I knew it would happen. Didn’t know when. Didn’t know why. Didn’t know how long it would last. Hoped nobody would notice.
Then it happened three times. Monday morning. Must be that time of year, when summer begins to fade, the reality of what you haven’t accomplished wins the photo from what you wanted to accomplish.
Steve Rushing and Ramon Dominguez have made career decisions around their families. I’ve watched the agent and jockey wrestle with personal and professional balance, constantly weighing man’s responsibility to provide monetarily and man’s responsibility to provide emotionally. Time on the job vs. time at home. They’ve done it better than most, relying on their wives who have kept the oars in the water when the tide comes in and when the tide goes out. They’re not alone, the racetrack life takes its toll.
I have one son (the kids with me over the years are my nephews, Joe’s boys, and Jane Motion, daughter of Anita and Graham Motion). I haven’t seen Miles Clancy, 3, since Tuesday, July 17. Five weeks. I’ve talked to him on the phone a couple of times, he asks and demands innocently, “Datt, when are you coming home? Datt, where are you? Datt, come home soon.”
How do parents go to war?
I’ve been in Saratoga for five weeks and I feel like I’ve been to Afghanistan, breathing sand, wondering how my boy’s doing, how my wife’s doing.
Monday morning, Dominguez asks me about my family.
Rushing, Dominguez and I share that look of missing family.
Dominguez asks me innocently, “Do you listen to country music?”
“Have you ever heard that song, the Dollar, by Jamey Johnson.”
Dominguez begins to fiddle with his iPhone. Rushing, a veteran of the missing-children club, chimes in, “Don’t do it, Sean. I’m telling you, don’t listen to it. Not, until you’re going home. Don’t do it.”
Dominguez hands me his phone and I listen.
Good thing for sunglasses. My first tears of Saratoga.
Half an hour later, turf works are winding down. I’m in search of a horse to discover, bet when it makes its turf debut. Callous. I scribble down a few trainer names, descriptions of horses who impress me, on a loose piece of paper. The last pair turn for home and the outside horse stumbles, falls, flips in the air.
The siren blares. Men disperse.
She limps, somehow cantering, to the outside rail. Her rider writhes in pain a furlong away. Two men go to him. I go to her.
In a matter of seconds, I’m holding her, grass wedged in the buckles of her bridle, blood coming from her nose, bandages pushed down to her pasterns, saddle pushed to her stifle, underneath her belly, irons clanging together. Her sweaty head pushes into me. I unbuckle the girth, untie her tongue tie, both fall to the ground, useless. An outrider appears quickly, holds her left leg in place. No words are exchanged. The horse ambulance and human ambulance begin to rumble down the backside.
I pat her head as she breathes heavily into my chest. I keep saying to her, “It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right.”
Knowing it’s not.
She’s gone in minutes, falling from my hands, thudding to the ground.
I walk away, hiding the pain behind sunglasses, hating the sport. That’s two sets of tears.
An hour later, Heather Craig organizes a pizza party for my nephew Ryan, who finishes his 42nd straight day of work at Graham Motion’s barn. Steve Margolis left money, after shipping Hurricane Bertie to Motion’s barn for the Alabama. The filly stares over her screen while Motion’s team, Dave Donk, Dr. Luis Castro and other comrades and friends gather for a cup of Pepsi and slices of pizza. It always tastes better at the barn. Castro talks about flying, the mistakes John F. Kennedy Jr. made when he crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Three Labrador Retrievers lounge and scrounge for scraps. It takes my mind off the other stuff, at least, for a few moments.
The first race goes to the start, I watch Suns Out Guns Out roll around the turn, about to take over and win the 9-furlong maiden. Nolan Clancy, 11, snaps a couple photos, the pizza party is cleaned up, extra pizza dispensed to other barns, and my nephews, Ryan, Jack and Nolan, get in their parents’ car. Time to go home, school’s starting, summer’s over, suddenly I feel another year older. I make them get out of the car, hug each one of them, knowing they’re becoming men, drifting away. I tell them I love them, I don’t think they hear.
I cry for the third time.