The trip has changed over the years. For the good and sometimes the bad. Back when I walked out of my parents’ house, Dad would feed the dog and horses, Mom would mind the mail and relay the phone messages (no cell phones), it was free, no worries, people had wings. Then when I rented a room for $150/month, that was easy as well, shut the door, all my worldly possessions were either in that room or in my car heading up the Northway. As my late great friend Jonathan Kiser once said, “I’ve got my credit card and my tack bag, I’m ready.”
Then it changed, whoa, did it change, first with the purchase of my first house, the stray cat that had become the stay cat who needed food, weekly lawn care, keep the gutters clean, utilities turned down but not off…there was a list. Then marriage, that complicated things, then parenthood, that changed everything. Now the trip has costs, emotional and monetary costs. It has never felt free again.
I’m not alone, as Dave Donk said to me a few years ago when I wrote about missing my son, Miles, “Now, you know how all of us have felt over the years. You young guys think it’s all a vacation, then you start having kids and bills and responsibilities…it’s different, better, but different.”
Yeah, better but different.
This year’s trip started early as I leaned over and kissed Miles on the cheek at 4:45 Tuesday morning, in his red and white striped pajamas. He didn’t budge, we had said our goodbyes the night before, as always son taking it better than dad, “I’ll see you in a few weeks or seven weeks,” he said with a smile. At 4:45, he didn’t say a word but I could still see that smile. I kissed Annie at 4:46, we whispered good byes, shared one last slow hug and I walked out the door, shutting it – physically shutting it, but emotionally, it swung in the breeze, clanging against the side of the house. The door doesn’t shut out anything, doesn’t create freedom, doesn’t provide the diving board it once did.
I drove out the driveway, thinking about Saratoga, thinking about life. And, again, I know I’m not alone, all of us make the drive, whether it’s from Virginia or the Verrazano, California or Kentucky, Gulfstream Park or Laurel Park, it’s that same drive, that all-consuming, all-introspective drive from the home to the stage, the floor to the trapeze, real life to racing life.
Fair Hill Training Center broke up the drive this year, arriving at 8:30, I enjoyed the solitude, the tranquility of horses ambling to and from the track. I didn’t stay long, hopping back in the car after two hours and then took a long deep breath, knowing I had another stop to make.
But for the grace of God go I…
I typed in Bryn Mawr Rehab on my phone’s GPS and began the northwestern journey to see Paddy Young. The five-time champion jockey fractured his skull in May, he was in intensive care and now he’s at the renowned rehabilitation center about an hour from where I grew up. I had made excuses for not visiting him, but knew I had to stop there before I could venture to Saratoga. Just a year ago, I followed him back to the Saratoga jocks’ room, listening to how he engineered another spun-glass trip on Special Skills to win a handicap hurdle. Just two months ago, I followed him back to the Virginia Gold Cup jocks’ room, listening to how he cajoled veteran Schoodic to win a hurdle stakes.
I have to admit, I drove slowly from Fair Hill to Bryn Mawr, partially wondering what was to come and partially putting it off. We’ve made plenty of trips to hospitals to see broken friends, they never get any easier.
Wearing a blue baseball hat embroidered with 198 on the front for Young’s number of career wins, I waited in the hall for Young. He saw me from a distance and waved, walked toward me, we shook hands. On his way to the gym, I followed him there. Then he went to speech therapy, I followed him there, just sat and watched, gaining perspective with every stumbling word or movement.
I watched Young answer questions, he came up with hammer when asked what you use to hit a nail but couldn’t come up with school when asked where kids go. The human brain, the crazy, fragile, mystifying human brain.
We made small talk, I’d like to say it all made sense.
Asked if he knew who I was, Young turned and shook his head, “I don’t know, he just keeps following me around.”
In a way, he was right, I have been following Young since he won his first race back in 2003. He won 197 more to get to an impossible number. I put my arm around Young’s shoulder and said goodbye, telling him I was on my way to Saratoga. He smiled, that same old Paddy Young smile.
I walked down the hall and toward the elevator.
A nurse I met when I arrived asked, “Weren’t you wearing a hat?”
“I left it on his bed,” I said, turning and walking out the door, another crazy door on the way to Saratoga.