by Justin Styles
The track can be a special place.
In the last year alone, I’ve been lucky enough to witness some amazing things, from chatting with Barbara Livingston and Sarah Andrews during morning workouts, to watching William Buick win races race at Newmarket’s July Festival and again in Saratoga. I would argue that one of my most memorable racing days was an afternoon filled with reggae during the Joe Hirsch Turf Invitational last October at the Belmont meet in the Aqueduct.
The Winter Carnival at Laurel Park is set to be a carnival race day, complete with kids activities, Mardi Gras and $900,000 in stake races. That was enough to pique my interest. Just days before Winter Festival, 1/ST race announced a memorial service for Avery Whisman. I feel the need to attend. Fighting mental health struggles is confusing. As they say, attending will be an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. Enough for me to leave work, stay in Maine, and travel overnight to do the 12:25 post time.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I just want to be in attendance. I knew there would be black armbands and a moment of silence. Perhaps a few jockeys will stand in the victor’s circle for a moment of silence.
Humbly, I ventured onto the apron to prepare for the fifth race after the parade. I make my way to the winner’s circle in anticipation of events that will follow.
Turns out I’m not the only one. Either a lot of people also gathered around to show their respect, or this would be a much larger event.
Before the race started, standing near the winners’ circle, I noticed a woman holding a crying baby. I asked her if she happened to be related to Avery. Indeed, she was. I asked her if I could tell her a little story when the race was over. To my surprise, after the race, she turned to me. I told her, with tears in my eyes, “Avery saved a life today.” The rest of the conversation will remain unspoken, but she needs to know that today he made a difference.
This event is huge! The flow of people filled the main race track. It looks like the entire crowd has filtered down to the winners’ circular steps. Some people near me started talking about the difficulties of our own mental health recovery. Probably a favor, since that’s one of the reasons people show up. If a community of riders and racecourse staff can make up a family, then Avery has a huge family – a family that everyone at the racecourse wants, or is a part of. it, even if only for a moment.
It was almost too perfect, then, as Eastern Bay held its ground for an easy win in this year’s edition of GIII General George. The 13-time winner looked as clean as a rope-to-rope match winner as he crossed the line. Once again, hordes of people filled the circle of winners. Tears flowed, mixed with smiles as Avery Whisman’s top earner returned to take pictures. Some are clearly overwhelmed. And why not? Some things are just meant to be. Especially at 7-1.
How suitable. Poetry, perhaps. However, how perfect?
I’ve never been to a race day where the celebration of life was so obvious. Everyone who connects with Avery is surrounded by love, not only from their families but also from the patrons who have surrounded them, eager to share their love.
No words can explain the extent to which a person will struggle to do what they love most. For Avery, it’s horses and horseback riding. For some of us, it’s teaching. For others, it’s simply trying to be an important person in the eyes of others. Most of that pain is never expressed out of fear of upsetting or losing those we love. People were so confused, it was even more necessary to keep silence.
Racing can be a beautiful game. Like our life, there is as much joy as there is darkness. Avery knows the dark. Today, however, on a beautiful winter afternoon, his light lit the hearts of every race fan in attendance.
Today is an event that many will hold in their hearts forever.