Thanks, Pop

I received a beautifully written column recently from a Facebook acquaintance and horse enthusiast Erika Parry, which is being printed below as a guest blog. Erika’s stirring words inspired me not only to publish her story about her relationship with her father, but to briefly acknowledge something I should have acknowledged a long time ago.

As a novice, but passionate racing fan, I was at a major crossroads in my life at the age of 22 – return to the hectic, stressful, and, to me, miserable world of Wall Street or flounder at home until some miracle portal opened, leading me to my chosen path in life.

I chose the latter, and after nine months of floundering aimlessly, I was on a path to nowhere. Then one night, my father came in my room and asked me bluntly, “What is it you want to do with your life? What is it that makes you happy?”

I replied, “Horse racing,” knowing full well that my passion and my profession, whatever it turned out to be, were on two distinct paths with little or no chance of ever intersecting.

Then, my father said the words that would change my life: “Well, why don’t you make horse racing your profession?”

That concept was inconceivable to me, just as turning baseball or football or hockey into a profession was inconceivable. Not having any skills to enter a sport other than the ability to play baseball or football on a sandlot level, I had no idea what I could possibly do to get into racing. My father suggested I write letters to as many racing organizations as I could think of and see if I could get my foot in the door, even with a bottom level position.

So, I wrote to the Morning Telegraph (the Eastern and main edition of the Daily Racing Form), the New York Racing Association, and The Jockey Club. To make a long story short, I received a phone call from the Telegraph’s editor Saul Rosen’s secretary asking me to come in for an interview. Through a fateful series of events, too long and unexplainable to go into here, I wound up getting a job at the Telly as a copy boy. There was no one more happy than my father, who supported me every step of the way, taking me to Belmont Park, bringing the terrible photos I took of horses to his office and showing them off as if they were prized photos, and just continuing to encourage me. And no one was more proud when I was promoted to head librarian. Sadly, my father died two years later and never did get a chance to see where his words of advice would lead me.

Erika’s tribute to her father has enabled me to belatedly thank my father for all he did for me. I have always been convinced that he has been guiding me all along and I will forever continue to feel that way.

Through the years, I have met many young racing fans and horse lovers whose roots were planted by their father, whether through the love of the horse, the sport, or handicapping and betting. I believe Erika speaks for all of them.

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Thanks, Popby Erika Parry

Everyone has it – that one defining characteristic that is not only symbolic of who they are as a person, but that which epitomizes every bit of who they are deep within their soul.  For me, although misunderstood by many, it is quite simple.  I, Erika Parry, am horse racing.  

I was not born into racing royalty.  I did not grow up anywhere even remotely near the sport, with a childhood that spanned rural Pennsylvania and a desolate chunk of eastern Oregon.  While horses were always in abundance, the world of thoroughbred racing seemed light years away.  Occasionally, my father would take me to catch a race or two at nearby fairgrounds in the summer, but the dusty dirt tracks of our Pacific Northwest home were never enough to curb my ever-growing hunger.  

I longed for places drenched in decades upon decades of turf history, haunted by the ghosts of racing’s kings and queens.  These were the places brought to life in the books of my youth, where stories of racing immortality leapt off the pages and into my eager imagination.  The internet did not yet exist – my passion was fed by musty library books brought home by my father and Saturday afternoons spent watching NBC’s Wide World of Sports.  

That brings me to…my father.  My Pop.  One Joseph Parry, a struggling writer and fervent dreamer with a penchant for cigarettes and black licorice.  As a little girl, we were inseparable, but as I grew into a young woman, our relationship quickly began to falter and fade.  For one reason or another, he became the oil to my water.  We fought like cats and dogs and would go months on end without speaking…unless it was about horse racing.  

When I was 6-years-old, going on 7, my dad introduced me to my first Kentucky Derby.  I remember sitting cross-legged on our living room floor, my poker straight bangs half covering my eyes, watching in awe as a slew of splendid thoroughbreds danced their way to the post.  I turned to my dad, stammering excitedly over my words, and said, “I like the chestnut, Pop,” in reference to a horse called Easy Goer.  The next two minutes truly changed my life forever.  When the race was over, my beautiful Easy Goer slain by a monster named Sunday Silence, I turned to my father again and said, “I’m going to do that someday, Poppa.  I’m going to be in the Kentucky Derby.”  He shot me one of his typical Joe Parry looks, rolled his eyes, and said, laughing, “You do that, Pooh.  You do that.”  

And so it began.  Every year, we huddled around the TV, watching each and every prep race with attentive eyes, looking for racing’s next big star.  The First Saturday in May became an official holiday in the Parry household and an unquenchable love of horse racing began permanently coursing through my veins.  A 25-cent book my Pop snagged at a library sale, So You Want to Be a Jockey, became my Bible.  I was undeniably determined to become the next Steve Cauthen, and while other little girls wrote essays about wanting to become ballerinas and actresses, I wrote about becoming a bug boy.  While most fathers would do everything to steer a daughter clear of this path, mine fueled the fire in every way.  He bought me book after book, magazine after magazine, and took me to see my first real racehorses at the Union County Fair in La Grande, Oregon.  

Much to his amusement, I wore a path around our house, killing what little grass was able to survive the hot, dry Oregon summers, and leaving a permanent welt on my right leg as I perfected my use of the stick – literally.  In the rare event that it rained, I perched myself on the front porch railing, hunkered over like Tod Sloan.  I would growl madly, my tree branch of a whip flailing wildly in my right hand as my mount of choice and I gutted out a victory over Ronnie Turcotte on Big Red.  I can only imagine what our neighbors thought of the quiet little girl with shy brown eyes who would turn into a demon of a porch jockey at the mere sight of a thundercloud.  But, as Joe Parry would say, the hell with them.  

We migrated back to pastoral Pennsylvania right before I hit my teen years and my relationship with my Pop would take a turn for the worse.  He fought many personal battles, and while I watched helplessly at times, it was the cement of horse racing that kept us together.  Slowly, however, we began going our separate ways.  My dream of becoming a jockey was replaced by the more physically realistic dream of becoming a biologist, and off to college and graduate school I went, secretly aching that I never ran off to Kentucky when I graduated high school.  

While I began to establish a life in which he played a very small role, we never failed to chat up the Derby trail and ramble on about promising 2-year-olds.  Together, we swooned over Zenyatta, and he swelled with pride when I sent him a picture of me with the great race mare from the backside at Hollywood Park after her Apple Blossom win in 2010.  He shed tears when he watched her lose the Classic to Blame, not only for her defeat, but because I had realized my lifelong dream of seeing Churchill Downs by being there for her final start.  No matter how harsh the words or how brutal the fights, horse racing could heal our hearts as one.  

Earlier this year, we had a falling out for a reason I can hardly remember.  I watched I’ll Have Another take home the Roses and pride regretfully prevented me from calling my Pop to discuss the race.  I made it to my very first Preakness, and as I yelled my heart out for I’ll Have Another as he nailed Bodemeister at the wire, I couldn’t help but wonder if my dad was home watching.  I wondered if he knew I was there, that I had made it to Pimlico, and that the race to the Triple Crown was on.   When I’ll Have Another deflected from the Belmont due to injury, my mind wandered to my Pop yet again, wondering what his thoughts were and how heartbroken he must have been, too.  

When I stood at the finish line at Belmont Park, watching Union Rags sneak in along the rail to nab Paynter at the line, I longed to call my Poppa and see if he saw what I had just stood a few feet from.  I ached to tell him that I shook hands with Ronnie Turcotte and made it to the place we always dreamed of, where the gods of racing reside and the ghosts of legends haunt each unturned corner.  I wanted to describe the beauty and grandeur of Belmont Park to him in every single intimate detail possible.  Most of all, I wanted him there.  

On July 19, 2012, my father suddenly passed away.  The hilariously crude, outspoken, nagging thorn-in-my-side-for-thirty-years had left this mortal realm.  Each day since has left me with an excruciatingly heavy heart, for I realize now it is far better to lose your pride with someone you love than to lose that someone with your useless pride.  While there are words that can never be said, or unsaid for that matter, I will cherish each and every moment we spent together, from that first Kentucky Derby to our very last.  I will cherish each and every argument over who was the better horse, Man O’ War or Secretariat, and every single heinously annoying time he made me remind him in what order the Triple Crown races were, or purposefully confused a fetlock and a forelock.  

I will never forget watching him shed uncontrollable tears of sorrow each time a horse broke down, or tears of joy every time one of our beloved underdogs scored a victory.  Most of all, however, I will always cherish the father who fueled his little girl’s crazy equine dreams, even to his dying day.  

Say hello to Old Bones, Big Red, Slew and The Bid for me, Pop.  And, hey.  I AM going to do that someday…

…I’m going to be in the Kentucky Derby.

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