This will be my last horse racing column (at least for the foreseeable future) — and it has proven to be one of the most difficult I have ever written.
I went to the racetrack for the first time when I was in junior high, about five years before my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the first time and when my stepdad, Dennis, still had a killer jump shot, which he would demonstrate — often — in family games on our half-dirt, half-weeds backyard “basketball court”.
Longacres Racecourse was located just a few miles from our house in Renton, Washington and, one day, my parents suggested we check it out.
“Why would we want to spend a whole day watching horses run around in a circle?” I asked, drawing nods of agreement from my twin brother and younger sister.
Cheery optimists we were not.
“It’ll be fun,” my mom assured us.
So, with all the enthusiasm of the condemned on their way to the gallows, my siblings and I piled into the family car for our trip to the track.
Little did I know then that I was embarking on the journey of a lifetime.
During my junior and senior years in high school, I spent more time reading the Daily Racing Form (the horseplayer’s Wall Street Journal) than I did my schoolbooks — a reality that my grades clearly reflected.
And I didn’t abandon my childhood love when I became an adult either. If anything, my bond with the Sport of Kings grew stronger with each passing year, particularly since my work career often resembled Ryan Leaf’s stint in the NFL — filled with disappointment and anger, but minus an $11.25 million signing bonus.
In fact, it’s fair to say that the game consumed me, as I began spending more and more of my time learning how to “handicap,” which is sports gambling jargon for the art/science of selecting winners. While many of my friends were doing normal things, like talking quietly in libraries and walking carefully with scissors (I never said my friends were exciting), I was reading books by Andrew Beyer, James Quinn and William L. Scott (not his real name, incidentally, making the inclusion of a middle initial very perplexing).
I even had my first serious relationship hit the skids when, one morning, my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend accused me of caring more about the first race at Aqueduct than I did about her.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said in astonishment. “I care just as much about the second race. There’s a daily double, you know!”
It was even difficult to distinguish what subject my college notebooks pertained to, as they were often filled with scribbling like this:
But I just knew that one day I would have a career in horse racing; though, as the years went quickly by, I suspect even Anthony Robbins would’ve told me, “Hey, look man, it’s not going to happen. Give it up!”
Eventually, I found success (take that, Robbins!). I started my own horse racing website, hosted a racing podcast and, eventually, got the attention of major players in the industry.
After persistent hounding on my part, I was hired by Youbet — probably to stop me from writing the company letters every week — and, with the help of a great marketing director, I quickly became the most popular writer on the site.
As a result, my contract was picked up by TwinSpires.com when Churchill Downs, Inc. acquired Youbet a few years later and, after it expired, I went to work for US Racing.
Overall, my time as the editorial director of USR has been a lot of fun. The site has experienced tremendous growth and I’m very proud of what my colleagues and I have accomplished. But on June 9, 2018, everything changed for me.
For it was on that day that Justify became the 13th winner of the Triple Crown — consisting of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — and I felt… nothing. As my fellow racing fans gushed and cried, extolling the virtues of this wonderful horse, I watched without passion, without joy, without any feeling at all. It was just another horse, at just another track, on just another day.
Now, I won’t bore you with what happened next. Suffice it to say that I blamed nearly everything in my life for what is blatantly obvious to me now. It is never easy letting go of a first love, especially one that has endured for the better part of your life, but that is the reality I have come to accept.
I spent over 30 years of my life passionate about watching horses run around in a circle all day. I cherish the memories of Chinook Pass, Belle of Rainier, Gary Henson, Jody Davidson, Frank Best, Gary Stevens (who was twice the leading rider at Longacres before finding greater fame in Southern California), the Baze family, and Clint and Tom Roberts.
If I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough I can still remember being among the infield throng gathered on a beautiful Seattle day to watch local hero Trooper Seven win his second consecutive Longacres Mile.
I can recall taking my mom to the track on a particularly soggy Mother’s Day and how my repeated reminder that it was “Mudder’s Day” soon lost its charm. (In retrospect, I don’t think she wanted to be there, rain or shine, but she went for me.)
I can also remember my many trips to the track with Dennis. Once, we lightly hit a car in front of us in our haste to make first post and Dennis apologized to the other driver by explaining that we had a “hot pick in the first race at Longacres.”
The guy didn’t seem particularly impressed, but, since there was no real damage done, he let us resume our journey without calling the police… oh, it probably goes without saying that the hot pick lost.
Look, I realize that everyone experiences the loss of love at some point. It is as much a part of living as breathing. In many ways, I consider myself lucky to have felt it so profoundly only this once. Sure, I’ve had relationships end, but racing occupied a place in my heart that was special and unique. It was my Field of Dreams — initially, a connection to my stepdad and, later, to my past.
And, if I’m honest, I think it is for this reason I stayed in the industry as long as I did. I yearn to go back to that poor excuse for a basketball court and play one more game with Dennis; I ache to see my mom again — my real mom, not the one who was sick and in pain for so long. I desperately want my kids to know the people who raised me, so they have someone to blame.
But they are both long gone. And it is clear to me now that not even my memories of racing can bring them back anymore. Too much time has passed.
So, like one of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men, I leave the industry as I entered it: not with a bang, but with a whimper. I am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to accomplish my greatest life goal (up to this point) and I hope that, someday, I can find my passion for horse racing again.
Featured photo of Dennis and I watching the races.