My grandfather — I didn’t really know him all that well — was a horse man.
Well into his 70s, he was a harness racer on the small-town tracks that dotted upstate New York, living out of a truck for a good share of the summer, as I recall.
Occasionally, he’d hit the circuit in New England and my mother, who loves the ponies to this day, would bundle all of us kids up and head for the track where, unwittingly, she taught us how not to make money at the track, a lesson I have honored to this day.
The sport, at least back then, did not strike me as particularly honest. Even a 12-year-old kid could see the old jockeys practically falling off the back of their rigs in the home stretch, doing everything they could to keep from winning. The fix, it seemed to me, was always in.
My grandfather came to that knowledge honestly, because, as this 1959 newspaper reported, he was a bit of a cheat in the sport.
I couldn’t have been more than 12, I suspect, when he harnessed up Freedom Fighter and let me “drive” around the track once. Freedom Fighter was lightning. I held on for my life. There are no shock absorbers on a sulky. I forced a smile when I was finished, but I was sure I would be reading more about such an incredible horse.
Alas, Freedom Fighter was a dog and, presumably, ended up as glue.
I thought of that as I watched Steve Hartman’s touching, but very unlikely, story about a girl in Indiana, who had faith in a horse, that probably was also a dog, but won anyway.
It’s a sweet little story that I’m choosing to believe, even though I suspect that harness racing hasn’t changed that much from when I was her age. At the very least, however, her faith is real, and that’s all that matters.