August 2018 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Thursday, 26 July 2018 20:02


A story of women riding for their lives.

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

Chapter 1 - Our Lady of Victory

Rains in central California’s Sacramento Valley conquer winter’s oppressive tulle fog. The rains also dampen the hot summer’s bluish smog. They give license to the brilliant pink and white camellia blooms and give residents a view of the stunning Sierra Mountains for all who would look east.

Gayle Garrison looked up briefly to admire the snowy peaks of Donner Summit before ducking through the church’s double doors. She would have to hurry to ready the altar for daily Mass.

For the last two years, Gayle shouldered the responsibility of preparing the church for Friday morning Mass. She vacuumed the altar’s crimson carpet, replaced the white votive candles, placed flowers and incense in the appropriate places. She dusted the brass relief forms of each of the Stations of the Cross and made sure the sacristy and the vestibule were tidy.  Being in the church alone was overwhelming – even creepy at first. Two years later, it was sheer pleasure. The quiet of the sacred room filled her with calmness and confidence. She was proud of her work.

Gayle tried other volunteer posts at Our Lady of Victory. But helping with the annual festivals was too political. Serving as a Eucharistic Minister was too intimate. She shuddered at the memory of singing in the adult choir – sandwiched between the frail woman with the thin vibrato and the over zealous tenor with the bad breath. She’d volunteer at the local hospital run by the Carmelite Nuns in their flowing white robes but this job suited her best. The meditative, quiet housekeeping of the church never felt like work. She finished by straightening the purple and silver wall hangings, made sure that the holy water bowls were filled, crossed herself and then took up her spot in the fourth row on the left hand side. Releasing the upholstered kneeling bar from under the bench in front of her with a gentle thud, she settled down to pray as worshipers filed in for the morning service.

As usual, she began with the Lord’s Prayer; Our Father, who art in heaven, Hollowed be thy name.

She prayed the familiar words, but her mind wandered.  She thought about her husband, of course. Lately, more distracted than usual, but otherwise fine.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.

Her son, his wife and the two beautiful grand kids, also healthy and happy She was eager to visit them in Portland next month.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Her thoughts turned to her daughter Ann. She sighed and re-focused her energy on her prayers; Give us each day, our daily bread.

Ann. After all these years, still caught in that seething pit of lecherous, larcenous, vipers at the racetrack.  Gambling, drinking, drugs – and so much danger. Her darling, kind, and stubborn Ann in the middle of it all. Ann was turning 40 soon. This was not a passing phase. Gayle knew she needed to think of Ann as an adult, but why couldn’t she act like one and settle down?

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Her thoughts rambled back to Ann’s turbulent adolescence, and the day that she realized that her tiny Ann had run away for good, propelled by visions of being a jockey.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from all evil.

As a mother, her heart ached with the pain of losing her daughter to a dangerous game, one that had changed her, hardened her and certainly had hurt her, but as a horsewoman, she kept locked in her soul the understanding of the spell cast by the thrill of riding a fast horse.


Chapter 2 - Morning Fog

Dee drew hard on the joint, held the smoke low in her rib cage and coughed  as she exhaled. She allowed herself two lungfuls of marijuana each morning. She watched the laundry she’d forgotten to take down yesterday blow in the early breeze. She stubbed out the roach, went into the house and placed it in the carved wooden box. She closed the box firmly and stashed it behind the mound of sweatshirts in her bedroom closet.

She washed her hands and face and waited for the knots in her belly to loosen. The strange, tingly sensation unfurled in her chest. She smiled, knowing the blessed relaxation she craved would follow. Placing her ball cap on her head, she remembered her gloves, called the dogs from the front room and headed out to feed the waiting horses.

Chapter 3 - 4:54 a.m.

There was at least another hour of darkness before the sun turned the San Gabriel mountains their famous shade of purple. Four hours after that, before the second race, Los Angeles smog would smother them in dingy gray.

The coffee in the plastic mug was terrible. The only coffee available in the middle of the night was from the convenience store and there’s no telling when it was brewed. Luckily there were plenty of packets of sugar and powdered creamers to use. The store stocked her favorite energy bars and she choked down two between gulps of sticky sweet coffee.

Most of the horses were dozing. The grooms had yet to appear from the dormitory style rooms above the barns. She ducked into the office for a few more minutes of quiet before the daily circus began. The Celebrex she took night before was doing its job and she flexed both knees, expecting the sharp catch in the left knee and the hollow pop from the right. Both were quiet today. She made a mental note to cancel another appointment with the orthopedic surgeon.

Once in the barn, it was time to go from stall to stall, removing the stable bandages and feeling for heat or swelling in each leg of the 25 stall barn. Both knees of the old campaigner Vaya Con Dios were hot this morning but he’d eaten up every ounce of his grain from the night before. While the nervous filly Mercy Street hardly touched any of last night’s meal and yet all four legs were a healthy ice-cold. She’d talk to Jude about ulcer meds for the filly.

One by one, legs were checked. She indulged herself in a chance to pause and reflect on her favorite time of the day. Just her and the horses, before the grooms appeared, the gallop boys, the overly solicitous jockey’s agents, the Boss and later the owners.  She paused by the stall of one of the big stake horses and produced two peppermints. One for him and one for Elvis, his companion goat tied in front of his stall. The muscled gelding chomped the candy as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Nobody would believe a horse as fast as you is a total pushover,” she whispered into his shoulder.

One last horse to go and she’d have to wait for Enrique the barn foreman to help.  Invictus – the Big Horse in the barn these days was more than big, he was a Sonofabitch.  Taking the wraps off his muscular orange legs took timing, nerve and at least two knowledgeable people.  If he wasn’t striking, he was biting at you with the intent to rip flesh.  He’d run off two good farriers from the barn and sent a vet tech to the hospital already.  She watched as he attacked the feed in his hay net looking her way in between vicious bites as if to say “you wanna piece of this?”

“Think he’ll do okay in Chicago?” It was the Boss, Jude Keenan. It was rare to see him at the barn this early.

“He’ll kill them if we catch a wet track,” she replied.

“How’s his foot?”

“You go in there and check,” she laughed.

He laughed too.  It had been three years now since he’d lured her away from another trainer.  He was the new kind of Thoroughbred trainer; smart, handsome and flashy.  He drove a fast car and ran with a fast crowd. An astute businessman, he ran his business ruthlessly and well. His clients won and as a result they loved him. He left Ann to the hands-on with the horses while he cared for the owners and the business. He knew his barn was thriving because of her and he compensated her well for it, in cash. For her part, she rarely complained and she tolerated his tirades better than his last two fiancees.

Author Joell Dunlap lives in Half Moon Bay with her husband, some smelly old hound dogs and 19 rescued and donated horses - most of them OTTB’s. She is the founder and executive director of The Square Peg Foundation ( You can subscribe to read weekly installments of A Damn Fine Hand here:, or follow along in upcoming issues of CRM as we serialize her compelling novel.

“Hey,” she asked “aren’t you wearing the same clothes as yesterday’s races?”

“So what if I am?” he self consciously rubbed his stubbled chin, puffed up his chest and adjusted the jeweled belt buckle of his expensive jeans smiling wickedly.

“The girl from the Lakers?”  she rolled her eyes.

“Be nice, she’s fun and she’s rich and her daddy just might buy a slew of racehorses with us at the sale next month.”

“You think you can manage to keep her around for a month before she hates your guts?”

“God you’re mean.  And just in case Julie comes around, maybe you don’t want to mention anything,” he raised his eyebrows playfully.

“Is lying to your girlfriends in my job description now?”

Pretending not to hear her, he headed towards the office.