Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Day At The Races

If I could go back in time, I'd pick the summer I was nine years old. The best summer of my life. The summer my dad rented a house on the beach in Del Mar.
Yup, that was our place, right on the beach. And we had it for the whole summer.

My best memories, in no particular order, are:

1. Meeting Jimmy Durante:
He had an apartment up the beach. I'd knock on his door at every opportunity. He was cool. He played the piano and sang. I hope I wasn't overly annoying.

There were plenty of other famous people in the neighborhood - the only other ones I remember hanging out with were the Arnaz family.

2. Discovering chocolate chip ice cream at Disneyland:
That's the little Chesher Cat sitting in the back left of the hookah smoking caterpillar.
(also pictured: my older sisters Barb, back right; Pam, front lefy; and family friend, Betty Ann, front right)

3. Getting caught hanging out behind a sleazy bar down the beach at ten o'clock at night (seems I've always had an attraction to the dark side).

4. Watching cartoons on the multitude of American channels that we didn't have back home (aka the frozen tundra up north).

5. Body surfing...every day for two whole months...another thing I couldn't do in the frozen tundra.

6. And, last but not least, the Del Mar race track Where the Surf meets the Turf:
A little history I stole from somewhere on the web:
The Del Mar 350 acre horse race track has a Hollywood past. In 1937 it was built and sponsored by Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien and Paramount Studios. The conception began when Bing Crosby a horse enthusiast and local ranch owner, was asked to organize a meet at Del Mar. He approached the Del Mar Fairgrounds to make a deal with them to build a grandstand and the rest is Hollywood history. Since then it has become one of the worlds most famous race tracks and has entertained stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Jimmy Durante, Dorothy Lamour, Red Skelton, Paulette Goddard and Ava Gardner.
My dad had a thing for race horses. And he liked having his race horses in California. They raced the Santa Anita/Hollywood Park/Del Mar circuit. And that summer I got to go to the track several times. Going to the races was a big deal. We dressed up and sat in the special box seats that were reserved for the owners and celebrities. We ate a fancy lunch. Picked horses to win, place or show. Watched the horses walk around the paddock. Cheered. And once in awhile, proudly stood in the winner's circle.

By now you must be thinking, "Wow, what a spoiled little brat." And I won't disagree. But as luck would have it, all good things must come to an end. And sadly, that amazing summer ended. And then, exactly three years later, the privileged childhood ended too. My parents got divorced and one thing led to another and I quickly found out what it was like to live a much less privileged life.

So that amazing summer was the last time I went to the Del Mar race track. Until this summer.

This time it was for work. To be honest, it was a lot more fun than work. I was shooting stills on the indie feature, Big Heart City starring Shawn Andrews and Seymour Cassel. My anticipation driving to the track was--damn, I can't think of anything worthy to compare it to-- that's how excited I was. And as soon as I got out of my car, poof, I was nine years old again. First, the smell of the stables and then walking through gates. The outside has had a facelift but inside it felt the same. Special. Alive. Like something big was about to happen.

One of the first things I saw was this:
It brought tears to my eyes. Seriously. Not because I knew him (of course I didn't...he died many years before I set foot on this planet). Not because he inspired a generation during the depression. Not because of the movie. These pictures brought tears to my eyes because of our six degrees of separation. Me and Seabiscuit. Forever joined at the hip...by Pixie Wings:
The great-great-maybe even greater-granddaughter of the great Seabiscuit.

After the downfall of the family, my dad still had a few horses kicking around. One was a three year old filly named Pixie Wings. She was a race horse - and I think she was even racing at Del Mar - but she sucked. She was a pretty little thing that couldn't run fast enough to win a race. I think I was about fourteen at the time, and somehow I talked my dad into letting me have her to train as show horse.

In her first outing, I entered her in the Show Hack division. I had no hopes of winning anything. The field was completely dominated by Arabian horses. Pixie Wings was a thoroughbred. And thoroughbreds couldn't beat Arabians in the Show Hack competition. Thoroughbreds didn't have that elongated gate that the judges liked to see in Show Hacks. But the weirdest thing happened. Pixie Wings did pretty good in one of the lower level classes. And people started taking notice. They'd come to watch her. The sweet little thoroughbred up against the throngs of majestic, champion Arabians. They started rooting for her. And then she won an upper level class and qualified for the big one - the Show Hack Stake.

It had been a nice little run, what with the win and her new-found fans, but I knew we didn't have a chance in the Stakes class. I mean, we were up against the heavy hitters. Arabian horses and their snobby owners who knew they were a shoe-in for another Stakes win. So Pixie Wings and I were just there to have fun. Still, it was a tough class. It was at night - you know you've hit the big time when your class is at night - in the same arena where the Calgary Flames played hockey. There were thousands of spectators. And most of them were rooting for Pixie Wings. They were looking for an upset. Rooting for the underdog. Just like her great-great-maybe even greater grandfather, Seabiscuit. (Obviously not on the grand scale as the big guy but, please, let me have my moment.)

Well, like I said, the class was tough. And it was Pixie Wings' first show. She had no experience. She didn't belong in the ring with the seasoned horses. But still, she won the hearts of the spectators. Then, she won the hearts of the judges. And the ultimate, she won the Show Hack Stakes! She beat the snooty Arabian horses! All of them.

The Arabian horsey-set were furious. How could this happen? A thoroughbred stealing the Stakes from the champion Arabians? What could be worse? I don't know. How about Pixie Wings being named Show Hack Champion? Turns out, as much as Seabiscuit was an amazing race horse, Pixie Wings was an amazing show horse.

After her Show Hack triumph, I trained her to do this:
Look at that face, and then check out this close-up of Seabiscuit:
Maybe my horse couldn't run worth a damn but she had that same look in her eye and she had just as much heart.

Okay, back to the present and my day at the races. Did you know that you can go to the horse races at Del Mar for just six bucks? What a deal!

Here's what it looked like this summer:

And here's a shot of the star himself, Shawn Andrews, hanging with the pin-up babes:
I saw that poster on the wall and showed it to Shawn. He posed for me and then the DP shot some footage of it. Hopefully, it will make it into the movie. If not, it will always be here. (thanks, Shawn, you're awesome!)


Daydream Believer said...

I'm randomly looking at blogs. I LOVE the title of your book (Everybody I Shot is Dead)!
-fellow blogger, alex

Chesher Cat said...

Thanks, Alex. I hope you stick around.

Scott the Reader said...

Nice story. And you know, the whole Pixie Wings tale is a great script idea...

Brett said...

Remember how I was saying some people are 'Plane People"? I guess others are horse people. I was never a horse person, despite growing up on a few hundred acres and having horses and saddles around for daily use if ever I felt like it.

Mom in Law is a Horse person, having shown quarters for 20 years before deciding that it was too much work on her arthritic knees. Her last show ride? Some never-was racer by the name of "Slew." Apparently his grandfather was another horse with "Slew" in his name, 'cept he apparently had more success on the track.

Funny, but I have a hard time picturing you as a Hayley Mill-ish show rider.

Anonymous said...

I happened on your blog while looking at info about Mike Gibbins of Badfinger and when I read this, I got chills. What a story!
It seems you have had a life connected to celebreties...both horses and people!
Did you get to meet Pete Ham with Badfinger?

Chesher Cat said...

Jeez, sorry anonymous, I was never notified on your comment which is why I missed answering your question.

Yes, I did meet Pete Ham as I shot them backstage after the show.