Saturday, August 29, 2009

Day 43: Ashes to Ashes

On a cold, drizzly evening I revisited Freehold Raceway with Linda, Kay and Will. At one point all of our lives revolved around this little harness racing track in one way or another. Kay's husband (and Will's dad) Max was a talented horseman and trainer; Linda's first job as a single mom was running the database that distributed winning purses to the drivers; and I was the marketing manager for the owners and breeders group that raced there.

Max stopped training horses about 18 years ago, getting a job in the prison system where he supervised the maintenance team. I suggested to the group last night that he probably chose a job in the prison system over racing because he was tired of having so many crooks around him while he worked.

It was that attitude that had made me persona non grata at Freehold about a quarter century ago. By then I had left the marketing job, but I was still writing a monthly column for the national harness racing magazine. I wrote what was undoubtedly my best column ever if generating strong reaction is any guide to success.

In the column I described a small hometown track that failed to police its races well. I wrote about longshots winning races and yet the trifectas paid only about $40 when there should have been a few extra zeroes. And I wrote that if the bosses at the track didn't start getting a lot more serious about this sort of thing they would lose their audiences to other types of leisure activities.

It sounds like a very noble piece, but it would have been a lot moreso if I had written it while I was still working in the industry and was still carrying the drivers' bets to the windows for them. But that's another story.

In this particular instance, on my last visit to the racetrack - after that column - I suddenly found that the only person who would still talk to me was the woman who took the winner's circle photos. And she kept looking around nervously. I didn't go back until last night.

And LK worked there until the place burned down - literally. One afternoon smoke started billowing out of the grandstand, and much of the track went up. The admin offices weren't affected, but there also wasn't any prize money to distribute while the track was being rebuilt. With the grandstand in ashes, LK moved on to another job.

But the ashes from the grandstand makes a nice circle back to last night. The four of us were back at the track to spread Max's ashes at the track's finish line. Max died last week. LK called Kay to offer her condolences, and had told her she wanted to be with them when they brought his ashes to the track.

So first we had one of those sad/funny/reminiscing/catching-up dinners at which I mostly listened to Will and Kay talk about the wonderful guy they had lost. We bounced from emotion to emotion and topic to topic until we finally decided it was time to drive to the track.

At trackside, they each took a scoop of the ashes in their hands and threw them out onto the finish line. I took some pictures of this and then spread a handful more myself.

Kay and Will are doing OK and you can tell they're going to move through this. They laughed often and grew sad only a few times.

It's always tough to be with people dealing with such major losses in their life, but I am not worried about the two of them. They're both tough and survivors, and even a week later it's easy to see they are coping. After all, Will got Kay, Linda and me laughing shortly after flinging his dad's ashes on the track when he told us he had to go into the building to the men's room. "I've got dead guy on my hands, and I need to wash it off."

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