I can’t remember the first time I went to Hot Springs. Like any pilgrimage it began so early in life that most people can’t remember them you just know: this is how it’s always been. I have snippets of memories of the early trips: a vision of me perched on my father’s shoulders because I was still too small to see; walking hand in hand through a darkened tunnel that seemed never ending; being hugged by strangers who knew me by name as they welcomed us back for another season.
My first true, complete memory was when I turned eight. My parents had separated and, in the self absorbed way that only a child’s mind can understand, my first thought was how this was going to ruin my birthday weekend. I didn’t care about cake or presents…it was the trip to Hot Springs that consumed me. It was the one thing each year that my father and I did together with no one else and, now that he had moved out, I feared life would never be the same. Of course I had been right – life never was the same but I had been wrong about the trip: the Saturday following my birthday my mother shook me awake well before dawn and told me to get up and get dressed: my father was on his way.
Even at eight, I had no illusions about my father. I knew he was a drinker and a gambler. I knew he preferred to spend evenings at the bar with his drinking buddies rather than coming home to have dinner with us. After running off the road in the car one time during a road trip I knew not to get in the car with him when he was drinking. I pointed out to him how he was endangering my life instead of just his own and, after that, he still drove drunk but he never did it with me in the car. He wasn’t an angry drunk or a loud, boisterous one even. His vices didn’t bother me and, if anything, they drew us closer. I liked that he wasn’t perfect, that I was allowed to see those imperfections and him? Well, he needed to be loved despite his screw-ups.
I remember the smell of his cigarettes mingling with the hot cocoa he had waiting for me in the car. I remember the bitterly cold darkness that surrounded us as we motored down the backroads. I recall the Juicy Fruit gum that Eddie, the bookie who provided us the Daily Racing Forms, slipped into my fist when we made a pit stop at his store. He smiled at me in that patient, pacifying way that annoys all children and asked “What do you think of 22 in race six?” And I remember my Dad swelling with pride when I popped the gum in my mouth and replied “He needs a fast track. We’ve had snow for a week straight. He’ll be lucky to make the first furlough with the pack.”
So, it wasn’t your normal father/daughter moment. But Oaklawn Park was ours and the fifth season had begun. From late January until April every year, this is where we could be found every Saturday. Some weekends we’d take breakfast at the Jockey Club, watching the sun rise over the tracks as the ponies did their early morning workouts. Some days we’d arrive later with only time to grab a mile high corned beef sandwich before delving into the DRF and deciding our picks for the day. We’d wander from our box to the betting windows and from the rail to the infield during the rare times it was open. I knew the jockeys by name, I knew the trainers and the horses lineage. I could read the race schedule and stats and tell anyone who happened by what they meant. As I got older, my father let me roam the park alone, secure in the faces that knew me and knew where to take me should I get out of line (I had this habit of sneaking in the off limits paddock area). My favorite place was the infield where you could feel the horses breeze past but the railing lining the track on the grandstands was a close second. Nothing compared to being so close to these animals- their power, their grace, their personalities that shined through once you’d watched them long enough.
I haven’t been back to Oaklawn since my father’s death. I’ve driven by dozens of times over the years and have regaled my own children with tales from the track. When we drive by and crest the hill where Oaklawn now sits like a giant shining beacon they now chant: “The ponies are running, the ponies are running!” whether they are indeed running or not. This year I aim to change my absence. I know it will be different. Not just the memories but the track itself and the grandstands have gone through many renovations over the years. We no longer have a box or access to the Jockey Club and all of the trainers and jockeys have moved on with their lives. But that’s how life transpires: traditions must either stop or evolve and this is one I will revive and refuse to let die. I’m going to share it with those I love, showing this part of me that, until now, I’ve kept only for myself.
This year, I’m going back to Oaklawn.