Dear Ann,

Dear Ann,

The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak mid 19th century

Where to start?

I guess I’d better start with my name.  My real name.  Well, the name I was born with. My name is Paul. I was born in Pocatello Idaho to Ben and Wanda Payne on April 4, 1976.

I’ve gone by lots of names since then and travelled to amazing and to some pretty messed up places.  

I started like most riders, riding match races when I was probably 13 or so.  My parents were strict Mormons and to say the least, they didn’t approve of my riding. They needed their oldest son to work with them in their cabinet making business and that was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do.  

At 16, I had the chance to ride Quarter Horses in New Mexico with a trainer who offered to help me fake my age and get my jock’s license. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen Ben or Wanda since.

That was the first time I changed my name. It was easy.  I bought an Arizona driver’s license from a guy in Ruidoso for $20. It said that I was 19 years old and that my name was Tomas Perez.  I dyed my hair dark and nobody questioned me about anything.

I rode the tracks in the Southwest for awhile – mostly Quarter Horses but people were starting to race Appaloosas then and I got got lucky enough to ride the best Appaloosa colt in the country.  I was doing great until a guy hauled in from Idaho and I got scared he’d recognize me and tell my parents where I was.  That was just a month or two before my real 18th birthday and I knew they could send me home where there would be hell to pay.

So I up and ran north and laid low riding colts on lonesome ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. By the next spring, I’d had enough of cow shit and sleepy horses and flat land. I was craving races and green hills. I made it out to Minnesota and tried to make my way into the jocks’ room at Cantebury Downs but they were a tight bunch and asked enough questions to make me fidgety. I travelled up with a couple of hungry riders and we headed to Penn National where the fields were supposed to be bigger and so were the purses. But the fields were shorter than I thought and everyone was still down since Arlington closed in Chicago. I was almost ready to head home with my hat in my hands but  I’d been watching a TV show about an Australian fisherman adventure guy.  He was crazy as hell and all the girls loved him. I worked for a couple of weeks on the accent, bought a dented up leather hat at a thrift store, changed my name to Dylan Anderson and headed for Ohio and raced at Beulah Park. It worked like a charm. Owners, trainers and I have to admit, the girls loved the idea of a young Australian jockey that nobody had ever heard of.  I loved the attention and I was getting on better horses than I’d ever ridden. After about 10 months, I lost my apprentice status and started having to carry regular weight.  My win percentage dropped and the newness of the “Aussie Kid” was wearing thin. Trainers didn’t have the added incentive to ride me now that I carried full weight and pretty soon, I was in a slump.  

I fell in with a nasty bunch of gamblers and sooner than you could imagine, I found myself not riding to win for the first time in my life.  It might sound like a dime store novel, but I started acquiring habits and friends that don’t make me proud of me. I realized that I needed to get out. I was scared and getting desperate.

I was scheduled to ride a heavy favorite one day and my job was to make sure this filly didn’t win. My connections were backing another horse.

I don’t claim to remember all of it but I’ll tell you what I do know. My filly was really good and really game. I was weak as a kitten after another night of partying. Her owners were new and they were excited. She was dragging me to the lead and I was out of strength to hold her. Every dirty trick I played on the filly she found a way through or a way around. She knew she was the best in the race and all she wanted to do was to win and all I knew was that if she did win, then things were going to get really bad for me.  

So I got her outside on the turn for home and I made it look like my foot slipped out of the stirrup and I fell.  Dropped to the ground like a bad habit.  I remember the crunch of my shoulder hitting the ground and I remember the sweet music of the ambulance driving me away from the track to the hospital.

I managed to beg my way out of surgery – I told them some bullshit about me having a bad experience with anesthesia and I managed to sneak out of the hospital during the next shift change.  I hopped the first bus leaving town.

I needed to clean up and I needed to make sure some folks in Cincinnati wouldn’t come looking or me.  Sometimes I still hope they are looking in Australia.

With the help of a Canadian girlfriend, I managed to get to Ottowa and then ended up bouncing around for the next 8 years including racing in South Africa, a stint in the Philippines and some places in Europe. I’ve convinced folks that I’m from Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina and Texas. I was always amazed at what people are willing to believe.

Once again, I went running from entanglements and found myself with a fresh start in the California sunshine.

I guess by now you have figured out that I only know two things; racing and running away.  I can say that I’ve gotten pretty good at both.  I’ve learned that wherever there are horses and people that love to compete, I can make a comfortable living, make some friends, and have some fun – and there has always been somewhere else to go.  Change my name, change my story, my hair and my accent – as long as you are polite and are willing to lay it all down to help their horse win, somebody will believe any story. People, especially horse people, are the same everywhere. 

Until now, nobody cared to know the real story. My story. This story that I’m writing to you.

I know that I have nothing to offer you.  Nothing except this gift of honesty – a gift that means nothing to anyone – but it’s the only thing I’ve never given to anyone, not even myself.

I don’t know what I’ll do now.  It’s easy for me to sneak away and be somewhere and somebody else.  But for the first time ever I want to stand in my own truth and be a partner to someone and that someone is you.

From the first day I saw you bawling out that exercise rider for galloping an old campaigner too fast and then watching you gallop the toughest horse in the barn without breaking a sweat, I knew that I had something to learn from you. Then I saw you slip $20 in the pocket of a drunk groom. I saw you cry after the vet put the old barn goat to sleep – I’ll bet you thought that you were alone.  I wanted to come up and hug you – but I knew you were too proud to be seen being sentimental. I’ve watched you cover for your slick boss and I’ve watched his face as he watches you work. I guess what really got me was how you genuinely cared for that old jockey out at the trailer park.  I wonder if you know how many people admire you for that?

I met your friends Johnny and Mark and you probably don’t have the slightest idea how much they love you. I’ve never had friends like that in my life. Knowing your mom for the little time that I did helps me understand a little bit more about you. I should have guessed that she was a retired trick rider for the rodeos. She pretends she doesn’t miss it but you should know that she watches everything you do and she gets to live a little bit more of her dreams through you. She likes to pretend that she never regretted having a family but there’s a part of her that can’t get enough of the danger of galloping horses – and you give that to her every day. She told me all about the little horse you brought her and how he keeps her together. She’ll tell you that it’s the church, but you and I know it’s that little bay horse that is her salvation. Makes me think about all the horses who have carried my sorry ass and it wasn’t until you that I spent much time thinking about where they might be now.

For the first time in my life, I started thinking about these horses in the way that you do.  In the way that every gallop girl probably does.  For a jockey, we are told to get out there and win. And we try really hard.  We live for the thrill of turning for home and digging in with all we’ve got.  We grow four legs and giant muscles. We get to be tall and powerful if even for just under two minutes.  But after the race, we are thinking about the next one and the one after that. We forget the names of the horses, we forget their fears and their worries. But you gallop girls are different.  You have to think about how that horse might hurt and what scares them. You worry about where they will be tomorrow.  Until now, I never did.  And now it haunts me and the more I learn, the more amazed I am. I didn’t know what I’ll find and while I was looking, I began to find myself. That probably sounds crazy, but I’m trying to be honest.  

 I’ve watched you win and I’ve watched you lose. I had no idea how much I would learn and how inspired I would be to – for once in my life – be an honest man.

I can’t ask you to forgive me for being the lying bastard that I am.  But I hope that you will find it in your giant heart to let yourself get to know the real me – whoever that might be.

Love,

Paul

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