Vaya Con Dios Ties Up

Davinci – Expressions of Fury Horses

Invictus was the last to gallop. Training hours were officially over and what Ann wanted was run back home for an hour’s nap and shower to get ready for the races. They were running in the 2nd and the 7th race this afternoon. All she had to do was to un-tack Invictus and hand him off to the grooms. Turning the corner to the barn, the vet’s truck was suspiciously parked in front.

“Oh shit, I’ll bet Vaya Con Dios tied up” Enrique said.
The old campaigner was standing in the shed-row, his eyes glazed over with pain with sweat soaking his dark brown coat.

“You go check, I’ll take this bad hombre.” Enrique gestured Ann towards the vet and the distressed horse.  Ann vaulted off Invictus’ back and ran.

“That prick liked to pull my guts out on da track” said Sullie
“Did you back jog him to the half-mile pole?”  she asked.
“I tol’ you I ain’t got time for no joggers girl!”
“So you just took him right out to gallop?”
“Old horse like that don’t need no warmin’ up, he needs to GO!”
“Well, now he’s tied up and we have to scratch him out of the race this weekend.  Thanks for all your help.” She glared at him with hands on her hips.
Throwing his still lit cigarette butt down inches from her boot, Sully replied; “I don’t need this” and stormed away.

“That’s two riders you ran off in one morning.  This could be a record. Don’t worry, I already gave him his last check, so you don’t need to cut him one.” Jude and Ann watched Sullie storm back to the track kitchen.

She thought about telling Jude that she’d already paid Sullie in cash from her own pocket this morning. But she didn’t have the energy. She ventured back to the horse who had begun to relax from the tranquilizer drugs the vet had administered to release the massive kinked up muscles in his back and hindquarters. She patted the sweaty neck and apologized.

“I’m sorry old boy, I had to let someone else get on you today.  I thought it would be okay.” The tranquilized horse ignored her and she felt that she’s deserved it –  deserved to be ignored for not looking out for his gallant soul. A veteran of 50+ races in his career, his next race was supposed to be his last. The owners promised that they were going to donate him to her best friend’s ranch up north. Now he’d be around a few more weeks and the owners might change their minds and drop him in for a claiming tag and hope that he ended up in another barn and they would have the prize money and the claiming cash too.

It was a tricky deal. She’d worked for weeks to get the owners to agree, to find him a free van ride up to Northern California and to sneak into the van a few bags of grain for the rescue ranch as well.  Now she’d have to cancel and hope another race would come up for him soon. But it didn’t look good. The old man couldn’t run more than five furlongs anymore.  Most of the sprints were six or 6 1/2 furlongs and he could no longer go the distance.  This race set him up perfectly and he’d drawn into a fairly easy field. The owners would be happy, she would catch a little gamble and the old horse would go out in the glory he deserved – if his knees held.  And now this.

Tying up Syndrome, or Exertional Rhabdomyolysis is a human athlete’s side-ache multiplied by a factor of 10 or more.  When the waste products of calories burned in the muscles don’t flush away properly, the muscles cramp and knot up painfully. It’s a metabolic conundrum that happens mainly in nervous fillies or horses that have eaten too much protein and then are asked to do more exercise than they are ready for. Nervous or scared horses tied up more often. Vaya Con Dios loved his pre-gallop jog every morning. Stepping out, pointing his toes like a ballerina stretching his massive corded muscles and watching all of the action on the track along the way.  When it was time to turn around on the track and gallop, he liked to stop and watch the gallopers for a minute or two with his curious, intelligent ears pricked. He wore no blinkers to narrow his field of vision, nor did he wear a fluffy shadow roll over his nose to keep a nervous horse from throwing his head in the air.  He was a professional who knew his job and behaved well.

Sullie was in a hurry to get three horses galloped this morning and he rushed the old horse through his workout without a warm up jog or relaxing loose rein back to the barn. The horse was paying the price. Or maybe he tied up because his knees hurt. A tough old horse doesn’t always limp when he hurts. If only they could talk.

Enrique laid his rough hand on her shoulder. It smelled like salt and warm oats. “Don’t worry, I take care of the Old Man. You go home and sleep a little.”

“I knew better than to let Sullie take him out.”

“No you didn’t, Sullie can be bueno, and he can be no bueno, just like any of us – no?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you at the receiving barn for the second race.  Don’t forget, front and hind bandages for that mare.” She shook her finger.

No me digas eso chica.”  He smiled and pushed her toward the parking lot.


Faust – by Luis Icart

The last horse to train was the mighty Invictus.  Ann and Enrique liked to wait until later in the morning when there were less horses on the track. The colt’s nasty habit of  attacking other horses on the way to exercise was legendary by this time. His massive body and brittle hooves don’t thrive on the hard new synthetic surface of the main race course. He preferred to gallop on the dirt of the training oval located on the interior of the main track. Enrique would bring him out of the stall equipped with blinkers and a chain over his nose. He’d give her a quick leg up while the red colt was walking. She’d land softly on his back and quietly take the reins, careful not to pick them up with much authority as the colt’s job for now, would be to focus on the man leading him.

Enrique was as strong as he was quiet. He’d had a long and successful career in this barn. He and Jude had been through a lot together, from the dregs of the County Fair tracks to the royal sands of Dubai and he knew that this horse could be their ticket to fame and fortune. He also knew the fragility of a racehorse that could be injured or worse tomorrow. Enrique was more quiet than usual and Ann asked him if he was okay.

“It’s that Panamanian groom we hired.  He’s useless!”

“Efrain?  I thought he was good?”

“No, that’s his cousin that works for Delacroix.  He’s the one I wanted.  Instead we get an idiot.”

“Is he taking care of Mercy Street?  She’s not eating again.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”  he says.  “I’m gonna fire that stupid cholo as soon as he schools that filly in the 8th race today. That okay?”

“Your call amigo. Do you have someone else in mind?”

“I heard the youngest Diaz kid is out of jail. He’s a hell of a groom. He’ll be on probation, so he’ll have to stick around.”
Quick as lightening, Invictus stood up on his hind feet screaming and striking the air with his forelegs. A terrified rider and horse coming their way scurried around the corner for safety.

“Sonofabitch!” both she and Enrique cried. This was nothing new to either of them and Enrique managed to keep a hold of the leather lead shank and Ann managed to stay aboard the colt’s broad back.  Hustling the horse forward in unison they knew what all race trackers know, that a horse going forward has a harder time misbehaving.

Once the colt was on the track, he was all business. Enrique cut them loose and they loped away on a loose rein. They would have to do three laps on the small training track to get a workout in. In her element, galloping along with giant, loose strides, the wind whipping through her helmet, her knees snug along the tiny saddle, feeling and breathing along with this animal that’s the sum total of 60 generations of selected breeding of running prowess, her mind wandered. Getting close to 40 years old, she worried. The truth is, how many people did what they love doing every day?  She was doing what she dreamed of when she drove out of the Sacramento suburb four months before her 18th birthday and six months before she was supposed to graduate high school.  She’d spent the summer working for an old man with a few broken down racehorses that would compete at the County Fair tracks during the summer. Tiny, strong and determined, she’d beaten all the local girls in the rodeos and gymkhanas, had started her own baby horses at her parents’ barn and was known in all three local counties as a very good young horsewoman. She was also known as a hell-raiser.  With penchant for older boys and vodka, she caused her parents enough worry to convince herself that they were better off without her. She took the small pickup her dad had given her from his construction company, stole a carton of cigarettes from her older brother and set out for any track that would turn her into a famous jockey. 21 years later, she was at one of the most prestigious tracks in the country galloping brilliant horses. What could be better?

But that wasn’t the question bothering her.  The real question was -what next?  At 39, she’d had her share of wrecks.  It’s was just a matter of time before one of these injuries ended her riding career. The last two should have. Everyone told her that.  The natural progression would be training her own barn.  She had as many smarts and experience than just about anyone on the track of her generation.  But having your own barn means playing the game.  Stealing clients from other trainers that you had dinner and drinks with last week, and having them take your clients too. It meant running horses when the owners want you to and not when you know they are ready. It meant being ultimately responsible when you send a horse out to race and he doesn’t come back. Nah, she was pretty sure she wasn’t trainer material.

Last year, she thought she had a shot at her own barn when a prominent owner asked her out to dinner to talk over an “idea.”  When he showed up without his trophy wife, she should have smelled trouble. When he reached under the table to slide his hand up her thigh, she felt neither anger nor resentment, just shame that she didn’t see it coming. After he explained to her that there would be a lot more horses in the Boss’s barn if she would play along, she excused herself to the bathroom and snuck out the door.  She walked the two miles home in hot tears. Not because she was surprised, but because she went to dinner expecting him to give her horses which she would have been stealing from her Boss. That made her no better than the rest of them. No, training probably wasn’t it.

Meanwhile, Invictus had taken a mighty hold of the bit in his mouth and was galloping wildly down the track shaking his head between his knees.  He was feeling good and he wanted to play this morning – hard.

“Easy son.” she laughed.

She took a steady breath and used her back muscles to bring his head up to a manageable place. It was just what he wanted. With his face  looking down the track, he accelerated in four giant leaps. She had one shot to take charge of him before he was running off with her completely out of control. The trick was not to give in to the natural reaction and pull the reins – but instead, loosen the reins, exhale and shift your weight ever so slightly back. It’s a skill that takes years to cultivate and it’s different with every horse. It works. It almost always does, unless you are on a scared horse.  Invictus was not scared – of anything.

Invictus exhaled and galloped the rest of his workout lazily, like a chastised child who folds his arms, pouts his lips and performs his chores dutifully, without enthusiasm. He pulled up easily and dropped his head to walk back to the barn, still pouting. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that he was getting sick. He plodded through the tunnel that connected the inner training track to the barns by burrowing under the main race course glaring at the oncoming horses, but he didn’t attack. She met Enrique at the end of the tunnel.

“What’s the matter with him?”  he asked.
“He’s just mad because he didn’t buck me off playing or run off with me galloping.”
“Great, now he’s gonna kick the walls all afternoon.”  Enrique laughed again as he patted the horse’s copper neck. Invictus rewarded him with pinned ears, an icy glare and a nip towards Enrique’s exposed armpit that was meant to warn, not to harm. Both Enrique and Ann chuckled and the three walked back to the barn lost in their own thoughts.

Cocky Gallop Boy

Exercising Racehorses by Edgar Degas

By the time the track opened, the barns were abuzz with activity.  Hot walkers in hooded sweatshirts shuffled quietly as their charges danced at the end of a leather and brass ribbon.  The sounds of aluminum clad hooves prancing around the soft dirt mingled with the ringing of brass chains as the hot walkers expertly contained the exuberance of half a ton of sinew and muscle. Buckets of hot water steamed as grooms prepared baths for sweaty racehorses. Scents of liniment, cooking oats, medicated shampoos, sweet straw and the acidic tang of warm racehorse manure wafted through cool morning air.

Cocky Gallop Boy showed up late and looked nervously at the schedule board. She hated it when riders were late and he knew it. As usual, the morning’s workout schedule was penned out neatly on a giant white  board, color coded for each rider and groom. Ann made sure the board was clear and exact. She kept things running to the minute.  Cocky gallop boy barked “darse prisa” to the new groom to hurry up and bring his horse. Just as he was at the apex of his shouting, she rode up on his assigned horse, fresh from his gallop.

“Where the hell were you?  You were supposed to ride this horse first.  I had to take him!”  She demanded.

“Wilson had a filly that he needed me to take, she had to jog two miles and it took longer than I thought,” he lied.

“Funny, I didn’t see you out there.”  She was mad and grooms were scurrying out of the way.  “Look, you are either galloping for us or Wilson, but not both. Decide now. We’ve got to work the French fillies in company before the track gets all chewed up. Are you coming or not?”

Cocky gallop boys are not amenable to being bawled out by women.  But she was different and everyone knew it.  She’s the best.  She could out-ride any of them and she’d never put you on a crazy horse. She’d ride those herself. He fought the urge to tell her to fuck off, mustered as much self confidence as he could and sent the groom for the next horse on his list.  By the time he’d mounted and adjusted his stirrups, she was on the other filly and on her way to the track. He needed to hustle to catch up. Trotting up alongside her she didn’t say a word to him. She was dealing with the long line of trainers, journalists, and owners who were on the rail and greeting the other riders exiting the track. Naturally shy, she didn’t make much conversation. But the Keenan barn was hot these days and everyone at the track loved a winner.

The fillies they were riding arrived from France a couple of weeks ago. In Europe, horses live at quiet training centers and exercise in large groups on mostly grass gallops with hills – covering several miles at different paces. American racehorses live at the track and generally follow a pattern of galloping alone or with one other horse for about 1.5 miles daily. The excitement of being passed by galloping horses and meeting trotting horses coming head-on as well as up to 80 horses on the track at any given time, takes getting used to – some European horses never did. Ann’s filly didn’t travel well and she wasn’t taking to American style training. But Ann was masterful with the nervous ones. She was quiet and confident and reminded them gently that all they’d have to do is go forward.  She’d ridden the most rank, the strongest, the crazies and the babies. Soon, both fillies were galloping down the track with easy, ground covering strides.

They would gallop for 3/4 of a mile and then, for 660 yards, the horses would be allowed to run. The idea is to get a horse to use her stride as efficiently as possible. The best horses have always been the ones that run efficiently. Any nervousness, anger or fear costs in shortness of stride, shallowness of breath or misuse of muscles. Once they neared the pole marking 3/8ths of a mile to the finish line, just past the head of the turn, both riders bent their knees slightly and let their hands follow the motion of their horses’ head. The horses eased left down by the inside rail and opened up their strides as their heads lowered and hooves started to fly.  Head and head, the natural instinct of a good racehorse took over and the riders simply guided their horses around the turn until the track straightened out toward the finish line. With less than two city blocks to go, both fillies were game and pressed each other as they accelerated towards the wire. The cocky gallop boy saw his chance for revenge and pulled his whip from his back pocket and cracked his filly on the right shoulder. Rather than sprint forward, his surprised filly leapt sideways into the other pair.  Ann and her filly bounced into the rail and she scrambled to right her horse. He heard her behind him screaming angrily as he galloped to the wire.  After the finish line, she charged up beside him.

“What the hell was that all about?”

“My filly was slowing down, I was just keeping her going” he said casually.

“That filly NEVER slows down!  You could have killed us!”  Ann was livid. Her small turned up nose was flared and angry.
“Sorry.” Now she knows what he thought about getting yelled at.

She beat him back to the barn. As he rounded the corner, his heart sank. Both Ann and Jude Keenan were looking at the French filly’s bleeding right leg. As he approached, she straightened up and glared at him.

“Well Hot Rod, you got $175,000 to replace this filly for the owners?”  Jude asked.

Cocky Gallop Boy looked down at his polished boots.
“Pick up your check this afternoon and have a nice time galloping somewhere else.” Jude added.

Looking the white board, Ann realized she’d have to have to gallop all of the remaining 11 horses herself unless she could find good help fast. Her knees ached just thinking about it. Hopefully, some hungry jockey would come around looking for an in with a hot barn and she’d be able to give him a few of the easy horses this morning. Or she could ask Old Sullie if he can get on a few. He was rough but he had a lot of experience and she knew that he could hold the tough old horses that needed to gallop slowly. Not a lot of riders were strong enough to hold old campaigners like Vaya Con Dios and she’s couldn’t stop thinking about about the heat in his knees. Sullie was just getting on a few these days for some of the old trainers, with any luck she’d catch him before he hit the sauce.

The track closed for a 30 minute break to groom the surface. Ann ducked off to find a bite to eat at the small cafe by the clocker’s stand. As usual, it was thronging with people. She kept her head down so as not to be sidetracked by all of the rail-birds wanting to chat. If she didn’t get something to eat now, it would be race time soon and she wouldn’t eat until after the first race.  Choosing a banana and a muffin, she headed back to the barn with her eye peeled for Sullie.  She found him chatting with a gaggle of old gamblers, regaling race stories to an adoring audience.

“What you don’t know, is that this hoss is ready to fly outta da gates today.”  The rail-birds were eating it up, hoping to get inside knowledge to give them the edge in this afternoon’s gambling.

“Hey Sullie, you wanna get on a few for me today?”  She asked.

“Anything for you baby – you know dat.”  He flashed a grin complete with short tobacco stained teeth.

“Second after the break?”

“Nah, I gotta work that goofball for Stevens then. But I gotcha after that.”

“Yeah, well okay.  If I’m not there, just tell Enrique and he’ll put you up.”
“I ain’t got time for no joggers though, and I need to get paid cash at the end of the day.”

She reached into her pocket and counted out four $20 bills. “Don’t hang me up – okay?”

“I love you baby, you know that – right?”

“Yeah, I know” she was already heading back to the barn.  On her way, she passed Cocky Gallop Boy as he was chatting with a bright eyed new gallop girl.  The girl was looking at him like he was God’s gift to horses. Exercise boys loved “fresh meat.”

As Ann walked by he looked away. Ann touched the girl’s shoulder and whispered in her ear while looking directly at the Cocky Gallop Boy “Be careful, everyone calls him ‘The Herpes King.’” Walking away, she looked back and added a middle fingered salute with a wink to the gallop boy. Touche.