Dec 9, 2013
A Day at the Races
Posted on Mar 6, 2012
Atop a horse on my wilderness journeys, I understood that I wasn’t just riding for myself, I was carrying my friends who longed for wide-open space and freedom. (When I wrote home about my adventures, the first thing everyone asked for was pictures.) More recently, as I continue my wilderness treks, I have been carrying my mother, who is not up to riding anymore.
But she still loves a day at the races. During our last visit to Hollywood Park, we made our picks for the first race and headed for the betting windows. We had an experiment going: What works best—hunch betting or studying the charts? I don’t like to study charts, so my betting theme for the day was “the elements.” I would bet on any horse whose name or stats referred somehow to earth, air, fire or water. But there was a problem. Not only do I not like to study charts, I don’t like to waste my money on betting. So Mom fronted me twenty bucks, which made for many trips to the two-dollar window that day. She, on the other hand, having spent all those years exercising racehorses to the tick of a trainer’s clock, would make her picks based on past performance, combined with insider knowledge of jockeys, trainers and so on.
As we approached the windows, there occurred something that would forever crank up Southern California in our estimation. We saw a sign: Casserole Counter. Could this be? Do they really mean casseroles, or is it just some abomination of language, so often wrought these days? Quickly scanning the menu, Mom and I rejoiced at truth in advertising. For your dining pleasure, there was tuna casserole, country-style meat loaf, beef stew—and yes!—turkey a la king! We hastily placed our bets—me on Black Eyed Susan for the earth connection, and Mom on Roving Gal, who had won three of the past five races—and headed for the counter.
We chowed down happily and heartily and then proceeded to the rails to watch the race. Alas, my urge to follow the elements that day led to a loss, whereas my mother, who had done her homework, came out ahead. But as always, for a little while, we had been transported by the fleet four-leggeds to a dreamscape of possibility and skies that are not cloudy all day.
In all my travels across the West, I hadn’t seen wild horses, for they lived in remote pockets to hide from civilization. But now I had to visit them, before they disappeared forever from a rapidly changing world. So I headed for Nevada where most of the country’s mustangs still roam.
I arranged with a friend to take me into the Virginia Range outside Reno. We headed up the mountains in her four-wheel drive, and, after awhile, the rutted road narrowed into a path and, in the higher elevations, we spotted a small band in the juniper and sage. They were a small band of mares and foals that had not yet shed their winter coats, and in every way they were perfect. A stallion stood nearby and watched. The sight was literally breathtaking, the very essence of freedom. My breathing slowed and I felt comfortable inside my skin: home at last.
These animals were surviving members of the herd that had been gunned down prior to my visit. By then, I knew that it was time to write about horses, the noble animals that had helped my family survive, the ones in whose hoofsparks this country was born. The story of the wild horse in the American West became the subject of my book, “Mustang.” More recently, I learned of another vanishing—that of the Casserole Counter at Hollywood Park. Now I make turkey a la king at home, and whenever my mother visits, we watch Westerns.
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