It’s eight o’clock on a frigid Sunday evening in Southern Ontario.
Freezing rain and wet snow are pelting the area, and weather forecasters are encouraging residents to stay home.
I’m at Flamboro Downs.
As horses are taken to the track for the night’s card, the show must go on. Surely there aren’t many people in the paddock, or in the grandstand, who wouldn’t prefer it to be summer, but this is Canadian harness racing – and cold, winter nights at the races aren’t new to anyone in this sport.
Two years earlier when I first discussed, with a gentleman I met while eating dinner, the idea of getting involved in horse racing, I’m pretty sure that neither of us pictured mid-February at Flamboro Downs as his first race. But with 40 minutes to post time before the ninth dash, here it is.
We had hoped that our horse was going to race in the Snowshoe Pacing Series on January 20 and 27 at Woodbine. My partner, who was in Florida at the time, insisted on booking flights back to Toronto to catch the two races, but Mr Destruction suffered a setback. His excited owner flew home, and then back to Florida, and then home again, while our horse remained in his stall, comfortably resting up.
But this time, it’s no false alarm. After a 366-day layoff, our four-year-old is in the paddock being prepared to compete... And my partner is at a funeral.
My phone rings. “Darryl, I’m in Vaughan,” he says. “Can I still make it?”
“Yes, come now,” I say.
“Are you sure,” he asks.
“Absolutely. Leave now!”
I hang up the phone. There is no way he’ll make it. I had to give him the chance to be here though, even if the likelihood is extremely remote.
As the field comes out for post parade, I give him a call. “I’m almost there, boss,” he says. “Just passing Appleby Line.”
The race is minutes from the gate, and our new owner who, has spent two years dreaming of this first start, will never make it. He’s not that close, and there’s no delay in sight. I tell him I’ll phone back when the race starts so he can hear the call.
As he drives through the blowing snow, on his way to Flamboro Downs, my partner hears a Gary Guy race call. The announcer is soon drowned out by a handful of us cheering on Billy Davis Jr. as he swings Mr Destruction three-wide around the final turn. He wins by a length-and-a-half.
“Darryl, I’m here, where do I go,” he calls through the phone as we enter the Winner’s Circle.
“Direct me. I don’t know where I’m going.”
As trainer Rebecca Titus and her husband Steve lead Mr D to the front of the grandstand, my partner screeches his car to a halt at the main entrance of Flamboro Downs, and just leaves it there. He runs through the lobby, past the stunned slot goers. And just as the first photo of his ownership career is about to take place without him, he pushes through the doors to the tarmac, just in time to make the shot.
“I made it,” he says, as he takes his position near the horse’s head, all smiles.
In the coming months, my partner, Harbhajan Singh Dhillon, may learn what it’s like to lose a horse race (although he won’t even acknowledge that as a possibility at the moment). He may also learn that driving double the speed limit during a blizzard is something he should never do again.
But the rest of what he learned, many in this world will never discover – that there are few thrills as exciting as your horse, at any level, over any racetrack, winning a race.
That is something that nobody can ever take away.