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I saw the film, Secretariat, today. I’m a sucker for animal lore and nothing exceeds the excitement of watching galloping horses on the big screen. Actually, the sanitized movie version of horse racing is better than the real thing, which leaves me a bit queasy. I’m too aware of the negatives aspects of the horse racing industry—of any industry that places a dollar value on the performance of or lives of animals.
The first time I experienced a live race must have been about 1971—and it wasn’t a horse race. For some reason my mom was out of town. She left me in charge of the horses and my stepfather; she left my stepfather in charge of the remaining menagerie and me. My assignment was to make sure Glenn had proper meals and took his pills. His assignment, I suppose, was to make sure I did what I was supposed to do and nothing else.

I was a tomboy for whom the kitchen was an abyss. All I’d done there was wash dishes. But I took my assignment seriously. For breakfast on Friday morning, I dutifully served toast, link sausage, and fried eggs that perched atop a leathery skin of overcooked egg white. For dinner I traveled through my mother’s stack of cookbooks. In Round the World Meat Cookbook I found a recipe for Swiss Steak. I was astounded when I served up our meal. It was actually yummy and Glenn sang my praises. After I’d cleared the table and washed the dishes, Glenn asked me what my plans were for Saturday. Aside from the usual chores, I was open. Rather shyly, he asked if I would be interested in accompanying him to Loveland, Colorado to visit his sister and brother-in-law. They could take us out to the dog track and show us around, he suggested.

I was thrilled by such an adult adventure. At the time, it never crossed my mind that Glenn had probably been waging war with his conscience about how he could swing a trip to the track on his “free weekend,” without deserting me and risking the wrath of my mother should she discover that I’d been left to my own devices.

Glenn’s brother-in-law, Uncle Rudy, had recently retired from a career at the Greyhound track. Retired or not, Uncle Rudy lived and breathed “the dogs”— code for the entire dog track scene. He and Glenn set me up with a race card and $20. Rudy explained how the bets worked and how to read the race card. The men left me alone in the stands while they went downstairs to place our bets, mine included. They returned to the stands just as the dogs leapt from the starting gate. Before I could blink my eyes, the fake rabbit on an electric wire flew by the grandstands with a blur of dogs in pursuit. It was like watching the hubcaps of a car spin at 30 miles per hour. I had no idea what had happened, but Rudy announced gleefully that my dog had come in second…I had won.

For the rest of the evening, I watched the crowd and studied the race card. I played it safe, betting “to show,“ which meant that for me to win, my dog could come in first, second, or third. We walked back to the car at 11:30. I had won several dollars which Glenn insisted I keep, along with the seed money he’d provided. I felt grown-up and I felt lucky. In the wee hours of the night, we drove the 70 treacherous miles back to Wyoming on an inky-black, 2-lane road, praying that no deer or antelope would commit suicide in front of our car.

The memory of the evening is as surreal as the reality of it was. How could anyone get excited about these poor stupid dogs who didn’t even care that they were chasing a fake rabbit and that the game was rigged so they’d never ever get the prize. The wait between races plodded like Mrs. Wood’s Latin class. Once the starting gun went off, the race was over faster than a shooting star. What I really longed for was to see a horse leap out of the starting gate. A horse race would last long enough to build suspense and besides, nothing boils my blood like a galloping horse.

But, I remember that night also for the rare camaraderie that I felt with my stepfather. He treated me as an adult. He was kind and patient and seemed happy to have me tagging along in his wake, rather than annoyed at having to be responsible for me.
Tonight, after watching Secretariat win the Belmont by 31 lengths on the silver screen, I served Swiss Steak for dinner. The Swiss Steak was a hit this time too.