Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review and Interview: My Year of the Racehorse

When I learned that a friend of a friend had written a book about horse racing, I immediately wanted to read and like it. This approach to life, to embrace with high hopes, often ends in disappointment - - to that end, quite similar to many of the wagers author Kevin Chong places with good intent during the course of his latest venture, My Year of the Racehorse.

Watch the trailer for My Year of the Racehorse

Fortunately, after devouring this revelatory racing and relationships revue in one sitting (and some laying about), the 35-year-old Chong’s first-hand account of a year of partial ownership of Hastings Racecourse-based mare Mocha Time is an engaging read.

Chong, author of Beauty Plus Pity and 2005’s Neil Young Nation, convinces himself to purchase a race horse as a way of committing to something, anything, in the midst of his anxiety over a near-fatal illness suffered by his father.

The purchase of Mocha Time, aka Blackie, an ill-gaited but hard-trying miss, is the first near-strike off a bucket list of life goals meant to bolster responsibility that urges Chong to become a home owner; find true love; settle down and start a family; see the world; learn another language; start a retirement plan and get a tattoo.

When Chong can’t bring himself to purchase a condo, he ends up with a piece of Blackie instead, and as the story unravels, each item on his list is modified to meet with his newfound identity as horse owner and railbird.

Finding true love is replaced with a visit to a series of Kentucky stud farms. Family is found, in part, in the form of Blackie’s spirited trainer Randi who swears by her life on the backstretch; and the language he takes on is that of the characters he meets in and about Hastings.

The story is given life and humour through Chong’s playful and often self-deprecating, prose. Admittedly frugal, Chong writes openly about his wagering exploits throughout the book.

In real life, I don’t part with money this easily. I take out movies from the library and purchase toner-refill kits on eBay; I buy the coffee that’s on sale, not the kind I really like. Gambling, then, is self-betrayal – like being an Amish astronaut.

While the author’s involved re-telling of Blackie’s races are exciting, the story excels in Chong’s reflection on his own past performance lines as he awkwardly, often painfully, attempts to reconnect with lost loves and old friends.

At his Vancouver home, late at night, Chong leaves his computer’s online messaging program on at all hours in hope that his ex-girlfriend Linda, now living in Toronto, might take the initiative and message him first.

As a forward, and capable, journalist in his professional life, it is exasperating how intimate interaction can complicate his personal life. This surprising lack of confidence, combined with a habit for saying, or doing, the wrong thing at the right time, provide humour and humility.

When Linda does finally type that first message, Chong’s blundered attempt at a date takes him across the country to Woodbine Racetrack. Their date starts out well enough, but potential romantic embers are quickly doused when Linda points out, much to the reader’s cringing chagrin, that the last time they went to the racetrack together, the events that unfolded sparked only the end of their relationship.

Perhaps, this is the one time that dinner and a movie might have been a more inspired date night.

This relationship angst is balanced with fine writing and more than enough humour to compensate Chong’s addled affairs. Below-the-belt snickering arrives with the introduction of an equine, ‘dink-cleaning service’, which is exactly what it sounds like; an 80-year-old groom capable of one-handed push-ups who sings to his horses; and most importantly, through Chong’s savvy way of turning a phrase on its head.

Consider, as example, these well-meant re-wordings of Daily Racing Form lingo.

How about instead of failed to menace, maybe made everyone feel at home? Similarly, a horse that set pace, gave way should be described as didn’t need to prove anything, okay with himself.

Ultimately, My Year of the Racehorse sees Chong approach life with the currency of hope he so eloquently suggests is a way of life at the racetrack, and gallops, in tandem with the awkward stride of his beloved Blackie, to a satisfying conclusion - - one which the horse owner comes to realize doesn’t always have to mean winning.


Kevin Chong will be appearing at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on Wednesday April 4 as part of This Is Not A Reading Series. Show starts at 7PM.

For more on Chong, visit his author profile at D&M Publishers.

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I had a chance to catch up with Chong at the Turf Lounge, compare notes on our mutual friend and noted poet Weldon Gardner Hunter, and talk about his racetrack experiences while also throwing money at Will Rogers Downs.

Chong checking out the pace scenarios

TDH – What surprised you about life on the backstretch?

KC – I was a little surprised by seeing grooms and hotwalkers living at the track and the homes that they build. There’s so much diversity on the backstretch. There are black hotwalkers at Hastings, asian hotwalkers, gay hotwalkers and grooms. It’s an accepting place. It’s not a PC place, there are people who talk pretty off colour. And people have funny nicknames there. There was a woman with one arm called One-Arm Joanne. They’re straight shooters there, but if you do the work, you’re one of them.

TDHMy question about the hands-on physical labour of the racetrack was interrupted by the fourth race at Will Rogers Downs where we hit two out of three on our hastily assembled triactor box. We missed by tossing the chalk, who finished third...

KC - There’s a therapeutic quality to a horse. One thing I found at Hastings is that there are people who are on welfare, people who are homeless, who can get a job at the track. People who dropped out of highschool can find a job at the track.

Waking up in the morning, having a routine, dealing with a horse and not with an angry, bitter boss really does something for them.

The track is one of the few places where you can have this tactitle experience to be around animals and work with your hands. It’s a very urban environment most of the time, but you have the calmness of these animals, not always calm, but you get to be around animals and you get to put in a hard day’s work.

TDH – How can racetracks expose potential new fans to the 'good' side of racing and better market the sport?

KC – You have to get them out there. That’s all it takes most of the time. They get there and they have fun. I have a lot of friends who went to the track independently of me. Our track in Vancouver is a couple of rungs below Woodbine, but we have a beautiful view and it’s still within the city, it’s not that difficult to get to.

I do wish it was easier to bet sometimes. I wish there was an easier way for people to dip their toes into betting horses, because when you’re sports betting you’re just betting one team over the other. It’s flipping a coin.

It’s so much fun when the track is crowded. I went through a lot of historical photos of the racetrack from 60 or 70 years ago and it’s funny just to see people by the rail, maybe ten rows deep. Mostly men, all in hats, and they all have their heads at one angle watching the horses come down the lane.

If poker can do it (be successful)…poker has nothing that racing has. Poker has fat guys with mirrored sunglasses playing cards. Horse racing has animals, jockeys, strategy. It (betting on racing) might be more demanding than poker, but at the same time, it’s much more rewarding.

TDH – Are you really as awkward as it comes across at times in the book or is it embellished for the memoir?

KC – It is embellished a bit, I think. You play up a certain aspect…I don’t think I am that…well…there are moments when I’m very much awkward, you know, and there are moments where I don’t think I’m awkward and I really am.

And there are moments in the book where I’m this on-the-make freelance writer and that’s an aspect of who I am. Hopefully, not everything about me is (awkward)…I think I’d be insufferable otherwise!

There was a part of me that was reluctant to put myself out on the page but once you sign up for writing a book like that, you realize you have to talk about yourself. And, as an owner of a racehorse, you’re not that involved in the day-to-day of the horse. It was a great ticket into learning about horse racing, but I wanted to write about what it was like to be an owner.

In some ways, you’re pinning your hopes and dreams on a horse, or the horse represents things that it shouldn’t represent. For me, I used the idea of a racehorse as a sort of status symbol to examine my own anxieties about my place in life and my own relationships and failures.

TDH – Have you managed to stitch back together any of the relationships in the book?

KC – No. I’m dating a woman who has an eight year old boy. It’s funny, I feel there was that part of me that was really behind and now I have, I wouldn’t say a parent role, but an adult-figure role in a child’s life. My last weekend was spent playing Magic cards and video games with the kid. I mean, I still haven’t bought a condo or anything like that…that’s not going to happen any time soon.

TDH - So, you found a way to become more adult…

KC – I was mostly a freelancer back then and now I teach part of the time. Becoming a university professor, I had to take on more avuncular postures. I had to act how I thought a professor would act. That helped! I think there are more instances of my foolish behaviour just a few years ago, but now I know the people around me might be students…um, you want to play a triactor on this?

TDH - After a second failed triactor attempt at Will Rogers, I ask Kevin to talk about what he recommends a newcomer to the racetrack should do...

KC - Get a hot dog, sit through at least four races and make small bets. My girlfriend, the first time we spent time together, one on one, was at the racetrack.

TDH – You went back to the racetrack again on a date!!???

KC – I’ve had some bad experiences at the track…and some good ones!

At one point, she bet on every horse in the field to win because she wanted to have a winning ticket. A longshot won that race so she came out ahead. I think if you have a six or seven horse field, try that, and have a winning ticket because it is fun to win. A day at the racetrack is much better when you at least have one winning ticket!

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I can't argue with that logic! My Year of the Racehorse is available at Amazon.CA

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