October 2018 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Thursday, 27 September 2018 00:12


A story of women riding for their lives. Installment #3

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018


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 a 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 pick-up 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 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 much smarts and experience as 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’s 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 on his copper neck. The horse 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.

Vaya Con Dios Ties Up

Invictus was the last to gallop. Training hours were officially over and what Ann wanted was run back home for an hour’s nap and shower to get ready for the races. They were running in the 2nd and the 7th race this afternoon. All she had to do was to untack Invictus and hand him off to the grooms. Turning the corner to the barn, the new vet’s truck was suspiciously parked in front. Their usual vet, cranky Dr. Conner, didn’t usually check back in until 11am or so.

“Oh shit, I’ll bet Vaya Con Dios tied up,” Enrique said.

Sure enough, the old campaigner was standing in the shed-row, his eyes glazed over with pain with sweat soaking his dark brown coat.

“You go check, I’ll take this bad hombre.” Enrique gestured Ann towards the vet and the distressed horse.

Ann vaulted off Invictus’ back and ran.

“That prick liked to pull my guts out on da track,” said Sullie.

“Did you back jog him to the half-mile pole?”  she asked.

“I tol’ you I ain’t got time for no joggers girl!”

“So you just took him right out to gallop?”

“Old horse like that don’t need no warmin’ up, he needs to GO!”

“Well, now he’s tied up and we have to scratch him out of the race this weekend. Thanks for all your help.” She glared at him with hands on her hips.

Throwing his still-lit cigarette butt down inches from her boot, Sully replied, “I don’t need this” and stormed away.

“That’s two riders you ran off in one morning.  This could be a record. Don’t worry, I already gave him his last check, so you don’t need to cut him one.” They both watched Sullie storm back to the track kitchen.

She thought about telling Jude that she’d already paid Sullie in cash from her own pocket this morning. But she didn’t have the energy. She ventured back to the horse who had begun to relax from the tranquilizer drugs the vet had administered to release the massive kinked up muscles in his back and hindquarters. She patted the sweaty neck and apologized.

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 (www.squarepegfoundation.org). You can subscribe to read weekly installments of A Damn Fine Hand here: https://adamnfinehand.com, or follow along in upcoming issues of CRM as we serialize her compelling novel.

“I’m sorry old boy, I had to let someone else get on you today. I thought it would be okay.”

The tranquilized horse ignored her and she felt that she’s deserved it - deserved to be ignored for not looking out for his gallant soul. A veteran of 50+ races in his career, his next race was supposed to be his last. The owners promised that they were going to donate him to her best friend’s ranch up north. Now he’d be around a few more weeks and the owners might change their minds and drop him in for a claiming tag and hope that he ended up in somebody else’s barn and they would have the prize money and the claiming cash, too.

It was a tricky deal. She’d worked for weeks to get the owners to agree, to find him a free van ride up to Northern California and to sneak into the van a few bags of grain for the rescue ranch as well. Now she’d have to cancel and hope another race would come up for him soon. But it didn’t look good. The old man couldn’t run more than five furlongs anymore. Most of the sprints were six or 6 1/2 furlongs and he could no longer go the distance. This race set him up perfectly and he caught a fairly easy field. The owners would be happy, she would catch a little gamble on him and the old horse would go out in the glory he deserved - if his knees held.

And now this.

Tying up Syndrome, or Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, is a human athlete’s side-ache multiplied by a factor of 10 or more. When the waste products of energy burned in the muscles don’t flush away properly, the muscles cramp and knot up painfully. It’s a metabolic conundrum that happens mainly in nervous fillies or horses that have eaten too much protein and then are asked to do more exercise than they are ready for.

Nervous or scared horses tied up more often. Vaya Con Dios loved his pre- gallop jog every morning. Stepping out, pointing his toes like a ballerina stretching his massive corded muscles and watching all of the action on the track along the way. When it was time to turn around on the track and gallop, he liked to stop and watch the gallopers for a minute or two with his curious, intelligent ears pricked. He wore no blinkers to narrow his field of vision, nor did he wear a fluffy shadow roll over his nose to keep a nervous horse from throwing his head in the air.  He was a professional who knew his job and behaved well.

Sullie was in a hurry to get three horses galloped this morning and he rushed the old horse through his workout without a warm-up jog or relaxing loose rein back to the barn. The horse was paying the price. Or maybe he tied up because his knees hurt. A tough old horse doesn’t always limp when he hurts. If only they could talk.

Enrique laid his rough hand on her shoulder. It smelled like salt and warm oats. “Don’t worry, I take care of the Old Man. You go home and sleep a little.”

“I knew better than to let Sullie take him out.”

“No you didn’t, Sullie can be bueno, and he can be no bueno, just like any of us - no?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you at the receiving barn for the second race.  Don’t forget, front and hind bandages for that mare.” She shook her finger.

“No me digas eso chica.”  He smiled and pushed her toward the parking lot.

Tune into the next installment at www.adamnfinehand.com, or read it in the next issue of California Riding Magazine.