My father loved going to the racetrack. Horses were his passion and any chance he could he’d make his way over to the oval to marvel at those well muscled, superbly conditioned athletes. He shared that passion with his two brothers but out of the three of them, he was the one that truly loved them; watching them run, watching them prepare, and simply being around them. I think if he were able to live his life over again, or somehow come back as something else, he’d have been a stable boy or a trainer…anything to be around horses.
On occasion I’d go with him but for me, the racetrack didn’t hold the same allure. I think part of it was because the time between races, in those days it was 30 minutes, was too long, and a rambunctious little kid, too boring. I didn’t read the racing form, didn’t understand the atmosphere, and so, simply didn’t like it…unless the horses were running which was truly a thrill.
I can recall as a pre-teen when I’d accompany Dad how he’d look at the horses with the eyes of a child. He’d stare at them as they made their way to the track, studying every twitching muscle, and point out to me why this horse was ready to run, and that one wasn’t. He could almost predict which horse would win the race simply by watching them in the paddock, and he was correct more often than he was not. Even at my pre-teen age I understood his love for this sport and his fervor for horses. In that sense, it was fun for me to be there to share in it just a bit even though the flames never arose in me.
Eventually, he couldn’t help himself and became a horseman – an owner of horses. They weren’t of the Kentucky Derby variety, they were claimers mostly, the type of run-of-the-mill horse one mostly finds at racetracks. To Dad, it didn’t matter, he was an owner which gave him privileges to the barn area which he relished and treated with a reverence reserved for kings and presidents. It was his sacred ground and the horses he owned were special. They were his and he did his best to take care of them.
Owning racehorses is generally a losing money proposition. Unless your horse finishes “in the money” there is no money made. Training expenses, boarding, food all add up fast, so it is imperative the horse earns his keep by at least finishing in the money. To Dad, this lover of horses, it was a stark reality when business decisions had to be made, but a necessary one. I think each time one of the horses he owned was claimed, it hurt just a little – like an injection at the doctor’s office; a small prick in the beginning, but then it’s gone. The cost of the horse game is losing an animal you’ve become attached to…but it’s the game.
For my part, Dad’s ownership allowed me access to the barn but I didn’t exercise that access often. When I did, it was because I went with him and for no other reason. In my mid to late teens, my frequency in visiting the “track” increased but only because I had access to the inner sanctum of the racetrack – the jockey’s room as well as where the trainers hung out pre and post race. I liked the fact I had access to the verboten areas of the race track…I was one of the “specials” and that was exciting. As long as I had access to the “cool” area, I was happy, but still never caught the horse bug.
As I grew older, I came to understand that for Dad, the track was his sanctuary, his way to get out from under the pressures of his business and even that of being head of the family. He, at one time, was helping support two families because that’s the person he was, so his time at the track was precious and all his, something I understand now in my middle aged years.
What I didn’t realize was the amount of time I missed spending with him. As a pre-teen and even a teen, I was ensconced in my own life, my own interests and busy playing the role of a kid…which is normal. Discovery of oneself in those years is critical, and I took advantage of it as best I could, sacrificing time at the track as a trade off…but in reality, not spending time with Dad. I thought I had forever, but sadly, forever has a time limit.
What I didn’t understand was time at the track really meant time spent with Dad, moments I allowed to slip through my cupped hands as water running from a crystalline river. Now that he’s gone, I’d give up all that self-discovery time for just one 30 minute in-between race session with him.
That’s always how it is though, isn’t it? We never really understand the importance of time spent with those we love until it’s too late. We never give thought to those moments we allow to pass by or those seconds as they disappear into the ether unused or wasted. It’s time…that’s all, but that most precious of all commodities becomes all the more important once we realize our station in life, or when someone is gone never to be able to share that time again.
It is the curse of age – the knowledge of wasted or unused time not spent with those most important to us. When we dwell on it, we see it as unfinished business, unfinished because there’s no more time to spend, unfinished because so many things went unsaid, unfinished because, well, it’s never finished with people you love.
I think this summer I’m going to go to the racetrack. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a glimpse of my father standing in the middle of the betting area, studying his racing form, or near the paddock marveling at those magnificent animals in all their majesty. Maybe God will allow me a glimpse, a moment, a glance, just once more at my Dad.