by Justin Stygles
The racetrack can be a special place.
In the last year alone, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some wonderful things, from talking with Barbara Livingston and Sarah Andrew at morning workouts, to watching William Buick win races at Newmarket’s July Festival and again at Saratoga. I would argue that one of my most memorable days of racing was a reggae-filled afternoon during the Joe Hirsch Turf Invitational card last October at the Belmont at Aqueduct meet.
The Winter Festival at Laurel Park was set up to be a festive race day, complete with activities for kids, Mardi Gras, and $900,000 in stakes races. That was enough to perk my interest. Just a few days before the Winter Festival, 1/ST racing announced a tribute to Avery Whisman. I felt a need to attend. Fighting mental health struggles is incomprehensibly difficult. Attending would be an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself, as they say. Enough so, that I left work, in Maine and traveled overnight to make the 12:25 post time.
To be honest, I didn’t expect much. I just wanted to be in attendance. I knew there would be black armbands and a moment of silence. Perhaps a few jockeys would stand in the winner’s circle during the moment of silence.
Unassumingly, I ventured on to the apron for the post-parade for the fifth race. I made my way over to the winner’s circle in anticipation of the events that would follow.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Either a lot of people also gathered around to show their respect, or this was going to be a much bigger event.
Before the race began, standing near the winner’s circle, I noticed a woman crying and holding a child. I asked her if by chance she was related to Avery. Indeed, she was. I asked her if I could tell her a small story when the race was over. Surprisingly, after the race, she turned to me. I said to her, with tears welling, “Avery saved a life today.” The rest of the conversation will forever remain unspoken, but she needed to know that he made a difference today.
The event was huge! Throngs of people flooded the main track. It seemed like the entire crowd filtered down the winner’s circle steps. A few near me started talking about the difficulties of our own mental health recoveries. A grace perhaps, since that was one of the reasons people showed up. If a community of horse people and racetrack employees could constitute a family, then Avery had a very large family–one in which everyone at the track wanted, or was, a part of, if even for a few moments.
It was almost too perfect, then, when Eastern Bay held his position to win easily in this year’s edition of the GIII General George. The 13-time winner looked as clean as a wire-to-wire derby winner as he crossed the line. Again, floods of people swarmed the winner’s circle. Tears flowed, mixed with smiles as Avery Whisman’s highest earner came back for the photo. Some were visibly overwhelmed. And why not? Some things are just meant to be. Especially at 7-1.
How fitting. Poetic, perhaps. Nonetheless, how perfect?
I’d never been to a race day where a celebration of life was so apparent. All those connected to Avery were surrounded by love, not just from family, but from the patrons who surrounded them, eager to share their love too.
There are no words that can explain to what extent a person will struggle to do what they love most. For Avery, it was horses and riding. For some of us, it’s teaching. For others, it’s simply trying to be someone important in the eyes of another. Most of that pain is never spoken of for fear of upsetting or losing the ones we love. People find it hard to understand thus, keeping things quiet is even more necessary.
Racing can be a beautiful game. Like our own lives, as much as there is joy, there is also darkness. Avery knew the darkness. Yet, today, on a gorgeous winter afternoon, his light lit up the hearts of every race fan in attendance.
Today was an event that many will hold in their hearts forever.