Kevin Chong's My Year of the Racehorse runs with heart
On a blustery afternoon, Kevin Chong is sitting amid the din of a Fairview coffee shop, discussing his separate interests in writing fiction and nonfiction.
“Fiction is my first love. It’s still what I read 80 percent of the time,” he says. “But I probably feel more comfortable as a nonfiction writer because I do it more regularly.”
The day after returning home to Vancouver from a business trip to Chicago, Chong, a writer of novels and memoirs, and a widely published journalist, is talking to the Straight about his latest autobiographical work, My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love With the Sport of Kings (Greystone). Chronicling his experience as a part owner of Mocha Time, a mare at Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse, his new volume is a droll introduction to both the world of horseracing and the life of the 36-year-old author.
As shown in this and other material, including last year’s Beauty Plus Pity and 2005’s Neil Young Nation, Chong is a trigger-ready wit who’s highly fluent in contemporary references. “I try to mix in the high culture,” he says, “but I probably am more convincing invoking popular culture.”
Racehorse, which took three years to write, considers his attachments to family, flames, and friends, at the same time representing the individuals he meets—trainers, jockeys, an animal communicator—who operate within the subculture of the track. Believing his books should bear his “paw prints”, Chong admits that while writing this one wasn’t difficult, divulging parts of his personal life and “trying to surmise what the reaction would be has kind of been a little scary.”
Following his father’s double hospitalization in late 2008, the author found himself shaken and searching for stability. Abandoning the self-acknowledged fallacy that home ownership would provide security, he eventually settled on a modest investment in “Blackie” (the nickname by which Mocha Time is referred to in these pages), after a friend put him in touch with a local trainer.
Using a list of goals as a framing device, Chong illustrates the ways these objectives shift into horse-related ambitions. “Become a Home Owner” canters into “Bought a Racehorse” once the former proves itself to be too much of a commitment; “Learn Another Language” trots into “Talked Like a Railbird” when the author realizes that mastering racing’s lexicon is easier than becoming a prosperous horse player. “I’m someone who makes lists compulsively when I feel as though I’m overwhelmed by errands and obligations. My sort of life hack is to write down a big list of everything I need to do and just do the easiest ones like, you know, buy toilet paper,” he says. “It’s more about doing your best than actually accomplishing those goals, most of the time.”
This was a philosophy he applied to his own seldom-successful contender. “Your horse’s only job is to run. It’s your responsibility to love her,” he writes. “Your job is to show your appreciation for an animal who lets you live through her; who allows you to claim her determination, class, and grace as your own; who’s there for you to forget, momentarily, the muddle you’ve made of your life, your own awful way of going—your own sore spots and bad trips.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the sport, Chong recognizes there are those who take issue with it, and Racehorse addresses both sides of the argument. “In Vancouver, which is a pretty middling place for horseracing, there are 5,000 jobs [generated],” he says.
According to the author, in North America, four horses perish in every thousand races, a statistic that continues to drop. “Obviously, there are things that could be done to improve horseracing,” he continues. “And I think if you look at how horseracing was done 50 years ago versus how it’s done now, it’s much safer in terms of things like synthetic surfaces [on the track] and even some of the whips that they use.”
Because his share in Blackie has lapsed, Chong presently has no stake in any particular horse, but allows that he would be interested if the right opportunity presented itself. “I think I’ll always be involved with racing. I’m always keen on going to Hastings, and when I travel these days I sometimes go to the tracks in other cities, and that’s really fun,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of things that are much more fun than going to the racetrack in the summer and having a beer and wagering a bit… And unlike drinking, you can get your money back.”