At the races conjures up two very different things for me—being caught up in the rat race of work and watching horses racing at the track. The first is being stuck in it all and the latter is being away from it all. The balance between the two is even apparent in my memories of going to the horse-track. The first time I was “at the races” was when I was a young girl and my mom was working as an attorney at Legal Aid Society in Trenton, New Jersey. Periodically I went to work with her instead of school. I don’t remember the exact circumstances on that day that led to me joining her rather than going to school but I can say that my mom was very trusting that I knew which days I really had to be at school and which days were not such a big deal.
I had a great relationship with my mom—I still do—and she understood that when I occasionally woke up and said that I really did not want to go to school that day that I truly needed the day off. I was an “A student” and I was very conscious in my decision to take—what I would now call—a mental health day now and again when I needed a break, careful to not miss an exam or something else important that day. And so my mom and I played hokey a day here or there. She didn’t entirely play hokey because my day of hokey always included some work time for her. In the earlier days it was at Legal Aid but then later when she was on her own, we would go to her private practice office to work for a few hours then head over to the newly opened Quaker Bridge Mall—one of the first malls and certainly the only mall around us in those days. So I had a day off from the rat race of school and she had a partial day off from the rat race of work. As I look back I realize that I continued to quite successfully understand when I needed a mental health day off from work. Throughout my years working in corporate America I managed to take an occasional day off for no reason and I believe I was more successful—less prone to burnout—because I did so.
The day that we went to the races was a particularly unusual day off from school for me. At my mom’s office she was one of the few women attorneys. The guys loved to go to the Garden State Park Racetrack in nearby Cherry Hill, NJ now and then as a lunch break (I think that is where we went, as the racetrack is no longer there). I was fortunate to be at the office on one of their hokey days. We slipped out of the office for a few hours and drove to the park. I remember picking horses based on their names. We found a perfect choice named after a flute or classical piece or flutist—was it Die Fledermaus or Magic Flute or Jean-Pierre Rampal… Well, I don’t remember the horse’s name exactly but I do remember that the choice paid off! What a thrill to watch the horses come around the bend towards the finish line while my mom and I cheered our horse on. We won a few bucks!
Although I have been “at the races” metaphorically in the workforce for many years after that day with my mom, I only recently was literally was “at the races” again—a first time as an adult. Now that Andy and I are working on our own, we have tremendous flexibility when it comes to taking time off from work. A couple of years ago for our 25th wedding anniversary we decided to take a mid-week getaway to nearby Saratoga Springs during the racing season. Saratoga is a lovely town with interesting little shops and gourmet restaurants lining main street and lovely inns. After breakfast, we wandered around the town a bit before going to the races.
Although there were some similarities to my early childhood experience, much of this horse racing track trip felt very different. We parked near where all the horses and their caretakers lived during the season. It was fascinating to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the racing horse life. It felt foreign to me and yet very comforting in a way. It was a hot day and people milled about with their horses; jockeys and horse trainers hung out and chatted with their colleagues; others sat outside around the barracks listening to music. The occasional fancy car appeared with what I assumed were the wealthy horse owners.
We made our way to the gate where we picked up our tickets that we had ordered in advance then people watched while standing in line until the gate opened. The mix of people was wonderful. There were big families, fancy dressed women in hats, men in suits, young groups of friends, older wealthy couples and of course unfortunate looking people who I presumed were gambling away whatever they had. We found our section in the grandstand and then were escorted to our seat by a gentleman who whisked our seat clean before we sat down. Such a lovely tradition.
Then the preparation for the races began! We scrutinized the racing bet sheet to see if we could make heads or tails of the horses. The only thing we could make heads or tails of was which was actually the head or tail of the horse. So instead of any fancy system we went for horses that were mentioned as promising or had a nice name—that worked when I was a girl. Even making our few-dollar bets was an experience. We went up to the window and fortunately had a teller who was patient as we tried to state our bet the way you are supposed to: Track Name, Race, Amount, Bet Type, Horse Number (not the horse’s name). So it would be something like Saratoga, race one, two dollars to win on the five (though we didn’t state Saratoga because it was obvious we were there). Unlike as a girl, we did not win a penny—but just like as a girl, watching the horses fly around the track to the home stretch was indeed trilling!
I am glad that I have been “at the races” in both senses of the expression throughout my life. Now that I am able to be “at the races” in the getting away from it all sense more often than in the being part of the rat race way, I am indeed grateful.