Not gonna lie. We had it easy here in Ontario last winter: no significant amount of snowfall until after Christmas, and temperatures that dropped below -15 C only for a couple of days, really. We didn’t even have what I dread the most, which is freezing rain (one of the few weather scenarios from which I rescue my True Canadian-bred beasties from the nasty, foul outdoors). And we had quite a few scattered thaws throughout the season to beat back the accumulated snow to a (mostly) manageable level.
But karma, as they say, is a bitch. And she is slapping us repeatedly, upside the head. So I beg your indulgence, gentle readers: forgive me the following rant. By the first week of January — barely a quarter of the way through this year’s edition of the seventh circle of hell — I was fucking exhausted. And vitamin D-deprived, which, you know, doesn’t exactly make you a sunbeam for Jesus.
We had three significant snowfalls in November. That’s just not fair. Anything after December 1st is fair game, but November?? No-one in Ontario is cognitively prepared for that, and it leads to a lot of bad driving and really bad decisions, among other things. Coming home from Toronto one evening mid-November, I drove straight into a wall o’ snow, the likes of which I have not encountered in years. It was a total white-out on a stretch of highway that runs 17 km between exits — so basically, there’s no escape. My tires were sketchy, my windshield wipers were crusted over and barely managing, the visibility was essentially zero, and if I hadn’t had four-wheel drive and the tail-lights of a Purolator truck to follow, my odds of staying on the actual road would not have been worth calculating. (May all the deities favour you and bring you salted caramel brownies, Purolator person.) By the time I did reach my exit, I was vibrating. Had to pull over at the first gas station and quietly hyperventilate for about 15 minutes. The gas station attendant, ensconced as he was in his little oasis of calm, looked at me like I had lost the plot. Which I totally had.
So then that little episode of joy was immediately followed by about three years of absolutely-fucking-inhuman temperatures in December. I mean, I’m Canadian. I get that it gets cold in winter, and I have the gear to deal with it, but (honestly) two and a half weeks of temperatures unrelentingly below -22 Celsius, without respite … it’s a lot. Water hydrants which have never frozen before, did. The barn doors froze shut. My truck refused to start even though it had had the block heater plugged in all night. My slow-feeder nets for the round bales froze in interesting sculptural free-form shapes, but couldn’t be removed from the ground. The air hurt my face. And I couldn’t do much about mucking the stalls because pretty much everything had welded itself to the floors. The horses toughed it out (remarkably well, considering they are Thoroughbreds), but zero riding happened during the Christmas break — it was too freaking cold to even contemplate it.
And then there was the Night of the Freezing Rain, which, see above. That meant bedding down stalls, running hoses all over hell’s half-acre in order to fill water buckets (because all the convenient ones are uncooperatively seized by ice) and angsting over whether I had enough small bales of hay to see them through the night and following day, being as those bales are in short supply this year. I did get everyone (headcount is currently seven, btw) cosily inside for the night, and the freezing rain turned out to me mostly the non-freezing kind, and thus not full-scale Ice Storm (though trust me, we’ve had those too), but naturally everything seized up again — gate fastenings, every single fucking leadshank snap and halter snap on the property, my windshield wipers, my truck’s door locks, the automatic windows, the lock on my front door — when the temps dropped again 24 hours later. Plus, my horses don’t deal especially well with incarceration, and were absolutely psycho to turn out again when I decided it was safe to do so. These are the days when you think wistfully about how super-awfully nice it would be to have a little help around here…
But hey, it’s February now, so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Wiarton Willie this
morning predicted six more weeks of winter, but really, that’s a given for Ontario. When have we not had six more weeks of winter after February 2nd? Six weeks would be a bloody miracle around here. I’d sacrifice a goat with a stapler if I thought it would guarantee us signs of spring by mid-March.Some people find February the most depressing month, but for me it at least means this wretchedness is more than half over. It’s a short month, as well, so there’s that. Plus I usually get a little cash infusion in February, from the Public Lending Rights Commission, which gives authors a little something-something if their books are found (on a random sampling) in Canadian libraries. It’s nice to be Canadian. Even if you fucking hate the weather.
In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto. I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.
If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction. If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you: this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat. Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia. Gawd, it wrote itself.
I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado. Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless. There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse.
I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June. I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.
If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career. (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.) He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation. Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record. Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:
Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year. He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack. So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States. Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny. None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.
Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine. The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November. To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.
The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup. Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.
Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree. But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again. I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.
A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008. The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things. I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity. It really was an extraordinary season.
… for Sarah Cuthbertson and Ashley Tomaszewski’s blog, Eat Sleep Ride Repeat.
Go have a look, and cruise around the rest of their blog, which focuses on long-distance riding but has lots of interesting tangents, too! (Oh, and if you like the logo, they have lots of lovely merch available. Happy Winter-Celebration-Of-Your-Choosing!)
So there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway). I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.
That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.
I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest. I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.
We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).
But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.
Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal. Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.
Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance. I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal. A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork. And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper. There, the secret’s out. (It was many, many years ago, folks …)
Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year. It was all very pleasant and civilized. These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh. (Full disclosure: I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart. Not that I was offered any.)
One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking. There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty. Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media?? I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question. Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck. More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.
Last year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head. The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s. We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets. Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived. (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded. Fanfuckingtastic.) In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.
In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.
I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?” Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle. I never have. Frankly, I was absolutely furious: my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades. Are. You. Fucking. Kidding me??
Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?” Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey. We are not.
And here’s the rub: I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant. Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else. In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair. Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.
But the thing is: there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor. I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’. And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years: the Royal is irrelevant.
And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make. For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year: Goat Yoga.
Last year, it was bunny jumping. As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over. Christ on a cracker.
If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid. It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years. The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock
hen? Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk. The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design? Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread. They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing. But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.
Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.
On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self. So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes. (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels. My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again. The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)
Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky). Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows. In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it. That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.
The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the
Royal Winter Fair anymore. And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago. Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.
So no thanks to the Royal. It can circle the drain without me.
Another delightful rant on the subject of writing for free, especially for the Huffington Post, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s “terribleminds” blog. Recommended, especially for some of the insults.
Excerpt: “The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.
“…HuffPo would have you believe that not paying means that somehow, the integrity of the information remains intact. What it misunderstands is that, if HuffPo isn’t paying, then who is? Someone is always paying. Or, at the very least, someone is always selling something.”
Funerals (and most other religious rituals) baffle the shit out of me.
I attended one last Saturday morning, for a friend of a friend — a woman whom I had met a number of times, but couldn’t say I knew well. She had had the misfortune of being diagnosed with liver cancer. Three months, start to finish. It was quite tragic.
I believe in showing support to the living in such circumstances, so I tend to show up to the services if I can … but honestly, what anyone gets out of these rituals is beyond me.
A few thousand years of civilization, and we don’t seem to have moved an inch beyond slaughtering a goat on an altar.
Now, I confess (before I go any further) that I’ve pretty much always had a jaded view of religion, so if you’re deeply offended by the opinions of anyone who doesn’t buy into your exact version of sky fairy, then you might want to leave this page forthwith and go play Candy Crush now. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m unlikely to change your mind.
It’s the last taboo, isn’t it? Never say anything critical about religious beliefs, lest you offend. So no matter how idiotic those beliefs are, no matter how much they fly in the face of logic and science and basic common sense and decency, we should never utter a word in defiance of it, because the believers have delicate sensibilities and don’t want their bubbles burst. Well, fuck that. Sorry. It’s way past time we started to challenge this nonsense. It’s been choking the planet for millenia.
This particular service was of the Catholic persuasion, which is a whole special kind of bizarre. I guess if you’re brought up in that culture, it could potentially … well, not make sense, exactly, but be comfortingly familiar, if you don’t examine it too closely. (Luckily, most organized religions teach not examining it too closely as part of the catechism. Faith means not asking any fucking questions, Emily, dammit.) But to an outsider … well, fuck me, it’s strange.
I’m a certified heathen (given the above paragraphs, that likely isn’t news), so what little exposure I’ve had to Catholic worship practices has been at weddings and funerals, which is perhaps not completely representative. But my instincts suggest that the everyday Sunday services are in large part the same deal, because it’s the sameness of it that people seem to like.
I arrived just as the service was getting started, and ended up sitting in the choir loft as the pews downstairs were pretty much full. So it was me and a half-dozen wizened little octogenarians, who began to sing in wobbly voices as I tiptoed up the stairs. I’m actually a trained soprano, and frankly, they could have used my help, but the hymns were lame and I didn’t know them anyway, so I let their lead vocalist struggle along as best she could. I’m sure gawd gives brownie points for effort.
Scanned around the church below me. (Choir lofts are reasonably good for unrestrained gawking. I’ve sung at a number of my friends’ weddings over the years, and I vastly prefer being up in the choir loft to being downstairs in a strapless lilac taffeta bridesmaid’s gown, its ill-fittingness on display to all and sundry. You can misbehave a little up there, or at least smirk at the more idiotic parts of the ceremony.) I’d been told this little local church had lovely stained glass, but from what I could see they were pretty unimaginative. Ordered from a catalogue. Is there a Catholic Catalogue? You know, where you can order a basic chalice in simulated gold plate, and get a better price if you order three or more? Choose incense replacement cones in six deity-approved scents? Is there a Lee Valley sort of catalogue where the chalice has clever hidden features in it (maybe a nail file and a USB hub for those 15-verse hymns)? And where do the priests and clerics and such order their imitation-gold-thread trim for their robes, and the little sashes that proclaim them holier than thou? Inquiring minds want to know. Oh, look, Sister Eugene Immaculata, the spring House of God catalogue is here. What’s new in resurrection accessories then?
So yeah, okay, it didn’t take long for my mind to start to wander.
About halfway in on this service, the guy in the gold rick-rack trim invited practicing Catholics, and anyone who just enjoyed the hell out of a dry rice cracker, to come up to the altar and eat the body of Christ, starting with the choir, who apparently get to be first in line for their service. I guess I must have been obviously clueless as to the rituals of the Catholic church, because as the choir filed past in front of my pew, one tiny blue-haired lady patted me on the hand, leaned in, and whispered conspiratorially, “Communion time!”. Like she was going downstairs for a chocolate chip cookie or something. I’m guessing it’s the highlight of every funeral for her?
As I watched people line up for their not-a-chocolate-chip-cookie-at-all, I tried to wrap my head around the rituals I’d been observing, and just how little sense they make. The whole service was just a series of repetitive motions that have long since lost their meaning. Well, if they ever had any in the first place. You wipe out the chalice with the ritual cloth, pour in a quantity of whatever liquid passes for wine these days, place the Blessed Square of Cardboard over top (presumably, to dissuade the consecrated flies in the church?), and when you come to that point in the ceremony, you remove the cardboard, hold the cup aloft (so gawd can see it better), and someone rings a little bell three times.
So, say, if the bell only rang twice, would the sky fairy be offended? If you have a brain fart and forget part of the ritual, do you have to start all over again? (There does seem to be infinite potential for do-overs in the Catholic faith.) Is gawd going to turn his virtual back on you if you do it wrong? Stand up when you should be kneeling, sit when you should be standing? Not knowing the secret handshake? And what, exactly, determined that this particular set of actions is what will most appeal to hisself and keep you from getting whacked with a lightning bolt?
Imagine the sheer cacophony of recited prayers and tinkling bells and munching wafers coming from a hundred thousand funerals, happening simultaneously on a Saturday morning on every corner of the planet, all emanating up to heaven to the ears of a waiting deity who (apparently) wants things done Just So. Which souls does he select for the big golden key to eternity out of that noise? And does having a Philistine in the chapel thinking these heretical thoughts, just shoot the whole process of crossing all those T’s and dotting those I’s, in the proverbial divine foot? Nope, sorry, unbeliever in your midst, applying logic and demonstrating a shocking lack of acceptance of stuff that makes no sense. Push the buzzer, open the hatch, you lose.
Seriously, we have evolved not at all. It’s every inch as barbaric and primitive and bizarre as throwing babies down a well 2500 years ago. Or mummifying your cats to go on the journey to the afterlife with you. Appease the gods or you don’t get the imaginary gifts we’ve promised each other that he/she/it/they bestow.
In my teens, I had aspirations of acting in musicals. Tried out for a number of community productions, but while I could certainly belt out a show tune, and I think I was a passable actor, I failed to be the triple-threat because I just couldn’t seem to learn the dance steps in a few minutes like the other hopefuls at the auditions. Worship? I suspect if I were to try, I would pretty much always be doing it wrong.
And the worst of this service was, there was almost nothing in it about the actual deceased. As I mentioned, this was not a woman I knew particularly well. I would have liked to have heard some stories about her, from those who were closer to her. (Maybe that happened at the reception, which I couldn’t attend.) I would have liked to have known more about her — because now that she’s dead, the memories of who she was and what she did with her life, are the only things keeping her from evaporating completely. We all like to think we have some small impact on the earth in the cosmic blip of time we’re here, but apart from passed-down stories and perhaps a headstone that lasts, at most, 100 years in Canadian weather, let’s face it: we are inconsequential and our names will not resonate for more than a generation or two.
We funeral-goers got the ritual song and dance (and really, you have to wonder about the level of job satisfaction for the priest), but there was no substance at all. Nothing whatsoever about this woman’s words or deeds or accomplishments. Just platitudes about her being our “sister” and being welcomed into the gates of heaven because some 60 years ago, someone had dripped water on her then-tiny forehead. A prerequisite. Her passport was valid, evidently. But if I’d been her husband, sitting there in the front row, I would have found the whole deal intensely unsatisfying.
As much as it befuddles me that any all-powerful being would need a bunch of barely-sentient critters on its planet to constantly grovel and praise it/him/her/ohfuckwhatever … or what, exactly, the enduring appeal is of being told you are filthy and sinful and not worthy and that you need to remove yourself from all pleasure and fun and live your life according to a litany of arcane (and cherry-picked) rules corrupted down through the ages … this stuff clearly does provide some comfort for some people. Admittedly, the ones coming to the front of the church for communion looked to be newly returned from their snowbird condos in Sarasota, as indicated by their tans and their cruise-wear, so perhaps they’ll soon be extinct and we will finally reach a planetary age where we can begin to leave this nonsense behind. (Can you imagine living in the Middle Ages and having every single fricking thought and action dictated to you by the Church? I’d have gone postal and taken out a cooperage or a pigsty or something.)
Because the sheer cognitive disconnect you need to employ just to buy into any of it? To never, ever have a moment where your brain says, “Um, now wait a minute, that doesn’t really sound quite right to me …”?
Must be utterly exhausting. And it really can’t be anything but destructive to go through life that fundamentally (sorry) deluded as to reality. Witness the current US Republican race. Ugh.
Suppose I really can’t finish this off without the obligatory Life of Brian sequence, can I.
Because it’s been a while since I posted anything writing-related … hell, it’s been a while since I posted anything, period. This is a nicely snarky perspective on the thorny relationship between PR and the media. My favourite is the press conference with no questions …
Probably has something to do with having grown up just a few klicks down the road from Windsor Raceway. Essex County was jughead country, once upon a time — that’s really all there was in terms of horseflesh, apart from a smattering of Quarter Horses. I did my time grooming at the track, learning to adjust hobbles and wrap legs and clean a shit tonne of harness and pretending to drink the nasty coffee the farriers were kind enough to hand me when I took my charges to the backstretch shed to get their shoes reset. (Never been a coffee drinker.) And I dealt with my share of razzing from the other grooms, who figured I was just a clueless ridin’ hoss kid. (Yeah, guys, I knew there was no such thing as stifle boots. I wasn’t that green.)
Of course, my rescuing instincts kicked in early, encouraged by the fact that newbie grooms aren’t generally handed the stable’s superstars to rub on. Of the four under-performing horses I was responsible for, I found après-racing homes for two in short order — a gorgeous gray Laag descendant who had two of the worst bowed tendons I’d ever seen, and a cute little bay nicknamed Toby, who looked more like a Morgan than a Standardbred, and became a beloved trail horse for a friend of mine. The first horses I ever broke to ride on my own were Standardbreds, too — the very first being a 13-year-old pacer named O O Charlie, who swung his head around to peer at me when I first climbed on his back, raised one sardonic eyebrow which clearly said, “Humans and their damn fool ideas”, and then quietly got on with his new job.
I’ve always done what I could to promote the idea of Standardbreds as riding horses — because, let’s face it, without that opportunity for them once their racing careers are done, the only other options are a can … or a home with the Mennonites. There’s a large Mennonite community west of Toronto, and they go through a lot of horses, but in many cases they buy them for practically nothing off the track, pound them into the ground in a year or two (you only have to see the condition of some of these horses, trotting or pacing furiously down the side of Highway 86 next to the transport trucks and school buses, to know they’re not long for this world), and then dump them for meat price at the auction in St. Jacob’s, pick up another, and start the cycle all over again. I’m not saying the entire Mennonite community subscribes to this approach — there are some amazing horsemen among them — but too many do for anyone to think that such a fate is likely to be good news for an ex-racehorse who’s already given his all.
As riding horses, though, Standardbreds suffer from something of a branding problem. To some degree, I blame the lack of chrome. Standies tend to come in bay, bay, or bay, with a minimum of white markings to bling them up. Chestnuts are rare, grays and roans even rarer. Not a lot of flash there to attract the average ammie owner.
Historically, they’re also … well, kind of ugly. Jughead, buckethead … at one time, the name fit. They don’t race on their faces, so it was never an issue at the track, but given the choice between a big Roman nose and a little Arab-y dished face, most riders will go for pretty. The reality is that Standardbreds over the past 30 years or so have become far, far more refined and elegant than they used to be, and the big clunky heads are all but gone from the gene pool, but a lot of people don’t realize that.
Then there’s the gaited thing. Standardbreds come in two varieties: trotters, and pacers. Trotters have the normal three gaits — walk, trot, and canter — but the pacers have an extra gear, the lateral two-beat gait that endows them with blinding speed (pacers are generally a second or two faster over a mile than trotters are, which is why there are separate divisions for each gait and they don’t race each other). The tendency to pace is there even in some of the trotters, and the pacers can be taught to trot; in fact, they often prefer it when not in racing hobbles, but tend to revert to pacing when they get discombobulated. Trouble with that is, pacing ain’t the most comfortable thing under saddle, and most competitive horse sports require trotting. There are few dressage tests, for example, written for “trot or alternate gait”. (Interestingly, many pacers can be encouraged, with the right training and shoeing, to perform some version of a single-foot or racking gait, like many other types of gaited horses. It’s kind of an intermediate between trotting and pacing, and very smooth to sit to when done correctly. Not a whole lot of call for it here in Ontario, though, where interest in gaited horses is a fringe thing at best.)
In addition, while Standardbreds are absolutely capable of cantering and galloping, they have been actively discouraged from doing so all of their racing lives. To go from trotting or pacing, to galloping, in a race, is called ‘making a break’, and it means the driver must get the hell out of the way of the horses who are still moving their feet in the approved way, drop to the back of the pack, and resume trotting or pacing before rejoining the race. Generally, it means you’ve got no shot at a paycheque, so in harness racing, galloping is verboten, and it can be a tough training hurdle to convince an ex-racehorse that it’s now okay to use that gear, both because of the inhibition cemented in their brains by race training, and because most of them are frankly rusty at doing it. Canter can be added to any Standardbred’s repertoire, but it takes patience and persistence (and sometimes some creativity) to make it happen.
So those are the marketing challenges. On the up side, there’s lots to like. Standardbreds are tough, athletic, intelligent, eager to please, and temperament-wise I have to admit they are way more tolerant and sensible than your average off-the-track Thoroughbred. (As a lifelong owner of OTTBs, I say that with love.) Those who have racing experience will cross-tie, stand for the vet and the farrier, load on any trailer. And not to overstate the obvious, but they come broke to drive. Riding is a pretty simple transition for horses who already understand voice commands, rein aids, and mouth contact.
Plus, they’re generally dirt cheap. Or free to a good home.
Organizations like the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society are doing excellent work promoting Standies as potential riding horses, and the recent upswing in interest in “racing under saddle” (RUS) in Ontario is helping too. “Monte” races (as they’re called in Europe) have always been popular in Scandinavia, and the RUS circuit here is growing every year. (Note to trainers: I so want to do this! Gimme a horse and some silks, and I will give it my best shot!)
So as I’ve expanded my interest in judging over the past few years, it was kind of a natural development for me to end up judging schooling shows for Standardbreds.
Yes, Standardbred shows are a thing. A fairly recent thing, in Ontario at least, but it’s evolving into a nice little circuit of a half-dozen shows or so over the course of each summer. The idea is to showcase the versatility of the breed, so as a judge, you better be pretty damn versatile yourself.
So how does that work? At a minimum, you’ve got to be prepared to cover showmanship, halter, leadline classes, pleasure and equitation, dressage, trail, gaming (barrel racing, pole bending, and the like), pleasure driving, obstacle driving (aka “cones”), hunter and jumper classes over fences, costume classes … and pretty much anything else the show organizers can come up with. We’re talking both English and Western classes, open and youth (under 18) … with allowances made for gaits. For many of these horses, canter or lope is still a work in progress, so competitors can enter a flat class which only requires walk, and trot or pace (pacing is not penalized as long as it is consistent), or they can be brave and go for the walk/trot-or-pace/canter option (or walk/jog-or-pace/lope in the case of Western classes).
You do need to be open-minded to do this job. Some of the horses who’ll turn up in the show ring have had years of mileage under saddle, and could easily compete in open shows anywhere without anyone being the wiser about their former careers (unless, of course, the white freezebrands on their necks give them away). Some of them do. Others are still fairly fresh to this whole riding thing, and are coping with the new requirements as best they can. Some — and this still blows me away — compete in these shows while still maintaining active racing careers! So, you know, you make allowances. On the whole, I find most Standardbreds adapt to the requirements of English classes a little more easily than they do Western — I have yet to judge a Western pleasure class at a Standardbred show where any of the horses was really delivering a slow jog or a balanced, slow lope (but then again, given the current state of the ‘real’ Western pleasure industry, that’s not entirely a bad thing, methinks). There’s a fair bit of zooming around, and refraining from posting to that big trot (or pace) is a tall order, but on the up side, a fair number of Standardbreds do suit Western fringes and sequins surprisingly well. And lemmee tell you, I enjoy the hell out of those blingy outfits, because it helps me differentiate between all the bay entries on my judge’s card. I can scribble “turquoise hat” or “purple saddle pad” or “giant silver hearts” at the beginning of the class, and it makes finding each entry at a glance a lot easier. Not so with the English classes, where the attire tends to be much of a muchness just like the horses!
The halter classes are something of a challenge, too. Generally, in a halter class, you are rewarding conformation of a certain type, and blemishes are penalized. If I penalized blemishes in a Standardbred halter class, there’d be no-one left to pin a ribbon to. Most of these old warriors have some sort of track jewellery on display — so my job is more about deciding whether pin-fire marks on the front cannons are less or more objectionable than a big knee or a pair of extensively cryo’ed hocks. (Cryo is about treating injuries with super-cold liquid nitrogen, and it leaves tell-tale white marks when the hair grows back in.) I try to step back and take in the big picture on each horse, rather than nitpick about the scars. Is he balanced and athletic? Does he look the part for the class in which he’s entered (ie. is he more of an English type, or Western, or even Saddleseat)? Can he keep out of his own way, and is he groomed within an inch of his life and presented with pride? That’s my thought process for these classes.
The awesome thing about these horses, and their extremely devoted owners, is that they’ll often compete in just about every class for which they’re eligible, all day long, and never complain. They’ll often do all the English classes in the morning (mom in the open classes, and a son or daughter in the tack for the junior division), switch to Western in the afternoon, and hook up to a jog-bike or a Meadowbrook for the end-of-day driving classes … and then come back in the costume class festooned with feather boas, finger paint, and giant sunflowers. That’s a tall order for any horse, let alone one who came to his or her riding career relatively late in life. I’ll be honest: they may not necessarily be fulfilling all the requirements of every class extraordinarily well. Sometimes what’s happening in front of me wouldn’t quite cut it in an open show, competing against other breeds. But that’s kind of the point: the Standardbred shows give them a place to try out new skills in front of people who are going to cheer rather than sneer. It’s a hugely supportive environment, and everyone tries so damn hard, I often have tremendous difficulty awarding the placings. I want them all to win. What’s more, they’re upping their game every year. When I compare what I saw at the first of these shows I ever judged, five or six years ago, to what I witnessed in 2015, I’m amazed at how far so many of these riders and horses have come.
It’s not a judging gig that everyone would relish. It’s a little outside the norm of a typical hunter schooling show, where I generally watch horses go over the same one or two outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses all fricking day, first at two feet, then two-foot-three, then two-foot-six, then … you get the gist. With so many classes, Standardbred shows can also make for a helluva long day. But I get a huge kick out of them, and I hope we start to see more of them outside Ontario soon. (Ahem. Have clipboard, will travel …)
Further reading on second careers for Standardbreds:
From Trot magazine: My article on the adoption of Primetime Bobcat: Ninth Life of One Cool Cat
From the United States Trotting Association website, my coverage of one of the first RUS races in Ontario in 2011: Trotters Do It Under Saddle At Georgian Downs
From the Daily Racing Form: Plenty of Life After Racing
From Standardbred Canada: Life After Racing
Info on the Ontario Standardbred show series: Standardbred Showcase
And here’s a new article which sheds some light on the canter thing: Why Some Standardbreds Canter More Easily Than Others