July 2019 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Monday, 01 July 2019 02:50


Installment #13, The Ranch.

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

The Ranch.

She wasn’t sure that she wanted to be there. And yet it was as close to home as she could imagine.

Kids everywhere. She never did like kids. But she had to admit, these kids were pretty cool. They all worked hard for the privilege of riding at the Ranch. Dee made sure of that. If you didn’t work hard, you didn’t last at the Ranch. Kids who wanted to go to fancy shows moved on, kids who didn’t want to get dirty left. What remained was a group of kids, age eight to 19 that weren’t afraid to dig in and do what needed to get done. Yeah, she had to admit, these kids were okay. Dogs, barn cats and those damn goats. Dee called it “Ann’s junkyard” because so many of the lifelong residents of the Ranch had come from her barn at the track.

The Ranch was a place where you went when you didn’t have anywhere else to go. Ann sent horses that could no longer race or horses whose owners would rather have the tax write-off as a donation. Dee and the kids were supposed to fix the horses up, get the big ones jumping over fences and the little ones playing polo and then sell them.

But most of them made themselves at home and got fat and lived out their lives at the Ranch. The broken down paddocks in foggy San Gregorio were a far cry from the manicured barns of Santa Anita. Dee, an old racetracker herself, understood how to knit bones and tendons back together, but she didn’t have the knack to send them on to the fancy show barns of Silicon Valley.

“The only thing harder than putting a racehorse back together is having to do it again when the show horse people break ’em down some more,” Dee would say.

“So you are just gonna feed this horse forever?” she would chide her old friend.

“For as long as he’s hungry,” Dee would laugh.

For a time, Dee and Ann lived and worked together when Dee was married to a small-time trainer who got his break with a big-time owner. Ann had gladly gone to work for them after leaving a top-notch barn in a huff over medications and twisted relationships. Joining a small-time barn had been a show of defiance to her old boss.

The two had worked tirelessly shoulder to shoulder until Dee’s husband, an ex-rodeo cowboy, had taken ill and the owner had left for a more winning barn. Dee’s husband died soon after and Dee left the track forever. But not the horses.

The Ranch.

Facing the horses she had all but forgotten.

Sam the leggy chestnut, with the hardware in his knees that still wouldn’t let you touch his left ear a full eight years later. Or Daisy who had all the promise in the world if the owners would just have waited until she was 3 years old. So much heartache and yet so much hope all rolled into 10 acres of racing’s leftovers. It was like a bitter pill that you knew would make you well.

Ann was driving her car swiftly over Tejon pass into Grapevine Canyon, out of the LA Basin and into the flat San Joaquin Valley when she was jolted out of her sing along with the radio while the cruise control is set to 70mph. “Dad!” she exclaimed out loud. She had completely forgotten about his visit. He was supposed to be at her house later this evening. She fumbled across the passenger seat for her purse, rummaged around inside it for her phone and clumsily dialed her dad’s number.

“Hey Button.” he answered cheerfully.

“Dad, I’m so glad I caught you. I’m not home.”

“You’re never home kid.”

“No, I mean I’m headed up north for a couple days to the Ranch.”

“Oh, I thought we were getting together,” he sounds more surprised than disappointed.

“I just totally forgot Dad, it’s been another one of those crazy weeks and I just found out that I’d have a few days off. I’m really sorry.”

“Wha, okay honey, hang on, I’ve got another call. Well, let me just call you back okay?”

“Sure, Dad.” He clicked off before she could say anything more.

She drove on up the highway through the flat fertile fields around Bakersfield feeling badly about screwing up her time with her dad. She often felt like she was letting people down lately by continuing to fumble commitments she had made. She began to list in her mind the people that she had recently let down. “Dad, Johnny and Mark, Enrique, Pete. Hell, even Julie had been affected by her inability to deliver on a promise.

Her heart sank when she thought of Viya Con Dios and the promises that she had made to the old campaigner. Jeezus, is there anything you haven’t screwed up? Luckily, she mused, I haven’t promised Dee anything. So I could just turn around go back home and start making good on all these things I need to do.

Something didn’t feel right about the statement and she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what it was. What she needed to do was be back at the barn, making sure that everything was in its place and that all things were attended to. She could catch up on the bookkeeping, pay some bills, take Pete some good food, there’s no telling what he’s eating right now. Maybe she could get together with Mark and Johnny and find Johnny a new therapist, one who would actually help this time. She’d get to visit with her dad and maybe even get some extra sleep. It was so simple. And yet, her car continued to drive North.

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 (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.