"Here you go, darlin." The waitress sets a BLT and fries in front of Rod Kausen and returns to the kitchen for a bottle of ketchup. Bacon hangs lackadaisically from neat bread triangles. "You don't mind if I eat?" Kausen asks.
We're meeting on what Kausen calls his "busy day off." He wears a lot of hats. He's been out bidding a house painting job for an old friend in Ferndale, and is freshly returned home from a high school track meet in Berkeley. Kausen is in the final months of a 35-year career as a teacher and track and field coach at Fortuna High School. He says he's taught everything during his time at FHS, from driver's ed to psychology. "But I've been doing it a long time. I've had a good gig."
He might open a food truck when he retires. Or a dog kennel. Or maybe he'll be a writer. Or a DJ. Or whip out his guitar and start a band. "I don't know what I'm gonna do. It's really weird. It's kind of like a whole new act."
No matter what his second career brings, Kausen will always go to the races. From that untethered place between the chapters of his life, Kausen says his passion for horse racing has been a constant since his early years. "It was my first love," he says.
It all started in his hometown of Ferndale, where both of his parents were born. "My mom and dad liked the races, my mom in particular." He grew up attending horse races not just in Ferndale but all over the place, and came to understand the intricacies of the sport. "I liked it. I got to know it really well." In time, he got a summer job taking racing photos for a local newspaper and still does race analysis on ESPN. He says humbly, "So, I'm one of the guys that I guess people think of as understanding the local races."
He likes "little beat-up tracks" just as much as the swanky scene at Santa Anita and Saratoga. "We vacation at the horse races." Kausen says, admitting, "My wife would probably like to vacation elsewhere but, I just, you know, love horse racing."
Last summer, Kausen wrote a piece for the North Coast Journal about his lifelong love affair with the sport of kings. It hums with a sepia-tinted nostalgia that buckles a reader at the knees. Beginning with the Proustian trigger of cigar smoke, he recalls "Gaining entrance to the races as a kid by climbing the fence between the Ferndale football field and the far side stables," and "the two lady ushers upstairs, one tall, one short, both dressed in red, white and blue, who ushered us kids out of the reserved box seats; and my first big winning score, a $2 exacta that paid $749 in the summer of 1973 just before my senior year at Ferndale High."
Kausen was a "town boy." This means he didn't grow up on one of the many dairy farms in the verdant fields outlying Ferndale. Instead, he spent his boyhood carousing the village with his buddies. His family has lived in Ferndale and the immediate surrounds for generations. "I'm related to a lot of people," he says. "We're an old local family." His ancestors immigrated from Ireland and Germany, but mostly from Switzerland, "They came over as dairy people and that's what they did."
Perhaps the penchant for horse racing is in his blood. The town of Ferndale has hosted the races since 1896, it's a mainstay of the town's rich history. "It's our slice of Americana," Kausen says, noting that along with the simple pleasures of living in small town America, the tradition of horse racing is fading fast. "It's a dying sport," Kausen muses.
For a man who is constantly bumping into a medley of former students, co-workers and childhood friends, the races are a solo endeavor. "I love going to Safeway. I know everybody." He laughs. "But you need your other time, too." He finds that time at the races. "I don't usually want anybody to go with me. I wander. I walk. I hide." He rubs his head and explains, "You can be very private in a crowd of people."
Kausen says a perfect day at the track starts the night before, when you have a racing form in your back pocket and, "Even if it's mostly luck, you feel like you've figured it all out." While he appreciates the beauty of the sport, he really likes the gambling part. He's had some good hits over the years. "I love the feeling of walking out of the races having done very well." He stops and considers what he just said and continues, "I even like the feeling of walking out with hard losses." He finishes up his sandwich, "It's the highs and the lows. It makes me feel alive."
This summer marks the 120th year of the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, which runs from Aug. 18-28. Enjoy our own slice of Americana with six days of live horse racing at the fairgrounds. Check www.humboldtcountyfair.org for racing schedule details. And good luck.