September 2018 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Wednesday, 29 August 2018 19:08


A story of women riding for their lives.

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

Chapter 4 - Cocky Gallop Boy

By the time the track opened, the barns were abuzz with activity.  Hot walkers in hooded sweatshirts shuffled quietly as their charges danced at the end of a leather and brass ribbon. The sounds of aluminum clad hooves prancing around the soft dirt mingled with the ringing of brass chains as the hot walkers expertly contained the exuberance of half a ton of sinew and muscle. Buckets of hot water steamed as grooms prepared baths for sweaty racehorses. Scents of liniment, cooking oats, medicated shampoos, sweet straw and the acidic tang of warm racehorse manure wafted through cool morning air.


Cocky Gallop Boy showed up late and looked nervously at the schedule board. She hated it when riders were late and he knew it. As usual, the morning’s workout schedule was penned out neatly on a giant white board, color coded for each rider and groom. Ann made sure the board was clear and exact. She kept things running to the minute.  Cocky gallop boy barked “darse prisa” to the new groom to hurry up and bring his horse. Just as he was at the apex of his shouting, she rode up on his assigned horse, fresh from his gallop.


“Where the hell were you? You were supposed to ride this horse first.  I had to take him!” She demanded.

“Wilson had a filly that he needed me to take, she had to jog two miles and it took longer than I thought,” he lied.

“Funny, I didn’t see you out there.”  She was mad and grooms were scurrying out of the way.  “Look, you are either galloping for us or Wilson, but not both. Decide now. We’ve got to work the French fillies in company before the track gets all chewed up. Are you coming or not?”

Cocky gallop boys are not amenable to being bawled out by women. But she was different and everyone knew it. She’s the best. She could out-ride any of them and she’d never put you on a crazy horse. She’d ride those herself. He fought the urge to tell her to f*ck off, mustered as much self-confidence as he could and sent the groom for the next horse on his list. By the time he’d mounted and adjusted his stirrups, she was on the other filly and on her way to the track. He needed to hustle to catch up. Trotting up alongside her she didn’t say a word to him. She was dealing with the long line of trainers, journalists, and owners who were on the rail and greeting the other riders exiting the track. Naturally shy, she didn’t make much conversation. But the Keenan barn was hot these days and everyone at the track loved a winner.

The fillies they were riding arrived from France a couple of weeks ago. In Europe, horses live at quiet training centers and exercise in large groups on mostly grass gallops with hills – covering several miles at different paces. American racehorses live at the track and generally follow a pattern of galloping alone or with one other horse for about 1.5 miles daily. The excitement of being passed by galloping horses and meeting trotting horses coming head-on as well as up to 80 horses on the track at any given time, takes getting used to – some European horses never did. Ann’s filly didn’t travel well and she wasn’t taking to American style training. But Ann was masterful with the nervous ones. She was quiet and confident and reminded them gently that all they’d have to do is go forward. She’d ridden the most rank, the strongest, the crazies and the babies. Soon, both fillies were galloping down the track with easy, ground covering strides.

They would gallop for 3/4 of a mile and then, for 660 yards, the horses would be allowed to run. The idea is to get a horse to use her stride as efficiently as possible. The best horses have always been the ones that run efficiently. Any nervousness, anger or fear costs in shortness of stride, shallowness of breath or misuse of muscles. Once they neared the pole marking 3/8ths of a mile to the finish line, just past the head of the turn, both riders bent their knees slightly and let their hands follow the motion of their horses’ head. The horses eased left down by the inside rail and opened up their strides as their heads lowered and hooves started to fly.  Head and head, the natural instinct of a good racehorse took over and the riders simply guided their horses around the turn until the track straightened out toward the finish line. With less than two city blocks to go, both fillies were game and pressed each other as they accelerated towards the wire. The cocky gallop boy saw his chance for revenge and pulled his whip from his back pocket and cracked his filly on the right shoulder. Rather than sprint forward, his surprised filly leapt sideways into the other pair.  Ann and her filly bounced into the rail and she scrambled to right her horse. He heard her behind him screaming angrily as he galloped to the wire.  After the finish line, she charged up beside him.

“What the hell was that all about?”

“My filly was slowing down, I was just keeping her going” he said casually.

“That filly NEVER slows down!  You could have killed us!”  Ann was livid. Her small turned up nose was flared and angry.

“Sorry.” Now she knows what he thought about getting yelled at.

She beat him back to the barn. As he rounded the corner, his heart sank. Both Ann and Jude Keenan were looking at the French filly’s bleeding right leg. As he approached, she straightened up and glared at him.

“Well Hot Rod, you got $175,000 to replace this filly for the owners?”  Jude asked.

Cocky Gallop Boy looked down at his polished boots.

“Pick up your check this afternoon and have a nice time galloping somewhere else.” Jude added.

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.

Looking the white board, Ann realized she’d have to have to gallop all of the remaining 11 horses herself unless she could find good help fast. Her knees ached just thinking about it. Hopefully, some hungry jockey would come around looking for an in with a hot barn and she’d be able to give him a few of the easy horses this morning. Or she could ask Old Sullie if he can get on a few. He was rough but he had a lot of experience and she knew that he could hold the tough old horses that needed to gallop slowly. Not a lot of riders were strong enough to hold old campaigners like Vaya Con Dios and she’s couldn’t stop thinking about the heat in his knees. Sullie was just getting on a few these days for some of the old trainers, with any luck she’d catch him before he hit the sauce.

The track closed for a 30 minute break to groom the surface. Ann ducked off to find a bite to eat at the small cafe by the clocker’s stand. As usual, it was thronging with people. She kept her head down so as not to be sidetracked by all of the rail-birds wanting to chat. If she didn’t get something to eat now, it would be race time soon and she wouldn’t eat until after the first race.  Choosing a banana and a muffin, she headed back to the barn with her eye peeled for Sullie.  She found him chatting with a gaggle of old gamblers, regaling race stories to an adoring audience.

“What you don’t know, is that this hoss is ready to fly outta da gates today.”  The rail-birds were eating it up, hoping to get inside knowledge to give them the edge in this afternoon’s gambling.

“Hey Sullie, you wanna get on a few for me today?”  She asked.

“Anything for you baby – you know dat.” He flashed a grin complete with short tobacco stained teeth.

“Second after the break?”

“Nah, I gotta work that goofball for Stevens then. But I gotcha after that.”

“Yeah, well okay.  If I’m not there, just tell Enrique and he’ll put you up.”

“I ain’t got time for no joggers though, and I need to get paid cash at the end of the day.”

She reached into her pocket and counted out four $20 bills. “Don’t hang me up – okay?”

“I love you baby, you know that – right?”

“Yeah, I know” she was already heading back to the barn.  On her way, she passed Cocky Gallop Boy as he was chatting with a bright eyed new gallop girl.  The girl was looking at him like he was God’s gift to horses. Exercise boys loved “fresh meat.”

As Ann walked by he looked away. Ann touched the girl’s shoulder and whispered in her ear while looking directly at the Cocky Gallop Boy “Be careful, everyone calls him ‘The Herpes King.’” Walking away, she looked back and added a middle fingered salute with a wink to the gallop boy.