Emotional Renewal of Southwest Stakes for Father, Son

Events / Travel
Horses break out of the starting gate for the 2017 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20 at Oaklawn Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I have history with the Southwest Stakes. I remember in 2009 when Old Fashioned won. I had singled Old Fashioned in the third leg of the Pick 4, and had survived the first two legs with some good-priced winners. After Old Fashioned came home an easy winner in the Southwest, my dad high fived me and said, “who do you have in the last leg?”

“All of ’em,” I replied.

“What do you mean all of ’em?” he asked.

“I got all of ’em. I got every damn horse.”

My dad looked down at the program. It was an 11-horse maiden special weight race with a ton of first-time starters.
“You wheeled it?” he asked incredulously.

“Hell, yeah. I ain’t even trying to handicap that race.”

Downtown view from the racetrack. (Eclipse Sportswire)

We laughed and waited for the will pays to come up. Some of them paid in the mid-five figures. We had ourselves a sweat. The best kind of sweat, too. Because this was the kind of sweat you can’t lose, but it’s a sweat nevertheless. We had a serious rooting interest in a number of these first time starters. My dad couldn’t believe it.

“All of ’em!” he chuckled to himself as we waited for the last race’s post time, the day’s losers already streaming out of the track on their way to the parking lot. “Only you would say you had all of ’em, David.”

My dad and I had an interesting relationship when I was growing up. When he was young, he was an athlete. He was a captain on the football team. He played basketball. He boxed - both in the ring and in the streets. He was known as a tough guy, someone you didn’t mess with. But he wasn’t a bully. He stuck up for the little guy. He grew up dirt poor and resented people who thought that having money made them better. He loved to hunt and fish and go boating and camping. He fought in Vietnam. He was a builder, a carpenter, a contractor. He worked with his hands.

I was none of these things. I was an inside kid who preferred chess and dungeons and dragons. As a child he tried to get me to play sports and I hated every second of it. When he’d take me hunting, I spent the entire time afraid I might have to shoot my gun. I talked constantly while we fished. I protested wars. I made a living as a writer. We had so little in common.

But one thing we had was horse racing. He started taking me to the track when I was little. And it was the one thing we bonded over well into adulthood. We both loved the races. We loved the sport. We loved to handicap together, to spend a day betting together, to sit up late and watch the replays on the cable access channel together. He taught me everything he knew about the sport, and after he got me well hooked, I went on and learned even more. It wasn’t long before I was the one teaching him, which was a strange turn of events I’m not sure he ever got used to. But as much as it may have irked him to see me graduate from asking him how I should bet to begging him to take my advice, I think it always made him feel good to see me cash a big ticket. Like in 2009 when Old Fashioned won the Southwest Stakes and we sweated a potential $50,000 payday. I ended up cashing for $2,600. I bought him a steak dinner that night and the entire time he kept kicking himself for not agreeing to buy a part of my ticket. “Never again,” he swore. He didn’t know it, but by then the cancer in his neck had spread to his esophagus and all over his lungs. He only had about seven months left to live.

A racetrack packed with memories. (Eclipse Sportswire)

A few years later, I returned to Oaklawn Park, not as a fan and gambler, but as a journalist, to cover the Southwest Stakes. It was my first assignment from Grantland, one I had pitched them. They had just recruited me to write for them and so they went against their better judgment and said yes to sending me to Arkansas to cover a little-known Grade 3 horse race. That was 2012 when the Southwest was run over two days to accommodate the large number of entries. The story I wrote that year made it into the Grantland anthology. It ended up being about much more than just the Southwest Stakes. Somehow, it ended up being about the history of Hot Springs, Ark., my strange family and the generally bizarre culture of the American South. It earned me the right to write more horse racing stories for an outfit that was pretty skeptical of the sport. I was proud of that because I wanted badly to show people that there were so many good stories to tell, so many fascinating characters, so much drama and life around horse racing. But also because I only even care about this damn sport because of my dad. It was the thing that held us together when so much else about the people we were was trying to push us apart. Horse racing loomed large in my life and identity in a way that I knew wasn’t unique to me but that I felt I was in a unique position to communicate. I wanted badly to write about horse racing to honor my father and to bear witness to the uninitiated about this beautiful game. That first story I wrote for Grantland about the Southwest Stakes bought me some runway to do that. And bearing that witness has taken me around the world.

This year for the Southwest Stakes I found myself back in Hot Springs, this time as a resident, albeit temporarily — here on sabbatical with my family while I write my first book. I brought my son with me to the races for the Southwest. As we made our way through the crowd of more than 20,000 people — a small one for Oaklawn on Presidents Day, but one of the biggest racing crowds in all of America — he asked me, “have I ever been to this place before?”

Gus at the Arkansas Derby. (Dave Hill photo)

He had, I assured him. But when he was very young. My wife and I tried to have him before my father died, a final offering to him before he left us. The timing didn’t work out. August James was born a few months after James Allen passed away.

The following year we brought baby Gus, nearly a year old, to the Arkansas Derby, where my family gathered as they did every year, but this time as a memorial to my dad. We all wore red roses, even the baby. Archarcharch won that day. I had him in the Pick 4. (I bricked the last leg that year)

Gus has been to the racetrack many times in New York and New Jersey, as regular readers of my byline here are well aware. But it was still special to me to spend some time on the hallowed grounds of Oaklawn with him, just the two of us, and try to teach him what I can about everything I love about this sport.

When the time came for the Southwest, I asked him to pick a winner. He chose P C Cowboy, probably because he was seduced by the 99-1 odds on the toteboard. I looked at the horse’s past performances and noticed he was a son of Archarcharch. It’s that kind of stuff that makes this sport so spooky, so rich with allegory and meaning. It’d be a fitting end to this story if P C Cowboy won and we cashed a huge ticket, Gus and I. But P C Cowboy was outmatched. One Liner, a Todd Pletcher shipper with three wins in three starts, dazzled the crowd.

Gus took it well. He may only be 6 years old but he knew what he was getting himself into when he picked a 99-1 shot. P C Cowboy wasn’t cut out for graded stakes company. Not yet anyway. He’s nothing like his daddy was. But then, who among us is?

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