07/28/2003 11:00PM

A jockey, a legend - a father


TUCSON, Ariz. - The vivid imagination of author Laura Hillenbrand, evident not only in "Seabiscuit" but also in her recent long New Yorker magazine narrative of her debilitating experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, has brought her fame and fortune. She is, without question, a superb storyteller.

But neither her finely drawn portrait of jockey Red Pollard in "Seabiscuit" nor the movie based on Hillenbrand's book reach the lyrical heights of three poems written by Pollard's daughter, Norah Pollard Christianson.

A teacher with a master's degree in English and a love for reading inherited from her father, Christianson, 63, is a gifted poet. Seven years ago, The Texas Thoroughbred magazine printed the poems she had written about her father. They are exquisite and eloquent.

In an interview with John McEvoy that appeared in Daily Racing Form at the time, Mrs. Christianson told of her dad's occasional visits home from the tracks, of his being plagued with melancholy but still filled with fun and humor, and of the loneliness of a daughter for her father's company.

"I imagine what prompted me to write those poems," she said, "was the fact that I would give the world to be able to sit down with my dad and ask him questions, and reconstruct his life."

Not everyone can put such emotions into words that sing, but Norah Pollard Christianson is one who possesses that God-given talent. Here are her poems about her father:

Questions I Never Asked My Father

(for John "Red" Pollard, 1909-1981)

Whatever possessed you to climb that first horse,

clutch his barrel with your skinny legs

and, hanging on to mane like mad,

steal that crazy ride across the carnival field

when you were ten and new to horses that same day?

What were you conspiring with them later

when you stole into their stalls,

the dark horses immense, breathing

and stomping in the dusk,

rubbing their muzzles on your shoulder,

their wet breath chrismal on your neck?

Did you think that you would marry them?

Did you think you would mount their

roan backs and ride out your life in circles

under Santa Anita's big blue sky?

Did you make up your mind to become a horse?

And years later during those golden races,

when you'd break from the gate,

did you think of anything but the blood rhythm of

those hooves under colors,

the furious speed you governed with your hands?

Did you urge on your bay in tongues?

And later, in the paddocks, with the grooms walking the hots,

rubbing them down,

in all that sweet smell of manure and hay and sweat,

what did they say to you, the horses?

What did the horses say?

Tell me about the horses.

Red Rider, Red Rider


You hardly were around

Quick star, dark storm racing lightning circuits of the track,

But when you came home, you came in gusts,

In gales of loud and louder,

Until the banging of your heart,

Your midnight valedictories from the roof

Took up the moon's room in my night;

And days, you shouted down the sun.


When you'd leave, you'd leave enormous silence

In your wake

The volume of your absence struck

The world deaf-still.

Even now that you are nine years gone.

I have to listen with extraordinary care

To hear the starting gate's bell gash air

The thudding of those hooves less thundering than you.

Claiming Race

During a race at Belmont,

my father went down with his nerved-up, crazy-ass horse,

struck the turf and was trampled by the jam

of ton-weight hooves he had been

so excellently, so leanly leading

On the cold track's clods, he was given Extreme Unction,

pronounced dead, yet lived,

Newsmen by his hospital bed asked him,

"How come that you're not dead?"

"The devil had no stall for me," he said,

leaving them pleased they had a joke to lighten

the serious days of those who make an exegesis

of the Daily Racing Form.

And it's probably something like that -

Most of our lives don't fill any particular purpose,

but our deaths will fill some space

being readied for us, but not ready yet,

some field where bluegrass begins to leisurely fail.