Silverbelly Stetson

Fredric Remington – Self Portrait on a Horse

Ann found Enrique in the mare’s stall wrapping her slim legs in the barn’s signature lime green bandages. Race day bandages are made of thin specially designed paper instead of stretchy cotton or the fleece wraps used for workouts.  A wrap too loose is useless and a wrap too tight could impede the stride of the horse or cause permanent damage to the ligaments and tendons. The mare’s groom was a capable man, but Enrique insisted on placing race day bandages on all the horses himself. The groom busied himself by polishing the black leather bridle and checking the Velcro on the green and black blinkers. Meanwhile.the mare scraped the bothersome plastic muzzle covering her nose and mouth against the wall.  On race day, horses are carefully kept from eating several hours before race time to prevent a myriad of intestinal disasters. The stall of each horse in the day’s races was marked with a sign that read “Detention Stall – Do Not Approach” in both English and Spanish. Any substance found in the horses’s system would be the responsibility of the trainer.  Every barn knew stories of horses testing positive for heroin from passerby sharing a  poppy seed muffin with a racehorse or for Novocaine from licking the hands of a person wearing a spray for sunburn. Access to the horses was severely restricted on race day. It is racing law with no forgiveness.

Pax Kristi’s chocolate brown coat shimmered over her longish body.  She was what racing called a “dragster”  – a horse built with haunches higher than her shoulders, a long back and a short low-set neck.  These horses could be useful racehorses, but they were difficult to keep healthy and made bad saddle horses due to their build.  This mare had talent but was plagued by joint problems. So you picked your races carefully as she only had so many  before she either broke down or became just sore enough that she would lose interest in racing. The Keenan barn was good with horses like this and Jude had arranged a workout schedule where she was regularly ponied by another horse rather than galloped with a rider, keeping her back from getting chronically sore. Today, she looked like a winner, but had drawn into a tough field of filly and mare sprinters.  

The turf chute at Santa Anita for the 6 1/2 furlong races started downhill, bent right, curved left to cross the main track and finished in front of the grandstands. It was unique in North America both for it’s downhill run and for it’s slight right bend. Typically, sprints are a “get in front and stay in front” type of race, but this course called for tactics. American tracks are ovals and races are always run to the left. This mare’s left shoulder troubled her and she liked to accelerate on a slight bend to the right. The race set up well for her.  Next month, racing would move to Hollywood Park where the turf racing was less frequent and included tight left turns. Today she’d race for a claiming price of $20,000 meaning each horse was eligible to be sold to any qualified licensed owner by committing the said price and “dropping a claim” on the horse. The horse became the property of the new owner after crossing the finish line. There was a good chance that she would be claimed in the race. The owners, a syndicate of six lawyers, were banking on losing her to a claim to cover their expenses on more exciting horses. She had been running well in the $25,000 class,  it was plausible that somebody was out there looking to score a legitimate race mare with a good pedigree at a bargain price. Several mares in the race were in a similar predicament and so it was with racing.

“Horses in the 2nd race, due in the receiving barn in FIVE MINUTES” the loudspeaker said.

“Better get going, see you in the paddock” she told the groom as he bridled the mare.

“Okay Patrona, hasta pronto.”

She gave one last pat to Pax Kristi and hustled off to meet Jude and the owners in the saddling paddock.

“There’s our little cowgirl!  Howya doin?”  Abe Steiner, the leader of the syndicate was a Jewish lawyer wearing a silverbelly cowboy hat to cover his Cornell-educated head. He tipped his hat, baring a bad comb-over and winked while she suppressed a giggle.

“I’m ornery as ever Abe”  she said.

“How’s that long-eared mare of ours?”  he asked

“She’s in tough, but you knew that” she nodded at this racing form folded under his arm and marked with three different colors of highlighting pens. Abe liked to handicap all the races the night before as if it was a company’s annual report.

“Where’s the rest of your troop?” she asked, not wanting to know.

“I’m the only one here today, the group really isn’t too much into this mare you know. Pity too as I’d like to breed her.” Again his attempts at being a western horseman were so earnest, they were laughable. But there are a lot of owners that dream of leaving the corporate world and raising fast horses in green pastures. She wondered if his soft hands had ever held a hoof pick. She mused for a minute to picture Abe in work boots fixing frozen water pipes in ankle deep mud. That would cure him of his romantic notions.

“Well, your mare always tries. You gotta give her that”  she replied.

“She’d better try and get her fat butt out of the gates a little quicker today to get the jump on Delacroix’s filly” he added.

The notion of Abe Steiner calling his mare’s butt “fat” was again laughable as he was one of those odd shaped men with hips larger than his nonathletic shoulders. She knew she’d better hand this guy off to Jude before she burst out laughing and cost them a client.

“Well, here comes the Boss, we’d better head over.” she said.

Jude Keenan approached arm in arm with Julie looking refreshed, pressed and cleanly shaven.  There was a reason they called him the Hollywood Trainer. Perpetually tan, dark blond hair, broad shoulders,  a strong jaw and impossible dimples. He would have been just as at home in a 60’s beach movie as he was here at the races. He smiled confidently at Abe and shook his hand.

“Howdy Abe! Let’s go win a horse race!” He patted Abe on the back and ushered him to the interior of the saddling paddock.

Ann was already there, having broken off quietly from the group.  She had work to do. 

She and Jude had a perfect race day understanding.  She would  saddle the horse while Jude managed the owners.  She was more than happy with the arrangement.  She could easily fend off a kick or a bite from an anxious racehorse, but she wasn’t so sure she could handle Julie, Abe Steiner and his silly hat at the same time.

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