An ode to tinkers

Harness racing: try it you might like it.

by Trey Nosrac

To tinker: “unprofessional or experimental attempts at repairing, building, or improving something or testing something to learn more about it.”

Driving Uncle Ellis to the funeral of his friend Sergeant Reggie Wilson, road construction on 1-77 slowed us to a crawl. Ellis is my mom’s brother. He joined the family, adopted from a messy social services situation almost 60 years ago. Ellis did a tour in Iraq when he was nearly 40 years old, retired from the army at 47, and began to drive a cement truck for Whitney and Sons Gravel. Ellis had a stroke three years ago that left him with a floppy right foot and without a valid driver’s license, which irritates him.

Ellis is a basket of enigmas and my favorite person on this planet. Blunt talking, usually a toothpick sticking out from his beard, wearing a denim vest and bandana, he looks like an over-the-hill motorcycle goon. This appearance is deceiving. He is troubled by the partisan political scene, never drinks alcohol, and reads and writes poetry. He picked up the poetry bug from his longtime girlfriend Katherine, who passed away two years ago.

He asked, “Son, when is this horse-racing s – – – going to run its course with you?”

“I don’t know. It’s still got me pretty good.”

He sighed and used his hands to lift his knee and straighten his floppy foot on the floor mat. “When I bought into that horse with you, the year I left the service, man, that was a long year of nothing but bills and problems.”

“Yeah, it’s a tough game.”

“I just don’t see what you get out of raising and racing them trotting and pacing horses.”

I thought about his question almost a minute, then said, “Remember when I was a kid, and my dad bought an aluminum rowboat?”


“The day dad set it on the grass in our backyard, he began to tinker. He replaced the seat with one of his designs, glued down astroturf carpeting to muffle noise, and rigged up a pole and lever arrangement so he could lift the boat onto the roof of a car by himself.”

“Sure, I remember. Your dad also messed around with some stabilizer, one of those things that balance canoes, and he made weird telescoping arms.”

I nodded. “All his life, he experimented, invented, not to improve things; not for money. Goodness knows none of his ridiculous contraptions and ideas made a penny. People just rolled their eyes at each of his minor obsessions.”

Ellis was quiet momentarily, then said softly, “Your dad was an interesting guy, and my sister was a saint for letting him run with his nutty ideas. You may not know this because you were just a little bitty kid, but once upon a time, he got it in his head that he could prospect for uranium in the Arizona mountains. Who knows where this came from? Your dad didn’t know a thing about mining. But he had a plan that he wanted to try. Next thing we know, your family lived in a trailer in Arizona.”

I nodded again. “He did stuff like that all his life. Failure rolled off his shoulders. He just went on to something new with a twinkle in his eye.”

“So, how does this relate to your harness racing habit?”

I paused, then said, “My dad did not buy that little boat just to row around. It was just the palette, not the picture. Harness racing is more than getting your horse across the finish line first. I would be long gone if I bought a yearling each year, sent it to the same trainer in the same state, and just waited to race.”

“Not following you.”

“If you are so inclined, participants in the little sport can try new things. You can experiment. Racing is different things for different people. Harness horse racing gives me a chance to tinker.”

“Like how? You don’t have a farm. I remember you drove them around on weekends, but that was 10 years ago.”

“There are plenty of ways.”

“Like what?”

“Serious gamblers can experiment will different kinds of wagering schemes.”

“What else?”

“For several years, I’ve been trying to raise a top-shelf yearling, searching for an upgraded mare, the right stallion, the best state program, tinkering away at the job. Just like my dad was not going to strike it rich in the mountains, I’m not going to strike gold in the sales ring, but the trying is fun.”

The traffic began to move a bit faster. I went on, “This year, I’m testing some nutty theories for the training of a 2-year-old trotter, weird stuff, like beginning training in June, using unprofessional people, maybe selling this one in training, maybe try selling with paid advertising, I have several different thoughts on ways to reinvent the wheel with this horse.”

Ellis said with a chuckle, “You ever hear that Seinfeld quote, ‘The road less traveled is less traveled for a reason’?”

“Yeah, I heard it, but here’s another road. You remember Denny’s boy, Lucas, the kid so deep into heroin he was living rough, a hopeless case?”

“Heck, yeah. Lucas and his druggie friends showed up at my house a few times — the police calls and rehabs — what a nightmare.”

I nodded again, “Watching Lucas find a lifeline in ballroom dancing is something I will never forget.”

“Yeah, that was unbelievable. Clean and sober for 15 years? Lucas’ dance partners and students have no idea where he was before the tangos and the fox trots.”

“Ellis, I also think that drug addicts, especially young drug addicts, could benefit from working around horses in outreach programs. Horses are good medicine. I’ve talked with people in drug rehab and at the horse barns.”

He said, “Take the next exit. Keep right. So, your horse habit gives you a place to roam in the fields, barns, and racetrack.”

“Folks in the harness racing game may say they are in the sport to make money. A few believe they can, but for some folks, the harness racing world is a comfortable place for tinkering.”

Ellis gave a little grunt of approval. “Like father, like son.”