In the impossibly irrigated desert called Southern California, the Santa Anita track is ringed with palm trees and pink and blue hydrangeas although it’s November.
Dolce et Decorum Est* affectionately known as “Dulce” makes her way to the track for a 3/8 mile work as a final prep for her first race.
Cat-light, the filly steps down the track. She hears the rhythmic breathing of the oncoming horses she cannot yet see.
The track’s loamy footing has a bounce to it that sends her feet springing and floating through the early morning stillness.
A flock of black birds, in their first flurry of what will be a busy day startles the filly as they flitter about overhead. She smells the aroma of smoking cigarettes and her guts clench with a memory of pain. The Rider on her back shifts from side to side and urges her forward with impatient knees. Irritated, she roots her head down and forward pulling the rider over her thick shoulders as her hind feet bounce brightly. She squeals in surprise when the Rider deftly smacks her on the rump and urges her forward again. She lets herself be guided along the outside rail of the track. The Rider releases her into a brisk trot then restrains her from jumping forward into anything faster. The bit rhythmically moves in her mouth and she obediently bows her chin toward her chest lifting both the crest of her young neck and the joints in her slim legs as she glides along. The hood on her head employs cups around her eyes impeding her vision of that which is behind her. The moving bit in her mouth causing her to lower her chin means that her vision of that which is far ahead is also limited. She twitches her small ears and hears other horses around her but she knows that she is utterly alone. The human sitting just behind her shoulders is the only other being with whom she has any contact. Luckily, today’s rider is light, firm but fair, strong but sure. It’s her favorite rider. This takes some of the trembling out of her body, this body which has been designed for one thing and one thing only – to run.
The vessels throughout her body dilate and allow the running force to course through her lithe form. As pumping blood warms her muscles, so too do the warming tendons and ligaments bend and flex and stretch. Her breath deepens and strengthens. Her nostrils vibrate as she exhales.
The Rider stops stops moving in synch with the filly. The filly feels the pressure on the bit go slack sending her slightly off balance from the steady reciprocated grip between her jaw and the Rider’s hand via the bridle. The filly knows that this is the sign to stop and she lowers her head and digs the toes of her rounded hooves into the yielding ground. In synch, rider and horse exhale before both reins guide her into a 90 degree turn.
The calm and steady hand pats her on the neck now misting with sweat. The Rider’s voice croons something re-assuring. The filly knows that she’s been instructed to stand still but the ground is humming with the chords of pounding hooves and it’s her ancient nature to join the stampede. She sees movement in each corner of her limited vision and she hears the crescendo of others breathing as they reach full stride. She prances in anticipation, her body beginning to lather. The voice croons again and the hand pats her on the shoulder. Just when the filly is ready to explode, the steady hand guides her another 90 degrees to the right and signals her ever so gently, to run.
Bounding away at first uncertain, worried and choppy but the reins adjust and she begins to lean into the metal bar in her mouth asking the Rider “Is this okay?”
The pressure of the bit, the adjusting weight of the rider poised over the exact center of gravity of the filly says “Yes, and you may go just a little bit faster.”
The strides lengthen, the heartbeat strengthens, the reins and the weight of the rider say “Steady now and I’ll let you have more.”
The track unfolds into a gentle left hand bend and the filly leaps awkwardly into the turn shifting her weight from her right hip to her left. She gallops the turn daring to trust the Rider – focusing each nerve on the space that continues to open up in front of her. Coiling her legs underneath her reaching for more ground each stride more important, more strong and stretching toward joy. She and the rider on her back are of one mind – one breath.
As the turn straightens out, both horse and Rider see the hooves of the horse galloping 50 yards in front. Hundreds of years of selective breeding of the winning instinct kicks in. Instantly she knows she must overtake this horse to show her power, her prowess, her superiority. She wants, no she NEEDS to win. To her surprise and delight the rein hand moves, the weight of the rider shifts ever so slightly forward to accommodate the added speed that she is so willing to give.
Rider and beast celebrate the ground closing between them and their target. Each stride is a triumph bringing them closer to glory. Each muscle contraction is more difficult and yet more delicious than the one before.
The horse and rider in front sense the chase and accelerate as well.
The race is on.
Hooves push, aluminum cleats dig, flesh gives, lungs press, pupils dilate, neurons flash, bones absorb, muscles unfold, ligaments reach. There is no sound but the rush of air by their ears, the coursing of blood through veins and the bass beat of hooves grabbing earth. Blinders and focus keep the filly from seeing anything but the goal, the Rider urges her on. “C’mon girl, we’ve got them now.”
So focused on their shared task, so absorbed in the task of winning, neither saw the bolting horse coming from the right. They couldn’t see the panic in his eyes – the fear that drove him blindly almost head-on. The collective speed at impact may have been more than 70 mph, the collective weight of two racehorses and one rider, well over a ton. With no time to react, the filly saw only a flash of movement, felt a jolt of bright light and then:
*Dolce et Decorum Est (pst Mori) = “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” – from Horace – poem by Wilfred Owen – 1918