Horse racing lost one of its biggest fans when my dad passed away at home on Sunday, February 21st at the age of 78. My family lives in Northern Ireland and when my phone rang late that night, well, I knew it was not likely to be good news. My dad had been living with Alzheimer's for nearly fifteen years and, despite the illness, his passing still came as a bit of a shock. I was quite fortunate to get home for a visit late last year and spend some time with him.
My dad and I at the Belfast Zoo - thirty years on and still the same hair cut
The love of horse racing, a game where pedigree features prominently, is so often passed down from parent to child and there are few who enjoyed horse racing more than my dad. He loved nothing more than cheering on his favourite horses, especially if that horse carried a bit of Irish blood in them. Even in my dad's disease-derived absence from discussing the horses, his spirit is ever present when I'm at the track. I attend the races quite often with his best friend, Ted, and together we watch stakes named in honour of horses the three of us once watched together from the third-floor grandstand - - such as the fillies Bessarabian and La Lorgnette. Ted, an eighty-year-old Japanese man, and myself make for an odd combo but we get along famously.
Ted will tease me that my dad always bet on the favourites, which is not my recollection, as I'm pretty sure my dad only had two columns of horses - - donkeys and beauties. He was never shy to share his judgment on either, at volume, from the Woodbine grandstand.
There's no doubt that his favourite race each season was the Canadian International. We watched a number of great horses compete over the years including Nassipour, Southjet, Majesty's Prince and the Canadian champ Sky Classic. The race always featured a few horses from 'back home' and, man, did my dad love imitating the European jocks windmill style of whipping while extolling the virtues of the overseas rider. He had me convinced that a North American jockey could never win the great event and the bias lives within me to this day despite much historical evidence to the contrary.
The ill-fated Shergar wins the 1981 Epsom Derby
Through my dad I was bequeathed a love of football (soccer), snooker and the ponies. During my brief childhood stay in the tiny town of Newtownhamilton, I became a Liverpool supporter, a fan of Hurricane Higgins and pondered the fate of the great Epsom Derby winner Shergar.
In 1982, when I was just eight years old, I recall my dad taking me to watch an aging and ailing George Best play for Glentoran in their centenary celebration match against Manchester United. It was a dangerous time to live in Northern Ireland and not only did we leave that match ten minutes from time to avoid the pending sectarian violence - - but our train route home was also interrupted when it was announced that Portadown train station was under a bomb threat. We spent our delay, with fellow travelers, huddled in a tiny station shack drinking watery tea from a vending machine.
Best of the bests
Returning to the safety of Canada in 1983, horse racing quickly became my top sport. It was harder then to follow football and snooker without the Internet. I can remember slowly flipping the pages of the Sunday sports section, savoring the anticipation of a Kenny Dalglish goal, while running my finger down the football results page hoping to see a positive Liverpool result. A simple 1-0 scoreline boasting, "Dalglish '68'", would put me in a great mood. However, in need of a little more substance, Woodbine Racetrack with all of its great events was only minutes from our Brampton, Ontario home and we both loved our Sunday afternoons there. Memories of my first Queen's Plate, won by Key To The Moon, became my first published piece in Woodbine's 50th Anniversary Magazine.
I feel fortunate to have such great memories of the racetrack with my dad. More fortunate still that the memories have very little to do with wagers placed or dollars won. We were there to see the horses and their riders and be with our friends. That sentimentality wins over in my writing more often than it probably should but I'm happy that I'm not kept to task to find joy in what I write - - whether it's a professional piece or just a memory resurrected free-of-charge on my blog.
Southjet won the 1986 Rothmans International despite our cheers for Swinburn
I've missed having my dad nearby as the damned disease robbed him of his memory, his voice and ultimately the connection we tried to upkeep after the family moved back home and I stayed here in Canada. The connection was there for some time but it faltered through Alzheimer's. My young brother David, bless him, used to try and feed my dad answers during awkward phone calls as the illness took hold. But Alzheimer's is unforgiving and polarizing in that it removes the memory of the afflicted and leaves those around the victim with nothing but their memories, and each other, to hold on to.
Fortunately, plenty of good has come out of these moments with my dad. He inspired me to write about the game and it's brought me great joy, new friends and some success. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to know I'm twice-nominated for a Sovereign Award and, if he were here and of good spirit, would probably be asking me for a few tips come April and the start of the Woodbine meet.
In his passing, I'm comforted that nothing more can be taken from him and that he left this world surrounded by his family. I'll miss him desperately, but I'm sure he's already found a turf course in the great beyond and, odds are, he's got a fiver on the Irish horse in the big one. I hope it's a beauty.
Rest in Peace: Robert McCalmont - Born February 18th, 1933 in Belfast, NI - Died February 21st, 2011 in Derriaghy, NI . To learn more about Alzheimer's, please visit the Alzheimer Society of Canada website.