She was a head taller than everyone else, and moved like a real thoroughbred. If anyone truly belonged at Belmont, it was she.
I once owned a racehorse. To be more accurate I owned about 10% of her – the losing 10%. In an effort to get good health insurance I came across a consortium of businessmen who had discovered that the absolutely best health care in New York was through the New York Racing Association (NYRA). To become a member, you needed to own a racehorse. So, they purchased a horse, joined up and after winning a few races, they bought another and another. It sounded like the perfect deal. All I had to do was buy in to one of their horses, join NYRA and get insurance. To join, I had to fill out various forms, allow them to do a background and credit check. I also had to go to the police to be fingerprinted. They have very strict rules, as horse racing has been known to attract less than sterling characters.
Being a member had its benefits. I could visit the stables and watch training any day of the week. On race days I could go into the paddock and talk to the jockeys. On my side of the paddock was the racing world with their owners, fast cars, parties and private jets. On the other side of the fence were the punters who paid two dollars to get in, but their common love for racing bonded them together.
I could also sit at the grandstand near the rich and famous. One day during practice I randomly sat on the grandstand and was told to move because the seat belonged to the DuPonts. The stables were pristine and it was a sheer joy to walk around them. Often I would talk to the trainers who explained that due to inbreeding and babying, thoroughbreds in the US were more skittish than their European counterparts.
Horses like peppermints, and I always carried some with me. Once I gave one to a horse and the trainer got very angry because the horse was going to race that afternoon. She stuck her hand deep in the throat of the horse and pulled it out. On another visit a siren went off and immediately everyone froze in place. This made good sense; a racehorse that often weighs over a thousand pounds and can travel of speeds faster than 40 MPH had thrown its rider and was barreling around the track. The errant horse rounded the track twice at full speed but eventually slowed down and came to a stop about 10 feet away from me.
When I bought into the horse (whose name I have deliberately forgotten) I was told that it would be a one-time purchase and the horse would pay for itself by winning a race or two. This was not exactly true. First the horse was sick; then it needed special food to build up its strength. Each occurrence was expensive. It then ran a couple of races but didn’t even place. The final straw was the bill for therapy. It appeared that our horse had forgotten how to be a winner and had to go upstate to Saratoga to some sort of boot camp for bewildered thoroughbreds. Enough was enough and I happily gave away my share and set myself free. On top of it all, due to some bureaucratic screw-up, I never did manage to get the health coverage I wanted.
The highlight of the racing season was the Belmont Stakes; following the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby it is the “final jewel” in thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown series. On this day, the consortium always threw a party. Held on the side of the racetrack from 9 a.m. and continuing all day, it was a lavish event. The food was endless, the booze kept flowing, and horse owners invited friends and family to partake. The racing didn’t start until noon so most of us were loaded well before that. Security to enter the grandstand was tight and bringing in your own alcohol was forbidden. One year (yes I owned this loser for more than one season) a friend and I filled water bottles with vodka and snuck them in. It mixed well with coke. This was 2004 and Smarty Pants who had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, was favored to win Belmont and be crowned Triple Crown winner. This was an exciting day. The crowds were overflowing and the tension rose as the hours progressed towards the final race. I’m now convinced that Smarty Pants had a long talk with my horse, pre race, because he ran out of steam in the final furlong and came in second.
It was at the party the following year, 2005, that I met Erica. A head taller than everyone else, she moved through the crowd like a thoroughbred, out of place among this middle class group of owners. Tanned, strikingly fit, and emanating a raw beauty, Erica told me in conversation that she had biked from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay to the Baja peninsula in Mexico, a distance of 5000 miles. A trained survivalist and ski patroller, she was currently in the process of planning a trip to Pakistan. After joining her Swedish climbing partner, and traveling by car and foot to the Skardu Valley, they were to climb a new route up the north face of Shipton Spire. This would involve scaling a shear rock face and hanging suspended for about a week. The base camp was at an altitude of 3,900-meters (almost 13,000 feet) so a few days of acclimatization were necessary. One sunny day dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, Erica went out for a stroll and disappeared.
Her parents, who I knew through a mutual friend, were frantic. All sorts of conspiracy theories emerged: Terrorists or the Pakistani Army had kidnapped her! Her climbing partner was involved! Through connections her parents contacted Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, both senators from New York, who then contacted the Pakistani government to organize search parties. Two weeks passed before Erica was found dead, buried under an avalanche. The last word her family heard from her was a postcard written on her 27th. Birthday. It arrived the day after she was reported missing.