ONE WOMAN’S STORY OF FAMILY, LOVE, AND LOSS IN THE HORSE RACING WORLD
A Novel By
Release Date: Breeders’ Cup day,
November 5, 2021.
March 6, 1993
I don’t remember my last conversation with my mother. Yup, I’m a terrible daughter. I was probably rude, answering in monosyllables, impatient to get off the phone. It was my freshman year at Cook College and I was laser-focused on getting into vet school and becoming an equine orthopedic surgeon. I was going to save all the broken horses. Instead, it was me who became broken.
It was a chilly March evening and I’d just returned from class to find my grandparents waiting for me in my dorm room. I froze. My roommate Elsie chirped “Oh good, you’re back!” then shot out from her desk, grabbed her books and bolted out the still-open door. Faces tired and taut, Bud and Gabriella started towards me. I felt my throat close up. So it finally happened. The accident I’d been dreading my entire life.
“Mom?” I croaked.
Gabriella nodded and started to cry. I saw mist in Bud’s eyes then he pulled us both in tight to his bony chest.
* * *
Thirty minutes and a hastily packed suitcase later, the three of us squashed into Bud’s pickup truck and set off for the two-hour drive home. I leaned my face against the window and closed my eyes while Bud and Gabriella spoke in hushed tones. I felt like a six-year-old, afraid to interrupt their adult conversation. I should be crying. What kind of daughter doesn’t cry at her mother’s death? What kind of daughter can’t even remember the last thing she said to her mother? But all I felt was a hollow-stomached numbness - because I always knew that this day would come.
I opened my eyes. It was now dark and we were heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike. The passing streetlamps reminded me of the grandstand lights at Garden State Park. Oh mom, you could be covered head to toe in mud and yet you still sparkled under those lights. My mother, the movie star, just like the other Marilyn who shared her name. To the press, she was a star, a pixie on horseback with long dark braids bopping to the beat of a trot. They dubbed her “Pocahontas” and plastered her pretty face all over the sports pages of their newspapers.
Mom earned her jockey’s license in 1971, and while women’s lib was making inroads in most professions, horse racing wasn’t one of them. But mom paid her dues - riding the longshots, cripples, and crazies. She was a smart rider and knew exactly where to position her horse in a race. She could get the speed horses to relax in front or maneuver the come-from-behinders through traffic jams. Mom was just four years into her riding career and ready to move on to the prestigious New York circuit when she found out that she was pregnant. It was a huge no-no in a dangerous, weight-obsessed sport. She told no one except my father and kept riding until she was finally betrayed by her belly bump. Dad assumed that she would hang up her riding boots once I was born and become a full-time mom. Wrong. Just four months after my birth, Marilyn was back exercising horses in the mornings. Three months later, she finished second in her return race. Unfortunately, she had lost her shot at riding in New York. Yes, it was all my fault.
Instead of riding stakes horses at Belmont and Saratoga, mom rode cheap claimers at Garden State Park and Atlantic City Racecourse. When she won, she earned ten percent of the purse money - between five-hundred to a thousand dollars. If her horse finished worse than third, then she got forty bucks a race. Basically, my mom risked her life every time she rode for a guaranteed income of a measly forty bucks.
I was seven years old when I first realized that when mommy left for work, she might not come back. Dad had already bailed on us by then so it was Bud and Gabriella who picked me up early from school and drove me to the hospital. On the way, Gabriella informed me that mom’s horse had gone down and that the doctors weren’t sure if she would regain consciousness. I sat for hours on the hard plastic chair next to mom’s bed, staring at her bandaged head and bruised face, begging her to wake up. I held her hand and pretended to be brave while the adults whispered scary words like “concussion,” “coma” and “brain damage”. After an eternity, mom woke up. She hugged me as I cried in relief. Three weeks later, she was back riding.
Mom was never going to quit. She loved riding races so much that she was willing to lose everything for it – her marriage, her health, and eventually, me. I clenched my jaw. Well mom, was it worth it? Was it? Now we’ll never have that tearful, cheesy chick flick mother-daughter reconciliation I’d envisioned. I’ll never have the chance to make things right with you because you chose to ride that stupid horse. I could almost hear its bone crack, see it crumple to the ground on top of my mother. My gut contracted and I regurgitated into my mouth.
“Pull over!” I screamed. “Pull over now!”
“Bud, pull over!” Gabriella shouted.
“Jesus Christ,” Bud muttered.
He maneuvered the pickup onto the shoulder and wrenched it into park. I bolted out of the truck, ran across the shoulder into the grass and threw up. A cool hand reached out and gently pulled my hair back. Gabriella. She opened her arms and held and rocked me while I sobbed and snotted all over her coat. When my crying jag finally subsided, Gabriella pulled a wad of tissues from her purse and handed them to me. I blew my nose, we climbed into the truck and Bud pulled back onto the Turnpike.
“So how did it happen?” I asked. “Did her horse go down?”
Gabriella shook her head. “No Dahlia, not like that.”
“An accident in the starting gate?”
“No, she went peacefully. Naturally.”
“Naturally?” I echoed. “She was only forty-one!”
Gabriella’s put her tiny hands over mine. “When Marilyn didn’t show up at the track this morning, I went to check on her. I…” she swallowed hard. “I found her.”
“What do you mean you found her?”
“She was lying face down on the kitchen floor. Cold, so cold-“
Tears streamed down her face and I pulled her close. “I’m so sorry, that must’ve been awful.”
“She didn’t suffer. That’s what the paramedics said.”
So the great Marilyn Matteo didn’t die in some horrific track accident after all. But that’s what I’d been expecting and preparing for my entire life! I could accept an accident but natural causes, what do I even do with that? Not that it matters, because she’s still fucking dead. I squinted tears and tried once again to remember the last thing I ever said to her. I’ve got nothing.
* * *
I spent the night at my grandparent’s house not sleeping, brain galloping with random thoughts: I’m going to miss my Chemistry test. Shit, I still need to contact my professors. Hope they let me make up the work, I can’t afford to fall behind. How long does it take to plan a funeral anyway? A week? Two? What is wrong with me - mom’s not even buried and I’m lying here worrying about school. Wonder what mom was thinking about before she died. What happened last week on Knot’s Landing? Her upcoming races? Me? How would I know what she was thinking, I can’t even remember the last thing she said to me.
I flipped over and put the pillow over my head, hoping it would block out my thoughts as efficiently as it did sounds. Nope, they kept on coming.
Around 5 a.m. I heard Gabriella fire up the coffeemaker and clatter about the stove. Five minutes later I heard Bud clomp downstairs. Yup, that’s my grandparents - lifelong racetrackers up at the crack of dawn seven days a week. I gave up on sleep, threw on a t-shirt and sweats and trudged down to the kitchen. Gabriella was at the stove, making sunny side up eggs while Bud studied the Daily Racing Form from the kitchen table.
I stifled a yawn. “You guys heading out to the track?”
Gabriella shook her head. “Not today, honey. Sorry if we woke you.”
“You didn’t. I wasn’t sleeping.” I poured myself a cup of coffee and flopped down at the table.
“Not at all?” Gabriella asked.
I shook my head. Big mistake. She launched into a ten-minute speech on the importance of sleep then suggested that I should try either yoga or mediation. To shut her up, I made up an excuse - “I guess I’m just used to sleeping in the cottage. Any idea on when it will be ready?”
“There’s a cleaning crew coming this morning.” She put her hand over mine. “Surely you’re not staying out there all by yourself?”
Beats listening to your early morning monologues. I gritted my teeth. “I’ll be fine.”
“Hey honey, don’t let me forget to enter that colt today,” Bud cut in.
Gabriella blinked at him. “The six furlong nickel claimer?”
“That’s the one.”
Gabriella instantly redirected the conversation to all things horsey. I shot Bud a grateful glance and he winked at me over his newspaper. I managed to make it to halfway through my second cup of coffee before Gabriella brought the conversation back around to me - “So I haven’t called your father yet. I thought you’d want to deliver the news yourself.”
“Doubt that he cares either way,” I shrugged. I rose, took my coffee cup and retreated to my temporary bedroom.
My father, John Leggett, was a stockbroker and two-dollar bettor. One night he bet his two bucks on Marilyn’s horse and after it won, he asked her out. Six months later they were married. While dad dutifully attended mom’s bigger races, he never understood why she continued to ride when he earned more than enough money to support us. Just like me, he lived in fear that each race would be her last. Unlike me, he could walk away. I was six when they divorced and dad moved to Maryland. He eventually remarried, had two more girls and I never saw him again. I became nothing more than a monthly check and birthday card. He didn’t try very hard to maintain our relationship and truthfully, neither did I. I hadn’t spoken with my father since the day before my high school graduation when he called to give me some lame excuse for not attending. He still sent birthday and Christmas cards and I responded in kind but that was the extent of our communication.
For both of our benefits, I waited until I knew that dad would be at his office to call him. I assumed that he’d give me his condolences then apologize about how busy he was and that would be it. Short and sweet. I dialed, he answered and we both followed the script.
“Dahlia! Hey! How are you?”
Nice attempt at sounding pleasantly surprised. “I’m fine.”
When I didn’t expand on that answer, he pressed, “Is everything Ok? Do you need money?”
Good ol’ dad - Mr. Money Will Fix Everything or at least make me go away. “Mom’s dead.”
I heard him set down the papers he’d been flipping through instead of listening to me. “Oh Dahlia, I’m so sorry. How did she pass? Did it happen at the track?”
“No, it was natural causes, probably an aneurysm.”
He digested the information for close to a minute before ducking through the exit door I’d left him – “Listen, I’m so sorry about your mom but I’m really swamped right now. Please contact me with the funeral arrangements and let me know if you need anything, Ok?”
“Uh-huh. Bye dad.” I hung up. I already knew that he wasn’t coming to mom’s funeral.
* * *
After the divorce mom and I moved into a small cottage at the rear of the Matteo Training Center, aka, M.T.C. It was a two-hundred-acre Thoroughbred breeding and training facility built by Bud’s great-grandparents in 1912. The Matteo farmhouse stood guard at the lone entrance gate and there was no way anyone could enter or exit M.T.C. without my grandparents’ knowledge. Their house was a red two-story structure with a white wrap-around porch, two bathrooms and six bedrooms that my grandparents failed miserably to populate with offspring. Mom had wanted her privacy so instead of filling up the emptiness in my grandparents’ house, she chose to move into the caretaker’s cottage behind the horses-in-training stable. As a child, I thought of the cottage as an awesome giant playhouse but I grew to hate it as a teenager. Five hundred square feet of open space with no place for privacy except the bathroom. I had no room of my own and mom heard my end of every phone conversation. Plus my Megadeth and Metallica posters just looked stupid hanging next to Secretariat.
The cleaner’s van had arrived shortly before my lovely father-daughter chat so I spent the day just staring out the window, waiting. I hated how bleak the farm looked in the winter with its muddy pastures and leafless oak trees. The bedroom’s second story window overlooked the field where the pensioners were kept so I entertained myself by watching the five geldings and the barren mare who ruled them all. All of them had once graced my grandparents racing stable, had their pictures taken in the winner’s circle, had run on sore legs on sloppy tracks and given their last ounce of strength down the home stretch. Once they were no longer profitable, their owners instructed Bud to “dispose” of them. Instead, he brought them here. A part of me yearned to jump on one of them and just gallop away.
* * *
Long after Gabriella had called up that lunch was ready and I’d shouted back that I wasn’t hungry, I saw the cleaning van finally make its way back down the driveway. I stuffed my crap into my suitcase and tip-toed downstairs. No sign of my grandparents. I put my suitcase down and took my coat off the rack.
“Dahlia?” Bud’s voice instantly paralyzed me. “Where are you going?”
I turned and met his dark, weary eyes. “To the cottage. The cleaners just left.”
“Yes. Please don’t tell Gabriella, she’ll insist on coming with me. I need to be alone. Please.”
“Golf cart’s in the driveway. Hurry, I’ll keep her distracted.”
I shrugged into my coat, picked up my suitcase and took care to close the door without making a sound. I tossed my suitcase onto the seat, jumped in the golf cart and took it up to its top speed of twenty miles per hour. The bumpy quarter mile jaunt to the cottage gave me plenty of time to beat myself up. I’d only come home twice since college started – Thanksgiving and Christmas – and only because they’d closed the dorms so I had no choice.
I pulled up to the pale blue cottage, oh sorry, make that the baby blue cottage as mom had insisted on calling her favorite color, and climbed out. I grabbed my suitcase, walked up to the door and took a deep breath. I opened the door and stepped inside. “Hi mom,” I whispered and closed the door.
The cleaning crew did a good job – too good. The cottage smelled like lemons and everything was sparkling clean. Too clean. Mom was a once-a-week vacuumer and a once-a-month duster at best. The usually full dishrack was now empty and both of our beds were made. I twisted my lips. “Only time we ever made our beds was when expected company, right mom?”
Yup, I’m now talking to the dead. I’ve officially lost my mind. I put my suitcase down, tossed my purse on the kitchen table and did a slow walk-through. Hello leather sofa that we both hated but never had the money or energy to replace. Hello mom’s five million trophies squashed onto two shelves over the TV. Hey Secretariat, you still look dumb next to my thrash band posters.
I’d reached our beds. There was a good five-foot gap between them, with mine pushed up against the wall. It reminded me of a cornered animal looking for a chance to flee. I circled back to the kitchen table, pulled out my chair and sat down. For most kids, dinner was the big family meal but for us it was breakfast. Not that mom was much for cooking. Or eating. So it was cereal and O.J. for me and coffee and yogurt for her. While we ate, she’d give me the play by play on her previous night’s races - “I was in the perfect spot, a neck off the pace and that cheap bastard just stopped dead at the quarter pole on me…” I’d close my eyes and suddenly, I was right there with her, rejoicing in her victories, commiserating with her defeats.
My eyes fell on a bleached out spot on the tile in front of the refrigerator. Right there is where she died. Alone. Did I at least echo “Love you too,” during our last phone conversation? Did I? I don’t know, I can’t fucking remember, what is wrong with me? I leapt up with a roar, grabbed mom’s chair and slammed it against the floor again and again until all four legs were broken. Then I sat down on the floor and picked the splinters out of my hands.
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