The Inside Rail

Barn

You can’t live your life in fear, that’s what I said last week and repeated many times this week. A week ago, I left for Cheltenham, the coronavirus, at the time, was a concern, a hassle, a nuisance. Or so we thought…or so I thought. I left without fear, trepidation, sure, but not fear. In what has felt like a very short and very long week, the heat has been turned up, a virus on the rise, the world is a strange place.

The Masters, Carolina Cup, Miles’ Little League season, Shakespeare in the ‘Burg, the London Marathon, horse sales, horse races, gatherings of any size are being postponed or cancelled or run behind close doors. Italy is in lockdown, the stock market has plummeted, schools are closing, businesses pressured and stretched. Cheltenham felt like the last dance as the lights went down. Surreal. The mind volleyed back and forth. Are we being stupid or smart? Reckless or resistant? Brazen or bold? Deadly or defiant?

I’m game, I rode jump races for 13 years, over 1,000 rides. But that was then, this is now. I’m different than the athlete who couldn’t see a spot on Bewray at the last hurdle at Morven Park in 1998, he paid the most decisive price for my indecision. Thirty minutes later, at the same hurdle, I gunned Ballynonty for a spot I saw but he didn’t, he listened, got it, won the race, all for a check and a chance. I walked away that day, wondering about what coursed, or cursed, through my veins. I couldn’t believe what I was capable of, I shocked myself. I’m not alone, people take risks every day, jockeys take crazy risks every race. I think back to that day often, think about the boy who I was then and the man I am today. I can’t relate to the boy and not sure I recognize the man.

Maybe, it’s just the plane ride. Or Springsteen weaving words and telling tales in his documentary, Western Stars, which plays on the pullout screen in front of me. Some of us break down in hotel rooms, weep on long car rides, fall apart when we see an old friend or hear a favorite song. I get wistful and introspective on plane rides. It’s partly saying goodbye to my son, my wife, my life when I leave, thinking about what could happen while I’m gone, if the trip is worth it, if days when I’m away override days when I stay. And on the journey home, it’s saying goodbye to friends who I won’t see for another year, if we’re lucky. I walk into Cheltenham every year and think about a few friends who are gone, a few friends I can’t call and tell about the trip-changing late double, the cold froth of the Guinness, the long leap at the second-to-last in the Gold Cup.

This year, the conversation would be about Epatante’s slicing through the Champion Hurdle field, ears pinned back like broken corn stalks. It would be about Champ, down and out at the last and then the dagger thrust at the wire. It would be about the undefeated Honeysuckle. It would be about Davy Russell’s patience, delivering Envoi Allen, Samcro, Chosen Mate like placing eggs on the kitchen counter. It would be about Jamie Moore’s unseating of Goshen while dominating the Triumph Hurdle, the horse’s left hind shoe hooking his left front shoe for a half-stride, enough to turn a jink into a jolt. It would be about a 50-1 shot winning the Stayers. It would be about Willie Mullins winning just the bumper over the first two days and sweeping the first four on the last day to wrestle the leading trainer award. It would be about Maxine O’Sullivan, from a point-to-point family in Ireland, winning their “Grand National” with 66-1 It Came To Pass in the Foxhunter’s Chase. It would be about a pull-it-out-of-the-fire trifecta in the Johnny Henderson. It would be about Paul Townend, replacing the irreplaceable, and winning a second Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo and four other races for good measure. It would be about the decimating lows and the thrilling highs of a sport that turns emotions every 40 minutes like a cook flipping burgers at a roadside diner.

Yeah, I would tell them about all that, we would relish in a sport that we’ve shared for all these years. I do the same at Saratoga each summer, on the drive, I think about the ones who are gone, the ones who won’t hear the stories, share the dreams. Yeah, I’ll be 50 in April, there are more and more missing, fewer and fewer conversations each year. Life.

I guess this is the simple nature of traveling. When I leave, I wonder if I should go. I come home, glad I did. Usually. This time, it’s different, we are living in a strange, dystopian time. Heathrow was eerie, the fear palpable as passengers trudged to destinations unknown. Sneezes like lightning bolts. Coughs, claps of thunder. Annie says I’m going into self isolation in the guest room when I get home. I want to scoff, tell her she’s overreacting, but can’t. Should I have gone to Cheltenham this week? Was this a barbaric move? An act of selfishness? Have I put myself, and more importantly, them and others at risk? I’ll be content with the memories, the moments, content with the decision to go to Cheltenham, only when I know we are clear from an invisible virus that has the world reeling, wondering, questioning.

Springsteen just finished with a three-word goodbye. “Travel safe, pilgrim.”

We wait. We simply wait.