From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

For the Love of Racehorses

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Yoda, StarWars

I stumble into my barn in the dark and cold at 4:30 in the morning, barely awake. I am greated by five heads staring out of their stall doors, listening for my footstep, looking for me to appear around the corner. Stormy blasts a whinny at me loud enough to wake the entire backstretch, then withdraws satisfied that I’ve arrived and his world hasn’t come to an end, that his morning will now be routine. I greet them all with words and a touch; two more horses deep in their stalls barely flick an ear as I quietly slip in to unwrap their bandages and check their legs. They’re like me, definitely not the cheerful early-morning types that all racehorses are rumored to be.

It’ll be a busy morning. According to the training charts prepared by my trainer the previous night, all seven horses will gallop. The “Gg3/4” by Joey’s name stirs my adrenaline. It’s his final major work from the gate in preparation for his first start in sixteen months coming off a bowed tendon. I’m always nervous when Joey works. And, Stormy runs tonight, which means my nerves will be shot at the end of this long day. But I can’t even think about that now. I have a lot of work to do in the next seven hours.

My morning is a blur. I ready my horses for riders, send them out, clean their stalls, and catch them as they return to the barn. I bathe them, hang them on the walker, water them out and watch them for stress or injuries, while getting the next horse ready for its gallop person. My layers of clothes disappear as I begin to sweat in the cool morning. My coffee gets cold as it sits untouched on a straw bale.

There’s a half-hour break for the exercise riders midmorning while the tractors smooth out the track; for me there’s no time to rest. Joey will work first after the break, when the track is at its kindest, with no bumps or treacherous holes that he might stumble in at 40 mph.

I can’t stand the pressure of watching, but I can’t stand not to follow Joey to the track. He knows he’s going to work. He knows I’m out there watching him. “Hi, Joey,” I call to him as he warms up at a jog past me, “Be careful.” He bows his nose to his chest and prances, his tail lifted proudly and he cocks his head toward me as he passes. I’m smitten and he knows it.

I stand apart from Joey’s owner and trainer who are there with their stopwatches. From the grandstand I watch as he breaks from the gate in the chute across the track. I am terribly tense from my clenched jaw to my curled-up toes. Joey is an image of power and grace, fearsome and wondrous, floating above the track, gathering speed with every stride. He rockets around the turn into the homestretch. I try not to think of his cannon bones taking 10,000 pounds of force with every stride and those thin, fragile tendons precariously holding those bones to the muscles beneath a hurtling bullet.

As he careens toward me I shrink, try to be invisible so that my presence might not distract him. But there’s no chance of that. Joey sees, hears, feels nothing but his joy of running. I’m overwhelmed by the tension, the excitement, the beauty, the raw power of my beast, when I sense something wrong. I glance to the finish line and my heart stops. A riderless horse is galloping full speed on the rail, toward Joey.

I am frozen to my spot; I can do nothing but watch. It’s all a blur, happening too fast, though everything feels like it’s in slow motion. Too late, I scream, “LOOSE HORSE!” but they don’t hear me. Joey is running on instinct. The rider’s head is buried in Joey’s mane. Forty yards apart, the rider sees approaching disaster. She stands up on Joey and tries to slow him, but there’s no stopping a bullet.

A miracle happens. The loose horse swerves around Joey right before they collide. I about faint on the spot. My horse has still turned in the bullet work for the day at six furlongs.

Joey is very pleased with himself as he cools out, no concept of his near-death. I can’t forget what just happened, can’t stop my knees from shaking as I finish cleaning stalls and begin grooming my horses and massaging muscles and icing legs and applying standing bandages. My fingers tremble as I inspect Joey’s legs, feeling his tendons and suspensory ligaments, searching for heat or the slightest swelling. But his legs are cold and tight. My trainer confirms his soundness before I apply a cool poultice.

The exercise riders are done for the day by 10:30. I am finished close to noon and I have a few hours break until the second half of my day begins. I grab a lunch and fall asleep on the couch in our office until my alarm goes off at 3:30.

Chore time; pick stalls, water and feed the starving beasts—each of which insists he or she is the hungriest horse in the barn and wants to be fed first. It takes a little diplomacy and bribery and sneaking around to make my seven horses all think each of them was the most deserving one who got fed first.

Stormy’s not hungry—he knows he’s running. He’s in the seventh race, which on this weeknight means he won’t enter the starting gate until 8:30. Stormy is on Lasix, so once the vet arrives to give him his shot at 4:30, I can’t leave the barn. I settle down with a book to wait the hours out and try to concentrate on the words and not think about the race coming up. Stormy takes the wait much better; he stands in the back of his stall, dozing, saving up his emotions for the race.

Stormy had his bath in the morning and he absolutely hates being brushed, so all I have to do is run a soft rag containing baby oil and alcohol over his coat to make it shine. I comb a checkerboard pattern on his butt and tie one small braid in his mane for good luck. At the ten-minute call for the seventh race I rinse out his mouth with a syringe full of water and I run his bandages and bridle him. The only things betraying his coolness are his huge eyes and the occasional tremors that run through his muscles.

I lead Stormy to the paddock where his trainer awaits us for saddling. His owners are there also, expecting a big win. They won’t get it because Stormy’s in over his head again. They want him to be an allowance horse, so they insist he run in allowance races, even though he will never be quite that good. This will be the last time my trainer humors them.

Even though we have no shot tonight, as I watch my handsome horse warm up on the track, I’m terribly nervous. He will try his hardest because he knows I’m watching and because he has the biggest heart in the world. I am so lucky to have this horse, and in fact, the seven most gorgeous horses on the planet to take care of, no matter how fast they run.

Stormy looks good for the first half-mile, keeping his blinkered head and white nose in front until the eighth pole, where the better horses pass him. But he hangs tough and will not give up and is only beaten by four lengths. He looks for me as he returns in front of the stands to be unsaddled. I notice his back heels are raw from running down through his bandages. There are welts on his flank where the whip lashed him—as if he hadn’t been giving his all in the last stages of the race.

With an arm draped over his neck, I tell him how proud of him I am as we carry our battle scars on the long walk back to our barn. His owners arrive and stand around with hands on hips, watching their investment, a bit disappointed again, no praise for his intense efforts; ready again with all but the one correct excuse for him tonight—he was overmatched. Stormy ignores his owners, nickers to me from the walker for a drink of water, for reassurance, to let me know he’s cooled out and wants to stop walking in circles.

It’s just Stormy and me left; his owners and trainer are long gone. I doctor his “owies” and bandage his front legs. It’s getting late, but Stormy and I can’t resist sneaking off to a meticulously landscaped grassy area that’s off-limits to horses and humans. I figure he deserves a treat after tonight’s great effort.

By the time I hang Stormy’s feed tub, it’s almost midnight. It’s been a long day, I’m physically tired and mentally worn out and I have a half-hour drive home. Even so, I can’t wait to hear Stormy’s good morning nicker five hours from now and to do it all over again.

Merri Melde

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