Goodbye Suffolk Downs

Suffolk Downs (at least this version of it) is closing tomorrow. There’s still some hope that another version of it will come along in the future. But for now, it’s closing, and the future is uncertain.

It’s still hard to wrap my mind around it, really. I still have all the feelings about it, and I still can’t put most of them into words. I wanted to write about the loss of history, of how I hate to see people near and dear to me lose their livelihoods, about how I feel like my loss is minimal compared to what so many people are dealing with, about how angry I am for so many reasons, about all of the complicated things that got it to this point—because there are many.

But maybe it’s just better to say goodbye. I came to the backstretch of Suffolk Downs in the spring of 2007 as a volunteer helping race horses find new homes. I had moved to Boston from New Jersey in 2006 to work at Harvard Medical School, and in that transition gave up the horse I was basically free leasing—it was the first time since I started riding horses in 1988 that I was away from them. I was eager—no, I had—to be around horses again, and if I could do that while helping them retire then it was a win-win in my eyes.

Luckily for me, I found much more than just an opportunity to be around and help horses. I missed more than my life with horses—I missed where I grew up, a community of people with shared experiences and general view on life that you lose when you move to a city. I missed the characters, people with funny nicknames and crazy (often inappropriate) stories to tell. I didn’t expect it, but entering that backstretch was like a breath of fresh air for someone who grew up in a commercial fishing town and had spent a year in the rarefied world of a higher ed development office. Here were people who worked hard for a living, people like the people I grew up with. Here was a little town with all its drama, living a way of life that wasn’t typical or even understood by all the people I worked with at HMS. I found a piece of what felt familiar, a piece of home in Boston, and because of that I fell head over heels for the place.

Suffolk Downs helped renew my love of horse racing. Suffolk Downs exposed me to a cause and a movement that is so important to me—Thoroughbred retirement. Being at Suffolk Downs led me to seek out more information about the industry, to become part of an awesome, crazy community of racing fans and writers and trainers and everything in between.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make an impact on the industry in a meaningful way, but I’m proud to be able to say that if I ever do, it will be largely because Suffolk Downs opened up the doors to me caring about it so much—more than I ever had before.

Because of Suffolk Downs I have some of the dearest friendships of my life. Because of Suffolk Downs I have a horse again. I literally can’t imagine the past seven years in this city or what my life would look like now if it hadn’t been a part of my Boston experience. So most of all, when I say goodbye, I say thank you to the place and the people and the horses. Thank you for welcoming me and accepting me as part of the family. Thank you for everything.

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All the feelings…but stop picking on my friend.

So, the closing of Suffolk Downs really fills me with ALL THE FEELINGS, most of which I’m not really sure I can put into words just quite yet. But, in the fallout over the decision there are a few things I’m seeing around in media and on Twitter and in comments (NEVER READ THE COMMENTS) that, well, grind my gears. They’re just so full of…snobbishness.  *steps on soapbox*

Hey, you vultures circling! Knock it off.

Guys. The body isn’t cold yet. Can we hold off on discussing how the property would make an excellent innovation district, mixed use development, apartment complex, soccer stadium, parking lot, what have you.  How about a racetrack. How about the property is close to Boston and maybe it’s a chance to do something different, to capitalize on the young, well-off population of the city and build new racing fans? How about the property is great for a racetrack so we can maintain *some* open space in an otherwise industrial area. Hey enormous gas tanks and airport parking lots, I see you there! Which brings me to my next point…

Stop saying what a shithole Suffolk Downs is.

You’re wrong, okay?  Yes, it’s rough around the edges. Yes, it looks like parts of it haven’t been updated since the 50s, and you could probably stage an Olympic event based on navigating the undulating concrete floor. But they very well could’ve completely let the place go these past years, and they didn’t. It’s clean. The paint isn’t peeling. For a plant that is over 75 years old it’s in pretty good condition. The landscaping is actually quite lovely.  And in the summer there is absolutely no better place to sit in the stands to watch some racing, enjoy a breeze off the ocean, and see that lovely infield and the marsh and Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Stop saying how shitty all the horses are.

I will not argue with you that Suffolk Downs doesn’t exactly feature racing’s brightest stars on the regular. But it’s not the worst race track in this country, and you all know that. I am increasingly troubled, in general, of the disregard the industry seems to have for tracks that aren’t top level any more.  But beyond that…so what? Those horses still run. If you like horse racing, it’s still on display at Suffolk. These horses can’t make it at other tracks, but are still competitive. Let them run. Give them a place to do it.

Stop saying how the horses are better off somewhere else.

Suffolk Downs supports Thoroughbred retirement from the top down, and I would really like to see an example of another track that has done that, straight down to personally paying to get horses out of trouble. Seriously. Tell me about them, I would actually like to hear more of those stories. The horses at Suffolk have a very real, very successful venue for responsible retirement. A safety net a lot of them are going to lose when they go somewhere else.

Stop dismissing the horsemen (and women).

They’re not all killers, abusers, and heartless money-hungry assholes. The majority of the men and women on that backstretch are good people with small stables trying to make it in the game that they love. They deserve respect, and they shouldn’t be dismissed just because their jobs aren’t as profitable as yours are.

Anyway. I will be the first to step up and say that Suffolk’s demise is much more complicated than just losing a casino bid. And that should be hashed out and that conversation should happen. But how about doing it without dismissing Suffolk Downs as a backwater bush league track?

Stop turning your nose up at the place. And maybe just consider that if a place like Suffolk Downs—which anchored and supported a whole region’s TB industry—can go down it’s possible for any other historic gem of a racetrack to follow.

Posted in Suffolk Downs, TB retirement, horse racing | 2 Comments

Renegade Champion

I love reading about horses who are unlikely champions, and the people who love them. More often than not those horses are Thoroughbreds and their people are women, and I think that anyone of us who never grew out of the horse-crazy girl stage can relate to Jane Pohl, the subject of the book Renegade Champion: The Unlikely Rise of Fitzrada.

I’ve written a full book review of this must-read over at the Retired Racehorse blog. Check it out!

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Redefining the OTTB conversation

I just spent a good chunk of the evening catching up on the trainer’s blogs over at the Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge. Awesome way to spend an evening, right?

What I love most about the trainer challenge is that it’s incredibly straightforward and really speaks to what these horses can do.  We learn about the process of transitioning a horse from the track to a new career. There’s no fluff, just a straightforward examination of an individual Thoroughbred’s strengths, weaknesses and abilities.

How refreshing. It seems as though the conversation is changing somehow; that we’re moving away from the note of surprise in success stories about Thoroughbreds. Up until now they mostly seem to follow the theme of the warrior overcoming adversity and coming out on the other side, triumphant.

I’m glad that these stories exist. I gobble each and every OTTB story out there because hey, they prove my point, Thoroughbreds are awesome. The conversation so far has helped raise awareness of the value of OTTBs, leading us to be on the precipice of really making an impact in Thoroughbred aftercare. But I can’t help but think that by framing the conversations in this manner we’re doing a huge disservice to the breed in the long term.

Unfortunately we’ve all dealt with the very real problem of horses shipped directly to the kill pen, of horses having to be bailed and of broken down horses dumped on people. Hopefully, we’ll hear that story less and less with more attention paid to aftercare and with more human connections realizing the value in working with some of the many organizations out there.

What’s frustrating is that more often than not, that sense of desperation of the rescued Thoroughbred seems to fall on their not-so-desperate counterparts. And it’s clear that as long as that perception is around, more often than not the response from people who aren’t familiar with racing or the Thoroughbred as a breed will have their first thought of a Thoroughbred be a passive: “Oh, poor dears, we need to save them and MAYBE we’ll get a good horse out of it.” I want to hear a straightforward: “I’m looking for an excellent prospect, let’s see what’s available out there on a Thoroughbred retirement site.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a horse successfully transitioned off of the track into a new career. The horse world shouldn’t be shocked—shocked!—that a Thoroughbred is a beginner horse, or doing dressage, or galloping a cross country course, or adapting well as an “A” circuit hunter. The right reaction to these stories should be one that champions of the breed are already familiar with:  “Well, OF COURSE he was out showing a month after he left the track, he’s a Thoroughbred. Duh.” These horses are smart, athletic and noble—and for centuries have been the representation of speed, grace and power. Let’s honor that. Instead of the shock of success let’s see the thrill of expectations being met.

We’re well on our way to making this a fabulous year for the OTTB. To accomplish that we’ll need to see more industry support for aftercare, more trainers retiring their horses when they are sound enough for a viable career afterwards and more work on a whole host of other initiatives.  But it’s really up to those closest to the cause to start redefining the tone of the conversation.

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More TBs please!

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how to better market TBs to the show horse crowd; to get them to the point of popularity as an all-around sport horse that they used to be 15-20 years ago. It’s a point that keeps coming up again and again; if we increase the demand for TBs once they’re done racing, we really start to take a big bite out of the after care problems the industry faces.

There was a forum recently held by the United States Equestrian Federation to discuss the problems the sport of show jumping faces in this country; from the very first article that was published by The Chronicle of the Horse on the issue my response was: “Simple, needs more TBs”.  Natalie at Retired Racehorse wrote this awesome post yesterday commenting on part three of the series.  Again, the refrain; “Simple, needs more TBs”.

A link to the story on the CANTER NE Facebook page spurred a lot of discussion; many people heralding the benefits of a TB; their intelligence, their athleticism, their heart. And there among the compliments were also the myths “I’ve heard they’re too hot.” “TBs are harder to ride.” “They’re too fragile.” But, again and again, the comments come back to a hearty and emphatic “YES. We need more TBs in the sport horse world.”

So, hundreds of TB enthusiasts can’t be wrong, right? No less than George Morris (love him or hate him, he’s a force) in his typical no nonsense fashion says that the American Thoroughbred is the greatest sport horse in the world. So…why haven’t we seen an increase in popularity of the TB? Why do these negative generalizations so stubbornly persist? Why are people spending thousands of dollars on rejects from other countries?

All the retirement groups, blogs, etc. are preaching to the choir. Of course our followers and readers are going to say “YES. More TBs please.” But, here’s the rub: how do we reach everyone else? How do we shout to the rooftops “Slavish followers of George Morris buy a TB because your leader says so!!!!!!” Have we lost an entire generation of horse folks to the Warmblood; can we get them back?  I know there are plenty of influential trainers out there who love the Thoroughbred, who lament the influence of European horses in our show rings. But they have businesses to run, and need to give their customers what they want; I can’t fault them for that. How do we change what those customers want?

Natalie has since posted a follow up “Suggestion Box” post, and I can’t wait to hear everyone’s ideas on spurring the retirement movement in racing. Mine? There are so many people with the same idea of increasing the demand for TBs after they’re done racing; let’s get them all together.

  • Establish a task with the most influential people we can get in the sport horse world. Leadership is critical here. Get the USEF involved.
  • More support for retirement organizations to form stronger retraining programs.
  • Ask the racing industry to be a part of that task force. Yes, its main business is racing, as it should be. But these TBs have so much potential after they’re done racing. Let’s teach the racing community about the jobs these horses can do. Let’s make the lines of communication better between the race track and the show ring.
  • Coordinated marketing and resources. There are already so many groups doing this good work. But we need the marketing and the leaders of BOTH industries to get out there and say “Hey, there’s a benefit here for both of us.”

I know this isn’t a surprise to a lot of us. We’re all aware something needs to be done. I suppose my question to you is, HOW. How do we get these talks going? Who knows someone who knows someone who can get everyone on board? Until we get that spark we’re just sitting here on great ideas. It’s time to get this ball rolling.

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The Day After

Well, I was right. The Breeder’s Cup was great.  It was historic. Zenyatta gave us a performance like the champion she is.  It just didn’t end the way any of us wanted. It was horse racing. And it was pretty wonderful.

Yes, wonderful.  We got to see a thrilling (and sadly overshadowed) performance by the phenomenal mare Goldikova in the Breeder’s Cup Mile, making her the first horse to win a Breeder’s Cup race three years in a row. And boy was it impressive. Watch it here.  Then watch this video of her groom celebrating. That’s why people get involved with horse racing.  There’s your thrill of victory folks!

I was very impressed by the two year old Uncle Mo, who is undoubtedly the Derby buzz horse with his impressive win in the Juvenile.  I thought he was dead in the water at the top of the stretch but he dug in and just kept on pulling away.  A lot can happen between now and the first Saturday in May, but he gave us a memorable performance to get us through the next few months.

And then there was the Classic. I don’t think there were many who were rooting against the big mare to make it home first yesterday.  I sat with my friend watching pre-race coverage, nervous as the minutes to post ticked down. Then they were off, and we were silent, but then the concern crept in. “She looks uncomfortable.” “She’s so far back.” More silence, as she settled in and started to move on the backstretch, picking off horses, getting back in the game. Then she came through the turn and it was a quiet “No, Mike, not the rail.” And then any semblance of calm or concern left as we both cheered her on, willing her to move forward as she was checked and swung out from behind the wall of horses in front of her. Of course she’s going to make it, this is what she always does, she puts you in the game with her, makes you will her with every bone in your body to go, go, go.  She was going to make it there first, but it would be close, after all she had so much trouble. Then she hit the wire.  Silence again. “Damnit.” “Wait, who was the five again?” “Blame.”

And after all of that—the lead up, the nervous anticipation as the race ran—there was just defeat. And shock. And then growing appreciation for what this amazing athlete just did, what she accomplished, and what she lost by the slimmest of margins.

I personally think that she was the best horse in that race. Not to take anything away from Blame, who gave us a thrill of a ride too by digging in those last brutal moments. But I do think that Zenyatta lost nothing in that defeat. She quieted all her detractors with those last, gusty moves.  What a game mare. What heart. I think her legend will only grow in the years to come; her accomplishment yesterday will be talked about for generations. Great horses do loose. After all, even Man O’ War had his Upset.

I was at the track this morning, and the talk was all about her. The tone was respectful, almost reverent as everyone offered their opinions on the race. People spoke of how she was the best horse they’d seen, what a horse she was to overcome so much. How the horse with the better trip won. But for a lot of them, myself included, the impact she seemed to have on the fans—hard core and casual alike—will be a special footnote in our memories. One person I spoke with said they had never heard a group of people watching a simulcast cheer that loudly as she came down the stretch, and how they’ll never forget the shocked silence after the wire. Another commented on the amount of Zenyatta hats at Suffolk Downs and the amount of people, certainly not regulars, who had come out that day to see a little history.

I’ll remember leaving after the race with a crowd of people, many more than I’d ever seen that time of night before, all of us collectively nursing our wounds and reflecting on the day. But that’s horse racing. It’s that bittersweet pain that comes with a loss by the tightest of margins. But it’s also the knowledge that there will be other great races, other tight finishes and dominant performances to look forward to.  How lucky are we?

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Watch the Breeder’s Cup. Seriously.

I have a public service announcement for my non-horsey friends.  Watch the Breeder’s Cup this Saturday.  It’ll be great.  It’ll be historic. Trust me.

Why? Well, I could go on about how the Breeder’s Cup is billed as racing’s Championship Day—our World Series as it were—and how in two days this Friday and Saturday you’ll see some of the best athletes and biggest stars from around the world competing against each other for the highest purses in American racing.  That’s reason enough. I mean, really, how can you not be excited by that?  But for you, my casual racing fan readers, I give you one word, one reason to tune in:  Zenyatta.

Who is Zenyatta?  I can almost forgive you for not knowing who she is.  Almost. After all, she’s raced largely in California, and for a good chunk of last year her story was overshadowed by another wonderful filly, Rachel Alexandra.  It’s kind of sad and sort of criminal that more people don’t know about her because she is, in a word, amazing. She’s racing’s biggest star of the moment, captivating hardened horseplayers and casual fans alike.  And this Saturday she will try and win the Breeder’s Cup Classic for the second year in a row.

I am, predictably, crazy excited to watch all of the racing, and crazy excited for the Classic.  But, in case that alone doesn’t give you some incentive to watch, I thought I’d offer up a few reasons, for you, my casual horse racing friends, to watch.

For the sports fan:

She’s going for perfection.  And who doesn’t love a feat of perfection in sports?  She’s raced 19 times in her lifetime, and won all 19 of those starts.  The Breeder’s Cup Classic will put her at an even 20. That’s pretty astounding, especially in a sport with so many variables. And you want edge-of-your seat anticipation?  She’ll give it to you.  She comes running from behind the pack and she leaves you breathless as you wait to see if she’ll make it to the wire first. She always does. Without fail. It’s totally all that “thrill of victory” stuff.  Watch last year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic and you’ll see why.

For the music fan:

Zenyatta is owned by Jerry Moss of A&M Records.  And she’s named after the Police’s third Album, Zenyattà Mondatta. Sting wants you to watch.  How can you argue with Sting?

Oprah wants you to:

No, really, she does. Don’t fight the Oprah.  If mainstream media coverage is your thing, Zenyatta’s got plenty for you to choose from. O, The Oprah Magazine, chose her to be in their “Power List” . W magazine more your taste?  She’s featured in this month’s issue as well. Print not your thing?  Take a look at the “60 Minutes” segment from last Sunday.

For the animal lover (affectionately called the “Pretty Pony” camp):

She’s stunning.  At 17.2 hands tall she’s huge compared to most racehorses. She’s got character. Her pre-race antics are legendary, pawing the ground or “dancing” in anticipation of her race.  She knows where the crowds are and loves performing for them. And when she runs, and turns loose at the top of the stretch, it’s simply breathtaking to watch her extend her stride to hit the wire in front, always with her ears pricked forward, as if it was just a walk in the park.  Oh, and she drinks Guinness. You have to love a gal who’s down with Guinness.

So that’s my quick and dirty reasons for watching the Breeder’s Cup this Saturday. Tune in to ABC from 1:30- 3:30 p.m. and then switch over to ESPN from 3:30 – 7 p.m. coverage. The Classic post time is 6:45, but you’ll want to tune in early.

Come have a chat if you’d like to hear me talk about why horse racing is awesome. And for a lot more in-depth coverage and how-tos for the new or causal fan, please check out Hello Race Fans and the seasonal NY Times blog, The Rail .

Happy watching! Yours truly will most certainly be a basket of nerves, completely on the edge of her seat, cheering her lungs out as Zenyatta hits the top of the stretch.

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A Pre-Winter’s Tale

I spent this past weekend in Maine, closing the family cabin down for the winter.  Beds need to be aired out from the summer and bedding packed away from the reach of dust and mice, water pipes need to be drained (thankfully I have help with that) and the needles and leaves that fell on the roof this fall need to be swept off to prevent damage during a long winter of freezing and thawing. It’s all rather unglamorous, but very necessary.

SNOW!

It’s always a rather bittersweet time of year. Up until four years ago, my only experience with the cabin was in the summer. Now that I live much closer I’m very lucky to have the ability to enjoy it more, and I still get a little giddy being there this time of year. I often feel like I did as a kid when all the summer people left my hometown for the winter: very lucky that I get to have this place to myself, to see it when few others do. It’s no less special, just a little different.

For one thing, it is desolate. It is so quiet you start to imagine hearing things. So dark so early that you look at the clock expecting it to be 8 p.m. and it’s only 6:30. As you walk down the lane, cabins are closed up, window blinds are drawn, boats and docks are out of the water and picnic tables are up against trees.  The only activity is from a few birds bustling about.

Everything is cold, stark and bare—including the mountains—who this weekend were dusted by snow. Everything seems to be telling you that you really don’t belong there anymore.  It all stands as a silent witness through the winter until a few months from now when the lane will once again be filled with noise and life.

As with most things this time of year there’s a feeling of nostalgia; it pulls at your heart as everything is laid bare without the trappings of summer leaves.  Before I left, I went down to the lake and stood and admired the view that I’ve taken in hundreds of other times, memories filling my head. As I stood there, I could see the wind coming over the lake in the form of whitecaps quickly approaching our shore. Then the wind hit me, bone-chillingly firm, telling me that it was time to put aside nostalgia and wistfulness and leave. There was no more delaying the inevitable, just a slow walk up the hill to my truck and a final goodbye, knowing I would return again next year, filled with anticipation of another summer at our special place in the woods.

"Empty lake, empty streets..." (with apologies to Don Henley)

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Showcase Recap

Well, another Suffolk Showcase has come and gone.  I am totally, utterly exhausted. But it is totally, utterly worth every second of work we’ve put into it over the past few weeks.

Little Advice wows the crowd

We had a good turnout, despite the overcast day. Lots of folks came out to see horses and many were ready to take a horse home that day, which is always nice. By my count we already had almost ten sold to good homes today alone, with many others in serious contention for new homes in the coming days.  I can’t tell you how nice it was to walk around afterward showing horses to the group I was with only to have another group appear around the corner to look at him too. And all this without the benefit of a professional sales staff and a sales catalog published weeks in advance!

The adorable Texas Mike

Any undertaking of this magnitude has the potential for disaster. But it truly is a testament to everyone who participates that every year we have a wonderful, incident free event that does what it sets out to do: find horses new homes. I don’t think I could ever mention each and every person who works so hard both behind and in front of the scenes to make this happen. But please indulge me in a mass thank-you for a quick second.

To the staff and management of Suffolk Downs: thank you for your support and your willingness to give us anything we may need. To the trainers, grooms, exercise riders and other horsemen (and women): thank you for your patience, your flexibility, your good humor on the day of the sale and for seeking us out to help you find your horses new homes. To the horses (yes, I know they can’t read, but stick with me): thank you for behaving and wowing the crowd each year; we know we’re taking you out of your usual comfort zone and disrupting your schedule to go parade you in front of a group of people yet you always perform like the professionals you are. To CANTER NE’s board members and volunteers: thank you for your endless hours taking listings, planning events, doing paperwork, managing the books, securing foster homes, etc., etc., etc., etc.

Pogo Stick checks out the crowd

Suffolk Showcase really marks the beginning of the end of our work as we approach the end of the meet at Suffolk Downs. The next three weeks are filled with lots of work to do and lots of horses who still need homes. We’ll be working at capacity to get it all done, but we have a great jump start from our Showcase. The reward will most certainly be in the growing list of horses who find good homes. Stay tuned!

Posted in Suffolk Downs, TB retirement, Uncategorized, horse racing | 4 Comments

Know Which One You Are

“It’s a business of sadists and masochists and you know which one you are.” -Ida Blankenship to Peggy Olson, Mad Men

I loved that quote the minute I heard it this season. It’s so on-the-nose; and Ms. Blankenship could have just as easily said it to me.  I’m a bit of a masochist, you see. Not in a creepy way, but more in a “willing to put up with a lot” kind of way.

It’s 8:05 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I am comfortably ensconced in the Suffolk Downs press box watching racing from Hollywood Park, waiting for programs to print. I would, perhaps, rather be at home sitting on my couch since I have been up since 6:00 a.m. and have had a rather long day. Or at a Halloween party I was invited to. But here I am. For I am a volunteer for the non-profit TB retirement organization CANTER.

We are now 13 hours away from the 5th Annual CANTER New England Suffolk Showcase. During the Showcase the volunteers help to present all the horses for sale by their trainers to a large group of buyers all at one time.  Sort of like an auction, but there is no bidding.  Held each year towards the end of the racing season, it’s a chance for the many horses at Suffolk Downs who are at the end of their careers for whatever reason—injury, non-competitiveness, age—to find new homes and new jobs.

I like what CANTER stands for.  It’s a win-win situation.  It takes no money to run the trainer direct listing program, and it really helps people and horses. Trainers have a great outlet to show their horses to people they don’t normally come in contact with that is safe and responsible.  Buyers are able to see a wide range of horses for every discipline and level. As a volunteer I get to visit the track and be around horses and I’ve made lots of new friends in the process. It’s pretty great.

Most of all though, it really is an effective way of helping Thoroughbreds move on to the next phase of their already productive lives. There are hundreds, every year from this track alone, that go on to be broodmares and studs, eventers and hunters, pleasure horses and pasture pets. And that’s why I put in the long hours. That’s why I pound the pavement on the backstretch taking listings and taking buyers around, and making calls to trainers all week and putting in the extra time and the effort. I get to, in some small way, help out an animal who has given me so much throughout my lifetime, literally shaping me into the person I am.

So, yes; dear, departed Ms. Blankenship. It is a job for sadists and masochists.  And I am acutely aware that I fall into the later. But it’s likely that as long as there are horses running at Suffolk Downs I’ll always happily be here, sitting at an eerily empty racetrack some Saturday night in October, waiting for programs to print.

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