Mar 7, 2014
A Day at the Races
Posted on Mar 6, 2012
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.
This is about horses and how they saved my family’s life, and how, one day, I would come to repay the favor. But in a way, it’s also about gravy.
It all has to do with my mother, one of the first women in the country to ride at the racetrack professionally, as an “exercise boy.” For five years, every morning before dawn, she would head to Thistledown Park, the track across the street from our apartment in Cleveland, and gallop thoroughbreds around the turf for their morning workout. Sometimes my sister and I would sit on the rail and watch, and after these early-morning sessions, we would all head to the track cafeteria for breakfast, where everything was covered with gravy or cream sauce, and you could get as many helpings as you liked.
That’s where I first met the oddballs of the world, and they were all sitting at our table. There were poor young jockeys who had trained on nags and fled the hollows of Appalachia hoping for a break, grooms as old as the stars who seemed happy to live in their small quarters next to the horses, toothless track wags who eked out food money at the low-ball betting windows and made their home at motels across the street, and lifelong circuit trainers who had finally come into possession of a winner. These outcasts were kindred spirits, I later realized, people who made us feel at home after we had lost ours.
You see, after my parents divorced, my mother, sister and I moved from an upper-middle-class suburb to a working-class one, and suddenly found ourselves shunned by old friends and even some relatives, simply because of an address change. My mother needed a job, and her most immediately marketable skill—horseback riding—enabled her to find employment on the track. The community was driven by heart, uplifted by belief in the racetrack version of sunrise (as my mother always said, at the track, you have a new chance with every race), and held together by first-hand knowledge that outside the track there was a very tough world.
Sometimes, I would sit on a bale of hay inside the entrance to the barn and listen to the horses, and after awhile, my breathing would sync up with theirs and I would forget about my shattered life from which my father had suddenly vanished. But most of all, I loved to watch the horses run. Like a lot of people, I was caught up in the beautiful image—manes and tails flying and legs extended—and as the horses galloped, they carried us all across the finish line and beyond.
I have never seen my mother happier than when she was on a galloping thoroughbred on those mornings long ago, and looking back, I understand that they were taking her away from all the constraints of our culture at that time—she was “headstrong,” she “didn’t play by the rules,” she was a “divorcee” (a derogatory, now arcane term which suggested some sort of defect; in film, this was a role generally played by Barbara Stanwyck). As the old saying goes, “Horses let us borrow their freedom,” and for me, too, the horse became my means of escape.
When not at the racetrack, I lost myself in tales of the West, reading the works of Zane Grey and sagas of Crazy Horse, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill. I imagined myself right there with them, galloping across the plains and red-rock mesas, and in tribute to my fantasies, my mother bought me a Davey Crockett raccoon cap and a buckskin jacket with fringe. Unable to afford travel to distant lands, she would sometimes arrange a holiday weekend at the airport motel, where the three of us, my mother, sister and I, would climb up into the observation tower and watch planes take off and wave goodbye.
Years later, I was on a plane myself, with a sky-blue Tourister suitcase that my mother had bought for me, on my way to college in New Mexico. The suitcase had my initials on it and I knew that that was her way of sending me off to the Promised Land. Soon I, too, began running with the horses, across desert trails and washes, across playas and mountain meadows, the very paths that my frontier heroes had traveled, right into the heart of the old frontier.
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