The Inside Rail

I thought he won. I was almost confident, well, as confident as you can be in a photo finish.

Live, I thought City Dreamer had gotten there, nailing horses to his inside in the final strides of the Marcellus Frost Stakes at the Iroquois Steeplechase Saturday. I didn’t know who the inside horses were, didn’t care, I just thought Sean McDermott had galvanized City Dreamer on the far outside and delivered him on the line. Timing. Timing is everything. It looked like perfect timing.

That’s what I thought, what I saw from my vantage point, inside the final hurdle, by myself, in the middle of Percy Warner Park, a place where I’ve been made and broken with the consistency of night and day.

There was Red Raven winning a $500 check in 1984. Flasher winning a Sport of Kings Maiden like a superstar. To Ridley staving off Rowdy Irishman in a thriller. Pinkie Swear launching at the last and getting through on the inside to win my final Iroquois.

And, yes – noooooo – there was Avanico rallying past High Card on the outside just as Rowdy Irishman rallied on the inside for Cort Marzullo and Bruce Haynes (looking back on it, I’m glad my two friends – gone way too soon – had that moment) to win the Iroquois. Heroisbreezin’ slipping and falling on the turn with the novice stakes at his mercy. Hillside Spring losing a two-horse timber race, a demolition job of Paul Bunyan proportion. And the year To Ridley pulled up and Rowdy got the money, my choice of rides as wrong as a crime.

So there I was running up the stretch, thinking City Dreamer had won our second novice stakes in two weeks. I looked to my left, to my friends, all there, all rooting for us, all with a better vantage point than I had from my solitary confinement/contentment. I just needed confirmation, a smile, a high five, a fist in the air from George Baker and all my other friends. I looked at them, to them, for them and they delivered. Delivered a kick to the gut, a slap in the mouth, a knife to the heart. To the man, each shook their head from side to side with the snuffing, suffocating elegance of a wet blanket on a flickering flame. Nothing like friends to give you support, confidence and reassurance when you need it most.

I ran by them, arriving at City Dreamer’s trainer Jack Fisher in the middle of the course, he was there for To Ridley, there for so many of my good days and some of my bad. Still searching for confirmation, I looked at him, yearning, a stray dog on the corner looking for shelter. He held up two fingers, for a split second, I thought to myself, ‘Yes, I know, I know, City Dreamer was the 2.’ I had just confirmed that myself, checking my program, wanting to know immediately when Tony Bentley announced the winner. But, no, Jack wasn’t confirming City Dreamer’s number, he was confirming his position. “Second, buddy, second. Sorry, buddy, sorry.” Now, I was losing faith. My brother arrived, he’s been there for all of them, too, he arrived and offered the same grim report, although, his look was less about losing and more about not knowing, perhaps, that’s just what big brothers do. I was feeling the crushing realization of a lost photo. Not Jason Servis and Luis Saez crushing, but crushing.

Then, quickly actually, Bentley broke the news. All I heard was “…Number 2…” I pumped my fist, thanked the Gods above and celebrated with all my friends, my comrades, who had delivered the hammer chop just moments before. I hugged partners George and Sue Sensor, Baker, his wife Candida, his sister Muffy, my brother, my nephew Ryan Clancy, my friend Ryan Jones, Ben Gowans, Fisher, shook McDermott’s hand like he had just got me out of jail.

And there it was again, another moment to bask in the essence of why we love this sport, the reason we put our money and our soul into this sport. Yes, it’s about winning, but it’s also about the space between winning and losing – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, so close, the sparring bedfellows in a turbulent game.