Commentary: Field of Play

<i>By Bob Summers</i> - I’ve been playing horse races for 47 years and have not regretted a minute. But I’ve just passed another birthday and feel it’s time to get one little confession off my chest.

By Bob Summers

I’ve been playing horse races for 47 years and have not regretted a minute. But I’ve just passed another birthday and feel it’s time to get one little confession off my chest.

My first exposure to horses came when I was a little boy on my grandfather’s farm about 30 miles from Buffalo. We didn’t own a tractor, and most of the heavy work was done by a pair of Belgian mares named “Doll” and “Star.” Both were chestnuts and, to my young eyes, both were real beauties. They were tall and strong, and really hard workers.

I can remember standing in the barn watching grandpa going through the lengthy chore of harnessing them up for a day in the fields. In haying season the draft horses pulled the mower, rake, and hay wagon. And when it came time to put the hay up into the barn, they were hitched to a contraption of ropes and pulleys that lifted the crop to the high rows.

Spring was my favorite season. That’s when I’d get to drive one of the horses hitched to a “stone boat,” a kind of sled the horse towed through a freshly plowed field while the men cleared it of large stones. During the rest of the year I got to pet the horses and feed them apples and carrots and, once in a while, sit on top for a few seconds. But in the spring, I got to “drive.”

Actually I didn’t do much more than hold the reins and, when an adult gave me the nod, I’d “cluck” to the horse, slap the reins, and she’d slowly move forward a few feet to the next pile of stones. Then I’d tug on the straps and say “whoa.”

Still, it was heady stuff, having a big, strong animal like that do what you wanted, even for just a few feet.

One summer afternoon, probably when I was 5 or 6 years old, I was playing on the veranda of our farmhouse when I heard and saw the most amazing thing. My grandfather had taken the team out to the fields with a wagon and something…a wasp or dog or passing car maybe…had spooked the animals and caused grandpa to drop the reins. Here they came, running down the road pulling the wagon at full speed with the reins dragging and my grandfather hanging on to the front rack screaming at them to stop.

What a racket! Wagon rattling, grandpa yelling, horses neighing. And me just watching.
It was the first time I had ever seen horses running at full speed. They were hitched together and they were rolling. They sped closer and closer to the house, navigated two left turns pretty smartly, and then…to my surprise…came to a halt just outside their barn.

The racket attracted lots of attention.

I remember my grandmother running out of her kitchen to attend to grandpa, who must have been pretty banged up.

Here comes the confession part.

I didn’t leave the porch and run over to see if grandpa was hurt.

In what was probably a life-changing moment, I just stood there gazing at the hitched-together Doll and Star and thinking to myself: “Wow! I wonder which one is faster?”

Unfortunately, I never found out. A few days later, I went to the barn to find that the horses were missing and their stalls were cleaned out. And upstairs in the barn grandpa put me in the seat of a shiny, blue Ferguson tractor. It wasn’t much later that I learned to “drive” that too, but I never could master the gear-shifting thing.

I never did find out which Belgian mare was quicker. But as life went on, I discovered a sleeker, faster breed of horse that also made my blood race when I saw them flying for home at full speed. I also discovered gambling (now that started with Bingo at church) and other forms of adult fun.

But to this day, whenever I see a pair of racehorses driving nose-to-nose to the wire, a little bit of me is cheering on Doll and Star.

Bob Summers writes “The Happy Handicapper” column for the Buffalo News.