by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
December 21, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It was 6 a.m. here in south Florida and the sky was still a midnight blue when Lee pulled up in her truck. She was playing Susan Boyle's "Wild Horses" on the car stereo and it was lovely.
By 6:30 we were at Calder Race Course. Lots of construction. They're putting up a new casino. The grandstand at Calder is many stories high, boxy, glassed-in and, sadly, usually empty. Only a few people come to watch horse racing anymore. There are so many ways to gamble these days, trainer Steve Standridge told us. You can buy a scratch ticket. You can watch horse racing on tv and bet on-line. You can go to the big Indian casinos and bet on everything in sight. Horse racing is fragile, expensive and in decline.
On a good day the daily "handle" - the amount of money bet - at Calder used to be $1 million or more, Steve said. Now if they hit $300,000 they're lucky.
It's hard making new friends in a new city, especially when you're only there to care for a sick mother. So I met Lee the only way I could. Last August, her mother occupied the bed next to my mother in a rehabilitation center.
Lee and my mother fell to talking, and she mentioned that in her youth, in the 1970s, she had been an exercise rider and a jockey. That would make her rare, brave, determined and tough. Even today, female jockeys are unusual. Back then? Almost nonexistent. But she did it for years; she told me her first boss was a mob figure who carted her around the Northeast so she could try out horses at auctions for him. She is still small and wiry. Even in rest, you can picture a horse under her. She radiates energy as well as kindness.
Anyway, Mom told her that I was horse crazy and liked to handicap races, so by the time I got to Florida, she was waiting for me.
When Lee gave up riding, she became an optometrist. Then, when she took on the full-time care of her mother, she gave up her practice and became a landscaper. I am thrilled to have her as a guide in this caretaking business - at which I am not, I must admit, very good. To have her as a friend is priceless.
So now I'm in Florida again. Mom's mind is fine, but her body is terribly weak. She's in another rehab center - one with lots of Alzheimer's patients. It's scary. After they turn 50, people like to joke that getting old is terrible but "consider the alternative." Well, I'm here to tell you the alternative may be worse.
In any case, after a while I needed an outing. Lee offered to take me to the track to meet her old boss, Steve, watch the horses train, and maybe pet a few.
Riders at dawn are romantic, even if these race horses aren't top-tier thoroughbreds - the kind that some sheik from Dubai will sweep in and sweep up. The high-class horses are nearby, at Gulfstream Park, which has graded stakes races and even a Kentucky Derby prep. Trainers fly in their horses to run in those races. Calder horses are working-class. They race often, and usually at Calder. But they were splendid to me.
When horses run, their nostrils flap together. That's what makes that horse-like sound - you don't hear it when you watch the races on television. On this particular morning, though, many of them were flapping on the rail - running fast. Others walked or cantered or skittered sideways. Some of the grays, with their arched necks, looked as if they came from carousels.
I spent a heavenly hour watching one lovely animal after another pass in front of us. Then Steve whisked us away in his golf cart to the backstretch. On the way, he pointed out the son of the man who trained Secretariat. We talked about other famous horses; I tried to sound knowledgeable and probably made a fool of myself. A small price to pay for ecstasy.
Steve took us around his stable. He's not the kind of trainer who makes derogatory comments about how dumb horses are. He loves them. He plays with them. He rubs his face into theirs and sometimes, he said, he bites them. The horses appear to be laughing when they play back. Lots of teeth, but no biting.
One lovely chestnut filly called to me. You can tell - horses' eyes are amazingly expressive; so are their ears. This one was soft and smooth and warm to the touch, She smelled wonderful. My mother has no pets, and being so far away from Vermont and home, I am animal-starved as well as affection-starved. When the filly let me lay my face along her neck, there were a few tears in my eyes.
Then we came to the stall of a horse named Pressure. When I reached up to pet him, he quickly arched his head downward and bit me hard on the belly. I was so surprised that at first I didn't realize what had happened. Then I loudly cursed him out, but secretly I was thrilled - call it an initiation.
How homesick I am. How frail my mother is. How wonderful it is to make a new friend. How beautiful it is to discover a new world.
We were home before noon, playing "Wild Horses" all the way.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a Vermont columnist and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.