Q&A With Luciano DiNardo, Author of ‘The Angel’s Kissing Spring’

In my final year of high school, Luciano DiNardo taught my English Writer’s Craft class. I have many fond memories from the course, where I learned a ton about writing (and life). It was also in that class—in 2002—that I first heard about The Angel’s Kissing Spring, a novel Luc had written and was trying to sell.

We kept in touch after I graduated, with our shared interest in football, Seinfeld and, of course, writing. And every so often, I would ask about the novel, whether it was any closer to getting published, always receiving a similar response: not yet. So I was quite excited when I received an email last month saying that it was (finally) published.

Clearly, The Angel’s Kissing Spring had a long gestational period, but the wait was worth it. The book is fantastic—a dramatic and mysterious unconventional love story full of fascinating characters set in small-town America during the Second World War. I had a ton of questions when I finished reading and Luc agreed to answer some of them for this blog.

There are no spoilers here…the Q&A is mostly about the background of how the story came to be and about Luc’s writing process. If you want to get into the plot, well, you’ll just have to buy a copy for yourself.

In the meantime, here is Luciano DiNardo—a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan and fellow Carleton University grad who once received a letter from Harper Lee—on opening lines, the frustrations of the publishing industry and his all-time favourite books:


What does your title mean and where did it come from?

I was always intrigued by James Cain’s title for The Postman Always Rings Twice because there is no postman ringing a doorbell in the story. I found out that Cain’s postman did ring the doorbell twice to let him know that he had mail waiting for him. Cain grew to despise the sound of the doorbell ringing twice because of the constant rejection letters he was receiving in his mailbox. There isn’t a clear connection with my title to the story. I always liked the sound of it, but if there is a link to the story, it would have to be the well where Charlie dies. In some circles people believed that an angel kissed a person before that person went to heaven, and Charlie would have had an angel kiss him in the well which is connected to an underground spring.

When did you first get the idea for the story and are any parts of it inspired by true events? If not, what did inspire the story?

There isn’t any factual connection to a particular person or event that triggered my motivation to write the story, but there are little bits and pieces of myself, some family members and other events that I’ve used in the story just to add some description or a quirky touch to help promote interest. Alice’s father had a Dalmatian that he eventually gave away. We once owned a Dalmatian for a brief period of time. Alice’s natural ability with numbers is connected to my younger son’s aptitude for math.

Your protagonist is a woman, and I know you had a few female friends read drafts to ensure the voice was authentic, but why choose to write a female main character—especially when she is such a solitary person and so much of the plot is revealed through her thoughts and words? Did you know you could accurately portray a woman’s thoughts and feelings before you started writing?

For some reason I just thought that the story would work so much better from a woman’s point of view. I could have had the story driven by Billy Johnson’s point of view, but I always thought there was more that could be offered from the point of view of a mother’s loss concerning the death of her young son rather than a father’s or a man’s loss concerning the death of a child.

When did you send out your first query letter? And how frustrating was it to have to wait so long for the book to be published, especially when you see how much crap gets churned out every year and somehow ends up in Chapters or Barnes & Noble?

I started sending out query letters about fifteen years ago. To my surprise, an agent in Manhattan with a fairly solid reputation agreed to represent the story and offered me a three-year contract that I accepted. I was disappointed with his lack of communication so at the end of the three-year contract, I decided not to re-sign with him. I was convinced that I would pick up with another agent fairly quickly, but that didn’t happen. Many agents told me the story was well written and interesting, but they “didn’t know what to do with it” whatever that meant! And it was frustrating going into bookstores and seeing some of the stuff that was in print. But it’s a crapshoot in so many ways. There are about a million new books published every year, so it’s like winning a lottery. It’s often been said that writing a novel is easy; getting it published is the hard part.

Publishers are increasingly looking for authors with ready-made audiences, so they can be reasonably assured a book will sell. Did you ever hear from an agent or a publisher that the fact that you don’t have that audience, say on social media or through a blog, hindered the book’s publication?

No one ever expressly mentioned that to me. Of course, a built-in audience always helps. That’s why celebrity biographies are always out there. A first-time writer always has the challenge of familiarizing himself to all the faceless readers out there.

You have a knack for building and keeping suspense, and for revealing just the right amount of information at just the right time. Is that something that comes naturally to you when you are developing a story or do you have to work hard at finding the perfect nugget of information to drop to keep readers turning the pages?

Sometimes an idea would just hit me. It would be the right thing to develop at just that moment in the story. I did re-write the story several times, and on one occasion I edited about seventy pages from the story because I felt there was too much psycho-babble going on and I just decided to concentrate on the linear development of the story. I did make deliberate decisions to make sure that my chapters ended with something intriguing or something that was satisfying with the character development or story development.

I love to hear about different writers’ processes, so I have a few questions on that: You were working as a teacher while you wrote it. How long did the first draft take and what was the process like? Did you write every morning or evening? A certain number of words per day? Cram it all into one summer break?

When I started writing the story I was working teaching full-time during the day and I was working as a night school teacher on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During the summer holiday that year, I also taught a summer school course. I would be teaching and lecturing and an idea would pop into my head and I would have to stop the class and jot on a piece of paper whatever had popped into my mind. I would be driving the car and I would hear something on the radio, and I would have to scramble for a pen and some paper. It took me about a year to write the story, and there would be periods when I wouldn’t write anything for a couple of weeks because I didn’t know where the story should go or what should happen to a certain character. I learned that there are a lot of uncertainties when you’re writing.


When you began writing, how much of the story was already mapped out?

I looked upon the writing of the story as being similar to drifting on a raft. You can drift and just let the current take you to wherever it takes you and once you get there at the end of your drifting, you’ll know you’ve reached the end of your destination. Or you can get on the raft and know in advance where and when you’re going to get off. I tended to just drift with the story. I didn’t know for certain how the story would end or what would happen to certain characters until I was almost forced to reach a decision.

How similar is the finished product to your first draft?

It was very similar, but I knew from the moment I began writing the story that the story’s conclusion had to have a finality to it. Yet, at the same time, I wanted to leave many unanswered questions because in life there are times when people aren’t given convenient answers or solutions for their problems or mysteries. My first draft tended to concentrate more on the town of Ashton Falls and its people, and then I decided to concentrate more on the central character of Alice Dempster. My first draft’s opening line was “Ashton Falls was always known by two of its buildings: the church and the jailhouse…” I changed the opening line to “The only thing Alice Dempster ever resented was the stain on the front seat of the car.” I think the change in the opening line reflects that the story was going to be foremost about Alice with the town in the background rather than having the town take centre stage with Alice imbedded into it.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the film Gone Girl, in terms of the mysterious, strong female lead and the feelings evoked by the story. I know you are also a film buff, so, when you wrote your novel, did you have one eye on the screen? The detail, such as your descriptions of the book’s settings, is certainly very cinematic and I think the story would translate very well to film. 

I know the story would translate well to film because it’s a simple story involving a simple setting with simple people. Some people have commented on how visual the story is, and I’ll take that as a compliment. Many stories today are written with a cinematic style so that the reader can “see” the story. Long gone are the days of Charles Dickens when he could afford to devote four pages to the sound of horses’ hooves in an alley surfaced with cobblestones.

What interesting (or frustrating) things did you learn about the publishing industry throughout the process of bringing this book to market?

The driving force for many years now is how much money can this story generate. Publishers have always been preoccupied with how much money a certain story can make, but years ago publishers would put a story out into the marketplace if they believed in the story, crossed their fingers and hoped for some success. There’s so much competition now for people’s attention and money, that publishers have become very wary of taking chances. As I mentioned earlier, many publishers told me that the story was a good one, but they “didn’t know what to do with it”.

What advice would you offer to a young person who tells you, “I want to write a book”? 

You have to have patience, be stubborn, listen to other people’s opinions and you have to have a thick skin.

Finally, what are your three favourite books of all-time? And please give a one-sentence pitch for each for why someone should read them. I’ve already penciled in To Kill a Mockingbird at No. 1…

To Kill a Mockingbird has one of the best circular narratives. Many people have commented on Harper Lee’s dual point-of-view narrative, that is, Scout’s observations as a child and her later recollections of those same events from a distanced mature adult’s point-of-view. I loved Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove and how he developed the characters of Gus McRae and Woodrow Call to be the foils they are. It’s about a thousand pages long and I’ve read it twice and I usually don’t read books twice. I would also have to mention Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. He was very gutsy to use the Columbine shooting as a backdrop with his story, and I really identified with Maureen who was a nurse at the school during the shooting.

Get your copy of The Angel’s Kissing Spring here.

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Ava’s Sportswriting Debut

My five(soon to be six)-year-old daughter Ava said she wanted to write an article, just like her dad, so we watched qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this morning and took some notes. Here is her story:

Formula One Qualifying

By: Ava Walthert

The track is in the desert, but it is strange because there is water around it. Boats are sailing where the race track is and it reminded me of the Monaco race. When the qualifying is on, it gets dark. It is night time.

Fernando Alonso is focused, but he gets a puncture and Jenson Button passes him. He is out.

Jenson Button has sparks coming from the back of his car. He is a great driver.

Sebastian Vettel thought he had a good lap, but he didn’t, and he is close to the back. Kimi Raikkonen did a good job and he was third.

The Force Indias were in third and fourth earlier and Sergio Perez finished fourth. They’re usually not that fast.

Lewis Hamilton did not let anyone pass him until the last lap. Nico Rosberg passed him on the last lap, so he gets to start first. He was concentrating and pumping his fist because he won.

Lewis Hamilton said, “Nico did a good job today.”

Nico Rosberg said, “I’m enjoying the moment.”

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A Pittance of Time

The first time I heard this song was a day or two before Remembrance Day 2007. I was in a classroom in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu with my platoon in Basic Training. Some of our instructors played the video for us.

Our platoon was one of the first to include non-commissioned soldiers who had been accepted into the officer training program, so we had a bunch of guys who had served in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. They had already lived through the shit and naturally we all looked up to them.

When the video ended, there were a lot of tears in the room—many from what history books would refer to as “battle-hardened soldiers” or something like that.

Every so often—not only on Remembrance Day, but perhaps especially then—it is important to watch something like this or listen to In Flanders Fields or read the stories of individual soldiers in the many wars our country has fought. You may not agree with the politics of each war, but the sacrifices made by regular Canadians in the pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy deserves to be remembered and honoured.

Even in times of peace, soldiers and their families make enormous sacrifices that the rest of us don’t often see.

When we talk about places like Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach, proud moments in our country’s history, we cannot forget the cost of those battles. In the four days it took to capture Vimy, for example, 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed.

That’s 3,598 families, in just four days of a four-year war, finding out that their father or brother or husband or son was not coming home.

“The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge” by William Longstaff

Since Confederation, more than 100,000 Canadian soldiers have been killed serving their country. More than 100,000 families have received that awful news, some more than once. And, sadly, more will die in the future.

Today, and every day, we remember them and we thank them.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

– from For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon

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The Blue Jays: A Love Story

Tonight is a good night. Tonight, for the first time in 22 years, the Toronto Blue Jays are AL East champions. For the first time since I was nine years old, the Jays are going to the play-offs (and no, clinching a berth in the wildcard game a few days ago did not mean we were going to the play-offs).

A lifetime of Jays fandom.

A lifetime of Jays fandom.

I was born to be a Jays fan. My dad is from Toronto and he followed the team from the beginning. My parents took me to Exhibition Stadium when I was a baby, and my mom was horrified as I crawled around under the seats.

From the time I can remember—just before the first World Series—dad would take my brother, Adam, and me to a game every year (we live in Ottawa, so it’s about a five-hour trip). We would usually get tickets up in the 500s in the infield and bring dad’s big binoculars to enhance the viewing experience.

Kelly Gruber was my first favourite player. For my fifth birthday, I think, my dad stood in line for an hour or more at some store in Toronto to get him to sign a card for me.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.25.14 PMOn the evening of Friday, July 10, 1992, we were on our way to Toronto for an afternoon game the next day against Oakland. Mike Moore vs. Juan Guzman (OK, I didn’t remember that—I just looked it up). Anyway, we were about an hour outside Ottawa when the car broke down. Obviously, dad was pissed. But I was seven and Adam was five and we just wanted to have some fun while we sat on the side of the road and waited for the tow truck.

I don’t know exactly what we did, but I do remember my dad giving us several chances to stop and us not taking them. By the time we had the car towed back to Ottawa, he had made it clear we weren’t going to the game. Our friends even offered us their car the next day, but dad said no. Here’s the unused ticket (I think this might be the last season I didn’t see at least one game):

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In 1997, I think, we went to a Friday night game with my grampa, who lived outside Peterborough at the time. I had a hockey practice at six or seven the next morning, but we stayed at the game until the 7th or 8th inning. I distinctly remember Jose Cruz, Jr. hitting a home run as we were walking to the exit. Dad then drove through the night, dropping grampa off and making it home in time for the practice (which I undoubtedly did not want to go to).

As Adam and I grew up, and before our Notre Dame football obsession took hold, the Blue Jays were the one sports team we both liked. It was the only time we could watch a game together and root for the same team.

When Adam went away to Brock University and I went to St-Jean and then Gagetown for army training, we used to call each other and watch the games together over the phone—especially in that great summer of 2008 where Cito Gaston returned and it looked like maybe, finally, the drought was going to end. Instead, despite finishing 10 games over .500, we were fourth in the AL East, 11 games out of first.

Matt, Adam, Joseph and our shine.

Matt, Adam, Joseph and our shine.

In more recent years, I’ve started tagging along on Adam’s annual home opener trip with his buddies from Brock, where we rent a room in the SkyDome hotel and rarely remember anything past the second inning.

Once, with the Red Sox visiting, Adam got into an argument with some Boston fans and ended up booted from the stadium because some lady complained that he swore, even though a section full of Sox fans had been swearing right back. When we asked why only Adam was tossed, the security guard said it was because there were so many Boston fans, so it was easier just to remove him. Talk about home field advantage!

But no more. Now the Dome is packed with Jays fans, louder than I’ve ever heard. Sure, half of them have only been fans since the Tulowitzki trade (you can easily pick them out because they are wearing Tulo jerseys), but we’re 53-28 at home and about to clinch home-field advantage throughout the play-offs.

The kids are excited, too. We took Ava to her first Jays game when she was just a year-and-a-half old. I caught a foul ball—my first and only one—and handed it to her. She threw it down the stairs. Good arm for a one-year-old, and luckily I got it back.

289834_10152183926405241_1978234193_oMike and Ava both love Joey Bats and every time Mike sees a Yankees player, he automatically boos (it works for the Ottawa Senators, too).

Apart from that game where we left to get to my hockey practice, I think the only other time I have left a Jays game early was the last of a three-straight games we saw in August 2007. I had just graduated from university and was getting ready to leave for basic training. I wanted to buy Caitlin’s engagement ring while we were in Toronto, but something about the store’s hours meant the only time we could go was that Monday afternoon.

So Adam and I took off early and headed up to Bloor Street, while the other guys watched the end of the game. In the middle of the shopping trip, we heard David Beckham was at a store next door, so we dashed out. The sales lady was understanding, I think, and we did go back. I ended up picking up the ring a few weeks later, when Caitlin and I were back in T.O. (and yes, we saw a Jays game on that trip, too). A bit more than two years later, Ava was born.

When the Jays won the Series in 1992, I didn’t get to stay up until the end of Game 6 (remember, it went 11 innings), but my dad taped it and left a note for me on the kitchen table saying we had won. I’m looking forward to doing the same for Ava and Mike this year.

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Lunch Time and the Power of Suggestion

The other day, Caitlin asked Michael what he wanted to eat for lunch.


Mike, on an important call, I guess (he said he was talking to Jenson Button).

Usually, this question elicits an “I don’t know” or “peanut butter sandwich” response. This time, though, Mike said he wanted an egg-and-sausage sandwich on toast.

A surprisingly detailed request, maybe, considering he is three, but not altogether shocking. Mike’s egg intake can, on occasion, rival Gaston’s from The Beauty and the Beast. He also loves Egg McMuffins—something we discovered on a recent family vacation. Eggs are one of the few proteins he regularly eats.

Anyway, Caitlin made the sandwich and set it down in front of him.

“Mommy, where’s the fruit?”

“What fruit?”

Mike hops down from his chair, grabs a flyer from M&M he had been looking at and shows it to Caitlin. It has a photo of what looked to him like an egg-and-sausage sandwich (although it actually appears to be made with hash browns and is called breakfast pizza).

I guess he mistook it for the lunch menu Chez Walthert.

Of course, it has a bowl of fruit beside it.


So Caitlin, laughing, grabs him an apple from the fridge, washes it and puts it beside his plate.


“What’s wrong, Mike?”

“It’s not the same fruit.”

It sure wasn’t, but we didn’t have any fresh berries or cantaloupe on hand.

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The Day I Met Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert has been part of my life since university. Like most students, I did (and still do) a lot of research and writing late at night, and I always used to take a break when The Colbert Report came on.


When I first got married and lived in downtown Ottawa, a few blocks from my office, I PVRed the show and sometimes walked home at lunch to eat and watch the previous night’s episode.

At some point, I signed up for the mailing list to be notified whenever tickets for the show became available. I don’t think I ever received an email, but I used to check the website every so often, always seeing the same message that there weren’t any tickets at that time.

Then, in April 2014, came the news that The Report was ending and Colbert would replace David Letterman on The Late Show in 2015. Time to get serious.

I started reading up on how other people had scored tickets to the show and discovered the @DailyTix Twitter account, which sent out a tweet every time tickets to The Daily Show or The Report became available.

Usually, though, the tweets were for two tickets available on such-and-such date, or four tickets for another date. By the time I would see the tweet and click on the link, they were invariably gone.

But then, one day in July, I happened to be on Twitter at lunch and the following tweet popped up:

I clicked the link immediately and 40 or 50 tickets were already gone. I filled out my contact info as quickly as I could and soon received an email confirming that I had two tickets to the show, just three months before the final episode.


Caitlin was excited, too, and we started making plans for a trip to New York. We ended up staying in Brooklyn, which neither of us had ever visited, and spent a couple days in the city before the show.

IMG_20140915_173454On the day of the taping, we had to arrive three or four hours ahead of time and wait in line outside the studio on West 54th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, just a few blocks from Columbus Circle. The guest for our episode was Mindy Kaling, which was ideal for us, as we are both big fans of The Office.

After a long wait outside (as long as one of us stayed in line, the other could leave to get food, or whatever), we were crammed with the other 120 or so guests into a small room inside the studio, where there were washrooms and TVs playing some highlights from past shows. There was one very annoying lady who had to cackle at each clip and then loudly talk about how she remembered seeing it on the show—just to prove that she was, indeed, a fan.


Eventually, we were seated in the theatre (sorry, no photos allowed—but if you’ve seen the show, you’ve seen it all; the theatre is pretty small) and a warm-up comic came out to do a routine and, well, get everyone warmed up.IMG_20140915_175935

The taping itself was pretty cool. Stephen answered a few questions from the audience before the show and re-filmed a few small parts where he had messed up after the taping was finished. At the end of each segment, when a commercial break would occur during the broadcast, the writers and stage manager would cluster around Stephen’s desk, presumably to discuss any last minute changes or offer any reminders for the next part of the show.

At the end, he hung around and answered a few more questions, including denying a guy who asked if he could take a photo sitting behind Stephen’s desk and talking about a First World War audiobook he was listening to.

Then we headed back out to the sidewalk. There were barricades set up in front of the door and a small group of people hanging around, but most of the fans had disappeared into the New York night.

IMG_20140915_202711After a couple minutes, Mindy Kaling popped out and started signing autographs and posing for photos with the remaining fans. She was really friendly and engaged, complimenting Caitlin’s Cape Cod lobster sweatshirt while she signed an autograph for her sister.

Five or 10 minutes later, Kaling’s assistant said they had to leave and she hopped in an SUV and took off. Some security guards took down the barricades and pretty much everyone left. But, we figured, Stephen was still inside. With no plans for later that night, we (read: I) decided to wait.

Slowly, people started trickling out—production assistants and other staff we recognized from the taping. Every so often, a security guard would open a door and look around, while a chauffeur idled his town car across the street.

After more than an hour of standing and waiting, the car suddenly pulled up in front of the door and Stephen came down the steps. I called his name and asked if I could grab a picture.

“Quickly,” he smiled.sc

After I thanked him, telling him we had flown in from Canada for the show, he jumped into his car and we started walking in the same direction his car was travelling, toward Broadway. After half-a-block, the black sedan pulled over and Stephen rolled down his window.

“Do you want one, too?” he asked Caitlin. “A picture?”

“Thanks,” she replied. “That’s OK—but would you sign this card?”

She handed him a blank paper, he signed it and drove off again.

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A Bit of Background to My American Pharoah at Saratoga Story

With Triple Crown winner American Pharoah set to run in the Travers Stakes, I was in Saratoga Springs, NY on August 28 and 29 to cover the atmosphere for VICE Sports. Here’s a bit of background on how my story came to be.


As soon as Pharoah won at Belmont in June, I was looking ahead to when he would race next, and whether I would have a chance to see him. After he won the Haskell Invitational in New Jersey in July, it looked like his next (and probably second-last) race would be either the Travers or the Pennsylvania Derby in Philadelphia in September.

I started thinking about a story I could write, hoping to employ a lesson I learned from Robert Daley’s autobiography, Writing on the Edge: If there’s somewhere you want to go or something you want to do, find someone who will pay you to go and write a story about it.

Of course, I’m not a horse racing insider and there are plenty of writers who can do a better job covering the race itself (if you haven’t read Tim Layden’s stories for Sports Illustrated, I’ll wait while you do). But I thought I could pitch a story about the crazy atmosphere that has followed American Pharoah ever since his Belmont victory and what it the party would be like at the Travers.

I pitched it to three different VICE editors before finding the right one and I was off to the races—literally…almost. I waited until Pharoah was confirmed for the Travers (and until I had an assignment) to apply for media accreditation—the New York Racing Association’s media folks were understandably busy and inundated with requests in the week leading up to the race, and my application was denied.

When I had heard the race was going to sell out before people even knew whether Pharoah was coming or not, I had purchased two general admission tickets so that I could go whether I was writing a story or not. My editor was still cool with me going as a spectator, as I could still report on the atmosphere trackside, but, to quote Hunter Thompson:

We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard—or even Mace somebody.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.14.33 PMLuckily, it didn’t come to that. After much pleading and several assurances on my part that I didn’t need a seat in the press box, which was full, the lovely Jeanne Schnell, NYRA communications coordinator, took pity on me and approved my credential (I did make the climb up to the press box on Friday morning and was promptly ushered out by the manager, but at least I could access everywhere else at the track).

I left Ottawa before dawn on Friday in a rented Kia Sorento (free upgrade from a Corolla because the lady who rented it thought it was too big for her—gracias, Enterprise), arriving in Saratoga just before 10 o’clock. After picking up my press pass, I wandered around for a while to get my bearings.

I felt out-of-place and not only did I not know anyone there, I would barely recognize anyone except a few core members of Pharoah’s team. When I cover F1 races, I recognize everybody, even if I don’t know them—not so here.

Eventually, I decided I needed to find American Pharoah, so I headed out to the stables on the back stretch. His was pretty easy to pick out—it was the only one with barriers at each end manned by security guards.


After chatting with one of the guards for a few minutes, he told me that Pharoah’s trainers would probably come around three o’clock to take him for a little walk, so I spent the next hour or so hanging out and watching the races from the backstretch.

Right on time, Bob Baffert’s assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes appeared and brought Pharoah out of his stall, right in the middle of a long stable, to keep the crowds back. People clustered at the barricades at either end of the stable as horse and trainer walked in a slow loop.  Almost every time Pharoah got to the end of the row of old maples that lined the stable, he paused and held his head in the air, posing for the gathered fans snapping photos non-stop (I may have taken a few, as well).

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 7.12.58 PM

After Pharoah returned to his stall, I walked back to the grandstand and decided it was time to call it a day.  I had planned on going into Saratoga Springs to see what was happening—perhaps another scene for the story—but I wanted to check into my motel first and have a shower and maybe a nap.  I walked back across the street, towards the Oklahoma Training Track, where I had parked, passing by a row of signs listing all of the previous Triple Crown winners.  American Pharoah’s had just been installed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 7.31.24 AMScreen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.23.37 PM

After a quick Walmart stop for some boneless wings, my first food since breakfast (and one of my favourite things about America), I drove north for about 25 minutes to Lake George, the closest place I could find a reasonably priced room for the weekend (and I booked a few weeks in advance—before Ahmed Zayat announced Pharoah was coming). In the end, I never made it back out of my room, which was probably for the best, considering I needed to get an early start Saturday morning, too. The track opened at 7 a.m. and it was going to be busy.

The drive back down I-87 the next morning was fine and I pulled off the interstate at about 6:45. Traffic was backed up nearly to the exit. Post time for the Travers was 11 hours away.

As I was waiting in the traffic jam on Union Avenue, right beside the grandstand, the gates opened and I saw the stampede among general admission ticket holders for the track’s picnic tables and the best viewing spots.  One of the coolest things about Saratoga is that you can reserve a picnic table (of which the official program said there are 700) with a cooler or a blanket or even a newspaper.  You just leave it at your spot and nobody will touch it for the rest of the day.  People also bring folding chairs and position them in front of the grandstand, claiming their seats for the race.

The unofficial reservation policy applies not only to picnic tables, but to any other seat (or object resembling a seat) at the track—and here it becomes annoying. By the afternoon, you couldn’t even find a place to sit underneath the grandstand, where there are benches and chairs positioned in front of the TV screens. Many of the seats were empty, but they were “reserved.”

Anyway, after finding a parking spot by the Oklahoma circuit again, I walked back over to the track. The majority of licence plates were from New York, obviously, but people had come from everywhere to see American Pharoah. I saw plates from Florida, Maine, California…three of the four corners of the country (Montana was the closest I saw to the Pacific Northwest).  But here was South Carolina, over there, Texas.  And everyone was in a good mood.

The first race was not scheduled until 11:45, but there was a real festival atmosphere around the track and (almost) everyone was ready to party.


For a while, they replayed this year’s Triple Crown races and some old Travers races, with the sound on over the loudspeakers. I still get chills (literally) watching the homestretch of the Belmont (which I watched live on my laptop in the media centre at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve while all the European journos were watching the Champions League final).

“And they’re into the stretch, and American Pharoah makes his run for glory…”

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By the time the races started, just before noon, the track was getting very crowded and fans were already five or six deep along the rail, returning to their seats or picnic tables (or the concessions and betting windows) between races.

IMG_6253Ah, the concessions. I have never been to a sporting venue of any kind with a greater variety of concessions than Saratoga Race Course. There were all your typical snacks, but also a Mexican stand, a lobster hut, a chowder bar (I later learned chowder is quite popular in Saratoga), a specialty fry stand, some sandwich places, a fresh salad bar, various chains (Shake Shack, Dunkin’ Donuts) and an incredible drink selection, including tons of local New York state beers, which I unfortunately couldn’t sample.  I’m sure there were more I forgot/didn’t see.

There was also “American Pharoah Breakfast” sponsored by Heineken in the morning. That reminded me of Bart before the Springfield mini-putt championship (“Newsflash, Lisa: Bart is not a horse!”). I got a fried egg sandwich with cheese for three bucks…not bad.


I spent the early part of the afternoon wandering around, interviewing various fans and just listening and observing.  With such a long day, the mood was generally mellow (except when the horses were running), although you could tell people were excited for American Pharoah.

About an hour before Travers post time, I headed out to American Pharoah’s stable and when I arrived, he was having a pre-race bath. I followed him from his stable almost all the way to the paddock and the scene was incredible, much of which I described in my article. People were 5, 10 or more deep along much of the route, and particularly when he left the paddock to enter the track.

I had originally planned to watch the race from behind the first level of grandstands, but that was also packed about 10 deep, so I continued upward. Eventually, I ended up in one of the exclusive club areas directly over the finish line, maybe 3o or 40 feet from where Bob Baffert was standing.

IMG_6270As Pharoah and Frosted rounded the final turn neck and neck, the crowd noise was incredible—even more so when Pharoah pulled ahead. And then Keen Ice ran him down at the wire and it seemed like everyone was in shock. Some of Keen Ice’s connections started running down the stairs and I followed them into the winners’ circle.

“Unbelievable,” everyone kept saying. “Unbelievable.”

I was standing next to American Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, while he was interviewed by NBC and ESPN and then I just took in the scene. Someone, I think maybe Keen Ice’s trainer, said he wasn’t surprised Keen Ice had won, based on how he had run against Pharoah before (although he had been dominated by a coasting Pharoah at their last race at Monmouth Park).


After that, I spent another hour or so wandering through the dissipating crowd, getting some reaction from the shocking upset.

Around 7:30, I made my way back to the car and took my time getting everything ready to go, as the cars were barely moving. I talked to Caitlin, worrying that I didn’t have enogh material for the story, but she calmed me down, as usual (in the end, I had too much—which is why you’re reading this, I guess). Once things started to clear out, I headed for downtown Saratoga Springs and the only sports bar I found on Google: Peabody’s.

After a bit of supper, washed down with a New York beer I don’t remember the name of, and a nice chat with the hostess, whose dad owned the bar and was born in Ottawa(!), I started to drive home. About two hours later, I pulled over at a rest stop near Plattsburgh to sleep for a few hours in the car (the glamour of journalism!) and made it home a bit after six on Sunday morning, just in time for the kids to wake up.


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Backpacking in the New Hampshire Backcountry

Caitlin is really interested in backpacking and backcountry camping.  She’s been reading a lot about the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Coast Trail, the Camino de Santiago and any other long hiking trails you can think of.

Last summer, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, we hiked a small section of Appalachian Trail with the kids and nearly got eaten (or something) by a copperhead.

We’ve done lots of car camping and I spent plenty of time in the field during my army training, but neither of us had done any real backcountry hiking and camping—until now.

After a bunch of research, we decided to head to White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.  More specifically, we found a 25-mile circuit through the Pemigewasset Wilderness and traversing Franconia Ridge.  Half of the hike was on the AT, with the rest on local, connected trails.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.42.26 PMArriving in Lincoln, NH late on Thursday night, we slept at a Rodeway Inn and woke up to light rain and threatening clouds.  By the time we parked at the Lincoln Woods visitors’ center, made some final adjustments to our packs and started to hike, it had cleared a bit.  That didn’t last long and we spent most of the day hiking in the rain—thankfully, the trails we were on had good tree cover.

The hike started out along an old railroad bed, which had been built for the lumber industry in the 1800s.  Many of the old railroad ties were still embedded in the trail and the path was wide, smooth and not very steep.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.41.52 PMEarly on, we took a detour down a side trail to visit Lincoln Falls.  As you can see (this photo only shows a small part of the falls), it is a pretty cool waterfall with various chutes through spouting here and there through the rocks.  There was a family in their bathing suits, sliding down some of the chutes and splashing in the cool water.  One of the boys, who was maybe 10 or 12, did a flip off the rocks into a pool below…dangerous and impressive.

After that, the climbing got steeper and the trail was rougher in sections, but overall it wasn’t too bad.  We made it to the first tentsite, 13 Falls, around supper time.  After setting up the tent, I went inside to change into dry clothes and didn’t make it out again until the next morning.  Caitlin ate supper and sat by the falls for a bit before coming in to sleep.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.42.55 PMThe tentsite included a “kitchen” area (tarp with a log under it to sit on) and about 10 packed-earth platforms for setting up tents. There were bear boxes and a composting toilet, tended by the site caretaker, as well as a water source (the waterfall).  The sites are well-designed to minimize campers’ impacts on the backcountry and the caretakers were extremely friendly and helpful.  They collect $8 each night from everyone staying at their sites.

The weather was much better the next morning, which was good because we knew we had a long day that included climbing Mount Garfield, Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln.  The climb up Garfield was pretty tough, including a couple sections where we had to use our hands to pull ourselves up extremely steep rock faces. We joined the Appalachian Trail partway through the climb and by the time we got to the top it was lunchtime, although we knew we weren’t halfway through the day’s hike.

Looking across to Franconia Ridge and realizing we still had a long way to go.

Looking across to Franconia Ridge and realizing we still had a long way to go.

However, thanks to some poor map-reading, we assumed that once we reached the summit of Mount Garfield, we would more or less keep the altitude we had gained and traverse the ridgeline including the other peaks.  Not quite. Instead, from just below the summit (which had amazing views), we could see that we needed to climb nearly all the way down before heading back up the slopes of Lafayette.  That was deflating.

At this point, I should mention that, just before the Garfield summit, we passed the last source of water until the tentsite we were aiming for that night: Liberty Springs.

The climb up Lafayette took forever, with several more steep sections and some challenging rock scrambles in the alpine zone above the tree line.  There were also about 17 false summits before we finally topped out at 5,249 feet. Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.44.27 PMBy the time we reached the summit, the sun was already dropping and we figured we still had at least three hours before we would reach Liberty Springs (if only that had proven to be accurate!).  We barely even paused to enjoy the spectacular view, and I was so focused on making it to the tentsite that I had stopped taking pictures.  I gave my camera to Caitlin, instead, as she had more energy than me at that point.

At least it was all downhill from there (sort of).  After dropping off the summit of Lafayette, where someone had set up their tent for a cold night, we climbed two lesser peaks: Lincoln and the unofficially named Mount Truman. The downhill portion proved to be nearly as challenging (and nearly as slow) as the uphill parts, though.  The steps heading down the mountain often had two- to three-foot drops between them, giving the knees and feet quite a pounding.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.44.48 PMOn the way down from Lincoln, just before we reentered the tree line, we switched on our headlamps. Caitlin wanted to stop and pitch our tent near the trail and I would have agreed, but we were nearly out of water.

After stumbling through the dark woods for a couple more hours, worried that we had somehow made a wrong turn off the AT (in the official wilderness areas, the trails are not nearly as well-marked as usual), we finally made it to the junction with the Liberty Springs trail.  At that point, 0.3 miles above the tentsite, we drank the rest of our water, which we had been saving, just in case.

After another very steep descent, we came upon the spring—a small trickle on a rock face—and refilled our bottles.  As the guidebook had warned, because the site was on the Appalachian Trail, it was very full (this one had wooden platforms to pitch tents on).  It was after 10 p.m. and we couldn’t find/didn’t want to wake the caretaker, so we squeezed in beside another tent that was covering about two-thirds of one platform.

The platforms are built to share and we learned from the caretaker the next morning that he had already told our neighbours they would have company that night.  But that didn’t stop them from grumbling as we set up our tent (to be fair, it was pretty late and despite our efforts to be quiet, we did wake them—although I didn’t feel so bad when one of them proceeded to snore loudly the entire night).

In the morning, we had two choices.  The first was to continue our original route and climb two more mountains, which would have completed the loop and probably gotten us back to our car in time for supper.  It also would have involved backtracking the 0.3 miles back up to the junction, which may not seem like much, but it was not an easy path. My exact words, I believe, were, “Fuck that!”  Caitlin agreed.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.43.23 PMSo we chose option B: a three-and-a-half mile hike down the AT (again, very steep and rocky) to another visitors’ center.  We figured we could get a cab from there back to our car, but when the Liberty Springs caretaker told us there was an
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) shuttle, well that sealed the deal.

We had to hurry, though, if we were going to make the shuttle.  And hurry we did, despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours (I tend not to eat much in the field) and that Caitlin’s knees, one of which she had surgery on when she was younger, were bothering her on the descent.

We made it to the bottom exhausted, but in time for the shuttle.  Then we realized we had to hike another short trail to actual get to the shuttle stop.  After dropping a few more f-bombs, we instead walked to the visitor center and got them to call us a cab, which arrived immediately and dropped us off at our car just after 11 o’clock.  It was the best money I had spent since I bought this a few weeks earlier:

After cleaning up as much as we could, we headed to Nachos Mexican Grille in Lincoln and had the best tacos ever—and not just because we were really hungry.  The shells were homemade and deep-fried and I could still taste them a couple days later.  Even writing this, I am craving them.

Anyway, the AMC guide book rated our hike 3/5 stars in terms of difficulty, and it was…if you are a mountain climber.  If you are a normal person looking for a reasonable hike, stick to one or maybe two stars (or give yourself more time—our hike would have been more manageable with an extra day, but the terrain was still very rough).

Looking back, though, it was more fun than it seemed at the time—the same way basic training feels like fun in retrospect.

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Things My Dad Taught Me

Happy Father’s Day to my Dad!

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Here is a partial list of the things he has taught me:

  • History.  I’ve always loved learning about the past and he has always nurtured it, from recording the old Disney Davy Crockett shows (and letting my brother and me watch them incessantly) to answering my rapid-fire questions about the Red Baron (after he played “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” for me).
  • Star Wars.  I still remember him showing me A New Hope for the first time after a day of skiing.  Of course, being a fan from the very beginning (he stood in line to meet Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher at a mall in Toronto in 1977), he still prefers to refer to the first film solely as Star Wars, not A New Hope.
  • Actual stars.  He taught me about Orion and navigating using the North Star and how you can see Jupiter’s Galilean moons with a good pair of binoculars (fun fact: If Jupiter wasn’t so bright, you could actually see those four moons with your naked eyes).
  • How to build a race car.  OK, it was a pinewood derby car for Scouts, but he showed me the importance of aerodynamics and ballast, bringing home his office postal scale so we could ensure the car weighed the maximum legal amount to the gram.
  • The Blue Jays.  Growing up in Toronto, Dad is also an original Jays fan.  My parents took me to Exhibition Stadium before I could walk and each summer Dad would take my brother and me to a game at the Dome.  When the Jays won the World Series in 1992, I had to go to bed before the game ended, but my Dad recorded the end for me and left a note on the kitchen table telling me we won.
  • Fishing.  My Grampa loves to fish and he passed that on to Dad.  The love hasn’t exactly passed on to my brother or me, but has taught us how to do it when we were little and we’ve had a great time the last two years fishing with the Walthert and Wey families on Georgian Bay.


  • Gambling.  He inadvertently showed me the joy of gambling when he took me to buy a Pro Line ticket at lunch on “take your kid to work day” in high school.  He is also a decent handicapper, having grown up a few blocks from the old Woodbine racetrack, but that part hasn’t rubbed off—I bet the field against American Pharoah in the Belmont.
  • How to play hockey.  Dad was an assistant coach on some of my early hockey teams and he passed on a lot of lessons that I still remember, especially about positioning and puck movement as a defenseman.
  • How to support your kids.  Even when he wasn’t coaching, there weren’t many games of mine that he didn’t come to.  When I played football in high school and the games would start at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, he would be there.  He also never said anything negative after any games, although he would always offer helpful tips for improvement (see above).

Thanks for all of this, Dad!  I know we don’t agree on everything (does anybody agree with their parents all the time?), but I love you.

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Would a Triple Crown Winner Really Be Good for Horse Racing?

Tomorrow, American Pharoah will attempt to win the Belmont Stakes and become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown.

Every year we hear the same thing: Thoroughbred racing is a dying sport. And each year that a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, we hear the same thing: Thoroughbred racing needs a Triple Crown winner to revive it.

But does it?


Photo credit: NBC Sports via Twitter

Right now, a Triple Crown winner is a novelty. More than half of the people on Earth were not even alive for Affirmed’s win. Therefore, whenever there is the possibility of a new Triple Crown winner, everyone gets excited. Well, maybe not everyone—after a trip to Woodbine last year, my daughter said, “Daddy, I think going to the track is just exciting for adults”—but a lot of people do. A lot of people who wouldn’t normally care about horse racing.

If American Pharoah wins the Triple Crown, the next year there is a contender, you will have a lot of those same people saying, “Oh yeah—that just happened a couple years ago.” Novelty: gone.


Remember when the Boston Red Sox were the cursed underdogs who just couldn’t quite win a World Series no matter what?

When they broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, it was a huge deal and even if you weren’t a fan, you were kind of hoping they would win. But then they won two more Series over the next nine years and suddenly it’s not such a big deal anymore. In fact, the Bosox are right up there with the Yankees on the list of teams fans outside New York and Boston love to hate.

The same will happen with the Triple Crown. There will be massive interest in the winner for a little while, and maybe even a ratings boost for the next season or two, but it will not suddenly make thoroughbred racing the most popular sport in the world—nor will it cure any of the other problems it is suffering from.

As cool as it would be to see American Pharoah win—and I am cheering for him—it is probably better for the sport if he doesn’t.

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