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.