December 2018 - Ann Dreams of France. Installment #5
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Thursday, 29 November 2018 01:21


by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

Ann kept a bag of clothes in the barn office for occasions like these. She called Peter and got his answering machine on her way to the showers.

“Hey Peter, I’m just calling to check on Luke. I’m stuck here at the races and so I need to leave him with you all day. I’ll be back around 6 o’clock tonight and I’ll bring you some soup from the deli. Call me if you need anything and pet Luke for me. I hope you are feeling better and no, I didn’t forget your doctor’s appointment for tomorrow.”

Her friend Peter was a retired jockey who was loved for his jocular personality despite his significant lack of race riding talent. After his riding career was over, Peter worked as a jockey’s valet, a mutual clerk - taking bets at the track’s betting windows and lastly, as a groom for the outrider’s horse. Until two years ago, Peter had been a fixture at the track for over 50 years. He was housebound now, with arthritis, diabetes and macular degeneration. He kept Luke, her Walker Hound, for her when she knew she would have a long day at the track. Luke loved Peter more than anyone and the feeling was mutual.

Peter was the kind of person that she could spend hours listening to. Peter’s stories of racing’s glory days of the late 40’s and 50’s were the stuff people made movies about. Peter had a skill that racing folks loved above all - he could tell one hell of a story. She, Peter and Luke spent  lazy evenings at Peter’s trailer house in Sierra Madre just a few miles from the track playing checkers and swapping racing stories. Peter had scores of them. Some of them were so good she didn’t mind hearing them over and over. She relished her time with Peter. But she couldn’t help being angry that he had so few visitors anymore. It was as if racing had forgotten him completely when he could no longer drive to the track. His phone never rang and if anyone visited, he didn’t mention it. People spoke warmly of him anytime she mentioned his name. She wondered how quickly racing might forget her too.

Silver Belly Stetson

Some of the barn bathrooms had dorm-like showers. She brought a folding chair with her into the bathroom and used it to block the door so that she’d be guaranteed privacy. Jamming the door with the chair, she stepped into the hot shower.  As the room steamed up, she did her best to shake the thickness in her head leftover from the liquid lunch and choked back tears brought on by another crazy morning. All her planning  had gone down the drain. Her morning was supposed to have involved a smooth running barn, a good lunch and a quick nap. Instead it was a circus of not one but two fired riders, an injured horse, a sick horse, a freaky jealous girlfriend of the boss and a particularly non-healthy lunch.

Ann swore again to herself that she would eat better and regularly. She went as far as to write herself notes on her fridge at home. But her plans were thwarted by nothing short of a bunch of bullshit and her inability to avoid or control it. What she really needed was a vacation. Of course, she’d been saying that for over two years and not taken more than an afternoon off in all that time. Seven days a week creeps up on you, whether you love your job not.

When riding race horses for a living, a woman’s body takes on a particular shape. Deltoids, lat muscles, and particularly glute muscles are lean but round and deeply defined. As someone who had been doing it for over 20 years, day in and day out, she was a steel hard professional athlete. Corded muscles covered her smallish frame as did the scars of the wrecks. She studied her “man hands” with ropey veins and enlarged knuckles, ran them over tiny breasts and past the bands of muscle that wrapped her core and thighs. She laughed through the tears at the small shamrock tattoo on her left hip, the remnants of a drunken weekend in Miami after a disappointing stake race. The details were fuzzy but they included a tryst with an adorable Irish jockey. “If only he could ride a racehorse like that.”

Laughing softly, she treated herself to a long hot rinse in the shower, allowing the water to massage her low back and tight hamstrings. As the water loosened her muscles, she focused on snapping herself out of her pity party. There was talk of sending Invictus to France for the Prix de l’Arc de Triumph. It was a long shot, but it was also a chance to run on the soft turf of Lonchamp for four million Euros. Jude was talking about it and she had just recently begun to dare to dream that it just might come true.

The notion of going to France to run in the giant race was too rich. She’d gone as far as to dig out her old French textbooks from high school. It was the only class in high school she cared about. She loved the feel of the language and dreamed of roaming the French countryside in search of crusty bread, creamy fresh cheese and crimson wines. She rolled around in the thoughts of conversing with the fashionable Parisian set. She pictured herself wearing tall boots and short skirts with leggings, sheer blouses, colorful scarves, and fine perfumes. To be completely female seemed the ultimate escape from her daily reality. She could almost smell the frothy espresso and the buttery croissants.

She was rudely shaken from her reverie when she heard the crackly barn loudspeaker; “Horses in the first race, due in the receiving barn in 20 minutes.” She had 30 minutes to get their horse ready for the 2nd race. She dressed quickly, slipping on the expensive Italian bra and panties she’d treated herself to after breaking up with Mateo. A girl’s got to feel feminine somehow. That said, slipping on clean jeans after dreaming of Parisian fashion was a come down. She popped another Celebrex into her mouth, swallowed it dry, threw her dirty clothes and toiletries into her gym bag and high-tailed for the barn.

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 its downhill run and for its 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.

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 OTTBs. 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.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.

Find the next installment at, or read it in the next issue of California Riding Magazine.