From The Saratoga Special, August, 2017.

Owning horses goes something like this… 

You buy or breed the horse. Lift off. There’s a rush around that. Making a deal, creating a life. You get to name him. Design your silks. Dream the dream. All the world is young, the horizon unreachable, the freedom of expectation. You are in the game. 

Then you wait. 

If you’re new to it, you wait for good news, always expecting good news, like a parent, hearing about your kid’s day at school, about her recital, about his award at the spelling bee, about making varsity as a freshman. You’re paying by the day, you’re expecting news by the day. It doesn’t take long to realize that news is rare. Good news? That’s funny. 

Waiting for good news, positive updates, special moments, switches to waiting for bad news, negative vibes and bumps in the road. Like waiting to be drafted, doom is a phone call away. When your phone rings and you see your trainer’s name on the screen, you immediately check the clock, 8:21 a.m., ‘uh oh, this can’t be good.’ You take a deep breath, prepare, think about which horse would be best to hear bad news about and then take it like a man. The news is delivered quickly, succinctly, as definitively as possible, most trainers have learned that the quickest cut is the best cut. Pull the Band-Aid. 

“…He’s got some filling right above his ankle…we noticed this spot in his eye…he seems to be allergic…there’s a knot on the back of his ankle…he’s acting colicy…we turned him out and he started running…the race didn’t go…he went a half in 54…when he rolled…the other horse kicked out…the rider lost her balance…this truck came flying down the road…the track was deep…they didn’t use the race…when he lost the shoe it must have bent…the jockey said he could hear this noise…she got on the also-eligible list…it’s like he got stuck in the webbing…a claiming race is when you enter your horse to be bought…she’s still green…he must have kicked the wall…when he turned…time will do him good…he’s a bit one-paced…I think he’ll move up on the turf…the vet’s never seen anything like it…” 

It’s just the nature of the business, the nature of the beast. Trainers take the worst of it, the flagpole in the storm. The owner, well, he dug the hole for the flag, ran the flag up the pole and hopes the storm doesn’t come. Of course, the storm always comes in a variable-filled game with fragile animals taking the brunt of man’s dreams. Optimistic by nature, the owner becomes realistic fast and tries to quell the natural progression of becoming pessimistic. 

So why do it?

Motivational broke slowly, actually, he barely broke from the 9 hole in the two-other-than allowance at Laurel Park Friday. The gates opened and he lurched out of the gate, dawdled in the good ground and was last immediately. I shook my head, knowing the race was too short for him and he was already last. Feargal Lynch opted to keep him wide into the first turn, last and wide, oh boy. He passed one horse going into the turn, loped past two more after a quarter mile in :24.79 as the favorite Bombs Away battled The Tortoise on the lead. By the second turn, Motivational had passed a few more but Lynch was low and scrubbing, whip turned up already, chances looked remote. 

He wasn’t gaining ground, but wasn’t losing ground. I crept closer to the TV to the left of the big screen in the Saratoga clubhouse as the video feed played in snatches, without any audio of announcer Dave Rodman’s call. Motivational swung to the outside, with seven horses to pass at the eighth pole, it was still possible, remote, but possible. That’s all you want as an owner, just a moment to think it’s possible. I inched closer to the TV and began to yell like Lynch and Motivational could hear me 379 miles to the south. Yes, I was that guy, foot slapping the floor, fist pumping the air, screaming at a simulcast screen. Motivational rolled past a clutch of rivals and drew off. I whipped around, spun in a circle to silent onlookers, the cannonball into the kiddie pool.

Like I cared. 

Mark Grier, my partner, texted. Ryan, my nephew, harassed me for not telling him to bet. Dad, the planter of this crazy seed, called and told me how much he bet. I high-fived Ben Gowans. Jack Fisher, the trainer, called, we began to dream big. Hell, we’ve been dreaming big our whole lives, we’re horse owners. 

We felt lighter. Felt alive. Felt euphoric. We had a free day in a costly world.

Bottle it, that’s why you own horses.