4:54 A.M.

There was at least another hour of darkness before the sun turned the San Gabriel mountains their famous shade of purple. Four hours after that, before the second race, Los Angeles smog would smother them in dingy gray.

The coffee in the plastic mug was terrible. The only coffee available in the middle of the night was from the convenience store and there’s no telling when it was brewed. Luckily there were plenty of packets of sugar and powdered creamers to use. The store stocked her favorite energy bars and she choked down two between gulps of sticky sweet coffee.

Most of the horses were dozing. The grooms had yet to appear from the dormitory style rooms above the barns. She ducked into the office for a few more minutes of quiet before the daily circus began. The Celebrex she took night before was doing it’s job and she flexed both knees, expecting the sharp catch in the left knee and the hollow pop from the right. Both were quiet today. She made a mental note to cancel another appointment with the orthopedic surgeon.

Once in the barn, it was time to go from stall to stall, removing the stable bandages and feeling for heat or swelling in each leg of the 25 stall barn. Both knees of the old campaigner Vaya Con Dios were hot this morning but he’d eaten up every ounce of his grain from the night before. While the nervous filly Mercy Street hardly touched any of last night’s meal and yet all four legs were a healthy ice-cold. She’d talk to Jude about ulcer meds for the filly.

One by one, legs were checked. She indulged herself in a chance to pause and reflect on her favorite time of the day. Just her and the horses, before the grooms appeared, the gallop boys, the overly solicitous jockey’s agents, the Boss and later the owners.  She paused by the stall of one of the big stake horses and produced two peppermints. One for him and one for Elvis, his companion goat tied in front of his stall. The muscled gelding chomped the candy as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Nobody would believe a horse as fast as you is a total pushover,”  she whispered into his shoulder.

One last horse to go and she’d have to wait for Enrique the barn foreman to help.  Invictus – the Big Horse in the barn these days was more than big, he was a Sonofabitch.  Taking the wraps off his muscular orange legs took timing, nerve and at least two knowledgeable people.  If he wasn’t striking, he was biting at you with the intent to rip flesh.  He’d run off two good farriers from the barn and sent a vet tech to the hospital already.  She watched as he attacked the feed in his hay net looking her way in between vicious bites as if to say “you wanna piece of this?”

“Think he’ll do okay in Chicago?” It was the Boss, Jude Keenan. It was rare to see him at the barn this early.
“He’ll kill them if we catch a wet track,”  she replied.
“How’s his foot?”
“You go in there and check,” she laughed.

He laughed too.  It had been three years now since he’d lured her away from another trainer.  He was the new kind of Thoroughbred trainer; smart, handsome and flashy.  He drove a fast car and ran with a fast crowd. An astute businessman, he ran his business ruthlessly and well. His clients won and as a result they loved him. He left Ann to the hands-on with the horses while he cared for the owners and the business. He knew his barn was thriving because of her and he compensated her well for it, in cash. For her part, she rarely complained and she tolerated his tirades better than his last two fiancees.

“Hey,” she asked “aren’t you wearing the same clothes as yesterday’s races?”

“So what if I am?” he self consciously rubbed his stubbled chin, puffed up his chest and adjusted the jeweled belt buckle of his expensive jeans smiling wickedly.

“The girl from the Lakers?”  she rolled her eyes.

“Be nice, she’s fun and she’s rich and her daddy just might buy a slew of racehorses with us at the sale next month.”

“You think you can manage to keep her around for a month before she hates your guts?”

“God you’re mean.  And just in case Julie comes around, maybe you don’t want to mention anything,”  he raised his eyebrows playfully.

“Is lying to your girlfriends in my job description now?”

Pretending not to hear her, he headed towards the office.

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