Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I studied the middle–aged New Kent County Sheriff on duty at Colonial Downs racetrack on June 23, 2012. 

Taser Gun 
Holstered on his wide leather belt were both a Taser and a handgun. Additionally, he carried a flashlight, a baton, keys, and two radios that were connected by spiral cords to the mikes that sat on each of his shoulders. And that’s what I could identify. 

How did he walk around with all that stuff?

Being a mystery author and a busybody, I had to ask him how much his belt weighed.

 “Eighteen pounds.” He said, shaking his head.  “But you should see some of the young bloods. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they carry around.” He told me one of the two radios was for the sheriff’s department, the other for the racetrack.

I was stuck at my desk outside the track’s gift shop hawking copies of my published mysteries. With the downturn in the economy, the crowd was sparser than the last time I’d been there. I spent time talking to three different sheriffs on duty that night and got a whole new perspective on the mortgage foreclosure disaster. New Kent County has not been exempt.

When I picture a mortgage foreclosure, I see the mean bank and the mean law officer evicting people from their only homes. But Saturday night, a sheriff I talked to turned the mental image around. He said, “I’ve been a law officer for thirty-something years and the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is enforce a foreclosure.”

He told me about an old woman who had just gotten out of the hospital the day before. “She still had bandages on her arm,” he said. “And I had to evict her.” 

The pain from the memory twisted his face. He closed his eyes as if trying to push it away.

“It’s like war,” I said, “when you’re supposed to shoot someone you don’t even know.”

He stared at me. I decided it was time to step away from the abyss and sell a book. 

Sasscer Hill outside the Colonial Downs Gift Shop

“Hey, do you read mysteries,” I called out to a woman who’d just come through the main entrance and was clutching a free cupcake voucher.

“Not really,” she said. “But do you know where they have the cupcakes?”

I manned my book table from six to ten-thirty that night. When you do a book signing, you become the information center. You tell people where the bathrooms are, where to get their free cupcake, where to buy a program, and how to reach the bar. Being Ladies Night, the gals not only got the cupcake, they got in for free, too. 

That night, the Thoroughbred Racing Foundation was hosting a retired race-mare beauty contest.  The horses in this competition came from the James River Foundation, a correctional center where retired race horses get to live out their days and prisoners get to work with horses while searching for that second chance. The offenders in this correctional program have an unusually high success rate for staying out of the prison system.  

The TRF vanned in three plump, groomed, and shiny mares and paraded them in front of the grandstand after the second race. People filled out their choice that evening and voted, placing their picks in a box. Since I was sitting right next to it, it occurred to me it would be easy to stuff the ballot box. Except the  sheriff was there. Besides, no one tried to bribe me. 

Colonial also sponsored “The Race to the Alter,” where engaged couples competed for an all expense paid July wedding at the track. Additionally, Colonial put on an all female jockey race that evening, and, of course, the amazing author Sasscer Hill was there signing her horse racing mystery novels.

Kim Loftus and Chris Chappell from Virginia Beach, pictured with Chris’ daughter.
"Lite 98's radio host, Shelly Perkins, was the emcee for the evening. Over the sound system, I heard her announce the entrants to the “Race to the Altar.” Later, Kim Loftus and Chris Chappell from Virginia Beach won the race to the Alter which included the facility, the gown, the cake, the food, the champagne, the pictures and the limo!

 The hands down winner of the beauty pageant was a chestnut mare named Skittles. The seven-year-old mare never hit the board in nine lifetime starts, but Saturday night, she wore a garland of roses in the winner’s circle and received a year’s supply of carrots from Whole Foods.

After they finished parading the mares, Colonial’s director-of-marketing, Darrell Wood, stopped by and told me I had a fast date with a microphone on the Jumbotron.

“You’ll be interviewed by radio host, Shelly Perkins,” he said. “Right after the fifth race.”

Two years ago, when I knew I would have to go on the air in front of the entire grandstand, I got quite nervous. Last Saturday, I didn’t. I got hungry, ate an entire order of french fries, and bought a Makers Mark and ginger ale. I nursed my way through half the Maker’s Mark, consuming enough for a buzz of bravery, but not enough to spoil the show. Then it was time to walk down to the racetrack circle and get ready to go on the air.

Sasscer meets Shelly
I was introduced to radio host Shelly Perkins, who held a cheat sheet that did not include the name of my new novel. She also wanted to pronounce my name as “Sow sir.” I told her to pronounce it like she was telling someone not to “sass her.” 

She said, “Okay. When we go on, you will tell me a little about your book.” 

I froze. I hadn’t even thought about talking about my book. Where was my head? So I did a very fast mental repeat of my novel's elevator pitch, letting it rise to the top of my brain until it was as big and clear as a billboard. 

While I did this, the fifth race ran. After the field galloped out, the winner, ridden by Horatio Karamanos, came into the winner’s circle and we all moved out of the way for the win picture. Afterwards, I ended up standing next to Karamanos as he stood on the scales to weigh in.
Horatio Karamanos rides in the winner, Little Piasano
For me, an amazing coincidence as a fictional character named Eduardo Carmanos, based loosely on the real Karamanos, features largely in the novel “Racing from Death.” 
Karamanos (red cap) on the weight scale standing next to Sasscer (turquoise)
Carmanos has an even bigger role in the just finished manuscript, “The Sea Horse Trade.” When you read, “Racing from Death,” you will race with Nikki in a Colonial Downs turf stake where the fictional character, jockey Carmanos, blocks and stops Nikki’s horse three times, trying to keep Nikki from winning. Those that have read the book tell me they felt like they were there on the track, grinding it out to the wire – that they couldn’t put the book down.

Suddenly, Shelly Perkins motioned me to join her, the camera guy stood in front of us, and did a finger count down from five to one, and the light on his camera went red.

I managed not to screw up, and finished by telling the crowd "Racing from Death" features young jockey Nikki Latrelle who tangles with a murdering sociopath who is selling diet cocktails to jockeys who struggle to maintain racing weight. 

Shelly said, "Gee, I'm glad that's fiction!" 

I had to laugh.