For harness racing, do you prefer a half or a full mile track? Sure, a full mile is faster but for crowds in grandstands or along the rail, a half or 5/8ths track gives fans added opportunity to cheer horses as they thunder by the half. The sound of hooves, horses breathing, and drivers urging combine with a frantic search for your horse and a mid-race high…where hope is still possible. This is not a sport where everyone gets a ribbon. The horse you’ve invested $2 in is a hard-core license to cheer for one above all others, lasting about 2 minutes before a purge of mixed emotions. Jubilations and cheering for your horse and driver, or darkened comments about uncalled fouls or a driver’s missed opportunity as a horseshoe salesman.
My family had horses, and as a kid instead of holidays we spent summers on the circuit from Edmonton to Calgary then Regina and Saskatoon. Our stops often included the fair for free, as most horsemen’s trailers and campers were inside the fence. The horse kids ran as packs with allegiance to your siblings first, then pseudo-siblings and kids of families who only had one horse. Then you had enemies, typically newbies who moved in from other circuits or city kids living close by who claimed the turf when the horses were away. For those who were too young to be a groom, summer activities included attending races, getting your picture taken if you won, learning how to shoot pool, smoking cigar and cigarette butts, sorting through stacks of thrown away betting slips, pitching nickels, and putting years of elementary school education to use by trying to read a race program.
Memories of my life as a track-rat hadn’t stirred until a few years ago when the Track on 2 opened just outside of Lacombe. I’ve enjoyed going to races, re-learning how to read a program, and sharing my inability to pick horses with my adulthood friends. It’s been fun seeing driver and stable names I recognize, but my oak was split to the core when I read the name of a pseudo-sibling, who was now a trainer/driver/owner. Surprisingly, the first memory that surfaced had nothing to do with horse racing. It was a lunch I’d been absorbed into with his family on a bright sunny day. We sat at a table outside their trailer, with about a 7-8 squeezed in and room for me made at the end. His Mom was afoot bustling to make sure all were served beef stew, fresh bread and butter. I’d never eaten cold butter on fresh bread before, as my folks had converted to heart-healthy margarine. Once I started eating, I couldn’t stop and gradually heads down the table turned to watch as they finished and I kept eating. A few snickers built to a crescendo of laughter as I ate the last piece of bread. Little did I know my full belly would be pressed into a diamond in my memory. Who knows, maybe it is better to appreciate the half than winning or losing the whole race.