel.”

“People who read books on this stuff don't know a fucking thing,” Randi says. “No offence to you.”

I don't take this comment personally, but instead wince as she reaches inside the horse's sheath, digging in there as though she's looking for loose change in her car seat. As though by special request, the classic-rock station is now playing “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant singing about how he “wanted a woman but never bargained for you,” then moaning like a cat with acid reflux might just be the perfect soundtrack for a female trainer cleaning a horse's penis.

“How old are they when they're gelded?” I ask Daryl.

“Some when they're two, some earlier,” he says. “It's not that hard. I've done cows and pigs. You cut it open with a scalpel and remove it. You use a local anaesthetic and tranq them.”

“Then once it's done,” Randi says, “you hose them and get them outside. You might think it's mean, but they're worse doing nothing. They need to keep moving, get the blood flowing down there.”

Randi pulls out another bean. “Look at the size of that one,” she says, holding it in her palm. “How would you like that in the middle of your dink?”

“AWWWWGGGH,” I groan.

“Squeeze it.”

She drops the bean in my palm and I reluctantly pinch it with my thumb and middle finger.

“It has a spongy texture,” I say, starting to feel like the horse-smegma equivalent of a wine taster, “like a recently used ear plug.”

“Heh,” she says. “I've got another.”

“I don't need—”

“Here.”

She places it in my hand. “It looks like a clove of garlic,” I say.

At first, I drop it on the bedding floor, but after thinking about it, I retrieve it and wrap it in tissue paper. “I'm going to gross out my friends with this at the bar,” I say, which makes Randi laugh.

That night, I gross everyone out.

8 Happy Valley

AS I TELL this story, it occurs to me that my decision to buy a racehorse may have also been influenced by a fam ily trip I took to Hong Kong, where I visited Happy Valley Racecourse. It happened in March, only two months before I met Mocha Time.

I hadn't visited the city of my birth in seventeen years, and my dad, who wanted me to see my ninety-six-year-old grandmother, offered to pay for my flight. The day before our trip to the track, we visited her. At dim sum with my Ninth Uncle—my Dad belongs to one of those bulk-quantity families that people, paradoxically, only have when they're poor—she told me, as she did whenever my father passed the phone to me in Canada, that my Cantonese had improved. (In reality, I speak my mother tongue like a toddler who'd been deprived of oxygen at birth. It was out of embarrassment that it had taken so long to return.) After the meal, we followed my grandmother's Filipina helper, pushing my grandmother in her wheelchair, into the apartment they share with my uncle and his family.

As I looked out the window to the courtyard pool, my father called me into my grandmother's room. “You have to see this,” he insisted.

Her bedroom—in less cramped cities, it would be a den or a storage room—is covered with photos. On a dresser she keeps a photo of her husband, my grandfather, when he's not much older than I was then. He wears a speckled bow tie and has a thick, doughy face. It's the same photo that's been on the fireplace mantle of my parents' house since I was a child. The most prominent photo in her room, though, is a framed family portrait taken about twenty years ago in Vancouver when my grandmother, whose short-term memory is failing, crossed the ocean to visit the half of her family that was then living in Canada. (Some moved back after acquiring their Canadian passports.) It was taken so long ago I don't even remember being part of the photo. There are about two dozen of us—my grandmother, the root of our family, seated in the centre. I'm in the back row, a fourteen-year-old in an X-Pensive Winos T-shirt; the rest of my cousins are in sweaters and button-up shirts or dresses.

Along the edges of the photo, and in the foreground, she's cut out pictures of her other children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—some of whom weren't born when the original portrait was taken—and pasted them into the scene, scrapbook-style, to create a composite portrait of her entire far-flung brood.

“Isn't your grandmother clever?” my mother asked, pointing to one of the pasted-on pictures.

While she received this praise graciously, my grandmother still seemed shrewd enough to recognize this well-meaning condescension for what it was.

We made plans for dinner later that week, then let my father's mother rest. On the elevator ride down, my father asked whether I still wanted to see the Wednesday night races.

“Haven't you been running around enough?” my mother asked him. “You could easily take tomorrow night off.”

My father looked annoyed. “I don't feel tired at all.”

To my mother's consternation, my father made no attempt to reserve his energy on our trip despite his tenuous health. He would outpace me on our excursions while pointing out nostalgic sights in passing, like the old bank he used to manage, the department store my First Aunt worked in where she met her husband, and the Lutheran school where he taught English. Invoking these personal landmarks, selling the city of his youth to me, he came off as the one who hadn't visited in seventeen years.

As we stepped out of the elevator, my father's phone began chirping. He cracked opened the flip phone, answered the call, then switched to English. “My friend wants to know whether he should book a table tomorrow in Jockey's Club,” he said to me. “What should I tell him?”

“Sounds fun,” I told him. “Why not?”

The next night, I met my father's influential friend in our hotel lobby in Kowloon. He was a stubby man with a salt-and-pepper pompadour. A racing program bundled in his hand, he moved, like many people here, with a kind of impatient speed—as though, at any given moment, he was thwarted from going faster. Greeting us, he ushered us onto the street where his driver sat in an idling Mercedes sedan.

We crossed the bridge onto Hong Kong Island. I gaped again at the city's skyscrapers, which were squeezed together like the pipes of a church organ. The neon lights of the side streets bring the fizz to the soda water of the evening. The city is so unapologetically, headily urban—there's no hand-wringing here about bike lanes or preserving historic buildings—that it makes you feel more cosmopolitan, more purposeful by association. My father's efforts to ensure I enjoyed his hometown had been madly successful. In fact, often during that trip, I wondered why my parents exchanged this for a house with a backyard and children who couldn't properly speak their native language.

The driver deposited us at a side entrance alongside thousands of people streaming into the grandstands for the weekly race. My father's friend signed us in then led us to an elevator that delivered us to the Jockey's Club before leaving us at a table with copies of the program. “You'll have to excuse me,” he said, as he stepped away to answer his phone. “Enjoy yourself.”

From where I viewed the track, Happy Valley, first built in 1845, and then rebuilt in 1995, felt to me like a turf-covered crater in the ancient forest of high-rises. If Hastings Park comes off as a cross between a minor-league baseball stadium and an inner-city playground, Happy Valley is like a shopping mall for billionaires. Even the grandstand area, to me, resembled an apartment building, with decks of seats and luxury boxes stacked vertically. The Jockey Club itself is swishly appointed in a post-colonial manner, with dark-stained wood accents, a buffet that mixed Asian cuisine in glimmering silver steam trays, and a room half-filled with non-Chinese.

Horseracing in Hong Kong represents a confluence of the city's recent British rule and the longstanding Chinese obsession with chance. Hong Kong Chinese, in particular, seem to gamble fanatically the same way North Americans fastidiously maintain their lawns—as an act of civic pride. It's said that the Chinese are the least religious people in the world but the most superstitious, and a fixation with the vagaries of chance might be an extension of our godlessness. Or maybe we just like to gamble.

A waiter appeared to take our drink orders, and my father suggested I get a beer. Everything was covered, but I asked for water instead. There's a ceiling of fun that you hit with your parents, and I didn't want to knock my head against it.

I placed a few bets for myself and my mother, who would, later on that trip, spend a good hour feeding the slot machines in nearby Macau. I stepped into the balcony to watch the horses running down the grass track: they looked like mice on Astroturf. An atheist in this cathedral of chance, my father refused to place a wager. His friend would appear at our table for a few minutes, take a bite of the roast pork tenderloin on his plate, and then disappear to make more bets with his friends.

“What does your friend do?” I asked my dad.

“He's a property developer with quite a few factories in China. He's been very prosperous.”

According to my father, they met when he was still a bank manager and his friend was a teenager. Every week, this kid would come into the bank and deposit money into an account that he would use to make a down payment on his first apartment. When it turned out that some of the money was stolen from his own mother, my father explained to the mother that her son wasn't doing anything bad with the money. Then he told the boy to invest some of this money in stocks. “He's still grateful for my help,” my father explained. “And now whenever I visit, he makes sure I'm treated well.”

“Is he married?” I asked. He seemed too restless that evening to be attached to anyone.

My dad shook his head incredulously. “He's got two wives.”

“What?”

“One is the legal wife; the other is the trophy wife—the one he travels with.”

“Do the wives know each other?” I ask.

“I hope so.”

I won money on a couple of races, but, as usual, lost on balance. After a couple of hours, when I suggested we leave, my dad, who has no stomach for betting, was happy to thank his friend and depart.

Squeezed into a cab back to Kowloon, I recalled those photos in my grandmother's room. You hear a lot about infants who look like a parent at one stage in their life and then resemble the other a few months later. The assumption is that at a certain point in late adolescence this resemblance becomes fixed. I only need to look at my father to realize it doesn't. As he's gotten older, my sixty-five-year-old father looks less like my grand-father, the man in the picture preserved in the distant past, and more like my grandmother—older and shrinking, his face kneading into itself.

I'd left my camera in my cousin's car the other night; I would have to remember this night on my own.

IT'S A LATE afternoon in May. I've been hanging around the track because I want to see the baby—the horse Randi recently bred with Sylvester's sister, who's actually named Baby (but raced under the name Hoping for Fun), in a farm outside the city. The life of Baby's baby has already been eventful. First, the little colt was born with only half of the mare's placenta out, which caused an infection that he barely survived. The foal had contracted tendons that made him walk with a mincing gait, like a ballerina on her tippy toes. The vet prescribed tetracycline, an antibiotic, to relax his tendons, but that left him knock-kneed—his legs folding in like two opposing arrow points.

Randi gathers five empty buckets. With an empty plastic coffee tin, she scoops into each bucket a can's worth of oats and sweet feed; a few teaspoons of electrolytes (the stuff found in Gatorade) and Vitamins C, K, and E, and selenium, which keeps them from tying up; some glucosamine, for their joints; a bit of “gut medicine” that comes with zinc; a few squirts of molasses from a container with a pump nozzle; and a handful of sliced-up carrots. Horses like the oft-injured Riley and a new filly, who's still recovering from an injury and not expending a lot of energy, get scoops of beet pulp to fill out their meal.

I wait for Blackie to back into her stall before I slide under the gate—I haven't figured out how to unlatch it—and dump the bucket into the feed tub in her stall.

I slip another bucket into Sylvester's stall just before the blacksmith, a tall, burly twenty-eight-year-old named Todd with short, reddish blond hair and a prematurely grizzled manner, arrives to shoe them. Afterwards, the three of us climb into Randi's car. The inside of the windshield is coated with a sticky film from a can of Coke that exploded in the car the other week.

“The baby's knees are going in and his feet are going out,” Randi says, as we leave the city limits and enter the highway. “So we're shaving the outside of her legs shorter than the inside to make them try to go normal.”

I wince. “Todd's going to trim his leg?”

Randi shakes her head. “You always take what I say too literally,” she tells me. “Todd's going to trim his hoof. The hoof is like a toenail.”

From the back seat, I lean over to Todd. “What will you be using to do that?”

Todd points to a rasper—an outsized nail file attached to a wooden handle.

We arrive at the farm in the early evening. Thoroughbreds grazing behind a fence watch us without interest. Inside a small, unattended barn, a transistor radio is playing “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell. The bay-coloured, month-old foal is in a stable with Baby. He will remain with his mother until September or October, at which point he'll become a weanling. Next year, Randi will try to get a good price for him at the yearling auction; failing that, she'll attempt to run the horse in a stakes race open only to locally bred horses.

Todd steps into the stable followed by Randi. “It doesn't make no fucking sense why the fuck the vet wants it so high,” he says to her, hands on hips. “It just seems like you'd want it high on the inside.”

“You want me to phone her?” Randi asks.

“I'll do what the vet wants to get done,” Todd says. “That way, if anything goes wrong, it's not my fault.” He approaches the foal, who bites him. “Guess what, you fucking know better trying to bite me, you bitch.”

Randi crouches down and holds the baby horse sideways around the legs as though she were clutching two paper bags full of groceries.

After his feet are rasped, we stand back and admire the foal, a cuddly guy who seems both annoyed and pleased by the attention.

An accredited psychologist with a degree from the University of Let Me Tell You What's Wrong With The World would link Randi's attachment to horses, if not also her machine-gun spew of expletives and a demeanour that's crustier than a front lawn in January, to the premature loss of her mother. This is the diagnosis that I quickly latch onto—my working hypothesis. Although she buys little presents for the kids on her mail route at Christmas, Randi's never wanted children of her own. I try to picture Randi nursing a child the way she handles a foal, and at first I figure she'd be too rough with a baby. I see her teaching her own kid to brawl as a toddler. I see her bringing up a kid who would utter, as his or her first word, a pejorative term for the female anatomy. I see a kid placing over-under odds at his peewee soccer games. I see Randi putting her own kid up for auction in the yearling sales.

But then I realize that what I can't see is Randi wanting to push a stroller. She would be a great parent, if she had to be. She could be source material for one of those movies, like Gena Rowlands in Gloria or Adam Sandler in Big Daddy, in which a deliberately childless person is handed custody of a toddler and learns to be a loving, if unorthodox parent. Horses, after all, are delicate in their own way.

The baby edges away when I try to pet him.

BOOK: My Year of the Racehorse
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