Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Rocknroll Memories

In racing, it’s the trainers and the drivers (or jockeys) who get all the press and all the credit when a horse emerges as a superstar.  But it’s the overworked, underpaid grooms, or caretakers, who bond with these horses and devote themselves to their every need, who live out of suitcases for months at a time, who clean harness and shovel shit and know their horses inside out, and sometimes check themselves out of the hospital to be there for a race …. and then watch them head off in triumph to the breeding shed.  

They’re also the ones who, when their charges are unexpectedly euthanized far too young, sometimes have to find out through Facebook.

My friend Sarah Lauren Scott is one such caretaker.  She was the unsung hero behind the career of $3 million pacer, Rocknroll Hanover, winner of the North America Cup, the Meadowlands Pace, and the Metro Pace in 2004 and 2005, and she was shocked to hear, last week, that her horse of a lifetime had suffered a fatal bout of colic.  He was only 11.

There were lots of articles published about Rocknroll Hanover’s demise which dissected his racing talents and featured quotes from his owners and the management at the breeding farm where he stood at stud.  This story, however, is about a woman and the horse she loved.  It’s an expanded version of a column I wrote about her memories of ‘Rock’, for the United States Trotting Association.  The photos are from Sarah’s collection on Facebook.

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Of all the people who were shocked and saddened by Thursday, March 14’s news of the untimely death of champion pacer and sire, Rocknroll Hanover (Western Ideal – Rich N Elegant), no-one felt the loss more keenly than the young woman who experienced his two-year odyssey at the very top echelon of the sport first-hand.

Sarah Lauren Scott, of Milton, Ontario, was the caretaker for the burly colt she called Rock, from almost the beginning of his two-year-old campaign, down to his final triumph in the Breeders Crown as a sophomore, and remembers every detail as if it was yesterday.

“I had just started working for Brett Pelling in 2004, and he told me there were two horses coming up from New Jersey – a free-for-all trotter, and a ‘wild two-year-old’,” Scott recalls.  “He gave me the choice of which one I could take on.  I said I’d leave it up to him, and I ended up with the two-year-old.  The reason everyone considered him wild was that he had gotten loose at the Meadowlands, destroyed the paddock, and stopped the whole fourth race.

“When Rock first came off the truck, I thought, ‘He doesn’t look as bad as they were saying’.  He was kind of awkward because he looked like two different animals – very heavy in front, but lean and athletic behind.  But he didn’t act like a two-year-old.  He was actually quite educated and well-mannered.”

Well-mannered might be a relative term, for Rocknroll Hanover did have one worrisome habit:  he spent a lot of time on his hind legs.  So much so, in fact, that his new caretaker soon decided that it was safer to lead him with a 30-foot longe line clipped to his halter, rather than a standard leadshank.

But she insists, “His rearing was never nasty.  He was just playing. I just preferred to be overprepared.”

With just two baby races under his belt, yielding a first and an eighth place finish, the inexperienced Rocknroll Hanover made his Canadian debut in a two-year-old condition dash at Woodbine, after a single qualifier at nearby Mohawk.  He finished a respectable but hardly dazzling third in that August effort, which was enough for Pelling to enter the colt in the following week’s elimination for the $1,211,800 Metro Pace.  Once again Rock stuck well enough with his peers to finish third and squeak into the final.

Given his lukewarm efforts to that point, it’s no surprise that the colt left the gate in the September 4 Metro Pace final a lightly regarded 31-1.  History, of course, records that Rocknroll Hanover, in rein to Brian Sears, rode the helmet of Ron Pierce and the considerably more experienced Village Jolt, and then powered past them in the stretch to prevail by a length in a then-world-record 1:49.4.

“That was pretty special,” says Scott, simply.  “All the talk had been about Village Jolt.  We just felt lucky to have even gotten into the final.”

Rocknroll Hanover turned three in a snowy paddock in Ontario.  “He came out in the spring looking like a hairy teddy bear with a big belly,” says Scott.  “But it didn’t take him long to get fit.” He began his sophomore campaign with a New Jersey Sires Stakes win and from there quickly became a superstar, winning both the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, and the $1,000,000 Meadowlands Pace.

“It was a dream come true for me to be there at the Meadowlands Pace with a real contender.  He had earned everyone’s respect by then, all the other trainers.  Everyone knew he was something special.”

Soon Rock had legions of admirers.  “I really enjoyed sharing him with people,” Scott remembers.  “I’d bring him over to the fence so he could be admired and people would pet his nose.  They were just in awe of him, and he was always a gentleman … I never had to worry about him doing anything dirty.

“He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, no question.  I can’t say enough about how smart and classy he was.”

Scott established a strict routine with her charge, which included, after he suffered an episode of tying up, either early-evening turnout or hand-grazing.  That became the pair’s quality time together, when the shedrow was quiet.  “I’d park around the back and turn my car radio on.  It was usually either Andrea Bocelli, or Sinatra.  And it would just be me, Rock, and my dog, every night.  That was our downtime from the spotlight.  It’s probably my favourite memory of him.

“You know, I was young, and I had moved down to the States by myself to work with him during his three-year-old campaign.  So he was my family.  I did a lot of growing up.  I learned to stand up for myself.”

The only disappointment in Rocknroll Hanover’s career was the 2005 Little Brown Jug (won by P Forty Seven). Scott almost shudders at the memory even now.

“That was an absolute heartbreak on a lot of levels,” she says.  “First of all it was extremely hot.  He was in the last heat and had to leave from the six hole.  A shoe slid off the side of his foot and I saw his head come up and I could just tell he was sore.  We had to get him reshod between heats. Very stressful.  It was hard for me to send him back out because I knew he wasn’t 100%, but there had been so much build-up all week … fans coming to take pictures of him, everyone expected him to win.”

Rocknroll Hanover finished third in the Jug final, and the experience soured Scott on heat racing, but fortunately the colt bounced back beautifully.  “That was good management,” she says.  “He was as fresh at the end of the year as he had been at the beginning, and that’s part of Brett’s genius.”

Rocknroll Hanover ended his racing career with a bang, capturing his Breeders Crown division at the Meadowlands by one and a quarter lengths over Leading X Ample, and retiring with a bankroll in excess of $3 million.

Scott made her way back to Ontario, having had her fill of the spotlight for the time being, but she has kept close tabs on her favourite’s offspring and has gone out of her way to work with them when possible.  “I took care of World Of Rocknroll for a little while, and I paddocked Pet Rock last year for the Confederation Cup.

“People say he stamped his babies, but to me, they’re all very different.  I keep looking for my Rock in all of them, and I see pieces of him, but I haven’t seen the whole package yet.  Look at Rock N Roll Heaven – they used to call him ‘little hot dog’.  And then there’s Put On A Show, who’s so dark and sleek and aggressive.  I follow them all very closely.”

The depth of Scott’s dedication to Rocknroll Hanover is also evident by the collection of memorabilia she treasures.  “I kept everything,” she confesses.  “I have numbers, blankets, saddle pad numbers with his name on them.  I have his yearling halter.  And I have the last set of shoes he wore, from the Breeders Crown.

“I last saw him in 2011, and I never imagined that he would be gone so soon.  I’m just devastated … I couldn’t even have talked to you about this yesterday.  But I’m glad I kept these things now.  They’re all very special to me.”

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A Wynne Lose

Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics.  How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?

Here’s why I’m making an exception.  I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines.  I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do.  Neither fish nor fowl, in other words).  I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!).   I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry.  All of which to say, I’m invested.

I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage.  Some of it you can glean from the article itself:  my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing.  In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.

The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry.  This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.

The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres.  Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in.  It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side.  The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while.  Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.

But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another.  Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check.  An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check.  An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check.  I could go on.  So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something.  And DSC_4859 crowd4horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right?  It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.

So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province.  Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money.  It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.

It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one.  Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game.  The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes.  And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.

Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage.  Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.

Anyway, you can imagine the fallout.  Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck.  The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath.  Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again.  People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat.  Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses.  Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living.  And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.

Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away.  The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks.  As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.

So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.

Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality.  The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.

I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news.  (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.)  But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release.  Hence, this article has no home.  Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.

****************************************************************

FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH:  SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO

big-revealWith the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.

Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.

Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.

Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so.  The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.

Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.

But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.

In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful.  With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.

The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And a year later, the damage has been done.

Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society.  In terms of substance, there was little.  She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).

Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.

Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement.  And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.

“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.

“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.

“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.

While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater.  The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.

Things That Make You Go, “Hmmmmm….” (Or: A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013)

And here’s a response from The Atlantic‘s senior editor, Alexis Madrigal.

In part:  “Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, “I’m a writer. I’m a writer! I’M A WRITER!” It was all I’d wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.

Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I’d acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.

I had so little money and so much debt that any time I had to go to an ATM, I was seized with horrible anxiety. I practically could only do it drunk. You know those ATMs that display your balance EVEN WHEN YOU TELL THEM NOT TO? Well, I hate those ones. I would take my money and as it displayed my balance on the screen, I would carefully unfocus my eyes so I couldn’t really tell how little I had. The credit crunch was happening and I didn’t have any credit left. My loving, wonderful, brilliant parents were going through a rough patch, too, and they couldn’t help, either. I was tortured by the idea that I’d taken on this new career when my family needed me. I asked myself whether I should have stayed at the hedge fund job that I took right out of college and hated so much I quit before the summer ended.

I sometimes hoped that the whole world would collapse — it certainly seemed possible back then — because my debt would be swept away along with the rest of civilization. My dad had once said, right during the credit crisis, “Don’t worry, we’ll all be potato farmers soon anyway.” And I would think about that and it would make me happy. At least then I wouldn’t worry that I was going to be torn apart at the seams by the demands of a work life that couldn’t even keep me afloat in an expensive city. I really, really resented people who could count on financial support from places unknown. They didn’t seem to get how hard it was to keep it together when you might drown under your own debt at any minute.

Like an idiot, I figured I could write a book and use the advance to pay off my debt. That kind of worked, though the process of doing the book melted my brain. I was so tired and my mind was so filled with words that I would forget where I was, almost coming to in supermarket aisles wondering why I was staring at mangoes. I hate mangoes. But at least the money gave me some breathing room. I could approach an ATM without feeling weak in the knees.

So, all this to say: I know the pressure these debts can put on you. I know how angry it makes you, at yourself, at other people, at the world. Why didn’t I save more? Why did I buy that thing? Why did I have to pick up that tab when I didn’t have any goddamn money? How could I support a family like this? Why won’t the world recognize my talent is worth more!?

And so when Nate Thayer published emails with our newest editor (second week on the job), I can see how that might happen. How you might finish writing your last email, “No offense taken,” and then staring at your blog’s CMS that night, decide, you know, what? I’m tired of writing for peanuts, because fuck that. And if a young journalist in her first week on the job was part of the collateral damage,hey, the world just isn’t fair, kid. Pay it forward.

I get it, but it was still a nasty thing to do.”

So Madrigal (I have to say, Alexis Madrigal is a helluva handle … but whether real or nom de plume, I couldn’t tell you, not being in the habit of travelling in such rarefied circles as the editorial conclave of The Atlantic) opens with the sympathy card.  While it rings true, it smells a little less like freelance spirit by the end of the piece, and a smidge more like defense of the indefensible.  But see for yourself, and do read some of the very well-presented, thoughtful, and insightful comments by freelancers and editors alike at the bottom.  (And then come back here and share your thoughts on THIS blog, because I’m another starving freelancer who fantasizes that I will be able to monetize this brilliant and under-appreciated blog just as soon as I have enough hits and engagement to spontaneously set the world ablaze.)

In its entirety:  A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013.

Scoring an assignment from The Atlantic … freelance nirvana, right? Not so much, as it turns out.

natethayer

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013

Here is an exchange between the Global Editor of the Atlantic Magazine and myself this afternoon attempting to solicit my professional services for an article they sought to publish after reading my story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea”   here http://www.nknews.org/2013/03/slam-dunk-diplomacy/ at NKNews.org

From the Atlantic Magazine:

On Mar 4, 2013 3:27 PM, “olga khazan” <okhazan@theatlantic.com> wrote:

Hi there — I’m the global editor for the Atlantic, and I’m trying to reach Nate Thayer to see if he’d be interested in repurposing his recent basketball diplomacy post on our site.

Could someone connect me with him, please?

thanks,
Olga Khazan
okhazan@theatlantic.com

 From the head of NK News, who originally published the piece this morning:

Hi that piece is copy right to NK News, so…

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