Dave Donk looked up from the back page of The Special and laughed.
“It isn’t free anymore, buddy.”
The veteran trainer stood up from a table outside his barn on the turn of the main track and put his arm around my shoulder, “Brother, I’ve been there.”
It was one of those cups of coffee about family. Leaving Miles. Leaving Annie. Leaving home. A few years ago. You know the ones, when Miles hit his head and I wasn’t there, when the summer storm hit the farm and I wasn’t there, when Apse won at Saratoga and they weren’t here, when Tom Law grilled in the backyard and they weren’t here. There have been many.
That day, I was struggling with the balance between work in Saratoga and the family at home. Donk read it, knew it, recognized it. Two kids, a barn full of horses and Saratoga in the middle, each summer, a balancing act of purpose and pressure. Donk’s kids, Paul and Holly, had grown up. Well, that summer, they were grown up compared to Miles, the Donks in a different stage than the Clancys, which adds perspective, which gets passed around, one dad to another dad.
“See, all you young guys used to laugh at us old guys,” Donk said. “Now you get it.”
Yeah, now I got it. I wasn’t freelancing, six, eight, 10 a day for 10, 12, 15 bucks for that bronc anymore. Saratoga wasn’t free anymore. Jonathan Kiser’s motto of a credit card and a tack bag was long gone. The thought of hitting the Northway and never looking back was long gone. The days of long bar tabs and lost security deposits, yeah, long gone.
Life changes. For the better, no doubt.
As always, Saratoga marks the passage of time. When you’re packing to go and when you’re packing to come home, a moment to think about where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going. And everyone in your life, where they are, where they’ve been, where they’re going. And, sure, some who aren’t here anymore. This year even more so, after missing out last year. For me, I missed Saratoga but gained a full summer with my family. With Covid stifling all options, it was the definition of a staycation. We relished long breakfasts, appreciated lazy lunches and enjoyed languid dinners. We played all-time-best baseball games in the backyard (Miles always hitting) and wandered around the garden late into the night. There were a few deadlines – The Special salvaging what it could – taken in the guestroom, Miles bringing me dinners and wishing me luck. With life as we knew it in upheaval, we did what we could, while worrying about what we couldn’t. I can’t decide if that makes it easier or harder this summer. I guess, I’ll know in eight weeks.
Eight weeks. Two months. Forty racing days. Twenty deadlines. Hopefully, Miles and Annie will make a few of those before summer drifts to a close, but for now, it feels like the long goodbye.
Wednesday morning, as all that looms in a day, I make scrambled eggs with Greek feta and basil from the garden, we chat about last night’s all-star game and the night-before home run derby and I pack Miles’ lunch, lamb burger, leftover salad and a Lara Bar. He puts his dishes in the sink, fills up a water bottle, flits up the back stairs, brushes his teeth and skips back down the front stairs. I slather sunscreen across his nose, cheeks and forehead, offer him a floppy hat of mine which he refuses politely and we continue the goodbye dance. Knowing the moment of truth is here, we’ve done this for 20 years now, we hesitate, take deep breaths, smile, stifle our emotions and hug. I used to pick him or at least lean over, now he looks me in the eye for one last, long, hard-to-let-go embrace that lasts into the minutes.
“I’ll miss you, Miles.”
“Same here, Dad. Same here.”
We’ve cried before, but stifle it today.
On his way to pony camp at Haley Walsh’s, across John Mosby Highway, down the road in Piedmont Hunt Country, Miles is a counselor this week at Daffodil Hill, a bastion of kids and ponies, trail rides and creek swims, laughs and escapes. Some days, he’s asleep before he gets home, after a long day in the hot sun, full barn, still pond and tall grass. Talk about being free.
He picks up a bag of swimming gear, a bag of riding clothes and his Hill School lunch box and walks toward Annie’s car. He’s wearing my shoes. An old pair of Adidas. Sambas. Or Spezials.
They’re a size too big. For now.