This is a story about horses and death and belly laughs, and it begins and ends at a place called Briar Hill.
Follow Hillside Avenue out of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and in a few miles you’ll hit the Massachusetts state line. On the right there’ll soon be a sign for Briar Hill Farm, owned by George F. Brown. The first thing you’ll notice about George is his hands: they’re size of small mammals, with the consistency and general aspect of well-kneaded dough. It goes without saying that he’s the kind of guy who gives good handshakes, but I’ll say it anyway.
The majority of George’s clothes bear the logo of one or another Boston sports team — when I met him, a Patriots ballcap was straining to cover the top of his pumpkin-sized head. He’s equipped with the accent of a man who has never seen the need to leave Massachusetts. His belly is both round and taut, in that way that only farmers’ bellies seem to be.
Briar Hill has been in the Brown family since 1850, when George’s great-great grandfather, an Italian immigrant, bought it for $575. His grandparents sold eggs at the market in town, and had a little ice cream shop right by their house. George has never been a big achiever in the egg racket. His one chicken lays a single egg per day for him. His other bird was crushed by a stallion’s hoof late last year.
George does better with horses. He’s a thoroughbred breeder in a state that no longer places much value in horse racing. The track where his horses run, Suffolk Downs, is facing financial calamity so severe that it’s not expected to host races next year, for the first time in its eight-decade history.
If that happens —
if the track closes —
George’s farm will have to
do the same.
It didn’t have to be this way. Back in 2011, the horsemen in Massachusetts actually won a pretty big battle, and had the chance to make a real living for the first time in years. They convinced the state to require new casinos to commit a percentage of their earnings to a support fund for the horse industry. After that, George felt so confident about the business that he went down to Kentucky and bought himself a brand-new hotshot breeding stallion named Indian Ocean.
In the barn, George clucks to the foals sired by the stud stallion, reaching his massive hand through the bars to touch their noses. He calls them his kids.
Talking with George is a joy and a torment. One minute, he’s gut-laughing with a story from his 25-year side stint as a high school science teacher (“They had this saying, “Don’t let that crazy farmer get his hands on you!’”). And the next minute, he’s breaking your heart.
George’s son, Derek, was a 33-year-old on the cusp of a big-time promotion at the New York finance company where he worked — forty-five thousand more a year, they woulda given him, says George, ever the proud pop. It was August when they found the cancer. By December, he was dead.
George is more than willing to bear
the load of a hard life,
but there are some things
you just can’t find a place to put.
You can hear Derek’s death in every word George speaks. The loss shapes the path of his storytelling, creating little eddies of sorrow amidst the flow. A lesson on buying horses becomes a remember-the-time about Derek’s first pony, the one George saved from the jello factory for him for a mere $200. A question about horse medicine is met with a memory of little boy Derek joking about eating sedative-laced hamburger meat as a headache cure.
George’s gut-laugh follows, as it always does, but what comes after that is a silence, a kind of emptiness that clouds the air between us.
George was an angry man for years after his son’s death. Why did so many no-goodniks get to keep on living, while his son — his soon-to-be-promoted, smart alecky, cheap-ass, spicy buffalo wings-eating, horse-loving son — was in a grave? Now, he tries to think of how lucky he is that he got Derek for 33 years, rather than how deeply unfair it is that he didn’t get more.
It’s still a bitter medicine to swallow. You can tell.
When George eventually draws himself back to the subject of his farm, he says that, even if Suffolk Downs somehow manages to survive its terminal prognosis, Briar Hill will have to shut down whenever he retires. His surviving son is making a good living as a fisherman, shipping off fresh tilapia to gourmet chefs in Boston.
Nobody really goes to see the races much anymore, anyway.
But in the tradition of old farmers everywhere, don’t look for him on a white sand beach. He’s a pasture guy. He describes Florida, where his wife forces him to spend a month each year, as a veritable hellhole.
I like it up here, he says simply.
With the horses.
During foaling season, George and his wife stay at the farm, taking turns napping on a futon in the barn while the other checks on the expecting mares. When it’s his turn, George will pace the barn, waiting for a sound — a snort of pain, an anxious whinny — anything that tells him his presence is needed.
Help me bring into this world another knobby-kneed foal to care for, they implore. Another wet-eyed creature for you to train. Another shot at the winner’s purse. Another boy’s best friend.