Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

8. ‘My Story, Mostly’ Extract: Horse Racing

Here’s another extract from the project I’m currently working on, ‘My Story, Mostly’. This memoir was intended originally to be a private missive for Family Members who might like to know more of what happened in my life, especially those things that may have affected their own lives, like genetic flaws. As it happens, some of my other followers have expressed interested in my flaws too, so I figured I’d offer some advance glimpses of ‘My Story’ in this blog. 

This autobiography is not written in the traditional chronological format, more thematic: What were the top songs of my formative years (I chose 1962/63 as the reference point rather than the date of my birth (1947), which, as far as I can tell, had very little effect on me, though it may have had a large effect on my parents)? What are my favourite things (these are a few of my favourite things???). This means the memoir/autobiography is trivial(!) in that it is loaded with information and observations of a life in the second half of the 20th century.

So here is one excerpt, taken from the chapter, Favourite Things, in this case, horse racing.

Horse Racing

I developed an early interest in horse racing because my dad had an interest in horse racing. Not sure where that started but he used to watch the ponies running at Fort Erie Racetrack of a sunny summer afternoon in the early 1960s when we lived in Welland Ontario. A few times he took me with him. No doubt for him an afternoon at the track represented a business expense entertaining a customer, but to me it was pure excitement, especially to stand by the rail and see those thoroughbreds thunder by.

But the interest in horse racing went beyond Fort Erie, it extended to Churchill Downs. In 1964 it seems all of Canada was cheering when a little Canadian colt named Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby. We watched the race on TV, trembling with excitement as this little horse that could streaked past all those American 3-year-olds to win ‘The Run for the Roses’, setting a track record for the mile and a quarter race of 2:00 minutes flat. Not only that, we thrilled to a repeat performance two weeks later as ‘The Dancer’ danced to victory in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the American Triple Crown. Northern Dancer was now on track to claim this prestigious prize, last accomplished to that point in 1948, by winning The Belmont Stakes. But it was not to be. The mile and a half heartbreaker was just too much for the Dancer and he finished third, not able to close on the two fresh horses ahead of him. It was a national let-down but still a source of immense Canadian pride. Even if for a horse!

Northern Dancer ahead of Hill Rise races to the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby May 2, 1964. Photo by Jerry Cooke

But that wasn’t the end of it for me. Ever after that Triple Crown season of 1964 I always looked forward to this annual spectacle of thoroughbred horse racing. I began to think of the first Saturday in May as the real beginning of Spring, maybe even Summer. (Recall that in Ottawa, April can be cool, wet and unpredictable – the cruelest month; by the first of May we can begin to believe again.) Derby Day got to be an annual family tradition: gathering at the house late afternoon of race day, drinks and hors d’oeuvres, post time, and they’re off! Followed by burnt steaks (first barbeque of the season too.) Then it was two weeks later repeat the party for The Preakness, and then three weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes, the first or second Saturday in June. By then, surely, summer is nigh.

Marlene loved horses. For me it was more about the race than the horses – must have been my track and field persona expressing itself vicariously – but she liked those noble animals and so indulged me my quirky passion. For the rest of her life she looked for opportunities to be with horses, and got her wish when she befriended a colleague from Rideau Valley Middle School who had a farm near Kemptville, and horses. Many a Sunday, and often midweek after school, she spent grooming and exercising Mary Lou’s show horses now retired as therapy horses. 

But wait, that’s not all. In 2001 or so, I was doing a consulting assignment with The Canadian Pari-Mutual Agency of Agriculture Canada, which entailed me traveling to their testing farm near Ancaster Ontario to interview staff there. Marlene came with me. While I conducted my interviews, she got into the barn to help the hands muck out and groom those standardbred horses used for harness racing. One of the hands invited her to ride with him around the track perched on the rail of a race-cart. After a couple of turns, he let her drive the cart by herself. She was absolutely thrilled. I earned my marital Brownie Points that day.

I’ve tried to pass some of the thrill of horse racing on to my grandchildren. And the best way to do that is to attend a live race meet. Young Erin’s birthday is July 10, right in the middle of the race season at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. We went two years in a row, when she was nine and ten. The highlight for Erin was seeing her name up on the board celebrating her birthday, and subsequently meeting with the female jockey who won the featured race for her birthday (I doubt Erin has ideas of becoming a jockey however); Marlene and Mike were thrilled with winning more money that they lost; I was thrilled reliving my teenage years railside at Fort Erie Racetrack so many years before.

And yet I have one more tale to tell concerning racehorses and Doug and Marlene’s bonding. We had good friends who owned a luxury condo apartment in Fort Lauderdale, a really lovely hotel-like building on the ocean. If there is one thing Marlene liked more than horses it was water. But we got to do both. Not far from Fort Lauderdale is Gulfstream Park, the modern racecourse for thoroughbred horse racing replacing fabled Hialeah. We went a number of times to bet on the ponies and raise our heart rates. The part Marlene liked the best was the paddock where the entries for the next race are paraded, and she would listen in on the veteran railbirds speculating on the horses’ chances, and study the faces of the often eager young owners, and thereby decide her bets. Not sure she won much by this method but it thrilled her nevertheless. Our last time at Gulfstream Park was a year before she died; we had hoped to go again in 2017 but she was too ill to travel so we never made it. But she did enjoy the Triple Crown races that year on TV, reveling in this family tradition. She would be pleased to see that I have already passed this interest on to at least one of the grandchildren. Like me, Victor loves the thrill of the race.

The 151st Running of the Kentucky Derby goes May 7 this year. Time to get out my forms and research the favourites, and the obscure, one of whom will become hopeful for a chance at the Triple Crown. Also, dust off the barbeque, make sure I have enough charcoal and prepare to burn the first hamburgers of the year. The family members have been invited over to enjoy the spectacle – the fastest two minutes in sports – and welcome the summer with me.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

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