The best summer ever was when I was nine years old. It was the summer my dad rented a house on the beach in Del Mar. My dad had a thing for race horses. And even though we lived in Canada, he liked having his race horses in California. They raced the Santa Anita/Hollywood Park/Del Mar circuit. And that summer I got to go to the track several times. Going to the races was a big deal. We dressed up and sat in the special box seats that were reserved for the owners and celebrities. We ate a fancy lunch. Picked horses to win, place or show. Watched the horses walk around the paddock. Cheered. And once in awhile, proudly stood in the winner's circle.
By now you must be thinking, "Wow, what a spoiled little brat." And I won't disagree. But as un-luck would have it, all good things must come to an end. And sadly, that amazing summer ended. And then, exactly three years later, the privileged childhood ended too. My parents began their divorce so one thing led to another and I quickly found out what it was like to live a much less privileged life.
So that amazing summer was the last time I went to the Del Mar race track. Until a few years ago a film I was working on brought me back to that summer. My anticipation driving to the race track was--damn, I can't think of anything worthy to compare it to-- that's how excited I was. And as soon as I got out of my car, poof, I was nine years old again. First, the smell of the stables and then walking through gates. The outside has had a facelift but inside it felt the same. Special. Alive. Like something big was about to happen.
One of the first things I saw was this:
It brought tears to my eyes. Seriously. Not because I knew Seabiscuit (of course I didn't...he died many years before I set foot on this planet). Not because he inspired a generation during the depression. Not because of the movie. No. These pictures brought tears to my eyes because of our one degree of separation. Me and Seabiscuit.
After the downfall of the family, my dad still had a few horses kicking around. One was a three year old filly named Pixie Wings. She was a race horse - and I think she was even racing at Del Mar - but she sucked. She was a pretty little thing but couldn't run fast enough to win a race. I had seen a photograph of her. I think I was about fourteen at the time, and somehow I talked my dad into letting me have her to train as show horse. He gave me the horse along with her thoroughbred registration papers. The ones that showed her lineage back to one of the greatest horses ever -- Seabiscuit.
Meet Pixie Wings:
In her first outing, I entered her in the Show Hack division. I had no hopes of winning anything. The field was completely dominated by Arabian horses. Pixie Wings was a thoroughbred. And thoroughbreds couldn't beat Arabians in the Show Hack competition. Thoroughbreds didn't have that elongated gate that the judges liked to see in Show Hacks. But the weirdest thing happened. Pixie Wings did pretty good in one of the lower level classes. And people started taking notice. They'd come to watch her. The sweet little thoroughbred up against the throngs of majestic, champion Arabians. They started rooting for her. And then she won an upper level class and qualified for the big one - the Show Hack Stake.
It had been a nice little run, what with the win and her new-found fans, but I knew we didn't have a chance in the Stakes class. I mean, we were up against the heavy hitters. Arabian horses and their snobby owners who knew they were a shoe-in for another Stakes win. So Pixie Wings and I were just there to have fun. Still, it was a tough class. It was at night - you know you've hit the big time when your class is at night - in the same arena where the Calgary Flames played hockey. There were thousands of spectators. And most of them were rooting for Pixie Wings. They were looking for an upset. Rooting for the underdog. Just like all the spectators that watched Pixie's great-great-maybe even greater-grandfather, Seabiscuit. (Obviously not on the grand scale as the big guy but, please, let me have my moment.)
Well, like I said, the class was tough. And it was Pixie Wings' first show. She had no experience. She didn't belong in the ring with the seasoned horses. But still, she won the hearts of the spectators. Then, she won the hearts of the judges. And the ultimate, she won the Show Hack Stakes! She beat the snooty Arabian horses! All of them.
The Arabian horsey-set were furious. How could this happen? A thoroughbred stealing the Stakes from the champion Arabians? What could be worse? I don't know. How about Pixie Wings being named Show Hack Champion? Turns out, as much as Seabiscuit was an amazing race horse, Pixie Wings was an amazing show horse.
After her Show Hack triumph, I trained her to do this:
Look at her face in this picture (yeah that's me on her back) and then look at this close-up of Seabiscuit from the same angle.
Maybe Pixie Wings couldn't run worth a damn, but she had that same look in her eye and she had just as much heart. I still miss her.