FebruaryThis poem captures the mood here at the Quinella Castle better than any explanation of recurring water main breaks, subzero wind chills, feline projectile vomiting, canceled vacation days, the death of Barbaro, and NO VISITS TO THE TRACK SINCE NOVEMBER ever could.
The cold grows colder, even as the days
grow longer, February's mercury vapor light
buffing but not defrosting the bone-white
ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot.
This is the time of year that's apt to put
a hammerlock on a healthy appetite,
old anxieties back into the night,
insomnia and nightmares into play;
when things in need of doing go undone
and things that can't be undone come to call,
muttering recriminations at the door,
and buried ambitions rise up through the floor
and pin your wriggling shoulders to the wall;
and hope's a reptile waiting for the sun.
Suffice it to say: We're in a funk here. We can't even summon up interest in the Derby trail. Yes, truly, it's been that bad. Fortunately, other members of the TBA have been picking up the slack with posts about Nobiz Like Showbiz, Hard Spun, and Teuflesberg and an entire blog devoted to Derby hopeful Birdbirdistheword.
Still, these winter blues have continued unabated for more than a month, so I've had to turn to fiction for some bibliotherapy. Last week, finally, I picked up Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley. I haven't finished it yet -- the large print edition I grabbed off the shelf weighs in with more than 900 pages -- but already, its characters have captured my attention, set up residence in my consciousness, and in general, completely distracted me from recent ice storms and my as-yet-unfinished tax return.
In rather unsentimental yet engaging prose, the book follows a huge cast of characters -- owners, trainers, horseplayers, breeders -- at a variety of tracks and farms, deftly switching viewpoints between bored socialites to unfortunate trainers to obsessive gamblers, and even to the horses themselves. And though it's not what I would call "a happy book," a too simplistic term for such a rich, sprawling novel, there are sections that make me smile, such as this reflection from Tiffany, a former Wal-Mart employee who's now part of a wealthy rapper's entourage and has logged a whopping three trips to the races:
The others had begged off going to the track today -- even Ho Ho, who really was going to own the horse should they get one, thought it was kind of boring. They all liked fifteen-minute quarters, for example, not sporting events that ended a minute and a half after they had begun. But Tiffany couldn't wait to come. She had made a tape off the radio of a guy calling the Kentucky Derby. Quite often she played it. All the words he used and the excitement in his voice made her happy. She had a whole new list of words that she sang voicelessly to herself: furlong, off the pace, sire, dam, yearling, gaskin, withers, hock, router, cannon bone, garden spot, long shot, favorite, girth, blinkers, colt, fetlock, and of course, filly. That was the loveliest word of all, she thought, a word of great sweetness. She had noticed that Dagoberto always said that word a bit affectionately, hard-hearted and hard-headed self-made man that he was.It's at this point, as I think about the great sweetness of the word filly, that I realize the sun really will come out sometime, February will be gone -- and there are only 67 days until the Kentucky Oaks!