Careless Whispers

by David Mattia

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” — Alfred Tennyson

My mother is a retired college professor. Now, in her 70s, she has devoted her time to three hobbies: The New York Yankees, painting pictures in her studio and watching thoroughbred racing. The 800-pound fact that her son makes a career in harness racing hasn’t had any effect on her unyielding love for the runners. Ask my mom about Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert and she’ll give you an afternoon of illuminating conversation. Ask her to name three harness racing trainers, aside from my close friends, and she’ll be hard put to name even one. She doesn’t know much about them because she doesn’t care. She isn’t interested in harness racing. Her only contact with the sport comes from what little I tell her and tangential news snippets she might stumble upon in thoroughbred media. Perhaps this sounds like a somewhat quirky mother-son relationship, but I’ve never gotten all Norman Bates about it. Believe me, the last thing I want is for my mom to pay too much attention to anything I do.

Because of my mother’s non-interest in harness racing, it came as quite a shock to me a few weeks back when she called to ask about “some race called the Little Brown Jug” and something about yogurt and drugs and trainers barred in Mexico. Yikes! For my mother to have even heard about this, and to almost get the story straight, it must have sounded pretty bad. When I tried to explain the situation, she interrupted me coldly and said, “Everything about that business stinks. That’s why I don’t like it and your grandfather didn’t like it, and I don’t like the fact that you work in it.”

I emphasized that those were all rumors and half-truths and lies, but she added, “That’s the other thing I don’t like about your business. It’s always something about shady dealings and rumors of race-fixing and rumors of drugs and backstabbing and horse trainers who all hate each other. It has no charm and I feel sorry for the horses.”

Wow! Turns out mom knew a hell of lot more about my little harness racing world than I thought. She actually schooled me with her anger. She never did that when I was young.

When I was a child of about 10 or 11, I would often sit with my mother on our sofa and watch old movies. If there was something I didn’t understand about the film, my mother would carefully explain it to me. Some movies were just plain fun, but others taught me valuable life lessons — which was my mother’s real intention all along.

One movie I remember especially, “The Children’s Hour,” tells the story of how a rotten kid named Mary Tilford completely ruins the lives of the people around her when she whispers a scandalous lie to her grandmother. What made Mary’s lie especially egregious was the fact that it accidentally contained a morsel of truth. I liked the movie, and I understood why Mary’s lie was far worse than any fib I may have told. It taught me how lies lead to rumors and unhealthy suspicions. And, as it was told in “The Children’s Hour,” a lie can sometimes lead us to an unfortunate truth that can inflict fatal wounds.

Outright lies and innuendo in the barn area never make anyone’s horse go faster, but they are readily used by the also-rans to explain the inexplicable speed and stamina of someone else’s horse. Malicious gossip in our sport is a kind of careless checkbook with which someone can buy themselves a few brief moments of credibility or even an entire career. It’s a strange kind of currency handed out by some so as to depreciate the costs of their own failures, and to devalue and debase the triumphs of others. Basically, it’s chicken feed for malevolent chickens, but what happens when the lies and rumors and accusations turn out to be true? I mean, that happens a lot, right?

QUESTION: What do they call the Hospitality Suite at the Little Brown Jug?

ANSWER: The detention barn.

Oddly enough, backstretch gossip, even at the higher ranks, is usually babbled by the very same people who pretend to be greatly outraged by the stuff they’re babbling about. The hypocrisy of it all is rather vexing when you think about it, and we got to think about it a lot a few weeks ago at the Little Brown Jug. In fact, we’re still suffering through stories about uninvited and rumored-to-be-nefarious guests in the detention barn and some kind of alleged laser beaming, pro-biotic culture shock accompanied by sinister text-messaging and a dose syringe. Why not throw in some evil Pygmies with poisonous blow guns too? The few fans that care can’t wait to see how this all pans out — if it pans out at all.

Perhaps this latest buzz around the barn can help to ease the not-so-glamorous monotony of a life spent working with horses and mice. What’s so wrong about sharing some dirty laundry about another horseman and his horses? Of course there are lies and rumors and scandal in all forms of business, the trouble is that these lies and rumors are rooted in truth, and they become a great deal more perilous when helpless animals are involved — especially when they fall onto the ears of the surviving fans and bettors.

There’s a saying in screenwriting: “If you want your audience to dislike a character, have him kick the kid. If you want your audience to despise that character, have him kill the dog.” Our harness racing screenplay has too many dog killers and alleged dog killers in the story line. It’s murdering the box office, and great horses like Wiggle It Jiggleit and Hannelore Hanover are playing to empty houses. Even an amoeba living in a Chernobyl mud puddle could figure that one out.

Much like Mary Tilford’s careless whisper, the backstretch rumor with the element of some truth, or perhaps the whole truth, is the killer. The harness industry needs to come to terms with the fact that many or most of the rumors and big juicy stories we hear on the backstretch are not only true, they’re what’s destroying harness racing from the inside out. The general idea, however, is to ignore what you see or hear and try to keep it classy, but that concept didn’t play out so well this year in Columbus.

Spotting malfeasance in harness racing is not like finding a pressure cooker on a bus. The “see something, say something” slogan doesn’t apply unless you’re really important. But even then it’s not a sure thing. Especially when the pressure cooker belongs to someone just as big and important as you.

All of this bulls**t in harness racing trickles down from one filtering screen to the next until all that’s left is one jagged little pebble that falls into an innocent man’s shoe where it rolls around forever and cripples him for life. What happens then? What’s the big deal? It’s not your life that’s been ruined. It belongs to someone else. What can the crippled guy expect from the harness racing chatter that crippled him — an apology? Harness racing muck doesn’t apologize. It doesn’t apologize, it doesn’t change, and, it never washes off.

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. I mean, it’s basically harmless all in all. Rumors and innuendo burn themselves out faster if you just let them float. It’s only when you start screaming and stomping on them that you’ve got yourself a fire that can’t be extinguished, right? Sadly, common sense like that doesn’t cut it in harness racing. Next year’s Jug will still have a new stain, and like Lady Macbeth’s damn’d spot, it will n’er be clean. The stains just keep getting deeper and deeper because the people who are supposed to wash them out are the very same people who keep rubbing them in.

Let’s face it, my mother, as much as it secretly bugs me that she doesn’t like harness racing, is, to a lesser extent, just like many, or most, of the people we all know who exist outside or at least partially outside of harness racing. To them we’re just the crooks with the drugged buggy horses. That’s the stigma and the mournful disfigurement worn by the harness racing industry, and if someone doesn’t quickly do something to at least fix its face, the whole business is headed for the leper colony.