Almost all of the horses at almost all race tracks lose. The losing horses, like the winners, all have to eat. For this reason, among many others, owning a thoroughbred race horse is a dubious proposition.
But the track is a great place for stories, and a couple of years ago one of the better ones became evident a a small, undistinguished track in New York state called Finger Lakes. Joe Layden tells that story in his most recent book, The Ghost Horse: A True Story of Love, Death, and Redemption. Layden joined Bill Littlefield.
Highlights from Bill’s Interview with Joe Layden
BL: I started with that discouraging truth about the race track because you refer to Tim Snyder who owns the so-called Ghost Horse as a journeyman trainer, a race track guy, scuffling to pay the feed bills. Give us a sense of Tim Snyder’s background.
JL: Tim Snyder is in every sense of the word a race track lifer, as they say, which in Tim’s case means he was literally born at the racetrack. He was born at Scarborough Downs some 60 years ago. His dad was a fairly successful minor league rider on the New England circuit. And his is grandfather was a trainer. And by 15 years old, after an assortment of family issues, he was on his own, hitchhiking across the country, trying to figure out how make a living. And the only way he knew how to that was by working with horses, which he has done ever since.
BL: Against the odds, Tim Snyder found a woman who loved him, or who at least a woman who could put up with him. He married Lisa Calley, and they were together for some years. Describe their partnership.
JL: Tim was a trainer, exercise rider, jockey, owner. Anything he could do to make a living at the track. Lisa had been an equestrian rider when she was younger. And after a failed marriage and surviving a bout with cancer, had decided to get into horse racing, too. She was just learning her way around Finger Lakes Race Track when she and Tim met each other. Very quickly they were dating, and not long after that, they were living together. Then they were training horses together, and buying very cheap horses and selling cheap horses. In the business that’s known as churning. Never with great horses. With a horse that if they were lucky might win a not very expensive race at a place like Finger Lakes. If they were lucky.
BL: Some seven years after Lisa died, Tim found himself the owner of a horse that literally nobody wanted. Besides showing no desire to run, the horse had a bad foot, a bad shoulder, and couldn’t see out of one eye. Beyond the cancer that took her life, Lisa had multiple physical problems of her own. Was that part of what led to comparisons between the horse and Lisa?
JL: That’s correct. Resiliency, I guess, is the word that Carol [Lisa's mother] has used a lot. That this is obviously a resilient horse, and that her daughter was resilient from the first time that she got thrown from a horse as a kid, and dealt with seizures her whole adult life. But always had a positive attitude. was always upbeat, and never felt sorry for herself and managed to make something very positive out of her life. And this horse, you know, no one ever thought this horse would get to the starting line, let alone the finish line.
BL: Alright Joe, throughout this book you point out the way that newspaper writers and others have romanticized this story, but did you come away with your association with Tim Snyder and his horse that something magical or at least mysterious had happened?
JL: Mysterious, yes. I don’t know that magical is the right word. I’m not a big fan of that word. I think it’s more a book about survival. A story about survival, and finding triumph and meaning in getting out of bed every morning and going on with your life. I think Tim Snyder’s a guy who’s 60 years old and has had very few years of what most of us would consider normalcy in his life. And those were the years that he lived with Lisa Calley and those were taken away from him. I think there was a reasonable chance when that happened that he wouldn’t have lived through the next few years. This horse saved his life, and I think that’s a magical thing, I guess.
The subtitle of Joe Layden’s new book makes it sound like it could be the script for a sappy TV movie.
This is misleading. The main character in this particular true story is a sometimes-drunk and often irresponsible racetrack lifer named Tim Snyder. His friends tolerate him, and lots of his associates regard him as a pain in the ass. Some of them characterize him as dishonest. Against odds of maybe 23-1, he finds a woman, Lisa Calley, willing to share his life, meaning that, for a time at least, she sleeps at the track.
The wrinkle in this love story comes just before Lisa dies. She tells Tim Snyder not to worry, because she’s going to come back as a horse. Seven years later, Snyder comes into possession of a large, one-eyed, gimpy filly with no inclination to run. In part because he has no other horses to worry about, he works to get the filly, which he names after his wife and his favorite topless bar, to the starting gate. The next part of the story could be a sappy TV program, because for a brief time the horse wins.
Joe Layden manages to tell the story of Tim Snyder and Lisa’s Booby Trap without undue sentiment, which demonstrates his respect for the story itself and the people (and the horse) involved in it. If some TV producer does get hold of it, he’ll screw it up. Then Joe Layden will have to walk over to the shelf in his den, put his hand on the book and say, “Nah, they never laid a glove on it.”