Everything I needed to know I learned at the racetrack

aamer phar
American Pharaoh, crossing the finish line to win the Kentucky Derby with Victor Espinosa up, 2015

The recent Kentucky Derby and the current Triple Crown season have caused me to think about how lucky I was to be raised by a gambler.  My Dad and I shared a love of the sport of horse racing, and from as early as I can remember, we regularly spent countless hours trackside at Arlington Park, Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne Racecourse in the Chicago area.  Not for us were the lofty preferred seating areas or exclusive private clubhouse sections of the elite.  We did not by any means dress in fancy clothes or big hats.  That kind of racetrack patron was not part of our world.  No, we rubbed elbows with gamblers, grifters, pickpockets and touts.  We mingled with horsemen, not to mention the BDH, or Broken Down Horseplayers, as legendary Chicago Sun-Times sports writer/horse trainer Dave Feldman called us (himself included).  We BDH were true railbirds, watching every race from that perspective, standing right at the wire.  We spent time in between races in the paddock, looking for perfections or flaws in the conformation of the horses prior to being saddled in order to better figure out our bets on the next race.  We studied the Racing Form and the Green Sheet for hidden clues to which horse would win any given race.  We were anthropologists, too, watching all sorts of quirky misfits and odd behaviors, of which there were plenty.  It was an education of gargantuan proportion in observation of humanity and I am eternally grateful to my wonderful father for exposing me to this colorful theater, this Damon Runyon-esque world.

Dad faded into Alzheimer’s when my children were growing up.  They never really knew him as I did.  They only knew this new altered version of him.  When my son was 15, I decided to take him out of school on a weekday and introduce him to his real Grandpa.  We spent the afternoon at Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero.  Many of the same characters that I had known when Dad and I went so frequently were miraculously still there.  It seemed to me like this place rose out of the ground like a Phoenix every afternoon at 1pm, a time warp of sorts.  We had a blast as my boy looked into his grandfather’s life and I introduced him around and explained it all.

Patrick, an avid sports fan, was wearing his New York Yankees jersey that day.  Toward the end of the afternoon, a guard caught our attention and waved us over.  He whispered to me, “Take the boy across the street to the tavern and tell Moose I sent you.  He’ll autograph that jersey.”  I knew the place, Call Me Moose on Laramie Avenue, run by former Yankee Moose Skowron.  Sure enough, there was Moose behind the bar, holding court with the patrons.  He spotted my boy in his Yanks jersey and yelled, “Hey kid!  Come on over here.”  He pulled out a felt tipped marker and signed the shirt and also gave Pat a signed photograph of himself in his jersey.  It was a surreal moment and we basked in it.  Pat says to this day, he doesn’t remember anything about his sophomore year of high school, but he remembers every detail of that incredible day.

Autographed photo of Bill “Moose” Skowron
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Autographed jersey by Bill “Moose” Skowron

Here are some of the lessons learned at the racetrack that I now apply to my life, love and work:

Take risks. Trust your hunch. Let go of what seems valuable. Deal with loss gracefully. Try your hardest, against all odds. Be humble, or be humbled. Accept imperfection. Love others where they’re at. Forgive and get over it. The family of man includes everyone. Keep one eye watchful at all times. You’re in this thing alone.

The first six of these I apply to my studio practice. I bet they would apply to your work too, whatever it is. But then, I love a good bet!




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