Tidewater Review - July 2012

Flying Change
reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Flying Change: A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing by Patrick Smithwick. Published by Chesapeake Book Company. 351 pp. $30.
All sorts of words pop into the reader’s mind as the author makes a 180-degree turn in his life as middle age scribbles white hair above his ears, weight creeps up and he develops an itch that demands scratching. Mid-life crisis? Peter Pan syndrome?
This memoir, a sequel to Smithwick’s previous book, Racing My Father, explains the itch that is part of his DNA, the close bond with his late dad, A. P. “Paddy” Smithwick, the legendary steeplechase rider. It’s now thirty years since he last spent most of his early morning hours following his father to the racetracks. Rising at 4:30 a.m., he helped work horses before heading to school at Gilman and Johns Hopkins University, then he would dash home to join his father and his Uncle Mikey for more training in the afternoon.
Marriage and three children later, Patrick has earned two more masters’ degrees and settled down, putting his equine life behind him. He’s been teaching school and writing books, short stories and articles for riding and racing magazines.
Leading up to the big change was his realization that he’d passed the dreadful marker, 47 and a half years. That was his father’s age when he died. Memories rushed back of that magical time when he was shadow-close to his dad. Under Paddy’s wing, Patrick was schooled on a pony, then a horse, then fox-hunting from November until March. Weather was never an obstacle. Freezing rain, blizzard-snow were ignored.
What mattered now was that Patrick was slightly overweight, that his hair announced his age, nearing 50 with a bit of salt in the former pepper. He still ran with the joy of being outdoors. He loved to ski. He helped Uncle Mikey with strenuous barn chores like shoveling manure out of the stalls, toting hay bales and exercising the horses. Being outdoors and active at every free moment was a passion.
For years his goal had been success as a writer. He mulled over the question - could he keep his job as a teacher and a peripheral interest in riding? Or could he simply take a sabbatical from teaching and downplay the writing while he whipped himself into enough shape for the rigorous demands of racing?
How would his wife, children and his mother react to the second option? In unison, they were definitely against any plan that Patrick would rejoin his old friends and Paddy’s old racetrack buddies.
As soon as the reality of being in the horse world sank in, Patrick had to face the consequences of acting on his dream of competing in flat racing and point-to-point racing over fences and brush hazards with no regular income. He had to agree with the nay-sayers that everyone would be affected financially, but also there was a very real possibility of injury.
Try as he might to resist the temptation, Patrick couldn’t shake the lure of riding. In the book he described a weekend fox-hunt.
“It was a beautiful clear sunny January morning. We were talking and I was whooping and hollering, feeling freed, out of the office, away from the phone, the computer, e-mail beeps, notepads filled with to-do lists, stacks of photographs to sort, dozens of articles to write, designers to call, printers to hound.”
One of his fellow riders made a negative comment. Patrick’s reaction was quick. “Can’t he ever feel good? Can’t he ever feel so good that his soul is about to pop out of his skin and merge with the blue sky above, the thick turf below and the horse between his legs? It was Welter between my legs – slender, powerful, fit, confident, dancing and jigging and never taking a wrong step.”
It was hard to think what would be lost if his critics shamed him into sacrificing such an important part of his life. The 342-page book chronicles the nine months it took him to go from sitting on a leather chair in an office to straddling a leather saddle as he rode in the 1999 Hunt Cup, the most difficult of Maryland’s steeplechase races.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.