I remember once in a writing class our fearless leader told me to write 5 to 7 pages on a day that changed my life. I found the exercise to be very rewarding and that prompt actually helped me to develop an essay I wrote that was published in Perceptions Magazine (you can read that HERE ).
I’ve been trying to write recently and have kind of been coming up empty. I mean, I’m writing, it’s just nothing worth keeping. But that same teacher always told me the best cure for not being able to write is to write. So the other day when I heard a friend at Emerald Downs say “this was my worst day ever at the races” I thought it could be an interesting prompt.
Now I’ve had some brutal days at the races. Both while working and while firing away at the windows. I’ve had a couple minus two grand days back in my heyday of betting, but while those days might make it into my top five worst days at the races, number one is a different kind of bad.
It was May 3, 2008. Kentucky Derby Day. But let me start a year or so before that. I’ve written on here before about my struggles with anxiety, in fact I’m sure some of you are thinking “please not another anxiety blog!” Well, this one isn’t that. Nope, this is a depression blog!
My first year at River Downs in 2006 was amazing. I just loved everything about being a racecaller and living in Cincinnati and meeting new people and traveling. It was such an amazing year for me. When I came back in 2007 for year two I was struggling a little bit. My anxiety was high and I had ended a somewhat short relationship but I was still bummed about it. I had also lost a friend in a motorcycle accident and I bought a condo that Spring, so I’m sure stress played a role in all of that.
Somewhere in the middle of that Summer of 2007 I remember standing in line at a Chipotle restaurant up on Beechmont Avenue. I was standing there feeling weirdly numb and then I just started crying. Right in the middle of the line. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t stop. The crying continued for about two or three weeks. I had what I realize now were many of the classic depression symptoms. Struggling to get out of bed, super lethargic, no appetite, and just no excitement about anything. With the help of a new counselor I seemed to “work” myself out of this “funk” and thought I cleared a hurdle. I went back to Portland Meadows that winter and everything was going well and came back to River Downs hoping for a great third season there.
A week or so into being back into Cincinnati I felt those same depressive thoughts and feelings starting to come back. Within a few days I was really having a tough time. I remember climbing the stairs up to my announcers booth suddenly started to become a huge task. Standing up to call the races seemed exhausting. I remember around the last week of April I bought an air mattress and put it up in the booth. I would lay down between races cause all I wanted to do was lay down. This was the first time thoughts of suicide ever came into my head. I remember really wishing I would die although I never had a specific plan.
So that brings me to May 3, 2008. My worst day at the races. I remember calling my mom before the races that day in tears. I had hid the depression episode from her and most other family and friends the year before. But this was another level. I was terrified. I gave my anxiety and depression so much power over me. My mom reassured me that if I did my exercise and ate well and got back with my counselor that I’d work through it.
I got to the races and went and hid up in my booth. I remember calling the first race and just losing it afterwards. I was so done with it all. My pattern for that day was to call a race, lay down on my air mattress, cry for 20 minutes, then get up and do it again. Finally the 7th race, start of the late double came. This time I couldn’t stop crying and the horses were coming up to the gate. I got myself together as best I could. The race went off and I was going along ok but mid-race I started to lose my composure a bit. My voice cracked a little. I paused and took a deep breath, then went back to it. A horse named Outta Tune hit the line in front (he eventually became a really good horse for Maggi Moss). I turned off my mic and collapsed to the floor and broke down. I had thought I was at least functioning for work, but I wasn’t at all.
I picked up the phone and called my friend Vince downstairs. Vince was my backup announcer but luckily I had never missed a race so he never had to call one, which I know he did not want to have to do. But i needed him that day. I just couldn’t compose myself to even talk anymore. I was shaking. Vince came up and walked me downstairs to the main desk where a nice lady who worked up there named Nancy sat with me and asked if I needed to go to the hospital. I was so embarrassed and shaking and just nodded no, but within a minute of that, she told me that I needed to go.
We pulled out of the lot and as we did I could hear Vinny announcing the post parade for the 8th and final race. I felt so bad for putting him in that spot. He’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Not just in racing, but in life. I love him like a brother, even though I haven’t seen him in over a decade now.
I got to the hospital and as I sat there I started to calm down a bit. The doctor came in right about 6:25, which as it happened, was post time for the Derby. The doc talked to me and I told him was announcing at the track and couldn’t keep myself together. So he sat at the foot of my bed and we watched Big Brown break from the 20 hole and draw off to win. I called my mom and told her “I think I need to come home.” She was on the first flight out the next day and helped me pack up. I went back to the track to give Mr. Hannessian my formal resignation. We parked at the 1/16th pole and I remember I couldn’t even watch the horses come down the lane. It made me sick to my stomach and just brought me back to Derby Day. Mr. Hannessian told me he understood and that he wished me the best and wanted me to get better. I left River Downs and never went back.
There’s been 3 times when I thought my career in racing was done. That was the first time. The second was in spring of 2012, and the third was after I left Louisiana Downs in 2015. For some reason I’ve stayed and for some even stranger reason they’ve let me stay. My relationship to the sport is a lot healthier than it ever was when I was a racecaller. And once in a while, for some reason or another, I might have a lousy day at the races. But I can’t imagine any day being as bad as that one in 2008.