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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Rachel Retires

I debated all night about commenting on Rachel Alexandra’s retirement, there’s certainly already a slew of folks who’ve already met that call—Glenn Craven and The Paper Tyger sum up my feelings the best—and I’m not sure I have much to add to their comments.

But as I was thinking last night about her career and all of the great moments she gave the sport, my own personal moment stood out. I made my first pilgrimage to Saratoga this summer, and was lucky enough to walk around the backstretch. Armed with a borrowed professional digital camera, I was utterly enthralled by the place, and it seemed like every turn offered something new and wonderful. I thought about how lucky I was to be a racing fan in a place that personifies (to me) what is good and beautiful about the sport.

Hoping to see Rachel, we made our way to the track a bit earlier the last morning we were there. Standing on the rail at Oklahoma, she galloped by, and I got a few blurry shots.

Morning Gallop

After she went by, we continued our journey, taking a swing by her barn, and there she was, with her groom. No crowds, no noise, no other horses, just a beautiful morning—the kind of which I’m convinced only happens at Saratoga. We kept a respectable distance, snapped a few pictures of the Horse of the Year, and kept moving. I paused as we walked away, dropped my camera, and took a second to look back and silently thank her, as a fan, for everything.  It was a perfect moment.

Quiet Moment

Like so many others, I’ll remember her successes on the track, but I’ll also remember that quiet, appreciative moment that made my first trip to Saratoga even more special than it already was.  Good luck in your retirement, Rachel. Thanks for the memories.

So long...

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Please hold all tickets…

This weekend was my first trip to the track after the most recent disappointment in the great never-ending expanded gaming debate here in Massachusetts (read an excellent recap at Railbird here). To say that the mood has changed from cautiously optimistic to uncertain and weary would be an understatement.  Throw in a healthy dose of gallows humor and it certainly makes for an interesting atmosphere.

As I walked around on Saturday I kept hearing the words “family” and “home”.  I heard them everywhere, from the back stretch to the dining room in the grandstand; out of the mouths of trainers, bettors and employees.  “We could go other places, but this is home.”  “My family is here, what will we do if this place shuts down?” Some see Suffolk Downs as the frustrating relative, the one who you can’t stand sometimes but love anyway because you can’t help but do so, it *is* family after all. For better or for worse, it is a comforting place to come back to season after season. And it’s not just for the people who make their living there; over the past three years I’ve grown to love the place—it gives me something I can’t find in my 9-5 world and the very thought of it closing puts a pit in the bottom of my stomach.

There’s an overwhelming feeling that the racetrack family is overlooked in all the debates. It’s easy, of course, for detractors to say that they’ll have to move and find other jobs within an already saturated industry. Or that they’ll just have to stand in unemployment lines and find new ways to make a living.  But what those solutions don’t take into account is that it’s not just a job—it is a community, a way of life.   The racetrack, the horses, the people are all in their blood, and it’s very hard for most of them to even think of doing anything else.  They’re on the fringe—much like commercial fishermen, or farmers—and they are facing the loss of a unique and wonderful way of life. It’s a culture that once lost, is lost for good. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, to an “outsider” it may look positively dysfunctional. And, yes, we all know that if Suffolk Downs doesn’t survive life will go on. But to a significant group of people it will go on with a big piece missing.

So for now we’ll stay in limbo; not knowing if racing will disappear forever in New England. Horses still need to be galloped, stalls still need to be cleaned, bets still need to be taken, and races still need to be run.  Race-trackers being race-trackers, the hope that something—anything—will happen to get their long shot across the wire first is still there.  After all, anything is possible at the race track, isn’t it?

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