By Tom Hawthorn
[Victoria, B.C.] Times Colonist
August 25, 1997
One hot afternoon I am leaning against a chain-link fence wondering how such a handsome brown gelding as Clover Dutch can lead a race for seven-eighths of a mile and yet finish fourth.
Now this is a most interesting lesson to me as I am new to harness racing. So great is my faith in the promise of Clover Dutch that I place a crisp $5 bill on him. Not so many other bettors at Sandown Raceway in Sidney are as certain, so the nice tattooed young woman at the pari-mutuel window explains how she will replace my fin with four others. Should Clover Dutch win, that is. These are called the odds, and they do seem a little strange to me.
Anyway, Clover Dutch is on the grey dirt track followed by a two- wheeled buggy in which rests Barry Treen, who wears a white outfit with brown trim and a round white helmet. He also wears sunglasses and I am thinking he looks like Mad Max would Mad Max have been Amish.
At this point, I am already down $11.20. It is $2 to get in, $1.35 for french fries, 85 cents for a Revello ice cream, $5 for my investment in the fifth race, and a final deuce for the racing program, the latter a bargain for it is as detailed as a mutual-fund prospectus and as nitpickingly accurate as Burke's Peerage.
From it, I learn more about Clover Dutch than I know about the people who teach my children - his mother's name, his father's name, his birthplace, his age, his owner's name, his trainer's name and record, his driver's name and record, his performance in previous races measured in quarters and eighths of a mile. I do not learn that he fades like a flag in the sun.
Which is what happens. He leads from the the point where announcer Rick Uppal growls, "There-r-r-r-r-r-r they go! " Growling Rick says "There-r-r-r-r-r-r they go! " nine times a day, two days a week at Sandown, and a fellow thinks it cannot be too bad a job. Growling Rick leans out of a booth high in the grandstand, one hand holding a microphone, the other binoculars. He finds syllables where nature has neglected to put them, and in this race "Cuh-low-ver Dutch" leads the first circuit around the track, leads past the corner with the Old Oak Tree, leads coming down the backstretch, and then hits a patch of molasses.
As everyone else seems to be joining Growling Rick in raising their voices, I shout various crudities about Cuh-low-ver Dutch's parentage; about clover as a legume; and about the Dutch in general. All to no avail.
I am now the proud owner of a slip of paper worth as much as a Bre-X share.
I will say this. I may be the only sap not to do so well, for most everyone else reports that armed with their handicapping and their Rick's Picks tip sheets and their charts and their horoscopes and their grandkids' names - well, things are going swell. No one cares to admit losing the grocery money at the track.
Take Fred Barr. Fred is a retired meat manager who owns shares of some standardbreds and, no, he did not handle shares of horses in his meat manager days. Fred, who, incidentally, does not stand many hands high and volunteers without prompting that "I've been kicked and everything else by horses," is busting with joy when B JS Blaze, a three-year-old colt in whom he owns a one-third share, beats the likes of Payday Darling and Little Do Do and actually wins a race.
"He's broken his jinx," says Fred, giddy as a Dust Bowl farmer in a rainstorm. "He's had six fifths in a row."
Fred wears green work pants that hang low in the back as is the current fashion although a fellow suspects Fred is following the fashion of some previous epoch. A battered cap is pushed back on his head. His boots are dusty with whatever it is one steps on in a paddock and a recent acquaintance thinks Fred can afford a new wardrobe since B JS Blaze pays $7.80 for every deuce put on his chestnut nose.
It is a custom that a horse pose for a snapshot with driver and trainer and owner and owner's new-found relatives. Fred makes a beeline for the Winner's Circle, which is a fancy name for what is a forlorn patch of dirt in a sea of asphalt.
As it turns out, B JS Blaze is as shy as Tony Fats when it comes to cameras. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to the routine for a winning horse. Or maybe he thinks not too much of the accommodations. In any case, he is taken away, like an unrepentant delinquent leaving juvenile hall.
The track is a good place to meet characters, some of them the two-legged variety. Some years ago, a terrible fire flashes through the barns, killing a dog, two ponies and 13 thoroughbreds, including one named Fuel Baron. The cops pinch a firebug who turns out to be a groom who is a jockey until a riding accident costs him his left leg below the knee. Anyway, the grandstand is now made of concrete should any other one-legged disgruntled jocks get to start playing with matches.
Personally, I think I prefer the country atmosphere of Sandown, with its discarded banquette benches, the armrests torn open by edgy bettors, to the swanky likes of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and mint julep-sipping swells. At Sandown, the closest connection to the Bluegrass State is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet a mile away.
Anyway, this fellow is standing on a sea of discarded betting slips, the confetti of fortunes lost, and he eyeballs me and says: "There's something wrong with my program."
I comfort him with the words of a great philosopher by the tag of Damon Runyon. "All horse players," he says, "die broke."