So, we took a train from NYC to Saratoga. It seemed the easiest and, besides, I have an unhealthy love of the train. I suppose it’s growing up in Europe. Anyway, across the aisle from us, a nice older gentleman was on the edge of his seat with excitement and I could tell he was going to be one of those gregarious types that sort of annoy the crap out of me. Without fail he picked my husband and me out as much too nice suckers who can’t seem to bow out of an unwanted conversation gracefully. He introduced himself (we’ll call him D), asked us if we were headed to Saratoga and if we were going to see the racing. When he found out that I was a horse-lover, the floodgates were unleashed. But what he had to say surprised me. It quickly came out that he had been going to the Saratoga meet for a good 13 years out of his adult life and just when I thought he was just some über-fan, he blurted out that he had worked at the tracks since he was 14. I was immediately intrigued. D. told me that he had started out (yes, just like in the books) as a hot-walker, moved his way up to groom and finally assistant trainer. And he loved every minute of it. You could tell by the way his eyes lit up just talking about it. It was cool enough, but within minutes I was looking for an out to our conversation when D. starts listing off some of the horses he worked with and casually includes John Henry somewhere smack in the middle of that list. John freaking Henry?! And being a jaded New Yorker, the first thing you think is: This guy’s a joke. I’m dismissing him. And yet…I came to realize after only a weekend in Saratoga, you can’t underestimate anyone there. So many people are owners or employees or somehow involved in some important event in racing at one time or another. And as it turns out, the great racehorse John Henry was housed in the stable that D. worked for and whether he just walked the horse once or groomed him once or everyday, that cinched it for me. That gangly, clearly infirmed older man who had the eyes and demeanor of a crazy religious proselytizer had been part of a history that I revered. And he deserved my respect.
Unless he was talking specifically about horses his thoughts were a bit jumbled and disjointed, just purging out his words as they came, without censure. I rightly judged that he was the product of a self-help system, with their ideas of earnestly offering up every feeling as they have it, in some misguided attempt to rid themselves of guilt or shame. But anyway, I pieced together that he had succumbed to the temptations of booze and gambling, losing wads of money and the only career that seemed to be his calling. He hadn’t been to the track in 18 years and was as excited as a kid to be finally able to go back. It deeply troubled and moved me that here was a man who was utterly destroyed by the track and the temptations that go hand-in-hand with it, and yet he couldn’t stay away from that allure. It was his greatest love and biggest destroyer. (For God’s sake, he lives across the street from Aqueduct in NY. I mean, dude, give yourself a break.)
Now, I realize I am on the verge of over-sentimentalizing this story, but I just wanted to point out that D. is just one human casualty of horse-racing over the decades. I realize that it is all too easy for me to point out the toll that racing has taken on horses over the years, without mentioning that for every horse that breaks down or is carried off to slaughter, there are several men like D. who lose everything because of the nasty allure of gambling. And, yeah, you can argue that D. is sober now and able to revisit the places where he lost it all. But all I see is a product of our laughable self-help systems that turn people into the equivalent of a religious zealot. A man who uses stock phrases like: “God always gives back tenfold what he has taken away.” Or “Bless God for letting me see the folly of my ways.” He is a shell and no matter how much he blurts out that he is going to start a barn and working on the business plan and attracting investors, you know that he knows it’s too late for him. He lost his chance and now his only solace is those empty words. I’m dead serious. Not one person on that train wanted to speak with him, recognizing in him that overly-aggressive enthusiasm that street-corner fanatics possess and finding that extremely uncomfortable. He might be sober, but he's neither happy nor well-adjusted. Mostly, it made me feel terrible for D. I wanted to save him from the self-help crap he was spewing and tell everyone that here was an important man – someone who had touched a legend, someone who had many things to teach us about this sport that we revered. But instead, I just went back to reading my book.