Emerald Downs: Love, Hate, Love

Saturday is opening night at Emerald Downs and I won’t be there.  Not because I don’t want to be, just cause with the fireworks show and the fact that it’s opening night means that it’ll be packed to the gills and I’ll wait til Sunday to go.  It’s a great time of year.  I’ll never forget Willie the Cat blitzing his rivals on opening night 2004 to set a world record for five and one half furlongs in 1:01.20.  Willie and Slewicide Cruise (who ran 2nd to Willie that night) became two of my favorites that night.  Or Gordy’s Sweet Jordy winning and allowing me and my friend Ben Root to go into the winner’s circle in front of the opening night crowd in 2005.  I’ve been to countless Longacres Miles at Emerald Downs, hit a ton of bets, and lost a ton more.  I had my biggest score there in 2005 when I hogged the whole pick 4 pool one night.  When I worked in the media office there in 2004 I was making $10 an hour.  Emerald used to allow you to cash your checks at the track and one friday payday I cashed my check for $634 and promptly lost it all by the 7th race that evening.  The next day I called my mom to borrow $500 cause I had “an unexpected medical bill” i had to pay.  Thanks mom!

But Emerald is a special place.  This week Scott Hanson wrote about all the people who make it special.  CLICK HERE for that article.  We spent my dad’s last few days on earth at Emerald Downs watching the races while he had his oxygen tank in.  I’ll never forget him saying “You’d think you wouldn’t get pissed about losing a photo at the track cause in a week i’ll be dead.  But I’m really fucking pissed at that little midget.”  He referred to all jockeys as midgets.  As sad as I am he died young, I can’t fathom my dad living in the age of having to be politically correct or respectful.  He’d never survive that.

But after dad died I just kept on going to Emerald Downs.  I spent countless hours there all the time.  It’s where we spent our summers, my friends and I.  It’s where I started practicing announcing and where longtime racecaller Robert Geller helped me to improve at it.  I’ll never forget getting to call my first race there.  It was very emotional.  In my decade as a racecaller I was often asked what my dream job or dream race to call would be.  I always said Emerald Downs and the Longacres Mile.  And I wasn’t even lying.  Ok maybe Santa Anita would be cool too, but Emerald was always the dream.

So fast forward to a Thursday afternoon in Shreveport, Louisiana in early April of 2015.  I open my email and it’s from someone at Emerald Downs.  “The announcing job at Emerald has come open and we’d love to have you come interview for it.”   I drove 2500 miles as fast as I could and on a Friday night walked into the conference room to interview for the job I always wanted.  I was nervous but confident.  The first thing the new GM told me was something to the effect of “We really want to try something new and different and are hoping some young people and/or some women apply for the job as well.”  I sat there knowing I just drove 2500 miles for nothing.  I was stunned.  It was really weird.  It wasn’t even an interview.  They kind of just more asked about the announcing “fraternity” and stuff like that.  Finally the Marketing manager asked some specific questions.  I just ended the interview by saying what I felt was the truth.  “You’re not gonna hire anyone who will have more passion calling these races than me.”

A few weeks later they called me to tell me they were going in another direction.  I knew they were but I was still crushed.  I watched 3 horse races between Mid April and October of that year and all 3 were won by American Pharoah.  I was really bitter about the whole situation.  I was gonna hate whoever they hired so I never even asked who they went with.  I was off social media and kind of just kept to myself for a few months.  I drove Uber full time and watched Mariners games in the evening.

But I learned some things that summer that have honestly served me well.  First of all I learned about entitlement.  I always just assumed I would step into that job at Emerald when Robert left.  For years I was their go to backup.  Everyone there knew I wanted it.  I was gonna get the job and call there for the rest of my career.  And when I didn’t get it I honestly just gave up on announcing.  What was the point?  I responded like any entitled, spoiled asshole would.  I took my ball and went home. Just cause I wanted something doesn’t mean it was owed to me.  I applied for a job and I didn’t get it.  It happens to EVERYONE.

I also learned about bitterness.  It got me nowhere.  I was mopey about not getting my way and bitter about the future and everything.  And my nature isn’t to be bitter.  I’ve always prided myself on not being a jealous type and have always felt genuine happiness when friends or even strangers found success.  So why was I now acting the opposite of that?

So fast forward to last May, 2016.  I was five months into a new job with a new company that had honestly rekindled my passion for racing.  So one day I finally decided to put those old feelings aside and I went and sat at the eighth pole on a picnic bench at Emerald and watched a days races.  It was amazing.  I was happy about being there.  My expectations of it being a bummer were totally wrong.  It was Emerald Downs.  I could still love it.  I listened to the new announcer Matt Dinerman call the races and he did wonderfully.  I thought to myself “If I was 23 and in my first full year of calling at a track, would I be this smooth and composed.”  Hell no.  I honestly felt a sense of pride towards Matt.  He was a young racecaller, as I once was.  He should have my undying support, not my petty bitterness.  Matt has done himself and Emerald EXTREMELY proud with his work there so far.  I can even honestly, no bullshit, no sappy blog writing, say that they made the right decision.

I started going to Emerald each Sunday, parking myself out near the eighth pole away from the crowds.  And each passing week I just enjoyed it more and more.  There’s something remarkably peaceful about watching a race by the head of the stretch by yourself.  When they turn for home and you hear the jockeys screaming, the horses hooves thundering, and nothing else.  It’s my favorite place to watch a race.   So Sunday afternoon, you’ll see a large portly gentleman down at the eighth pole watching.  I’ll be happy.  I promise.

Why I like #BellLetsTalk

I’m an American.  Therefore I don’t know much about “Bell” other than they’re a Canadian company.  A few years ago I noticed the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and that it was an initiative by this company to de-stigmatize talking about mental illness.  Now normally I think Hashtag activism is malarkey and doesn’t accomplish anything but virtue signaling and people arguing with one another.  But this hashtag was raising money and also was bringing attention to something i’m rather passionate about because it’s something I deal with.

I have severe anxiety disorder with panic attacks and depression.  I had my first panic attack at age 21 and they’ve been a part of my life for 15 years now.  In many ways my anxiety has become my life.  It controls everything and I give into much more than I beat it back.  I’ve allowed my anxiety to cost me relationships, opportunities, career advancement, and any real meaningful happiness.  I say “I’ve allowed” because of pride and the fact that I probably want to feel as though I do have some control over the anxiety, which I do.  But let me emphasize the word “some” there.  There are days where no matter what I do to care and cope, the anxiety makes functioning pretty impossible.  Some family members and friends will say “relax” or “stop worrying” not knowing that inside it feels like i’m gonna pass out, or fall over, or drop dead right there.  If it was as simple as ‘just relax” i’d fucking relax.  It’s not that simple.  And when you tell someone with anxiety or depression to “relax” or “cheer up”, you’re clueless.  If only it was that simple.

Back to the hashtag and why I think it’s important.  Even if they didn’t raise any money (which they most certainly do).  Asking for help or support is extremely tough.  That phone weighs about 2000 pounds when you lift it to try and call or text someone to tell them you’re hurting and you need help or just need a friend.  My anxiety and depression goes in ups and downs.  I tend to go stretches where I’m doing well and stretches when I’m not.  I’m currently not.  I spend my days in “safe” places like my car or my room.  I get food in drive thrus or delivered so I don’t have to go into crowded places.  Or I go to the grocery store at 5am before anyone else.  I had a panic episode on my morning walk in the mall a week or so ago and basically got to my car with no breathe left and my legs feeling like they were going out from underneath me the entire time.  I got to my car.  My safe place.  And I did all my breathing techniques and soothing techniques and everything I could think of to calm down.  Later that night I was still anxious.  I sat in my car in an empty parking lot sobbing and whaling and screaming.  I feel so lonely sometimes because I’ve basically withdrawn myself because of the anxiety.

I picked up my phone and scanned thru my phone and desperately wanted to call someone.  I have 163 contacts in my phone and after scanning through all of them I found three people I thought I might be comfortable calling.  I didn’t even want to talk.  I just wanted and needed someone I knew cared about me to be with me for a few minutes, even if it’s just over the phone.  But I couldn’t hit the call button.  The embarrassment was too much.  I have so much shame about my mental illness and I let it define me.  I also probably subscribe too much to the theory that it’s me being weak.  Plus I feel like I’d just be bothering them.  But in those times of pain, many bad thoughts go through my head.  And it’s those times when I really do think that I need to hit that “call” button to those friends.   

That’s why I like the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.  Because maybe someone who is struggling will see a friend who posts that and realizes that they do have people they can turn to in times of struggle.  Maybe they’ll see that many others are dealing with the same things they are.  Finding community and support is so important for all of us.  I need to start finding mine again.  What’s funny about thinking there was only 3 people I could call is that I bet almost all of those 163 people would take my call.  And I’ll bet many more people I know would take that call.  Just gotta realize it’s ok to make that call and talk.

An Open Letter to Open Letters

Dear Open Letters,

First of all, I know you won’t read this, cause nobody open letters are intended for ever read them.  Cause you open letters, are bullshit.  You are a blog.  You are basically a way for us who write them to feel better about ourselves.  To get things off our chest.  To virtue signal.  To show the people who are reading you just how smart I am.

You see the key to you Open Letters, is massive condescension.  I mean is it really an open letter if it’s not extraordinarily condescending?  No it’s not.  You Open Letters are how someone like me who lives in their parents basement can say something to a subject who is always a million times more successful than me and make it seem like i’m way smarter than you.

I will also write from a perspective of hope and optimism for part of the letter so it looks as though when i’m writing you that I really want the intended person to change and be open, when in reality I just want them to think and do what I think is right.  Because after all my opinion and views on things are of course right.

But really Open Letter the key thing i’ll be needing from you is for you to make me sound smart and virtuous enough that I can get retweets from people who think and feel the same way I do about things.  See, screaming into an echo chamber is really all that’s important now, and you Open Letter are the best way to do that.

Thank you,

JB

My random love for Redding, California

I love Redding, California.  I’ve probably spent at least a month or so of my life there, but never for more than 24 hours.  But for some reason I feel comfortable there.  I stop there on every trip to and from LA or Vegas and I get stupidly excited to go there.  I stay at the same Red Lion every time I go there.  They have this great charcoal soap that’s worth whatever the stay costs.  I always go to Cattlemen’s down the street from the hotel for dinner.  It’s a dumb little routine that I absolutely love.

My first stay in Redding I didn’t even see any of it.  It was on a last minute trip to Vegas about 3 weeks after college graduation.  My buddy Ryan and I pulled in at like 2am.  Crashed at the motel 6 and were awake by 7am and it was still kinda dark.  I completely missed seeing Mt. Shasta or Lake Shasta or any of the other beauty of the surrounding area.

mtshasta

Mt Shasta from the passenger seat.  

But on the way back from that trip we stayed in Redding again.  Only this time we played a round of golf in the early morning and I got to see the glory of Mt. Shasta, and even it’s tiny sidekick Little Shastina.  The red clay that surrounds lake Shasta is such an amazing color, especially when the sun illuminates it.  I even pulled over on a bridge just to snap a photo.

shasta

Nobody was coming behind me, don’t worry it was safe 🙂

I also always go down to the park area by the Sundial bridge.  A great place to take a walk and look at the beautiful river that goes through town.  Here’s a video of me enjoying a walk on the bridge and eating a bug (fast forward to 4:38)

I’m gonna stay in Redding in a couple weeks when I go back down to Las Vegas and I’m weirdly excited for it as I always am.  It’s one of those strange little traditions we pick up in our lives.

Looking back at my 2016

So every Christmas Eve I always send personal emails to many friends and colleagues and wish them Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays etc.  One of my good friends wrote me back and said “Keep up your momentum, you had a better 2016 than 2015.”  My initial instinct was to poo poo the comment.  I’m a glass is 1/8th full kind of guy and tend to view most things negatively.  And I think I’ve convinced myself that I’ve gone backward in many ways in my life and those are what I’ve focused on.  But as I think back, I think my friend was right.  The year may have featured some backward steps in some avenues but I think there were more forwards than backwards, so i’m counting it as a “W”.

I started a new job with BetAmerica doing a daily podcast called the BetAmerica Radio Network.  In December after interviewing with them for another job, we decided I wasn’t a good match for that position.  But a week later they wrote back and said “Pitch us something, we want to work with you.”  What a feeling that was to hear someone wants to work with you.  After driving Uber for the previous 8 months since leaving Louisiana Downs, and getting turned down from Emerald Downs, Turf Paradise, Charles Town, Oaklawn, and a few others, it was pretty great to hear someone wanted to work with me.  What I found was a company that is growing and filled with amazing people.  I’ve never felt so inspired about a company I worked for as I have with BetAmerica.  I’m beyond excited for 2017.  In January I got to go to Las Vegas for the National Handicapping Championship and meet tons of great handicappers and racing folks and can’t wait to go back in a few weeks, only this time with a shorter commute (more on that later).

On my way home back to Seattle from the NHC I got a call from Portland Meadows asking if I could fill in for a day.  I jumped at the chance.  It was a little weird and I didn’t have my own binoculars, but for me it was about closure.  I savored being up in that booth one last time and I also savored getting to call what is now my last race in a better head space.  A year earlier in Shreveport I was not in a good place at all and calling races was not any fun.  So since I don’t think any tracks are knocking down my door to announce for them, it’s possible that day at PM was my last and I’m so glad I had fun with it.  Coming to terms with the fact that announcing might be done for me has been very tough.  Not necessarily cause I loved it so much but because I had made it far too much of my identity.  I was “Jason the horse announcer” and it was far too much a part of me than it should have been.  Now I will say, I don’t think I’ve called my last race.  Ideally I’d love to call a short meet somewhere at some point of the year while working for BetAmerica full-time.  BA has always encouraged something like that and I’m hopeful it happens.  But if it doesn’t, so be it.

I got to spend several days down at Santa Anita this past year.  Most spent with my buddy Raider Mike up at the Gallop Out.  There’s still no better racetrack experience for me than that place, even though right now they’re kind of being poop heads about some stuff.

So I’m not really a “best friend” or “best day ever” or best anything kind of person, always seems odd to single things out like that.  But I had a best day this year.  April 6th.  I ate at one of my restaurants and got to see probably my favorite band right now, The Killers, play the opening show of the new arena in their hometown.  The bone in ribeye i had at Gallaghers Steakhouse was beyond good.  It was one of those things you close your eyes while you eat cause you want to turn off as many senses as you can so that the incredible taste feels even stronger and better.  It was blindingly good.

Now, anyone who knows me or has read this blog before knows I hate crowds.  Hate them.  Avoid them.  I’m a panicky scared person.  So a rock concert isn’t exactly fun for me cause I just focus on how nervous I am in the crowd.  But I did the most important thing I could that night and that’s part of why it’s the best night of the year.  I said “this is too important to me to let my anxiety win and have me run away.”   In fact most of my best moments over the last decade aren’t when something great happened to me.  They’re when I stood up to my anxiety, even if it was just to go to a family event.  So The Killers come out and launch into Mr. Brightside first with all the arena lights on.

killers

The Killers! Dave Keuning (left guitar), Brandon Flowers (center singer), Ronnie Vannucci Jr. (Drums), Mark Stoermer (far right, Bass).  

The place went nuts, and I went nuts.  I danced.  I screamed.  I high fived with the people next to me.  I let my guard down and I sang every lyric and my god did I have fun.  I cried my eyes out at the end of “Bling” cause when the ending comes on it always gives me the chills on the record.  And when I heard it in person, it was even better. “We’re gonna make it out of the fire”.   And during “Dustland Fairytale” I beat my leg so hard from drumming on it I had a bruise the next day.  When they finally got around to “When You Were Young” I was so tired, and drained, and happy.  I went home and could feel the adrenaline still pumping and the lyrics still in my head.  Best night of the year.

In late April I started going back to Emerald Downs again as a fan. I was crushed when I didn’t get that announcing job the year before.  It was the dream job.  I probably watched five horse races from April 2015 to October 2015 and I think they all involved American Pharoah.  I think the break actually did me good though.  I do think it’s time to have breaks from things you’re intertwined with so closely on a daily basis.  But this year, I left my ego in 2015 and went back and just tried to enjoy my hometown track again and I found that I did.  So that was nice.

I got to do a part in a movie on Labor Day weekend.  It’s called “Lean On Pete” and it’ll be out in 2017.  I did the race announcer voiceovers and the coolest part was my trailer, YES I HAD A TRAILER, was next to Steve Buscemi’s and I got to talk with him for like ten minutes and he was just the nicest guy.  He really had a lot of questions about racing and was gobbling up knowledge.   He’s playing a trainer in the movie.

As the summer ended, i packed my bags and moved to Las Vegas.  I love Las Vegas.  Not all the strip stuff although that’s pretty and fun and stuff.  But I got a short term rental.  I woke up each morning and walked while the sun rose over the mountains.  The desert air smell is so great.  At least twice a week I’d drive out to Red Rocks and walk around and enjoy what is maybe my favorite place on earth.  I’ve made changes in my directive that I want my ashes spread out there.  If I gotta be somewhere forever I want it to be a view of this.

redrocks

Photo Credit Red Rock Scooter Rentals!

I came back up to Seattle in November for an extended holiday trip and my plan is to kind of just split my time between here and Las Vegas.  Go back to Vegas for Jan, Feb, March probably then Seattle for the summer then vegas for a bit in the fall.  I can be wherever I want for my job so it’s a neat perk.

The Beemie Awards went off for the third year in a row, and kind of went off without a hitch or anyone getting too offended.  It trended nationally for a while and it really is cool to get to be part of a fun night that many in the racing world seem to enjoy (and many probably hate as well).

There were plenty of other little things that happened in 2016 and I probably even forgot a few of the biggies, but just wanted to try and go thru and note what I did this year.  I hope anyone reading has a great 2017.  Baba Booey to you all.

Buried, but with a view

I went and visited my dad’s grave today.  I try and go when i’m up in Seattle every so often.  We had him buried at Hillcrest Burial Park cause the spot where he’s at overlooks Emerald Downs.  We spent his last days there together.  It’s a special place for us.  So I love that he can see the track from his burial (yes i know he’s dead and can’t see it, but I like the symbolism ok!).   Whenever I go visit him I walk a few feet towards the edge of the hill and stare at Emerald.  Here’s a pic of the view.  Sorry i’m not Barbara Livingston.

grave2

I thought about when I got to call some races at Emerald.  They asked me if I’d come call four races so Robert the regular announcer could host the TV show on Comcast.  I jumped at the opportunity.  My only real dream in announcing was to be the announcer at Emerald Downs.  So to get to call races there was something I was so excited about.  I was very nervous that day.  I think it was June of 2009, but might have been 2010.  As the horses for the first race were warming up I was trying to do my best to calm my nerves.  As the last horses were loading, I turned the mic off and took a deep breath and looked up at the hill where dad’s buried.  He’s right over the 3/8th pole.  I asked for a little help.  I called the race and did fine.  And then I cried.  I mean I really cried.  I was bawling.  Calling a race on a random Saturday at a mid-level track isn’t the Kentucky Derby, but it was important to me.  I shut the door and just allowed myself to feel the strange mix of pride and sadness.  Then a knock on the door came.  I composed myself and answered.  It was Duane Hamamura, who was a great photographer in the Northwest.  Duane said “hey let me take a picture of you announcing.”   For those who know Duane, that was the most words he ever said to me.  I smiled as big as I could even though I knew my eyes were probably bloodshot.  Here’s that photo.

meannouncing

I thought about that day today as I stood at my dad’s grave and cried some more.  I’ve been crying a lot lately.  I struggle with sadness sometimes and lately have been struggling more than normal.  Which I know my dad would respond to with “cut it out you pussy”.  That’s just how he was.  But I still miss him and think about him and when I visit him, I always remember to try and enjoy the view of the big green roof.

grave