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Eight Belles

Bottles of the finest Scotch lined the oak-paneled wood walls where Dad and I sat at the bar in a bay side restaurant looking at the television in anticipation of the 2008 134th Run for the Roses.

           

A few months before the race, Dad called. “So, I'll be coming to see you! We can watch the Kentucky Derby somewhere, right?”


He had sounded like a kid who couldn't wait to get on the theme park rides. “Sure...,” I said. Even though I’d always connected with my father through racehorses, as he had done with his, following the ponies was no longer a serious interest of mine. But it was our tradition.


That first Saturday in May, I met Dad at the hotel. He wrapped his arms around me, squeezed me into a bear hug, and crushed his soft, rose petal lips against my cheek.


If there was anyone who could make me feel like the most special-to-them person on earth, it was my father in a moment of sheer unguarded happiness, his smile enveloping his whole face and the entire space, his radiance surrounding me.


It was early, so we started out at the local Arts Festival before heading to a bar and grill to watch the race. Sauntering around the crowded grounds, Dad peered appreciatively at large oil and acrylic canvasses and big sculptures, wondered at craft pieces that maybe shouldn't be there, and occasionally engaged in conversation with an artist that struck him.


“Hey Dad, check out this tent! It has a bunch of rock music photos taken by local photographers. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Dead.”


He stood at a distance. “Mmm-hmm.”


My childhood memories of sleeping at his feet or up by the speakers at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles while he worked the mixing console were ever-fresh in my mind. I always wanted to learn more about his days as a recording engineer and producer. It had been such an alive, unique time.


I ran up to each photo. “Wow, look at Spirit. Did you know them?”


“No.” His professional music days were long past. “But I saw them at a diner once, in Malibu. Cutting and snorting a pile of cocaine at their table.”


“Out in the open??”


“Yes,” he chuckled. 


He stuck a hand in a shirt pocket, pulled out a small case of toothpicks, stuck one in his mouth and worked it around with nimble fingers. If he still smoked, it would have been a Camel cigarette.


Shuffling his feet, he tapped me on the arm and motioned outward. “Say, I'm thirsty and getting hot,” he said, pulling the front of his long-sleeve button up. “Think we could find something to drink?”


A boutique refreshment stand offered ice cold Hard Lemonades. “Ahhh.” He comically smacked his lips. “Dee-licious. Hits the spot!”


“It is good.” I sipped my drink. As the perfect balance of sweet Meyer lemons met with the bitter evocative hint of warming vodka, Dad’s eyes lightened.


We left for the restaurant with our arms around each other’s waists. It struck me, feeling his warm skin against mine, how similar we werehis torso is my torso; that I had walked with this person for lifetimes; that his loneliness matched my loneliness; and the acute ache I’d felt for him since childhood rose up in my chest and caught in my throat.

           

At the restaurant, we took seats in the middle of the bar. The bartender came over for our drink order.


“Scotch rocks,” Dad said, motioning to both of us. He leaned forward and pointed to the TV attached to the wall where patrons watched hockey and ate French fries. “The Kentucky Derby is about to be on. Can we change the channel?” he inquired. The bartender considered the situation as she dried a pint glass.


“It's my Dad's birthday,” I eyed her. “He flew out from Los Angeles to watch this with me.”


“The Kentucky Derby, sure, that's a major sports event.” She put her towel down and addressed the other customers. "Okay to watch a big horse race now?" Heads casually nod. She picked up the remote and changed the station.


Dad downed his Scotch and ordered another while I savored mine. “Who do you like in the race?” I asked.


He turned to me. “I'm going with Big Brown. He's been strong all year and is favored, but I also like a filly, the only one in the race.”


Her name was Eight Belles. Fillies did not often run against colts in the Triple Crown series as they could not physically compete, but exceptional young ones came along that owners and trainers felt were worth the risk. The last filly to win the Kentucky Derby was Winning Colors in 1988, and it had been nine years since a girl had run the race. Usually they took the route of the separate filly Triple Crown. Eight Belles connections clearly felt she had as good of a chance as the rest—she had speed and height on her side. Plus, her grandsire was Unbridled, a horse I well-remembered who had won the 1990 Kentucky Derby, and who I had lost a bet on in the Belmont Stakes that year—a pretty big bet.


Dad waved the bartender over and pointed to his glass. “Another. Rocks.”


The tall, weathered woman gently offered a wry smile and filled his glass with golden brown liquid, adding a few ice cubes. “Keep an eye on your father, eh?” She lifted an eyebrow at me, and tipped her head toward him.


Dad grinned. He broke out in a sweat, wiped a hand across his face, and placed it back around the tumbler. The barkeep’s comment jolted me. It was true; I worried about his intake sometimes when he was in a celebratory mood, and yet I enjoyed sharing a bottle of Remy with him on occasion, but at that point I was the one who was in trouble.


I thought back on when Dad gave me my first beer (a Foster’s Lager) as a young teen. The conservative Southern neighbors where he worked at the Sound Pit in Atlanta, GA, were shocked to see me drinking on the front porch. Subsequently, they forbade their teenage daughter from hanging out with me and my younger sister. And the pot brownies Dad’s wife baked for us all, no accounting for age. That didn't matter to me then; it was a fun way to bond with my dad, especially when we all laughed uproariously, watching old black-and-white TV show reruns like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.


Dad turned his attention to the TV, riveted by the race's post parade. “My Old Kentucky Home” traditionally resounded through the speakers as the announcer brought us into the 134th Run For The Roses.


Eight Belles came into view, walking toward the starting gate. And she was a beauty. Dad and I loved grays, especially steel grays like her—we thought they were special, being less common than other colors, and lent a mysterious air. Belles had an extremely tall, thin frame like an anorexic girl, her almost gawkish long legs so fine and delicate. If this weren't a race for three-year-olds, I would've thought her to be two.


In the burgundy light of the room, we watched the race go off, the only ones observing. Dad sat upright, tense with excitement, face tightening and relaxing. He gave the bar top a solid pound. I watched warily and tried to keep the thrill of seeing racehorses running in check. In the homestretch, Big Brown pulled away from the field, winning by nearly five lengths.


“My horse did it!” Dad shouted to a local man sitting at the end of the bar nursing his own Scotch who simply nodded back. “Look who's getting second!” Dad tapped my arm.


The camera picked up Eight Belles, Eight Belles galloping out, running her gorgeous heart out for second place. For a moment, my heart leaped. The gray girl was doing it, and under the wire she made it, second place in the Kentucky Derby in a fast final quarter mile, beating the rest of the boys.


But something was wrong. Really wrong. Just past the finish line, as her rider pulled up, the giant filly faltered. She took several lurching leaps and sickeningly crashed to her knees, throwing the jockey. The camera angle skewed and then moved away from the moment. We could hear people screaming over the announcer's rapid cover. He probably wasn't sure whether to stick with the winner's story or what had just happened. I sat mutely watching, unable to swallow. My hand gripped the drained Scotch glass so hard my knuckles hurt, and the usually tantalizing smell of grilled burgers made me want to vomit. The ever-present horse ambulance silently sped out onto the track. The sportscaster reported Eight Belles had fractured a front ankle immediately crossing the finish line.


“Oh boy,” said Dad with resignation, twisting his mouth to the side. I stood up, feeling dizzy, wanting to leave, but he didn't notice. I sat back down. We saw Belles lying on her side, heaving. Pain radiated off her. A front ankle. Maybe they could save her with the new technologies, unlike when the great filly, Ruffian, suffered a breakdown in the 1970s; a reality-shattering nightmare that Dad and I had witnessed. But it turned out Eight Belles had broken both front legs: cannon and sesamoid bones, and couldn't even stand. It was later told she apparently had a tendency to stumble while pulling up and tripped.


As the vet techs knelt beside Eight Belles, I imagined the wild-eyed, uncomprehending fear and distress she must be in, her heart racing, the blood speeding through her high-wire nervous system until they injected her with heart stopping, muscle binding, darkness closing euthanasia; the last sound she'd ever hear were the shrieks of the dismayed crowd; the last sensation, the crumbly manicured track; the last sight Mourning Doves above the sun-drenched bleachers. I resolved to never watch another horse race.


“Ah, Christ,” Dad said, crunching on a watery ice cube from his empty glass. He switched to eulogizing the winner, especially since it was his pick. “Big Brown ran a great race. He demolished the field!”


I felt sunken in, stunted, a mass of sick. Something in me also crashed when the filly did. For the past seven years, I'd barely kept at bay the personal suffering in my life from the events of 9/11. Years of self-medicating gave way as that filly's bones cracked.


I stared at Dad impassively. “That's it. I am never watching another horse race. I've seen too many tragedies.”

 

His face was empathetic, then he shot me his charming smile, squeezed my shoulder with a soft, warm hand and said with an innocent chortle, “Until the next great filly comes along!”


I rolled my eyes. “No Dad, I mean it. I can't see them anymore. I'm too sensitive. The breakdowns are beyond hideous.”


“I know,” he said, being straight with me. “But what can you do? That's part of life. It's part of these horses’ lives.”

   

“The beauty isn't worth it anymore, Dad.” We had talked before how every decade it got worse, the amount and types of calamities. “Maybe some day more enlightened people will come up in the racing world. For starters, they've got to stop running them as two-year-olds. They're barely developed at three.”


“That’s true.” Dad had a chagrined, humble expression. “I can't stay away, though. They are the most beautiful, magnificent creatures.”


While racing hit a new low with the first apparent Kentucky Derby fatality, as the horse world often did, matching my own life to its amalgam of exhilarating beauty and crushing trauma, Eight Belles’ demise unwittingly was the beginning of my own wake-up call.


Shortly thereafter, I quit drinking.


I also quit the ponies. For a while.

      

Dad was right: the last race we watched together live—him in his usual spot in the bleachers, mine at the finish line rail—was at Santa Anita for the 2016 Breeders Cup. That time Dad lost, and I won. The most exciting race I’d ever seen saw my horse, the beloved Beholder—a mystical dragon of a mare—win the Distaff Cup against sensational filly Songbird in an unbelievable feat of stamina and courage.


Some loves are hard to break.

  

BIO

Tara Reale wrote and illustrated her first fiction book at 13, self-publishing it in the manner of the time: xerox copies bound with extensive masking tape. She enjoys writing memoir.

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