By Sue Finley
They’ll run the Belmont Stakes next Saturday, and as we lead up to the event, there will be more conversation about all of the unpleasant things we’ve been talking about lately: syringes in barns, drugs and bans, guilt or innocence, crime and punishment. We’ll be asked to justify our existence, the necessity of our sport and our livelihood. What purpose do we really serve, anyway, they’ll ask?
Like everyone else in the sport, I think we serve a purpose. But I also think we have the potential to serve a far greater one.
We all came to horse racing in one of a few ways: our families were in it, we rode as children, or our parents or grandparents took us to the track as kids. I’m in the latter group.
When my father came back from World War II, he settled in New England, met my mother, and spent a lot of time at the 17 different racing options in the region at the time. Just before the war as a teenager, he had ridden for his uncle who ran a few horses at the Colorado tracks, and later in life, he loved nothing more than going to the track with $10, betting every race, and coming home with $12-after gas and tolls, as he loved to say.
My father had a huge influence on my life. I studied French because he was a French teacher, and love horse racing because he loved horse racing. I’m proud of him, and even though I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly patriotic person, I’m proud of his service.
But what I don’t often say is that my father was one of the millions of combat veterans who came home from war with post-traumatic stress, or PTSD. Somehow, saying my dad had PTSD, in light of how we view the disorder after Vietnam and more than 20 years of war in the Middle East, seems disloyal. It paints a portrait of someone who was angry, abusive, violent, dark or troubled. He was nothing of the sort.
My father was smart. He was kind. He loved his wife and children, and in 30 years, he only took two sick days from work, because he thought showing up at work was the right thing to do, and he always did the right thing.
But he was also a former POW, and the survivor of a terrifying, traumatic and deadly friendly fire incident. And for the rest of his life, he sprang from bed fully alert at the slightest sound. He woke up screaming with nightmares on days when someone had brought up the war. When we were in the car, he drove as if the other cars were the enemy, jerking our car so violently away from anyone that came anywhere close as to make us constantly worry we’d have an accident.
PTSD didn’t have a name back when I was a kid. When he was granted an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, they called it a “nervous condition” and gave him a small lifetime pension due to the trauma he had experienced. When he died 60 years after war, he was still suffering from the effects. There wasn’t a lot of help for PTSD back then–and the truth is, there’s not a lot of help now–and so, like so many others, he just came home, put his head down and did the best he could.