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Hooked on the racetrack

Rebecca O'Neil | Monday, July 29, 2013

“I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men, and that men themselves have some wild oats still left to sow before they become submissive members of society.” – Henry David Thoreau

ARCADIA, Calif. – “I can’t. I have work tomorrow morning.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve said that this summer. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain why I chose – and stuck with – a job that requires me to be up and at it at 5 a.m. I’m not addicted to the gambling that takes place here, but I am hooked on the racetrack.

My day starts at the same time it sometimes ends when I’m at school. It’s 4:45 a.m. when I wake up and the world and I are spinning. It screeches to a halt as I arrive at the Santa Anita Racetrack, consistently 15 minutes late. On the walk from the car to the horse stable, I convince myself that I’ll never be this late again. Never has the use of an absolute been such a lie. Upon my arrival, my misgivings are forgotten as I am greeted by a dozen smiles.

I rake dirt.

I wrap the horses’ bandages.

I load and unload the washing machine.

I walk the horses post-training.

I clean the track.

I rake dirt.

I listen.

The stench of the horses’ feces and the conglomerating flies would normally scare me off. However, I’ve never found myself so enthralled. I think of Thoreau as I accumulate stories. My boss, Julie, is a tough woman from a coal district in southern Britain. The horses that worked underground in the mines were given a few months off to clear their lungs in fields nearby. Those fields were Julie’s backyard. She and her sister rode those horses bareback using makeshift bridles, one time even using her mother’s pantyhose. She left home and the outhouse at 16 to ride for a trainer in Italy and never moved back.

I’ve learned so much – some about horses, but more about people. Katya is la mejor profesora at the stable. I’ve spent four days a week with her since the summer started, and I have discovered that she came to the United States approximately three years ago from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Her eight-year-old son goes to a local elementary school. She always greets me with, “Tú estás cansada, Rebecca?” I nod ashamedly. I get to nap in the afternoons while she goes to a second job at a nearby McDonald’s.

Israel, my first friend at the track, taught me how to saddle the horses, how to prevent myself from being bitten (little help that did), and how to wash the horses, apply clay on their inflamed ankles and wrap them up with bandages. Israel came here seven years ago from Guatemala with his father. Now he is taking language courses at Pasadena City College and has already learned so much.

Chulo proposes to me every day. He works at the stable across the way and is 42 years old. He’s hilarious, and we’re planning the wedding date now. It’s going to be a classy ceremony held in a local barn.

When I can’t do anything around the stable, I feel useless. I walk to the track to watch the horses practice and wonder to myself, “What are you doing here? You don’t know anything about horses.” As I let those questions sink in, they evaporate in the sudden realization that it’s all so rad.

Most of the jockeys, or “exercise riders,” look like petite male models. Their hips are so narrow; the high-waisted Levi’s they wear make their butts look even tinier. A wonder of life, I swear.

In short, all good things are wild and free. There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice – take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance – which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests.”

On my off days, I am interning at KIIS-FM radio in “beautiful downtown Burbank.” At the start of the summer, I thought broadcasting was my future, but now I’m not so sure. The three days a week I’m not at the track I spend on the fifth floor of an icy cold building. It’s freezing. The studios I work in are void of windows and completely soundproofed.

I cover more pertinent things than I do at the track, I suppose. Celebrity news, who sneezed last, all the things that really matter. What I enjoy most is covering the Community Council. The station chooses a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, interviews its staff members and airs the interview on a weekly show. I write the prep sheet and some interview questions.

In addition, I’ve conversed with artists like Mayer Hawthorne, and I was able to get tickets to see Fleetwood Mac. Opportunities to see the artists I admire so much remind me of what KIIS-FM, and radio in general, are all about. The music.

“It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet.” 


Contact Rebecca O’Neil at [email protected]