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review: memoir

Kevin Chong with Blackie

For a life-long horse nut like me, maybe the most amazing thing about Kevin Chong's My Year of the Racehorse is that it exists at all.

Chong states explicitly, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to own a race horse." When he buys his race horse, a five-year-old mare named Mocha Time and known as "Blackie," she is a not quite exciting alternative to a condominium, where he envisions sliding his desk into the minuscule office: "someone locking me inside … and forcing me to write book reviews and press releases until my captor was ready to harvest my skin."

Even the modest oval at Hastings Racecourse, outside of Vancouver, B.C., looks good by comparison.

But passion is not Chong's forte, and he knows it. At the age of 35, whatever momentum that has carried him into adulthood so far has faded, and he is reduced to making lists of what he should do, what he could do, to get moving again. There are big things on his list ("SETTLE DOWN AND START A FAMILY") and small ones ("GET A TATTOO"), and they are, indeed, written in all caps, as if to push and prod the dilatory.

One thing Chong does not do is successfully initiate a relationship with Blackie, if a relationship with a horse consists of more than paying a 10th of her monthly bill and getting a sidelong glance when you arrive at her stall. Blackie is not cuddly, though she will nip him every so often if he's slow in handing over a treat.

What he learns about the racetrack is not, specifically, about Blackie's nature, but mostly general: what a claimer is, how horses are prepared for races, how individual races play out, what it feels like to place a winning bet or have a winning horse. Chong investigates and asks questions. In the process, he uncovers that thing about racing that keeps at least some fans (and Chong knows that they are fewer every year) coming back: the strange way that crusty individuality slots into a world that is ritualized and rhythmic to an amazing degree.

Among the crusty individuals Chong gets to know are Blackie's trainer, Randi, a hard-working, tough-talking and mostly impatient woman who knows horses inside out, but must also work a daily postal route to keep her racing stable going, and an older trainer, Sid Martin, back at Hastings after a Triple Crown contender and 20 years in the big leagues at Hollywood Park. Sid has kept meticulous records of his successes, but he finds them far less interesting than Chong does, thereby exacerbating the mystery: Why keep at it?

Chong has a light touch, and is consistently funny. He addresses the dilemmas of horse racing – Is it cruel? Where do the horses end up? Are the owners simply being suckered? Does it have a future? – and answers them, at least to his own temporary satisfaction. The fact is, for now, anyway, it is a world that draws him in; he even goes to a yearling sale and ponders buying part of an unbroken, untried horse, though he knows, "If horse racing is a slow poison, then buying a yearling is cyanide."

The happiest people he meets are two youngish owners who have made a fortune in video games and now have a stable of 44 horses who might make it to the races, might run, might win. Three million a year out the window is fine with them, as long as the show goes on.

Like all novice race-horse owners, Chong can't resist dramatic dreams: He travels to Kentucky, to Saratoga, to Woodbine. He watches the Kentucky Derby on TV. He comes to understand his place in the hierarchy – low, but not quite low enough – so he begins writing his fantasy self-improvement book, about what he has learned from being destroyed financially and spiritually by horse racing.

What he comes to accept, though, after the year of the race horse, is that life goes on, horses come and go, friends disappear and reappear, and even owning part of a decent mare who sometimes wins and is almost always in the money, is only just interesting, and, finally, that is better than a condo or a tattoo.

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and works of non-fiction.