Sunday: The Countdown

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100 Days to Cheltenham. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020.

Hard to believe. Difficult to compute. Impossible to fathom.

Life took its detour during Cheltenham last year. When I left here March 7, a thing called coronavirus was an issue, a concern, a wonderment, the elephant in the room. When I returned March 14, the room was gone. In the seven days I was in England, the four days at Cheltenham, everything changed. It was declared a pandemic. Travel was stifled. People were dying. We enjoyed four days of sport, but it was more like a distraction than a destination, knowing the walls were closing in on our little worlds. Usually, I would write revel in four days of sport. But it didn’t feel like reveling. 

We met for Guinness, the cold froth surely killing any droplets of a disease we couldn’t see. We joked and laughed, a gallows humor toast with each sip. We bet with the Tote when inside, the bookies when in the air, life changing accumulators were sketched out on race cards and blown up in the first. We cheered home winners we respected and even a few we bet. We admonished inexplicable rides and cursed inexplicable trips. It was Cheltenham, but nothing like Cheltenham at its finest. When the Bakers dropped me off at Heathrow on that surreal Saturday morning, we hugged at the curbside, spitting rain promising the tsunami that was coming. 

And now here we are, 100 days until Cheltenham. Nine months of turbulence and tumult behind us with three months still to go. Racing has gone on, well, a semblance of racing has gone on since those early days of despair. Nicky Henderson scratched Altior from the Tingle Creek because of heavy ground yesterday. Willie Mullins unleashed another Champion bumper winner. Min just emerged from fog at Punchestown to win again. Ryan Mania holds the left front shoe of Elf De Re as stewards scratch the 9/2 shot at Kelso. 

Will we go to Cheltenham in March? Doubtful. Do we want to go to Cheltenham in March? Not if it’s like last time, I’ve never felt so uncertain as I did when I boarded the Virgin Atlantic flight home. Was I sick? Would I be sick? A few people wore masks, most didn’t. I didn’t. Now, it’s part of my routine – keys, wallet, phone, mask. Life has changed. I feel a long, cold, bleak winter with a light (a vaccine!) out there somewhere in the spring. So, yeah, 100 days to Cheltenham. Or is it 465?

Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. 

“It’s 9 o’clock, I’ve got to go to bed.”

Annie and I look up from our turkey pasta (you know, the two-days-after-Thanksgiving-creation dinner) quizzically, ‘Who is this and what did he do with our son?’ 

“Hunting tomorrow,” Mile says, setting his plate in the sink and kissing his parents goodnight. 

Miles skips off to bed. Tweed coat hanging on a doorknob, white shirt on another doorknob, George Grayson’s hunting tie tucked around the coat. Boots and leggings polished by the door. Gloves, helmet, Larabar in a bag next to the boots.

There is nothing like a hunting morning. The air is brisk, the potential palpable, the game afoot. Miles smiling, energetic, electric with the potential, the freedom. A bowl of cereal, two pieces of walnut/cranberry toast, two scrambled eggs with feta and basil. Fuel. Race morning without the pressure. Finals day without the test. We watch a hurdle race from Auteuil, cringe when a horse in orange scambles over the practice jump like he’s never jumped, we root for him to get around and he does, eventually. Miles, “Please don’t be a jump jockey.” “Don’t worry, Dad. Don’t worry.”

He’s at Haley Walsh’s barn by 8. A brush and a rub rag in his hands by 8:15. Loading Jazzy, a tie-dye Appaloosa who knows the drill like a soldier at formation by 9:00. At the meet by 9:30. On Jazzy by 9:45. With a blow of a horn and command for the MOC Beagles to take the helm by 10:00. 

“Adults, remember childen have the right of way, they’re in front, you must yield to them…”

Ambling down a hill, through an open gate, across a broken-down stone wall, the field of ponies and horses, odds and ends, rounds the bend, past the woods and goes out of sight.

Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. 

Thanksgiving 2020. A table for four, please. 

No family walk. No family squabbling (well, a little). No Mom’s pumpkin pie. No nephews, no nieces. No family dog. No commiseration over traffic. No politics! No “Holy Ghost” blessing. No family silver pattern. In a year of upheaval and uneasiness, Thanksgiving simply adds another notch, another scar on the weathered 2020 board. Strange days.

Annie and Stella will cook. Miles and I will eat. I’ll clean up. Miles and I will handle the barn, bringing in Apse, Kiss and Eagle Poise for afternoon feed, joining Gameboy in the barn. Miles will oversee the feeding of Blue, Border and Teddy on the fence, shooshing Teddy and Border from Blue’s bowl. The slowest eater eats the least. 

A strange Thanksgiving but a good time to be thankful for all that is good in our lives. 

I’ll make a few phone calls and receive a few during the day. I’ll go for a run, maybe the five-mile loop, around noon. Think about life. Think about loved ones, so far away. 

Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

Now is the winter of our discontent. 

Shakespeare’s line. Steinbeck’s book. Our reality. 

We are in for a long, dire winter as COVID-19 numbers rise, windows close, vaccines test and a country tries to heal itself from a pandemic and political divide. I’m not here to talk politics. We’ve done that enough already. It seems all conversations wind up mired in politics, one got so heated I stomped home from the neighbors’ house, so great was the divide. 

I’m afraid the divide will continue as Donald Trump digs in, life’s pressures intensify and the winter of our discontent moors for the long haul. 

What a year. What a bust. 

In March when the pandemic hit, it was an interesting development, felt more like a disruption than a disaster. A change of pace, the sabbatical you always wanted. 

We read a few extra books, picking ones randomly off the shelf for fun. Miles and I played a full season of backyard baseball, all-time best teams matching up, Mickey Mantle against Mike Trout, Sandy Koufax versus Randy Johnson, The Babe squaring off with Yaz. We moved a pile of planks and beams that needed to be moved for a decade, filled the woodshed, cleaned the attic, donated clothes and toys to our local hospice. We weeded the garden, transplanted volunteer saplings, planted seeds to yield the earliest radishes and arugula in our 10 years here. I joined a Zoom call with a friend in New York and another in Turkey. I wrote, almost creatively, nearly for fun. We walked around the block as a family, not often, but more often than ever before. We turned dinners into destinations.

Was I Thoreau walking around the pond? Far from it, but there were glimmers of spirituality and solace. I swear there were glimmers. 

Car rides have become glimmers. Just the 12-minute journey from home to Hill School has turned from a requirement to a respite. Wednesday, I arrive early but not as early as most, sliding into 33rd in the pickup line. There was a time when it would grate on me, now, I turn the key and roll down the windows. The American flag waves, whips northwest. The sun has sunk below the trees to my left, still shining across the grass field where we’ve seen kids race in circles over the years. It’s empty today. A woman walks a dog, a tan-colored mutt, joyous in the exercise. The spigot is on, but no water runs, a lone orange ornament on the sea of green. 

Most kids are at home, sequestered, navigating online school, the dearth of interaction, the death of the snow day. As Hill closed in the spring, we asked Miles what he missed, he said, “Just anybody under the age of 50.” Fortunately, we were back to school in September. It was like the first day of summer – for all of us.

Cars begin to move, a white SUV replaces a black SUV, I turn the key and start the car, begin to creep, flipping the visor with our name tag. Parents and children pass us heading home as we wind our way to the front of the line. Teachers yell out names, like bingo numbers. Students banter and bounce in the art room, the doors wide open. Kids look for recognizable cars, some linger, loiter, others flit and flee, winter coats are dragged like streamers off the back bumper.

For a moment, it’s a regular school day on a regular day. NPR announces New York is implementing new school closures because of the rising numbers, I take a deep breath…Ski Friday, the Talent Show, will we go back after Thanksgiving? 

Miles leaps into the back seat, throws his backpack on the floor and rips off his mask. I ask him about his day. Ran the mile in 8:05. Top four. Finished Walk Two Moons in English class. Top 20. For a moment, the winter of our discontent seems far, far away. 

Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.

The third at Hexham. The sixth at Kenilworth. The eighth at Happy Valley. 

The wallpaper of our lives. Overcast at Hexham, novices clattering and rattling sections of hurdles, climbing to the finish, Lady Vallanelle winning well. Beautiful in Kenilworth, mountains rising in the backdrop, second choice Dazzling Sun free wheels to the start, could be a British chaser. I look up the form, a daughter of Camelot, not surprising. She splits three rivals and wins. Masks at Happy Valley in Hong Kong, they were wearing them long before us, raining at weekday venue, sparse crowd. I think back to my two trips there, Amarettitorun and Val’s Prince, overachievers who showed me the world. 

Funny how technology has changed everything. I remember walking across the field to watch the Grand National at George and Nina Strawbridge’s house back in the early 80s. On SIS, two satellite dishes like flying saucers beamed it to their home, it was magic for a kid enthralled by a game so large. That day, it seemed just a touch smaller. Now, I’m sitting on my couch, feet propped up as workers hammer new siding to the front of our house and watch racing from three continents. 

Hill Sixteen won the fourth at Ffos Las…Macaban City won the second at Dundalk…they’re going to the start for the seventh at Kenilworth… 

Friday, November 13, 2020. 

As if I needed more distractions.

Richard Farquhar, of Walking the Courses, organizes a Masters competition for charity. Pick four players, best cumulative score wins. Now I’ve gone to Masters dot com and am tracking Simpson, Oosthuizen, Rahm, Dechambeau, Day, Im, Hatton and Ancer like Authentic, Whitmore, Tiz The Law, Monomoy Girl…you get my point. And, yes, I played a few teams. Three in all. And, no, I don’t know anything about handicapping golf. A fun distraction. Not exactly a necessary one. Come on my son. One time.

Early Friday morning. The house is quiet, just the clacking of a keyboard. I like it at this hour. 

Cheltenham today. Tiger Roll is back. When we saw him slip out the side door at the very top of Prestbury Park, after finishing second, 17 lengths behind Easysland, in the cross country in March, I thought that was it, we’d never see him on the stage again. Winded, he exited to the barn rather than the winner’s enclosure and jockey Keith Donoghue walked back alone, tack hanging lifeless from his arm. I said my goodbye that day, my thank you (the late double with Tully East is still paying for my Cheltenham jaunts). But, alas, he’s back. He runs at 10:00 our time. 

The jumpers finish the season at Charleston Sunday. No runners. Include It finished second at Callaway Gardens. Solid effort from a solid horse. Now to regroup. Bought a few new ones for 2021. Hopefully more. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020. 

Still counting. Biden 253. Trump 213. The magic number is 270. Coming down to Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania…

Mail-in votes, pathways, uncounted ballots. At least we’re not talking about hanging chads. See how far we’ve come?

We may know tonight. Or not. 

“Every state has different rules,” says CNN Phil Mattingly. 

Trump declaring victory. Threatening litigation. Actually, already waging litigation. Feeding discord. Inciting rage. Inventing malfeasance. Paint. Wall. He won’t stay quietly. He won’t go quietly. 

“It’s time and drama,” says CNN Chris Cuomo.

Time and drama. The story of 2020, when time has stood still and drama has ramped up. Would you have expected anything different with our election?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Election Day. 

I make breakfast – cranberry toast, organic cheerios, two scrambled eggs with feta and basil – for Miles. Annie drives him to school. We reconvene, send a few emails, analyze the construction project that has taken over one third of our house (there is a fleet of white trucks and white vans in the driveway) and check on the four horses in the barn after their night out. Another cup of coffee. A text or seven. We don’t turn on the TV. A “right, are you ready?” decree. And a short drive down Snake Hill Road to Banneker Elementary. We should have walked. 

Biden signs aplenty. Two Trump representatives, hats and all. Tents. Red, white and blue. Sample ballots, we decline.

Masks on, we wait at the door for two elderly ladies, one black, one white, one wearing a mask, one not, to climb the stairs and enter the elementary school. 

We wait, allowing them a big head start and climb the steps, open the door with my shirt sleeve and walk down the cavernous hallway, the one with signs and drawings, warnings and water fountains. There are few things more disturbing, more disconcerting than a school without kids.  

We walk into the auditorium, wait less than a minute before being called to the table, the woman behind the plexiglass looks at my ID and asks my full name, “Waggaman” gets stuck in my mask and I repeat it twice. Then my address. She hands me a ticket stub, oh I wish it was a movie, and I walk down to the end where a woman hands me a ballot and holds a box of new pens. She asks if I’m still riding horses. 

“Trying to, that’s about all,” I say. 

I sit at a desk, fill out the form, I’ve researched the candidates, the questions. Gerrymandering, veterans and cars, school bonds, Philomont doesn’t need a new fire station. 

It doesn’t take long, oh, the time it takes to fill in eight or so boxes with a black pen, squares on a test and check it over once. One box feels bigger than the rest. 

We wait for the ladies again and walk to the machine that takes the paper like a backward ATM. I slide my ballot to the feeder, it checks it, approves it and a volunteer hands me an “I voted” sticker. I thank her for her service. We walk into the hallway, push the lever on the gallon of hand sanitizer, rub our hands and walk out the front door of the kidless school. We walk past the two Trump supporters. 

Nobody says a word. 

Saturday, Oct. 21, 2020. 

Saturday morning baseball. Lake Monsters versus the Hooks. It’s 34 degrees. Game time temperature, 36. Fall ball. Last game, luckily, after a long, testing season, our escape has had walls.

I’ll write a few words, make breakfast and stack layers on Miles’ bed in preparation for winter ball. Dads and sons have been doing this forever. Miles and I enjoy and share baseball. Dad and I had racing. We spent most Saturday mornings together, rising early, leaving in the dark and venturing to Pimlico and Potomac, Charles Town and Charleston, Middleburg and Morven Park. 

For steeplechasing, if the mail delivered that week, we had the overnight, for flat racing, the Form, today’s and sometimes the Advanced Edition, in our hands, well, my hand. Dad driving, navigating before navigation, and me talking, analyzing each race, each nuance, each potential move, each potential blunder. On the way home, I’d pull out a pen and update the standings in the program, rehash each race and then sleep until hearing the sweet comfort of our driveway.

Beautiful Saturdays. 

Today, I’ll balance baseball and a little racing. Can I watch Presenting Percy, Samcro, Cyrname, Black Corton, Lisnagar Oscar from the dugout? 

Let David Jennings of the Racing Post explain the Saturday smorgasbord.

The winter chill is starting to bite, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, so how about a big hug to warm you up? Let Cyrname, Samcro, Presenting Percy and Delta Work wrap their arms around you. Hold on tight and don’t let go for a few hours. You will feel all the better for it.

With the wretched outside world continuing to exasperate even the most mellow of us, take shelter in your sitting room, or kitchen, or that box room which used to be for junk but is now your own little, peaceful haven. For Saturdays like this are one of the only luxuries left in life.

God be with the days when three out of four in a Lucky 15 would pay for a few pints that night. Plenty of us won’t be sitting on high stools anytime soon, but at least you can escape the desolation of reality by watching staying chasers slug it out over three miles; and with every soaring leap remind you why you fell in love with jump racing in the first place. 

To have the highest-rated chaser showing up in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby would have done, we’re not greedy any more, but it feels like we are taking the lid off a big box of Ferrero Rocher. Seldom have we been so spoiled so early in a jumps campaign.

Enjoy the weekend, whether you’re coaching first base or watching jump racing from that box room. 

Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

Make the plan. Work the plan. Douglas Road and Mikey Mitchell did exactly that. A free-running, up-tempo horse, Douglas Road sat closer to the pace Saturday and delivered a head win over the game Eryx in the opener at International Gold Cup. 

It had been nearly two years since Douglas Road won, not really his fault as he reached the three-other-than condition on the flat and couldn’t quite eclipse it. We could have dropped him down, won some races, won some money and seen him slide down the ladder. Instead he switched codes, making his jump debut at Colonial this summer. As I always say, steeplechasing is high risk, but not as high-risk as the claiming game on the flat. 

Thanks to our partners, Mikey, Todd and Blair Wyatt, their team and most of all to the horse for rising to the occasion. And thanks to Al Griffin and the International Gold Cup team for keeping the show on the road. Monumental efforts, all. 

Strange, surreal times watching races on an empty hillside at Great Meadow. I’ve never actually heard myself yell for a horse, or it’s never really registered as it mixes with the crowd, like singing along at a concert. Without a crowd, you hear every word. Saturday it was “Come on, Douglas. Come on, Douglas. Come on, Douglas.” Another first in a year of firsts.

Congratulations to Colin Smith and Parker Hendriks on their first career victories Saturday. The home-grown talent pool, basically non-existent for about a decade, has started to look deeper and brighter. 

And congratulations to Dave Bourke and Rebecca Shepherd for another win with Curve Of Stones. Cool horse. Well deserved. 

Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

Race Day. 

Not quite. No crowd. No betting. At least it’s happening. Racing is better than no racing, I’ve read that somewhere before, actually, everywhere since March. What a year. What a bust. 

Douglas Road and Include It represent Riverdee today. The former has flummoxed us a few times, hopefully he’ll get it right today. The latter has made himself a long-term project. 

Busy day. Racing in the Plains at 12. Baseball in Hamilton at 4:00. 

In the words of George Baker – must dash.

Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

We jumped nine jumps. Whew. Exhale. It’s over. 

As I’ve learned in life, some things are fun when they’re over. Eagle Poise and I managed to complete our round for the Real Rider Cup 2020. Annie as the coach, her sister, Stella, as the cinematographer. Miles, sadly, missed it. Something about school. 

It wasn’t perfect, but if you saw the various schools and the various rounds before it, you’d understand how close to perfect we got. Amazing old horse, 14 now, after six wins, eight seconds, two thirds in 29 starts, over $500,000 in earnings, he still possesses the ability, the attitude, the resoluteness, the moxie, the simple work ethic to perform. He’s anything but easy. And I’m anything but adept at jumping slowly and collected over nine jumps. But, as I said, when it was over, it was a lot of fun.

Click here to watch, vote and donate: 

Please vote (we are only 4,013 votes out of first!), but most importantly donate to a great cause. Eagle Poise and I have raised over $1,000 and the Real Rider Cup has raised over $40,000, thanks to some generous and loyal friends. We’d love to see that climb well past those numbers. 

Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.

Just another Saturday in October. 

Champions Day at Ascot. Wet at Belmont Park. The Raven Run at Keeneland. Willowdale keeping the light on with the Louis “Paddy” Neilson timber. Annie’s birthday, come by for a social-distance drink tomorrow. Miles’ baseball game, the Lake Monsters versus the Emeralds. And I’m trying to figure out how I can jump nine jumps on Eagle Poise to satisfy my commitment to the Real Rider’s Cup (donations encouraged and welcomed!). 

Eagle Poise would be better suited for the Paddy Neilson than the Real Riders. I’m not sure I’m suited for either at this stage. I did this once before, said I’d never do it again, and here I am, nine jumps standing in the way of a deep breath. It’s a good cause, I keep telling myself. It’s a fun challenge, I keep telling myself. It’s a needed escape, I keep telling myself. No crowd, no pressure, I keep telling myself. Nine jumps. Two less than we used to jump at Saratoga, half the Maryland Hunt Cup course, not even a quarter of the Grand National…

I wrote about my first foray at the Real Rider’s a few years ago,

Pured It picked across the board by the ST Handicappers in the Paddy Neilson, a race which has had one goal and many homes this year. Neilson’s granddaughter, Skylar McKenna, aboard Pured It. His grandson, Parker Hendriks, aboard As You Like It. Paddy must have some pull, right? 

Hopefully, the race becomes a tradition, offering apprentice jockeys an opportunity while honoring a rider who awed all of us. 

I wrote about Paddy back in September, 2019. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020.

It’s been a while. Seems like I start most posts like that these days.

I should write every day. I don’t write every day. I read my friend George Baker’s blog most days, he churns out the words, the thoughts, every day. Sometimes short and sweet, sometimes long and eloquent. Sometimes pithy, something somber. Every day. 

Interesting weekend, volunteering for volunteer duty Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Virginia Fall Races. Mairead Carr and I bedded down four barns, about 100 stalls, with shavings Friday. Cricket Bedford, Donovan and I delivered trainer’s equipment from their vans to their barns via golf carts Saturday morning. Sunday, I picked up and dumped 15 garbage bags from four barns, stacked signs, folded chairs, pulled down stall cards and hosed down four gators. 

When you step back from the furnace of riding or training, you realize what actually goes into a day’s racing. Mostly volunteers. I was a speck on the volunteer spectrum this weekend. Punkin Lee and the rest of her team. Doug Fout and the rest of his team. So many people, actually so few people, keeping the light on for this crazy game we play. 

Sure, two bags of shavings per stall would have been better than one. Sure, a few of the garbage cans blew over. Sure, a few more golf carts would have made it quicker and easier. I did a small part for Virginia Fall Races. This week, there will be another loyal band putting the show on at Willowdale. A week later, the International Gold Cup will somehow come to life. Then it’s on to Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Callaway, Charleston…and hopefully a semblance of a proper season in the spring. 

Thank a volunteer. Be a volunteer.