If this past weekend is any indication, I’m dreading January, February, and March a little bit.
After all, the way the calendar fell, there was a break between Arlington summer and Hawthorne fall this year. Usually, it happens nicely: Arlington ends the last weekend of September, Hawthorne starts the first Friday of October, and there’s live racing every weekend from the beginning of Hawthorne spring to the end of Hawthorne winter.
This year, that lead to an open weekend: Arlington ended Saturday, September 24, and Hawthorne starts Friday, October 7. It fits the calendar pattern, but it left an odd weekend out.
It’s both exciting and scary to think how much racing — live racing — has become a part of my life in the last three years.
Before the racing bug really bit me, I had gone to the track a few times in my life, with each trip separated by a few years.
After that fateful 2013 Arlington Million when the racing bug really sunk its teeth into me, I started going every two weeks or so. That felt reasonable: I got back to the place where I wanted to be, but I figured it would seem excessive to go to the track every week.
Then, I started caring less about what people might think about how often I went to the track, and began to go weekly. Now, I go every chance I get. Sometimes, that’s once in a week. Sometimes that’s twice, even three times in that span, should the racing schedule and my work schedule allow.
Racing has become my life in a way nothing else ever has. A lot of that has stemmed from starting Blinkers Off.
This space was a product of the first extended time off from local racing since I really started following a sport. The fall 2013 meet at Hawthorne had wound down, and we were still in the halcyon1 days of the Casino Impact Fee, of enough purse money to start the local spring meet in mid-February instead of the middle or end of March. Still, a month and a half seemed like forever, and I needed something to keep myself engaged. Twitter was good, but I was having fun writing the occasional longer thing. Hence, Blinkers Off. Unlike just about every other writing project in my life, I stuck with this one.
Working on Blinkers Off went hand in hand with deciding that I not only could go to the races more, but should. I learned things going to the track. I found things to write about. Best of all, I got to be around the horses, the people, the competition, the camaraderie — everything that makes the track the place where I really want to be.
And, each year I have been coming to the track, I have felt closer to it. I still feel new to it, to an extent, and probably always will. After all, in a sport where so many have been there all their lives, coming to it at the age of thirty means I’m always going to be playing catch-up. I’ll probably be seventy-five years old and still feeling like The New Guy.
But, it’s home. It’s where this city mouse can go see horses. It’s where I can talk to people who share my passion, where I can talk to people about pace scenarios and form cycles and obscure Illinois pedigrees and not have anyone look at me like I am speaking an unfamiliar language.
It seemed wrong not to be spending Thursday and Friday nights handicapping so many beaten claimers full of horses whose running styles and class levels I could likely remember in my sleep. It seemed wrong to be sleeping in on Saturday.
Fortunately, I have another three months of local racing before I have to face three months without it. Hawthorne draws the first day of its fall meet tomorrow, and then things will feel right again. I will have a card to handicap, and I will have races to see in person soon.
But I have to figure out what to do for the first three months of 2017. I have ideas. I am planning on spending New Year’s with my friends in Portland, and introducing them to live horse racing at Portland Meadows during closing weekend. I envision another weekend in Tampa, since my trip there in February of this year was so rejuvenating. I plan to make it to Fair Grounds for the first time, since I still have never been there, and I want to see all the Arlington folks who make their winter homes in New Orleans.
But, even then? That’s three weekends out of three months. That prospect seems daunting, since I haven’t gone three months without live local racing since the racing bug bit me in the summer of 2013.
I have some thinking to do. But, for now, it’s Christmas Eve. Hawthorne PPs come out tomorrow, and I’ll be home again soon.
1 at least, for early-to-mid-aughts definitions of “halcyon”.