Lately, just about every evening, as soon as the dinner table is cleared, our living room transforms into Churchill Downs with hardwood turf and the thundering hooves of our 4-year-old son.
He wears the goggles handed to him by jockey Trey Agilar, after he rode Tacaro’s Star to victory in the second race at Arlington Park on July 14, 2007. The black ink of Agilar’s signature on the goggles does not mar his vision but rather it seems to serve as his inner whip, pushing him to get back into the winner’s circle.
And win, he does. At just under 4 feet tall and weighing not even 40 pounds, he’s admittedly small, even by jockey standards. But he rides with the unbridled passion and intensity of jockey greats, like Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker.
Out of hundreds of races, he’s lost only twice. Once he pulled up lame and once he was upset in a defeat that rivals the one loss of the legendary thoroughbred Man o’ War. Still, he quickly got back up on the horse and showed his true colors, riding with even more steely determination.
The two jockeys, the mother and her son, settle into the imaginary starting gate. Each wears goggles and clutches a stick thoroughbred between their legs.
"Two minutes to post," the father announces through a plastic microphone.
The son scans the track and its environs before announcing, "I am riding Sofa Bugs Rug Fly." The father notices there’s a fly lying belly up nearby, as the son turns to his competition and asks, "Who are you riding?"
"I’m riding Arizona Sunset," declares Mommy Jockey, whose stick thoroughbred is bandaged and stands about the same chance as a plow horse.
The boy jockey looks to Daddy Announcer. "Who do you put your money on?"
Sometimes you, as a parent, wonder if you’ve put your child on the right track. Here is my son, all of 4 years old and he’s talking like a professional race track gambler. We’ve taken him to the tracks only twice, but still he asks us when we’re going again. He anticipates the TV broadcast of an upcoming horse race with more interest than he shows in SpongeBob SquarePants.
Are you breeding a gambling addict? Will the track that you’ve led him onto one day take his life’s savings? Too much to worry about right now. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about at all.
Daddy smiles. At least his son is learning some math skills and the value of money, even if it is his father’s money he’s been spending at the tracks.
"My money’s on Sofa Bugs Rug Fly." Daddy might not know a perfecta from a quiniela, but he knows enough to bet on a sure thing and Arizona Sunset stands about as a good a chance as Zippy Chippy, the losingest horse in U.S. thoroughbred history, would have running against the likes of Seabiscuit or Secretariat.
Post time. All wagers are final. Now it’s about the horses and their riders.
The jockeys put on their game faces. "And they’re off!" Daddy Announcer roars into the microphone.
The two horses barrel out of the imaginary gates and are running head to head as they near the halfway point of the track. Is this an upset in the making? The littlest jockey makes a bold move, cutting in front of the competition at the turn. Then down the backstretch he extends his horse and pulls away before coasting across the finish line. He wins by a good two lengths.
Back in the winner’s circle, where he is used to being, the littlest jockey looks at home. He takes off the goggles and tosses them to one of his two biggest fans, who, in a possible conflict of interest, is also the track announcer.
And the loser of the race? Well, she is not really a loser at all. Because, you see, she is the other biggest fan and her favorite jockey is where he belongs, in the winner’s circle.
Randy Richardson and his wife, Mitsuko, live in Evanston with their son Tyler. He is an attorney with the Social Security Administration’s disability appeals branch.