This Saturday's Belmont Stakes won't be as thrilling an event as it's been in years past, with no chance of a Triple Crown winner. But it will be a significant race for me personally. This year is the first Belmont Stakes of my life that my father will miss.
My dad wasn't around too much when I was growing up. I lived in Connecticut with my mother; my father spent most of those years in New Orleans, picking up a Louisiana drawl and a multitude of women, drawing and painting scenes of the French Quarter, soaking up a bayou's worth of booze. On his sporadic visits back up north, he'd take me and my mother (still the love of his life) to Belmont Park.
I'm not sure why my parents loved the horses; neither was a big gambler (in the traditional sense of the word). But they did, and so I learned to love them, too, leaning against the rail at the paddocks, listening to my father spill all the secrets he knew in his gravelly whisper: "That one's got some fire in him, see that?" "Now this jockey, you gotta keep your eye on him ... "
I remember how the pounding of the horses' hooves thudded in my chest like so many hearts beating. I remember the smell of my father's shirt and the look on his face when he pointed out the winner's circle: "Someday we're gonna have a horse right there."
We never did. But by the time my father died last August, we at last had each other. I spent the last decade or so of my dad's life discovering that we were more alike than I'd ever imagined possible. My father became my best friend, my partner in crime, my sole consolation when no one else in the world understood what I was feeling. He was the missing piece. Now he is again.
After he passed away, I found his series of racehorse drawings, colored pencil renderings of the sinewy thoroughbreds and lithe little jockeys we'd watched at Belmont so many years before. That's when I knew where my father needed to be.
On a quiet, late summer day at the races, I took my father's ashes to Belmont Park and scattered them around the Winner's Circle (nobody noticed me climbing over the rail). That day, I won every bet I placed.
Image via chippykev/Flickr