The Inside Rail

The house is quiet. The Christmas tree lights are dark. The Australian Shepherd/Catahoula, who hasn't threatened to bite me in hours, lies silent on his bed. Deerwood Lake drifts quietly behind glass doors. The coffee maker, which worked overtime Christmas Day, has yet to stir. I step gently, slippers dangling from my left fingertips, backpack slung over my right shoulder, down the stairs, to the cocoon of a basement at a lake house outside Birmingham, Alabama.

I'm the only person tiptoeing in the dark to watch Boxing Day jump races - running six hours earlier than wake up calls in my time zone.

My laptop springs to life and I open a spreadsheet with highlighted races - starting with a mares hurdle at Wetherby that goes at 6:15, highlighting with the King George at Kempton at 9:15 and concluding with a bumper at Wincanton at 9:55. Then it's back to Christmas - the day after - with my in-laws.

It's the only Christmas tradition I have left - 12 years in a row (skipping 2008 when Miles was 16 days old and we stayed home in Pennsylvania). My big fat Greek family sleeps in the day after Christmas and I hunker down with my laptop, 11 meets from Ireland and England, a few hours of solitude, a few hours of routine for a foreigner in a foreign land.

The races come hard and fast, Min wins like a good thing, Royal Vacation gets lucky when Might Bite launches and crashes at the last in Kempton's third, Yanworth grinds it out in the Christmas Hurdle and then it's the King George.

"Hey, what you doing?"

My brother-in-law, Kenny Baker, walks down the steps and grabs the remote. He channel surfs between Sportscenter and the Golf Channel while Thistlecrack, Cue Card and three others roll to the first in Kempton's tradition Boxing Day feature.

Thistlecrack bows his neck, tucks his head and then launches at the open ditch, foregoing a stride, clearing the fence like it's on fire and landing just as far away as he launched.

"Whoaaaa," Baker says, recognizing brilliance in a foreign species.

He played rugby, builds houses, golfs for fun, he doesn't know anything about horses. Or, perhaps, he does. Thistlecrack, breathing different air, toys with stablemate, veteran Cue Card, and three overmatched rivals, leaping and loping like God's own. Baker and I watch in awe as Thistlecrack launches again at the open ditch, rolls into the stretch, puts himself right at the last and wins hard held.

I mutter something about finding one like that.

"Set your world free, wouldn't he?"

And for a moment, I'm drifting away, a long way from a basement in Alabama.