How Running In The National Corgi Derby Helped Heal A Deep Wound

Sometime around 12:10 AM on January 3rd, 2016, my 6-year-old corgi Eli keeled over in my living room. He died minutes later, in the vet’s emergency room. Eli was my best friend, the perfect companion. Everything we did together was an adventure and he met life with a special brand of enthusiasm — whether it was trips to the store or a relocation to Los Angeles. Non-dog people might not get it, but losing him still hurts every day.

Less than 24 hours after Eli’s death, I learned through a chance visit to a horse breeder’s website that a tri-colored Pembroke corgi was giving birth to seven healthy pups on a farm a few miles from my in-laws in southern Indiana. There are conflicting theories on getting another dog so soon, but I took it as a sign: A new pup from my favorite breed was coming into the world just as Eli was leaving it. Two months later, a pup we’d named Richie was in my home and causing chaos.

Richie’s typical look. Serene.

Richie’s svelte 18-pound frame is the conduit of a special kind of mania. This energy is amplified when it comes to cars, rabbits, or… really anything else that catches his eye. He’s never seen a fast-moving object he doesn’t want to chase. His tiny limbs are powerful and his laser focus on the things he’s not allowed to have is as intense as champion chess rivals on meth. He’s been a challenge, but I love him and I wanted to take him on an adventure, like the type I used to have with Eli. I wanted to bring us closer together and shake up our normal dynamic of him sprinting around the house and impatiently watching me type on my keyboard.

I decided that the best way to hasten the bond was to enter Richie into the second-annual Corgis and Cupcakes Derby, where he’d race for glory and honor in front of an adoring crowd of thousands. On the surface, this was my gift to Richie, who, outside of walks and short intense wrestling battles, is mostly cooped up in my small apartment. Running the race, I thought would give him a chance to get out and do what he does best β€” sprint around. Excitedly. And in front of many, many people. He loves people. They give him treats and pats on the head.

The Corgi Derby seemed like a natural fit. Few moments in our culture have captured the world’s attention more than 2016’s event. Footage of the epic athletic competition delivered viral fame to its dogs and garnered national airtime on ESPN. Richie, I told myself, was born to run that race. He deserved it. And more importantly, he and I could spend more time together, outside both of our comfort zones (a tiny apartment). After multiple emails begging to be let into the race (and many cute pictures sent to prove to those in charge that Richie would be a worthy addition), we made onto the list.

A few weeks later, my pup and I drove the six hours from Chicago to Minnesota in a quest for corgi immortality. Richie handles rides in the car like Renfield handles a straitjacket. He screams and bashes his slobbery mouth against every window in his quest to eat every vehicle that enters his sightline, which is the exact opposite of Eli, who would just fall asleep or enjoy the ride. This time, though, Richie wasn’t his usual self. Aside from a few whimpers as choice sedans passed us on the highway, he was oddly silent, composed. It’s like he knew we were on a mission and he needed to conserve his energy.

We arrived in Minnesota and I started to scope out the competition. Canterbury Park is one of the premier race tracks in the state, a massive structure, featuring a mile-long oval track along with a smaller circular track to show off the championship horses. Our attempt at gaining the tactical upper hand (a choice shady area to hang out in), it turns out, wasn’t an original one and we were met by several dozen corgi athletes who were already gathered in the makeshift locker room — a patch of grass behind the registration table.

The fans were out in full force, too. One teen flew from Baltimore with her father just to see the ever-growing collection of stumpy corgis fighting for glory at the park, while another family drove from Portland to partake in the festivities. Throughout the park, vendors hawked corgi race memorabilia and cupcakes to the delight of the attendees.

A typical Minnesota Saturday in summer might attract roughly 7-8,000 people to the track. On corgi race day, 21,000 people were expected to come through the gates. Between the packed stands and the millions watching at home, the pressure was on, but Richie wouldn’t know it. He was staring happily at the horses, fighting some primal need to herd. I suppose everyone deals with the pressures of chasing eternal athletic glory differently. In the end, I had enough nerves for both of us.

It soon became clear that Richie was in the presence of some elite dogs. Was he outclassed? We knew he could run, and were training him as best we could on our work schedule, but even though Richie is leaving his puppy years, he is still easily distracted. He’s never met a screen door he doesn’t want to throw himself into. The other dogs, for the most part, looked like they were run by Nascar pit crews.

Once the mingling was over, the racing silks were dispensed and secured to the competitors’ long bodies. Richie and I were in Heat 1 at the number 12 position, hugging the outside rail. As I contemplated what this meant for our racing strategy (nothing much), we marched into the entrance tunnel, where the announcer boomed that the corgis were finally on their way to the track. His declaration was answered with a roar from the crowd.

“This is what fighters must feel like,” I thought to myself while waiting in the tunnel. Or at least, this is what a fighter would feel like before a big match if everyone wanted to come up to them and call them “adorable” then rub their heads and scratch their ears.

What fighters don’t tell you about that moment in the tunnel β€” the calm before the storm β€” is how quiet everything gets as the energy builds around you. The crowd was getting ever louder; one owner was shaking out his neck like he was about to sprint, like a football player, into the staging area. A dog peed in the tunnel. Richie, meanwhile, was cooling his tummy on the cement. In my 18 months of being in his constant presence, I had never witnessed him so confident and easygoing. Meanwhile, I was feeling the pressure.

A sample of my interior monologue: “Does Richie have to win to make this a success? What were we even doing here? Am I forcing him into this weird bit of pageantry?”

Finally, I put those fears aside. We were about to race and become heroes to corgis everywhere. This had to happen. We stepped out into the bright sun and were surrounded by an ocean of people, the sun reflecting off 20,000 smiles. The crowd’s anticipatory hum turned into an overjoyed swell. It felt like a palm-thrust to the chest. But Richie was calm, trotting away while being shown on the massive screen in the middle of the track.

In a brief moment in the racing stalls, holding Richie, I couldn’t help but wish that it was Eli that was racing. I was proud of him, but I wanted to have this special moment with my lost friend, which immediately made me feel both guilty and selfish. This was about Richie and me, not Eli. Living in the past is a dangerous thing. It doesn’t allow you to be in the present, holding your dog as you both stare down a race track.

The announcer screamed, “go!” and 2016’s standout, Logan Handsomepants, bolted from the stall like he was made to run short distances at medium speeds. The dogs kicked up dirt behind them, launching it far above their short little bodies. Richie saw something to his left.

After hopping out about two feet with his competition sprinting out ahead of him, Richie turned around to say “hi” to the owner next door, then decided to head out into the middle of the field, far away from the race track. It took roughly seven people to catch him as he evaded multiple camera people, track workers and other owners who attempted to grab his collar.

Out of 72 racers, Richie probably came in 73rd. He never crossed the finish line. He never even came near it.

The event in full

As we walked off the track, Richie looked at me, absolutely beaming. A packet of treats was thrust in our general direction and we hustled off to the locker room where I doled out his celebratory kibble snack. Though he had barely raced, Richie was satisfied. He stood proudly amongst the other dogs — a consummate winner. I had predicted nightmare scenario after nightmare scenario, but Richie was free of any of anxiety. He wasn’t ramming himself into the arms of unsuspecting humans like an ever-smiling torpedo. He wasn’t barking into infinity. He wasn’t an impossible to bear burden. He was a pro. At least getting there. He may not have raced like he was supposed to, but he was perfect. He was Richie.

Richie and I drove home, a man and his dog, fresh off their first adventure. It didn’t go as expected, but nothing does. Sometimes your best friend dies. Sometimes a wild-eyed pup comes into your life when you least expect it. You want so badly for him to be the friend you lost, but he never will be. He can’t be. And that’s okay, because you can have other best friends, too. You have more love to give than you’d ever quite realized.

I drove home with Richie packed into the car, him resting calmly in his den. It was the event of a lifetime for him, and for me. Richie did his best and I learned to accept him for who he is, not for who I wanted him to be. Richie wasn’t Eli. You can’t wholly replace someone who is lost in your life, but you can certainly find room in your heart for another. For all his faults, for all his mania, he did his best and we had the time of our lives.

Maybe next year my best friend can cross the finish line.