Harness racing lessons from a mysterious ocean cruise.
by David Mattia
In 1944, Warner Brothers released a motion picture called, “BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.” You’d have to be a real film buff to know anything about the famous actors involved, but for my money, the two standouts in this picture are Eleanor Parker and John Garfield. It’s a terrific flick, and it pre-dates M. Knight Shyamalan’s, “I see dead people” routine by two generations. If you see it on TCM or wherever, you might want to watch it – especially if you work in the harness racing business. I’ll explain why later.
Basically, the story involves a bunch of people who find themselves traveling in dense fog aboard a luxury ocean liner. At first, it’s all about champagne cocktails, cigarette holders and the polite banter of traveling strangers, but tensions slowly rise as the passengers, some swanky and others conspicuously inelegant, gradually realize that they neither know how they got on this ship, nor where the ship is headed. Everyone seems to be wandering around in the wrong class — beleaguered by a nagging sense of doom and uncertainty. Sound familiar? Like I said, I’ll explain later.
Of course, like everything in Hollywood that was once inventive and riveting, the theme of this film has been copied and bastardized into mindless oblivion. In fact, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944) is itself a remake of the film OUTWARD BOUND (1930).
Okay, so what’s this movie about a ghostly cruise ship transporting dead people to their final reward got to do with harness racing? Oh, wait, I should have given you a spoiler alert about that, right? Sorry, but yes, the passengers are all dead and the ritzy ship is just a ruse-cruise to the hereafter. It’s kind of like THE SIXTH SENSE. You know, when you find out that Bruce Willis has been dead all along and… oh dammit, there I go again with the spoilers.
The thing is that the passengers are deceased and the luxury liner, is taking them to their assigned afterlife destinations. The ship’s itinerary consists of only two stops. Count ‘em! Two! Get the idea?
Geez, how am I going to tie this all together? Let’s start with the old man in Florence.
This past fall I went to Florence, as part of a vacation during which I would make stops throughout the south of France to visit my maternal family. Italy was not an integral part of my trip, but I decided to start there because I wanted to feel like a tourist. I’d already been to Italy a bunch of times, but because of past family obligations, I’d never made it to Florence. This time I was on my own.
Intent on seeing Michelangelo’s David, I got into a line outside the Galleria dell ‘Accademia. The wait time was three hours, so I shrugged in resignation and walked off. As I stepped away, and before I could react to his touch, an elderly Italian gentleman, neat as a pin and charmingly continental, cupped my elbow and gently ushered me towards a small door. He said a few words in Italian to a uniformed guard, and almost instantly I found myself walking down the main hall of the Galleria towards the David. I didn’t know the old gentleman, and I have no idea why the guard moved me through the private entrance as per his request. There’s no plot twist to this. It just happened, and it made no sense. I wondered if perhaps I looked like someone else, or if I’d been chosen at random. I never found out.
Later, as I stood beneath the David, I was reminded of exactly how I’d felt ages ago when I stood alone beside an aging Niatross in a blacksmith shop. There I was, a conspicuous mediocrity standing in the presence of a miraculous creation. Horses, fast or slow, and classic works of art are very evocative in the sense that they can make you feel amazingly unimportant. Movie stars…. not so much.
At the time, I decided that the elderly man and the guard were aberrations, and that I’d simply stumbled upon the David the same way I had stumbled upon Niatross. That had to be the answer. Nothing else could explain it.
The following day I found myself aboard a Windstar Luxury Liner bound for Marseilles. I’d purchased a bargain basement ticket on Orbitz for a ho-hum Grimaldi Ferry, but when I presented my passport at the check in, I was again gently led elsewhere. A meticulously-dressed young gentleman summoned for a baggage cart and, in a blur of confusion and crisscrossing gangplanks, I found myself standing aboard a very private ocean liner where the passengers, I assumed, had to be very wealthy.
Again, this caught me off-guard and confused me because at the time I hadn’t been clued in on the quadruple upgrade that had been arranged for me by a class-conscious aunt. That’s when I started to worry. I recollected that my plane had had a very rough landing in Rome a few days prior, and that I’d completely forgotten how I even got from Rome to Florence. I chalked that confusion up to jet lag or fatigue, but then there was that puzzling incident with the delicate old man at the Galleria dell ‘Accademia who snatched me out of a long line, and now this luxury liner that carried a handful of very affluent passengers. Could it be…?
Here’s the thing. In psychiatric medicine, there’s an illness called Cotard’s Syndrome. A person afflicted with Cotard’s lives in a calmly delusional state wherein they firmly believe that they’re dead, and because no one believes them or acknowledges their death, they’re forced to live between two worlds. Those afflicted insist to whomever will listen that their demise and decay is not being recognized or duly noted by the proper authorities. There’s no cure for Cotard’s, except perhaps to put the patient into a casket, dig a hole, bury them and say, “Happy now?” I think that might be against the law.
Regrettably, I’d read about Cotard’s in school, and of course, like all the diseases I read about, I deduced that I was in the early stages. I assumed that my landing in Rome had actually been a fiery crash, and that I was now one of the dearly departed. It wasn’t so bad either. From the get-go, death offers a lot of perks. You don’t have to wait in any lines, you travel on exclusive ships, and you get a full balcony with 24-hour steward service.
For every disease known to man, there is at least one variant of that disease, and I firmly believe that there is a variant of Cotard’s Disease supplanting itself in harness racing. I call this variant, “Reverse Cotard’s.”
In Reverse Cotard’s, the people affected are fundamentally dead, yet they persist in believing that they’re alive and vibrant. They’re not zombies, but they’re headed in that direction. They don’t eat your flesh and they semi-function like everyone else, yet they will not go gently into that dark night. They rage against death, but not because they’re brave or courageous or anything like that. They stick around because they’re delusional. They concoct elaborate dreams and schemes to reinforce the deception that they’re alive.
In my opinion, Reverse Cotard’s is a much worse disease than regular Cotard’s, and for that reason, like a train wreck, it’s curiously entertaining to watch or observe. Do you know anyone with Reverse Cotard’s Syndrome? If you work in harness racing, you probably do, but don’t tell them. To quote a line from the film SUNSET BLVD, “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker. He might fall and break his neck.”
Anyway, I was now aboard this ridiculously upscale ship, and at best there were 100 passengers. My cabin steward, a man from Senegal named Wade, suggested that I go to the top deck for cocktails prior to the ship’s departure. He said that bathing attire would be appropriate as I might enjoy sitting in the effervescent bath. In other words, I could get drunk and sit in a hot tub.
When I stepped up and onto the Sky Deck, the bartender knew my name. That was creepy and made even more creepy by the fact that a character named Scrubby, the kindhearted bartender on the ghost ship featured in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, knew every passenger’s name as though it had been inscribed upon the pages of some secret book.
The best thing about the hot tub was that it wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t bubbly. It was truly effervescent just like Wade said. I was content to sit there and dissolve away all by myself, but that didn’t last. Within minutes, some men and women climbed in and started gabbing about their lives. I figured out quickly that this gaggle was comprised of three married couples – two American and one Canadian.
Gradually the inevitable wheel of conversation spun around to me. One woman, a flighty type who reminded me of Lovey Howell from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, said, “So, tell us about you.” I started out by reminding Mrs. Howell that I tend to talk too much and that she would regret asking me that question. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “The six of us are bored to death with one another. We’re practically starved for some new blood. John, fetch him another champagne cocktail.”
I started out by saying that I was a harness racehorse trainer and a writer.
Before I could elucidate, Lovey replied, “A racehorse trainer? Oh, how fabulous! Have you ever raced
in the Kentucky Derby?” In my mind, I plucked her out from the hot tub and enthusiastically flung her overboard. In real life, however, I opted to continue the conversation politely. Her husband John explained that he didn’t know what I meant when I said harness racing. As I explained further, Mrs. Howell nodded along knowingly and enthusiastically, as if to show her husband that she was a very knowledgeable person and that he wasn’t.
“John, honestly, you really don’t know anything about anything,” she said. “He’s talking about chariot racing – like in Ben Hur.” That last quip made me glad that I hadn’t tossed her into the Mediterranean. That would have been too kind. Poor Mr. Howell (John) was probably living from one nitroglycerine tablet to the next. So, he didn’t know anything about harness racing. Big deal. I’ve gotten used to that.
The oddest thing is that Mr. and Mrs. Howell, as it turned out, lived only five miles from Pompano Park, yet they thought it was a dog racing track. Stranger still, the Canadian couple had never been to Mohawk or Woodbine despite living in Toronto. Normally, this would have annoyed me, but it was a relief in the sense that I figured that maybe I wasn’t dead after all. I mean, if I was existing between two worlds, wouldn’t it be a place where harness racing is the only thing anyone wants to talk about?
The third couple, older folks from New York, knew exactly what I was talking about – especially the husband. While the distant harmony of a mandolin and accordion offered the appropriate accompaniment, Mr. New York said, “The trotters are all fixed. The horses are all doped up and you can see the drivers holding the horses back. They’re all crooks.”
How rude, right? No, it wasn’t rude. It was the best medicine I ever got. As soon as I heard Mr. New York’s ignorant opinions, I knew instantly that I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t dead at all. Dead people aren’t cynical or coarse or gritty. They don’t hold grudges, or say rude things in polite company, and they’re probably very conversant and enlightened about a lot of things. From what I’ve heard, dead people are very well-informed and contented. Okay, so maybe there are a few who tell you to “GET OUT” of their house, but I think that only happens in movies. Dead people love harness racing because a lot of them work in it. They’re not going to say anything negative or disparaging. Why would they? In spite of their demise, they have great plans for the future of their industry.
In my effervescent submersion, I instantly put all the puzzling pieces together. My landing in Rome was a little bouncy, so what? It was a windy day. Then, I got from Rome to Florence via car service, and for most of the three-hour ride I was asleep. Of course, my memory of that would be foggy. The old man who snagged me out of the long line probably thought I was cute or something — that happens — and my Aunt Olympia had paid for me to travel in luxury because she can afford it. The bartender knew my name because my photo and pertinent info appears on his screen as soon as I enter my key card into the door at the private entrance.
End of story. I was alive and well, and the following morning I got off the ship in Marseilles where I met my cousin Phillipe. This wasn’t heaven or hell. It was just a city in France. So there you go. I thoroughly explained to you what all of this has to do with harness racing just like I said I would… didn’t I?