How did you get here?
I asked Victor Berrios that question last week. The assistant trainer told a harrowing, heroic story of escaping civil war in El Salvador and finding salvation at the racetrack. As soon as he finished, he asked me the same question I had asked him.
It’s anything but harrowing. Far from heroic.
For my brother Joe and me, like most of us, it was easy. Dad owned and trained horses. We lived in the private training center with the indoor track next to Delaware Park and then a farm in Pennsylvania, you couldn’t see another house from our house. Our classmates lived in neighborhoods, playing pick-up basketball at the apex of the cul-de-sac, skateboarding to the playground, racing Matchbox cars with their friends on the back patio.
Joey and me? Our friends were Patches and Red Raven. Yahtzee and Student Dancer. We got four channels on the TV. Atari’s Kaboom! and Pac-Man were as good as it got. It was easy to fall for horses. Want to watch Merv Griffin or Bill Passmore? Mike Douglas or Mario Pino? Dinah Shore or Hector Pilar? Want to read a book or bet the double? Ocean City or Saratoga?
We went with Dad to the barn, to the track. Dad would wake you up once, maybe twice, but never three times. Some nights I slept in my clothes to save time in the morning. All we had to do was stagger to the car, sleep all the way to the barn, Dad driving with the window down, no matter the season, stopping at Dunkin Donuts for black coffee, inventing the first flip lid to a coffee cup.
Sometimes, depending on how the horses were running, Dad would let us sleep in the car at the barn before rising with the sun and getting to work. Well, he did this with me, probably, not Joey, 5 years older. He was working long before I picked up a rake or a shank. I washed feed tubs, made kitchen runs, hosed down the dust and walked the quiet ones. I took orders from Lonnie, the kindest man I ever knew, begrudgingly from Joey and always from Dad.
Summers at Timonium, Delaware Park, Pimlico and Saratoga. Night racing at Atlantic City, Garden State, Charles Town and Penn National. Weekends at every steeplechase meet from Rolling Rock in Ligonier, Pennsylvania to Hard Scuffle in Louisville, Kentucky.
On long road trips, I’d opt for the back of the van. Stretch out on bales of straw, chains clacking on metal partition poles in the six-stall, swaying Imperatore horse van, watching Tattiebogle, Money By Orleans and Heart Of The Desert. Hoping they would drop their heads, nibble at their hay nets. Sometimes, I’d pull hay from the nets and try to hand-feed them. They usually refused. By the time you got to Union Avenue or Whiskey Bottom Road or Knight’s Hill Road, you were covered in hay, snot, dust. A couple of Coke bottles in the mix of hay and straw, the Racing Form blown around like losing tickets after the last. It was mesmerizing.
Always the junior kid on the team, I carried the buckets, a rub rag or dad’s binoculars to the paddock, that was about it. When I turned 16, Dad said I could run Tattiebogle for a stakes at Penn National, I had never been so proud. She won. I beamed.
We learned all our life lessons on a horse or next to a horse.
Joe nearly got out, studying journalism at the University of Delaware and getting jobs writing about high-school sports and local politics at The Whale in Rehoboth, Delaware and The Cecil Whig in Elkton, Maryland. He was going to climb that ladder.
I followed Joe (and our sister, Sheila) to Delaware, managed to eke out a history degree in four years but was never getting out. I arranged my classes around galloping horses in the morning and when the overnight would come out for the weekend’s steeplechase meets. I never took a class before 10 in the morning or after 3 on Mondays. Delaware was the only college I considered, not because of majors it offered or the beauty of the campus, but because it was down the street from Fair Hill Training Center. The place was fledgling at best but eight bucks a ride bought my books and paid for gas in my Chevy Cavalier.
In 1994, I dragged Joe back into racing. We started Steeplechase Times that spring, The Saratoga Special in 2001 and, well, here we are in our 19th season, hunched over desks, pounding keys long into the night. Pizza boxes and un-proofed pages replacing hay nets and straw bales. We didn’t escape a war to get here but perhaps we avoided one.
- • If you’re looking for fresh-squeezed lemonade, homemade baked goods and a charity worth supporting, come by Carolina Lemonade Stand at The Special office, 259 East Avenue, next to Fasig-Tipton, from 4 p.m. onward today. You’ll be glad you did.