George Barone came into this world in the dying gasp of the 19th century, sired by the same father, James, as my maternal grandmother Rose. They had different mothers, technically making them half-siblings among the ten or so other children both camps totaled when all was said and done. The two, however, drew no such distinction. They were brother and sister, and I only ever knew him as Uncle George.
He was a complicated man in a simpler time; tough because he needed to be tough. He was literally a fighter, a lightweight boxer under the tag George Brown, so as not to bring shame on the family name. While the club-fighting circuit in New York was entertaining—three rounds in Skaneateles against some son of the Irish sod, four rounds the next week in Schenectady against a scion of David—and I suppose provided wagering interests for the pillars of various communities, boxing was far from an honorable occupation. The combatants dealt out beatings and they were beaten, and at the end of each bout, they might’ve received ten bucks apiece. Maybe five. Generously assuming the promoter didn’t cheat them out of their purse, the wages were more than they would’ve earned doing anything else.
Even a young man will drift out of such a profession soon enough. The story is that Uncle George attracted the attention of home-side hoodlums who found his pugilistic talents useful when, say, a collection needed to be made on a bad loan. Assault convictions decorate the incomplete record I’ve been able to dredge up. And then there was “the incident,” which appears to have taken place in 1921. The crime was robbery in the first degree; he might’ve held up a bank (the document doesn’t specify). The verdict came back guilty, only this time, there’d be no patty-cake bounce in the county lockup, but a big-league jolt in a state penitentiary. The judge recommended 10 to 20 years. Including parole, and what look to be parole violations—once more, the record is spotty—George Barone devoted the better part of two decades to the New York State penal system.
Now for the good news. Set free in 1941, the year he turned 43—youthful maybe, but no longer young, and plenty old enough to decide what he wanted to do with whatever time was left to him—there would be no further (documented) conflicts with the law.
Instead, Uncle George invested in a parcel of land with a barn, purchased some racehorses, and, as if by some magic trick—or a peculiar act of Providence—reinvented himself as an owner and trainer of thoroughbreds in Western New York. The racing game, a 365-day-a-year business generally considered a monetary black hole, knows no pardon. But in those days, the industry was far more expansive, and there was room for the modest operator. George ran his horses at Fort Erie Race Track, about a mile from the U.S. in southern Ontario, and when winter came, at venues in Florida.
No Kentucky Derby contender cast his shadow anywhere near George Barone’s barn. The horses raced in cheap claiming events (meaning the animals were for sale; these contests remain the bread and butter of the industry), but some ran better than others, naturally, and they won their share. Babe H, a much-loved cousin recalled, was something of a sensation at the betting window. Uncle George loved those animals, and he cared for them; devoting his time, treasure, and talent to their well-being, he was a living example of dominion, a steward of God’s magnificent creatures. This is no small thing. The horses tied him not to violence, to scheming and conniving, but to the land, to the sweep of nature and the rhythm of daily work. It is not an exaggeration to say they saved his life.
George’s daughter, my cousin Mary Rose, was always at the farm, as were any number of his nieces and nephews, as well as grandnieces and nephews (like me), feeding the horses crab apples and carrots, treating them to sugar cubes.
Finger Lakes Racetrack, which opened in 1962 in Farmington, NY, near Rochester, soon became George’s home base. When one of the Barone horses managed to finish first, any relative hanging around the track was drafted to pose for the photo in the winner’s circle. I regret to report I’m not in any of the pictures. A grown man now, I’m frantic for the sport, for the milieu, for the culture and action of racing. I wish I’d known Uncle George better. I wish I’d spent more time with him. The gruff, tobacco-chewing horseman wouldn’t have minded. He loved children.
All of the best stories are about redemption. Think of Luke’s recounting of the Prodigal Son, or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. George’s conversion—if that’s what it was—while not achieving any high-water mark in theological history or world literature, was no less authentic. He started out bad. A lot of us do. And while he matured into the man that God intended him to be, a tad belatedly perhaps, this pastoral second chance was not unmarred by tragedy.
I’m still running down the date, but memory suggests the outset of the 1970s. Three of George’s mares and a foal were grazing in a pasture when a thunderstorm squalled up, and while a horse is not quite as smart as an elephant or a dolphin, these knew enough to seek shelter under a giant tree. A bolt of lightning struck the tree. The mares were killed, but the foal survived, still so young that she needed to be bottle fed. She grew into a filly that Uncle George named Lightning Lane. Bred for speed, alas, poor Laney was more lap dog than racehorse, and retired to the farm with a lifelong case of the Slows.
George lived out the remainder of his years between his farm in western Monroe County and the track in Finger Lakes, caring for his horses, claiming them and having them claimed, winning with them, losing with them, having them scratched. One late afternoon in 1976, the horses having been fed and watered and returned to the barn, the final responsibilities of the day attended to, Uncle George climbed into his pick-up, got behind the wheel—and died. He went down doing what he wanted to do, what he was supposed to do, the perfect exit on an imperfect life. All of us should be so lucky.