Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mamas Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to be Jockeys . . .

So I watched the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby tonight -- I watch it every year, and every year I fail to pick the winner. You say “So what,”, but what you don’t know about me is that I pick winners. I pick them all the time. Just yesterday I picked Plum Pretty to win the Kentucky Oaks, the filly equivalent of the Derby -- I picked her on a hunch, something about her name struck me, and she won. I can watch an evening of racing on TVG and randomly pick winners throughout the evening -- flat horses, trotters, pacers -- I picked the winner of the exhibition Arab horse race at the Breeders’ Cup last fall -- I know absolutely nothing about Arab racing, but there was this one that just looked right, and I picked it, and it won. The more relaxed I am, the more likely I’ll pick a winner. If there’s pressure I can’t do it and I think that’s why I can’t pick a Derby winner ever -- the stakes are way too high, and the vibe is so intense. I picked the winner of the Preakness last year, I’ve got a pretty good record at picking Preakness winners, but then the Belmont Stakes comes along and I fall apart again. But take me to the track on a quiet day, with only low priced claimers and hard working allowance horses going into the gate and I’ll pick winners til the sun goes down. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid -- I was better at it when I was a kid, a real clairvoyant when it came to racing. I picked the winners of 8 out of 9 races at Belmont Park one day while waiting for my father to take photos for the Daily Racing Form -- he left me in the press box and I just sat there on a stool with a Coca-Cola and a program and quietly picked horses -- my dad ran two dollar bets for me and by the fifth race, the other guys in the press box were asking me for tips. I was a freak. But if you get me in a room full of people watching the races now and there’s alot of hubbub, I go cold, can’t pick any winners at all. It’s a zen thing I guess -- I have to connect with the horse that’s going to get the job done and so the psychic noise has to be really low.

But tomorrow is Mother’s Day and what I really wanted to tell you was a story about my mother, especially because there was so much Girl Power at the Derby today -- two women trainers had entries in the race, one of them, Mucho Macho Man came in third and ran an amazing race, and there was a girl jockey in the race, red-headed Rosie Napravnik rode Pants on Fire, and because my mother was a pioneer at the track, my ears are always pricked to the possibility that a woman will finally win the Derby, whether it be in the saddle or as a trainer, because that might change the racing world finally, or one can at least hope so. My mother started out galloping horses on the backstretch of Belmont Park in 1969. She was the first woman to gallop horses for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, sometimes known as The Giant Killer, because of his reputation for beating the greats, such as defeating Secretariat twice -- once with a horse named Onion and then again with a horse named Prove Out. My mother asked Mr. Jerkens for a job every day for a month before he finally gave into her. And when she went to work for him, his barn crew of 57 men wouldn’t speak to her for several weeks. They didn’t want a girl in the barn, but eventually they saw she wasn’t leaving and they discovered she was not only a good rider, but a hard worker, and they befriended her and taught her everything they knew, the old time secrets of caring for thoroughbred race horses.

My mother got her New York Racing Association Trainer's License in 1975 and began racing horses under her own name that year. She held her own with a small shed row of horses and some decent owners, including Peter M. Brant. When her old injuries began to make New York winters hard to take, she built a training center in Southern Pines, NC where she broke top dollar yearlings and rehabilitated lay-ups, all of whom went to the New York tracks to earn high dollars. She was a pioneer alright.

So I wanted to be just like her as a kid. I wanted to grow up to ride race horses. My father had been a steeplechase jockey and there was my mother riding race horses every day, it seemed like the natural choice for me, right? My mother had different ideas for me though. She had seen the worst of times working on the track -- the discrimination, the injuries, the low pay, the cold rainy mornings, the injustice of the business that was ruled by men. But she didn’t put it that way to me, she was too smart to do that, instead she decided to discourage me by putting me right in the thick of it. She put me on yearlings at the age of 12 or so, but this only made me want to ride race horses even more. So then she put me to work in the barn and attempted to make it unpleasant -- how many hours did I spend raking the aisle? And then there was hosing horses -- lay-ups with Legs, a big ankle, a big knee, a bowed tendon, all these had to be cold hosed, daily, so out I’d go into the yard with the horse, the hose, and a watch, “Twenty minutes on that tendon, no less, no more,” she’d say, and I would stand there in the sun, hosing the afflicted leg and then at the end of the twenty minutes, she’d come out with another horse, and take the one I had just finished with, “Okay, get the right knee on this one. Twenty minutes!” and this would go on for a couple of hours or more, and all I would want to do was ride, but I had to rake up the yard, and hose the lay-ups. She was slowly wearing me down, so she thought. She wanted me to have nothing to do with the business, she wanted me to go to college, play tennis, run around with friends, do anything, as long as it had nothing to do with race horses.

I was still game to ride race horses when I was 16 and I begged her to keep putting me on them when I would visit her -- no, I didn’t live with her on the farm, but that’s another story, for another time -- and so on one particular visit, she put me to the test. First thing, she put me on three year old filly that had come to them for some R & R. The filly had lost her marbles apparently -- she was a stakes winner, had won a few hundred thousand in New York, but she had begun freezing up, yes, in the mornings, they’d take her to gallop on the training track, and she’d freeze on the walking lanes or on the track, just go stock still and stare off into space, and then? She’d explode -- sometimes pitching her exercise rider. Well, the filly had been with my mom for a month or so, and she figured she was mellow enough for me to take out for a hack, but she knew there was a chance the filly might just throw a wing ding. Well, she didn’t tell me a thing, just tacked her up, hoisted me aboard, and sent me off for a nice jog in the big field. Well, I got about 200 yards from the barn and this big filly, yes, she was huge, froze. I knew it wasn’t good, it’s never good when a horse freezes with you. So I belted her in the side with a good kick. Nothing. I belted her again and she pitched forward and started crow hopping like an old rodeo horse. I rode it out and she froze again. This time I wondered if kicking her was the thing to do and then I saw my mother watching me from a distance. I was self conscious as heck now -- I wanted to do the right thing. Be brave. I belted the filly in the side and told her to go on, move it. She pitched, took a hold of the bridle and crow hopped all the way back to the barn with me. I stayed on and managed to get her into the yard where I jumped off and my mother looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I guess she’s not over that yet.” I was shaken, which I think was my mother’s intent -- she knew the filly would scare me, but to think of it now, some people might be appalled, that my mother would put me in that position, but she knew I was tough enough to stay on, it was the psych out my mom was looking for . . . keep the kid out of racing at all costs.

It was that same week that her plan went even a step further. She had several two year olds who were just a couple of weeks away from shipping to New York. So my mother was taking the youngins out in sets of two and three for long gallops and even breezes. You ask what’s Breeze -- that’s letting them go full out, racing speed, somewhere around 25 to 30 miles an hour . . . cheetah speed. Well, I had never breezed, I had jogged the yearlings, slow galloped the two year olds, but, never breezed. We get up one morning and we’re tacking up a set and my mother tells me I’m going to ride this nice two year old filly that I had been riding all week. She was small and classy and very expensive. Riders up! And off we went, me, my mother on a nice steel gray colt, and her friend Cathy on another filly. We ride over to Mr. Hudson’s field, this big flat yellow field that Hudson liked to land his airplane on sometimes, so you get the idea of what a stretch of land it was. We do a big loop at a jog, and then we pick up a gallop, the three of us abreast, nice and easy, and my mother tells me, that when we turn toward Hudson’s house we’re gonna let it fly, we’re going to breeze these kids today, and all I needed to do was sit quiet, hold some mane and keep my head low, oh, and keep up, keep straight and right there next to her and Cathy, that’s all. Well, we turn and the engines turn on and the light changed -- yes everything went white, and my filly was suddenly not a horse anymore, but a flying machine. Her shoulders weren’t connected to her rib cage and her rib cage wasn’t connected to her hips and her nose was a thousand feet from the tip of her tail and her feet were definitely not touching the ground. If I was supposed to keep up, keep straight, there was certainly no mechanism for me to know whether or not I was doing so -- I just tucked into her mane and hoped that this shaft of light I was riding would materialize again, become physical matter once more, because all I felt at that moment was that I was comet.

We did pull up, eventually, maybe after two minutes, the length of the Derby, maybe after only one minute. I couldn’t tell you really. And Cathy and my mother patted me on the back and we headed back to the barn. I was numb with speed, absolutely thrilled with having survived and with the prospect of doing it again as soon as humanly possible. I had stayed straight, kept up, and not made a fool of myself in front of my mother, until . . . we got back to the barn, and I walked my filly into her stall and just when I began to undo my girth, a horrible nausea came over me and I was powerless  to resist what was happening. I went to my knees and began retching. Right there in the stall, up came my breakfast, and then dry heave after dry heave. My mother appeared at the stall door, the morning sun behind her, making her a huge shadow, “That happened to me the first time too. And for a few times after the first time. It happens to everyone.” And then she left. I finally got my composure and untacked my filly and bathed her and walked her til she was cool. I flew home to Connecticut a few days later, still determined that I’d be a race rider, some how, some way.

Two years later my mother would drop me off with my trunk at college to begin my freshman year. I was bewildered and my mother had won.

1 comment:

Robert said...

That was thrilling.