A Dose of Racetrack Therapy to Lift the Pandemic Spirit

Events / Travel
Emerald Downs photo

When most people think of therapy animals, they think of a sweet dog who’s there to soothe its owner’s nerves or lift their spirits when the mood is blue.

But when I think of a therapy animal, I think of an 1,100-pound racehorse churning toward the finish line with a tiny man or woman on its back.

I’ve been fortunate to live a life that’s been largely free of psychological and financial turmoil, but the coronavirus pandemic has tested this sense of security. Like a  lot of families of late, mine has endured the loss of a job, the inability to send our children to school and most extracurricular activities, and — especially in the early stages of the pandemic — a “Groundhog Day”-like existence that made it hard to tell the difference between Wednesday and Saturday.

So, I decided to make Saturdays special.

Crucial to this endeavor were two venues: Mike’s Chili Parlor in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. I’d fire up my online horse-betting account by mid-morning, wager on a couple lower-level races at Oaklawn and then head to the century-old chili parlor a little before noon for a couple to-go quarts of their delectably oily blend of beef and beans.

By the time I got back home, Oaklawn would be deep enough into its card to where some ultra-classy stakes races were on tap. It was also acceptable, at that point in the day, to enjoy a beer.

I’d been to Oaklawn in the flesh before, back in 2016. My wife and I left our daughters with their aunt and uncle near Dallas and road-tripped to Hot Springs for the Arkansas Derby, the jewel of the Oaklawn meet. At the state line, where a wet county in Oklahoma met a dry one in Arkansas, we stopped at a barn-like bar that specialized in selling large quantities of domestic beer to thirsty Arkansans who weren’t allowed to wet their whistles back home. It was here that we received our first and only tasting notes on a can of Busch.

We won quite a bit of money on that spring Saturday by virtue of a durable closer named Creator, who would go on to win the Belmont Stakes. Having intermittently written about horse racing for most of my adult life, I’ve been to Belmont Park, too. Likewise Saratoga Race Course, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, Del Mar, Pimlico Race Course, Churchill Downs, and just about any major track you can think of. (Been to plenty of minor ones as well.)

After Oaklawn’s meet ended, I found myself betting on races at many of these tracks — and venturing to each of them in my mind’s eye. With physical travel severely restricted, this proved to be an effective and essential form of escapism. Most of these grandstands were empty on account of COVID-19 restrictions, but I could see myself in them, younger and relatively carefree.

I remember losing my shirt at Saratoga alongside one of my best friends, who’d driven up from New York City to join me for the weekend. After taking our licks at the track, we drove to The Wishing Well, a chalet-like restaurant on the outskirts of town with a live pianist. He sat down next to us at the bar, and I convinced him to accompany me on a few Lionel Richie songs. Onscreen in 2020, I was not only betting the seventh race at Saratoga, I was betting that a special place that produced special memories could reinstall a sense of hope in a time of crisis — and that bet has reliably come in, Saturday after Saturday.

When the pandemic took hold in March, most of the sporting world ground to a halt. But not horse racing; it never quit, so neither could I.

Gottstein Futurity (Emerald Downs photo)

But still, there was something missing: seeing the sport live. With Seattle’s Emerald Downs running races without spectators, I had to rely on the kindness of a longtime media-relations acquaintance at the track to take in the live action on the first night of October, when the Gottstein Futurity — the track’s premier race for 2-year-olds — was run.

The heavy favorite, a colt named Dutton, raced out to a big lead that he held for most of the 1-1/16-mile race. But midway down the homestretch, Coastal Kid — the horse I’d wagered on — caught him. I felt a rush you only feel when standing right by the finish line, sensing that your horse is about to cross the finish line first.

Then, without prompting, Coastal Kid got spooked by the finish-line lights and started veering sideways to the right (recap and video here). His jockey straightened him out in time to finish third, but the freakish turn of events led to a ripped betting slip and a lightened wallet for me.

I thought I’d seen it all in horse racing, but it turned out I hadn’t. And, even in defeat, I sure felt lucky to be there.

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