Social media dials up poignant memories

by Garnet Barnsdale

Looking for Buzzworthy topics for this column, I regularly scan social media looking for posts from industry participants that might be the genesis of an interesting piece. Sometimes, memories pop up that make me reflect on the power of not only racehorses, but all animals. A couple showed up on one of my social media pages in the past week that reminded me of how important these family members are in our lives. I was reminded of the great gifts that animals can be – in this case a champion racehorse and a beloved family dog.

The first memory that I came across showed picture and videos of my deceased sister, Linda, with 2011 Dan Patch Horse of the Year San Pail, and it reminded me of the healing power that this great champion trotter gave us, at least for that one day.

Linda took ill in the fall of 2014, and by early December, she was moved to hospice and it was very evident that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. Because our family had become such huge fans of San Pail and card-carrying members of his “posse”, we considered ourselves friends of the Hughes family. I sent trainer Rod Hughes’ mom, Susan, a note about Linda and asked if they had any small pictures of San Pail, thinking we could place it in the small Christmas tree that was in Linda’s room.

I was floored when I looked at the reply. “Rod says you should bring her to the farm to see Pail,” was the reply. Instantly, I got in touch with Linda’s daughter, Lauren, to set up a day to take Linda out to the farm. Time was of the essence because it was obvious that we didn’t have much time.

The next weekend, I picked Linda up at hospice in early afternoon and all she knew was that I was taking her for a drive. Not long after we pulled away, Linda started. “Where are we going?” she asked. “For a drive,” I deadpanned in response. “You’ll see when we get there.” A few kilometers later, again I get, “Where are we going?” “Just wait, you’ll see,” I replied, desperate to keep the destination a secret.

About halfway to our destination, my sister turned to me. “Where we are going, does it have seven letters?” she asked. Clearly her mind was not affected by her terminal illness the same way her body was being ravaged. She had it figured out. I nodded yes, tears streaming down my cheeks and we held hands for the next several kilometers.

We arrived and spent several hours at the Hughes farm, first visiting with San Pail then having lunch with the family and looking at their vast collection of racing memorabilia that spanned several decades. “I’m getting tired, we should go,” Linda announced in late afternoon and we thanked the Hughes family and made the 90-minute trek west back to Toronto.

When I dropped Linda off, we embraced and she thanked me. “It was the best day ever,” she beamed. Those were the last words that she spoke to me, but they are embedded in my memory. Linda passed on Dec. 27, 2014. But for one day, a champion retired racehorse lifted our spirits when we needed it most.

Then there was Emma.

Emma was our family dog that passed away six days before Christmas in 2019. But she was really my dog, pretty much from the moment we met her. My wife searched high and low for the right dog 14 years prior and she saw a picture online of Emma at a local shelter and suggested that we go take a look at her.

They put us in a room and brought Emma in. Showing supreme intelligence immediately, the terrier mix instantly found the biggest sucker and jumped up on the chair beside me and gave me a kiss. Smitten, I asked my wife, “How much does it cost to adopt her?” and a few minutes later we were on our way home with our new friend.

If you own a dog, you know that in most cases, they pick their one person and attach to them. So, you understand what I mean when I speak about Emma being “my” dog. Emma wasn’t perfect. In fact, she was naughty, truth be told. She incredibly could open the fridge when we left her alone at home, and somehow manage to get food from the top shelf. Many times, when we forgot to barricade the fridge, we came home to find empty lunch meat packages on the floor.

But she was mine, and she loved me unconditionally and I loved her back with all my heart. Any time I took road trips to the Hambletonian or the Little Brown Jug, my wife would send me pictures of Emma camped out just inside our front door waiting for me to return. I always brought her back a toy, but I like to think it was me she was missing and pining for. Other dogs have now come into our life and they are two adorable father and son Chinese Cresteds whom I love very much. But there will always ever only be one Emma.

Seeing the cherished memories of my sister’s joyous day with San Pail and pictures of my best girl Emma brings back a flood of memories and joy mixed with sadness. But it reminds me, during the season of giving, of what a great gift that racehorses and all animals are in our lives.

I wish you and your families all the best during the holiday season and a healthy and Happy New Year!