By Beverley Smith for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, August 9, 2018 – In a far corner of Woodbine Racetrack, amid the water pails, and rakes and lead shanks lives a published author.
Laura Luszczek is a swing groom for trainer Bob Tiller, and if ever there was a person who could celebrate National Book Lovers Day, it is this gregarious swipe who tends to racehorses by day and warms up her keyboard by night.
One thing arose out of the other.
It started with a horse. Of course. Luszczek started working around horses when she was seven years old and by the time she was 16, she wanted her own. She began to work on the Woodbine backstretch to earn enough money to buy one.
And she found one. Their connection was magical immediately. He was a big, sturdy, ebullient, pushy, potboiler of a horse, a cheval Canadian, a relatively new breed. Canada’s own horse. And his name was Figaro – from the 1785 opera, the Barber of Seville, a clever and enterprising sort. Luszczek was to find that her new horse was more clever than most.
And he was black. He reminded her of “The Black Stallion,” a book by Walter Farley that she read when she was eight or nine years old. There are about 20 books in the series, all riveting in their visuals and suspense. Luszczek has read them all. “It just sits with you,” she said. “And when you see that movie and that beach scene with him just galloping, it stays with you. Of course, that was my goal. And fate just kind of brought him to me. But be careful what you wish for.”
The Black Stallion of literary fame was an almost uncontrollable force of nature, brought to his senses only by Alec Ramsay who discovered him after a shipwreck on an island. When Ramsay was finally rescued, the horse came home with him and eventually defeated the two best racehorses on the continent in a match race. He was the mystery horse. He blazed through workouts under the cover of darkness. Farley had a lively imagination.
The book detailing such a freight train of a horse is all fine and good, Luszczek found. But the reality is much more difficult. Figaro eventually grew into a 16.3-hand beast with a lot of presence. And moxie.
“He wasn’t a saint,” she said. “He was like: “’WHO ARE YOU?’”
When Luszczek got him, he hadn’t been broken. He wore a halter that he always knew how to doff. “Trust me, we had our ups and downs,” she said. “He was a terror at some barns [where he had been boarded.]
She would get calls. “Your horse has taken the gate off,” or “Your horse has escaped the property.”
“He scared some guy cooking breakfast,” Luszczek recalled.
She realized Figaro was too much of a thinker. She tried to get into his brain. And then she began to teach him tricks. She taught herself how to teach him. He had a knack for it and so did she. Eventually Figaro learned about 50 tricks.
Eventually he caught the eye of movie agents.
Luszczek figured that her horse educated her more than anything. And as the years passed, just as she and Figaro were at the highpoint of their friendship, Luszczek discovered swelling on the horse’s leg in 2012. She knew something was not right. At first nobody could figure out why. Then veterinarians at the University of Guelph discovered a 36-cm cancerous tumor on his kidney. They asked if she wanted him to be euthanized right then.
No, she said. “We had ups and downs throughout the year, but that was my buddy,” she said. “He’ll let me know when it’s time. I thought the day that he doesn’t touch his apples or his carrots, I would know.” She wanted him to return home.
Very soon afterwards, Figaro gave her the sign, ignoring his treats, knocking them over in fact. And she knew. “We had that kind of a bond. If I used to be in pain, he would stop,” she said. “He knew. He could be hard and say: ‘I’m going to buck today and you’re your life a living hell.’’ But he didn’t. Luszczek knew by his body language that he was ready to call it a day. On his last day, he tried to bow to her.
The rest of Luszczek’s life wasn’t going so well either. She was going through a divorce. Six months after the horse died, she had to be hospitalized and developed pneumonia in both lungs. She suffered mysterious health problems that turned out to be lupus. Her body rebelled.
So she started to write a book about Figaro, even though she was the type of kid that cringed when asked to write 500 words. She had been out of school for so long, she knew it would be hard. “I needed it to boost my own spirit,” she said. “I just started writing. I wrote whatever story I could think of.”
Be ready to grab the tissues when you read it. It took her about a year to write it, even though some days she felt exhausted. But she pushed through. “It ate at me until I finished it,” she said.
It’s a test to figure out how to approach a publisher, so Luszczek had her book self-published by a U.S. company, all 322 pages of it. Sold on Amazon, it’s called “The Story of Figaro: The story of my real Black Stallion.” The Woodbine chaplain bought a couple to give as gifts at the annual Christmas party.
But Luszczek is not stopping there. She has written a second book called “Inspired.” And in this inspirational book, she is fired up by the life of her second horse, Couper the Clever Horse, who has his own Facebook page. Couper, a palomino Rocky Mountain horse, has learned more than 70 tricks. He looks like Mr. Ed. He can spell his name and play baseball. (She’s also trained her cat and dog to do tricks.) This book, however, is fiction, but is a journey in imagination. It’s 367 pages, and Luszczek hopes it will be out in the spring. She hopes to inspire young folk.
She’s a reader, which helps, but not while she is writing a book. “I didn’t read more because I didn’t want to start taking from anybody else,” she said. “I wanted my voice to be my voice, and I didn’t want to be overly influenced by anybody else.”
When she does read, she sometimes has three books on the go at the same time. She loves criminology: she has a diploma in criminalistics. When she sees something, she wants to learn it. All of this gives an author material from which to draw.
Books are hard but they have been her saviour. “You have to do things,” she said. “Don’t sit there. Don’t say it. Do it. It was the best therapy I did and I learned a lot.”