We are a week away from the Kentucky Derby and somewhere, in a living room not far away, furniture is being cleared and breakables are being placed safely out of the way because, while the most prestigious horse race in all of North America may run live in Kentucky, the real action will be run by my father, in front of his flat screen television.
Picture it: my father, who just celebrated a birthday that begins with the number seven, will be seated on his sofa, likely with a cocktail, perhaps some peanuts, calculating his bets. Friends will gather too, because this is an occasion. The 140th Kentucky Derby is also the 50th anniversary of the most important Canadian-bred, Canadian-owned horse in the history of horse racing, Northern Dancer. I know this because, had my mom not been conscious after delivering me into this world, Northern Dancer would be my name.
Growing up in my household, you didn’t have to know who the Prime Minister was, or even be able to name the provinces, but you had better know that Northern Dancer’s pedigree was sacred Canadian stock and why that horse’s Derby win was so important that my father could be late for his wedding to my mother.
Yep, you read that right. My parents got married on Derby day 50 years ago and when it was announced the Northern Dancer was in the running, all bets were off that my father would slide up in the aisle in time to say “I do” to his beautiful, (but vengeful) bride. He was late and I assure you, he has paid for it in weird and wonderful ways ever since.
I was probably the only kid whose father wished I would stop growing, if only so one day I could saddle a Thoroughbred and hit the stakes races with a derby-winner too. My dance career and 5ft 6in stature was a horrible disappointment for a man who so desperately wanted to be in the Parade of Roses. (I won’t even tell you the emotional scars for my brother who reached 6ft 4in). The fact that I was terrified of horses, until very recently, only furthered Dad’s frustration.
To earn brownie points, I used to trespass on the Windfield Farms estate in Oshawa, near where I grew up, and pick up the breeding books. At least he’d know the lineage of the horses he might bet on. I’m a good kid.
I wish you could watch the race from Dad’s living room because it is quite the spectacle. The horses will go into the starting gate and my father will start ringing his hands. Without realizing it, he’ll start to rock back and forth in his seat. Eventually, he will kneel on the floor, inching closer to the big screen. The rocking will speed up. When the gates open, my father will jump into jockey position and begin to ride an imaginary horse, complete with an imaginary crop that he flails into the imaginary wind as if he is bent into the first corner and coming up the inside. Yelling at his imaginary steed so loud, neighbours will likely gather outside in horrified curiosity. And when the first horse crosses the finish line, win, place or show, my father will have a tear in his eye.
Derby Dad by a nose! That’s horse racing at it’s finest.
Writing has been my passion since I learned how to hold a pencil (which I still cannot do properly). Despite my father’s insistence that I would starve to death in this career, I remain well fed and eager to write more. They say you should do what you love: I love to write.