By: Girl Bard
Disclaimer: Please see Part 1.
Authors Note: I got what I asked for! My mailbox was flooded for days with people asking me to continue with this story. Your wish is my command, and thank you all for writing. This is for all of you. J
Hoisting the bale of hay over the side of the loft I call out a warning to those below before letting it drop. Only ten more to go, I sigh internally as I pause to wipe the sweat gathering on my brow with my t-shirt.
The work gloves on my hands are too big and keep sliding around, but its better than having them get cut and irritated by the twine holding the scratchy hay bales together. Wanting to get out of the humid loft, I hurry and throw down the rest of the hay.
Now I have to haul it around the entire farm. Climbing down the ladder, I land with a happy thud on the cool concrete of the barns main aisle. Its much nicer down here, a breeze breaking up the humidity of the early Florida morning. Its only five oclock and the temperature is already warmer than yesterday.
"You gonna feed now Gen?" Als southern drawl questions from his spot in the grain room.
"Sure, you want to walk me through it?" I ask him and he emerges, his rolling cart laden with individual buckets of grain.
"Yep." He responds and I throw a few bales of hay into a hay cart and grab a knife to cut the twine with. "Usually start here, in the main barn. Boss keeps all the horses in training here and they eat first so they can go over to the track." Al instructs as he dumps the grain with the horses name on it in their buckets.
I love feeding time, even at five am. The horses are always so cute when they know breakfast is coming, most of them whicker softly; their eyes bright and shining. Others are rude, banging on their stall or pacing frantically. Most of Denas horses are the former, well behaved and easy to work around.
Following Al, I throw flakes of hay after he gives them their grain. "Normally we dont do it like this." He mentions as we continue down the aisle, working already like a team.
"What do you mean?" I question as I cut the twine off another bale.
"Its better for the horses if you give em hay first, gets their guts working before the heavy grain. Less chance of colic that way. Today Im showing you, so well do it together." He explains and I nod in understanding. Its smart, one of the biggest threats to horses is colic and Denas way would seemingly cut down on the risk.
"How long have you been here, Al?" I ask him. He must be in his fifties, and the deep creased lines of his face and dark tan indicate hes a native Southerner.
"Worked for Denas daddy, way back. He died and she got this place and it made sense to just stay on." He mentions.
"Was her father a trainer?"
"Yup." Al states tersely, and I take the hint and concentrate on working.
We finish feeding the barn and Al returns the cart to the grain room. He shows me the chart that explains what each horse gets for meals and what various supplements get added. Im pleased to see that Dena uses mostly herbal supplements, and not near the quantity of crap most trainers pump into their horses systems.
"You get up to the house now, and have breakfast. Ill finish up down here and water everybody." He orders and I nod before making my way to the main house.
I guess its custom here for employees to gather for meals in the main house. Dena finished showing me around yesterday and we stayed at the farm until the spacious trailer delivering Foxy from the track arrived. By the time we then went back to the track to check on the few horses stabled there it was pretty late. I went to the weekly motel where I had been living, gathered my few possessions and checked out.
It was pretty satisfying to leave that roach motel behind as I got in my beat-up car and drove back to the farm. I knew I had to get up early to help Al feed so I hit the sheets, where fast horses and a certain dark-haired trainer consumed my dreams. And I dont mean Mr. Lewis.
I enter the main house and kick off my dirty boots, intent on washing up in my room before eating. I trot up the stairs, hearing the loud laughter and commotion down in the dining room.
Dena said everyone here was a friendly bunch, and it sounds like it. I wonder if shell be joining us for breakfast? I slip on a clean pair of riding tights and a fresh t-shirt, butterflies in my stomach as I am reminded by my clothes that I will be on the track in just a few hours. I run my fingers through my shaggy blonde hair and smile at my reflection in the mirror. I look happy for the first time in a long time.
As I enter the dining room I see Dena, sitting at the head of the table wearing a tank top. Her long arms are toned and tanned and I feel my mouth go dry at the sight of her. Shes so gorgeous.
"Hey Gen!" She greets me with a wide smile. "Everyone, this is Gen." Dena stands and crosses to my side, pointing out the new faces as she introduces me.
"Fernando, our exercise rider extraordinaire." She starts, pointing out a young Hispanic boy. He smiles and waves his small hand. "Youll be working with him mostly, our other exercise rider quit because his wife just had a baby. She didnt want him riding anymore." Dena states and I nod in understanding. I dont blame her one bit; riding is dangerous regardless of how easy the horse is to ride.
"You know Charlie, and the other grooms are Maya, Hector, Alice, and Jose." Dena points them out and I greet each one. "Charlene is my assistant and general know-it-all," Dena continues, pointing to a laughing blonde woman, "And Bob and Frank there are the barn handymen." I nod a hello to the two ruddy men at the end of the table. "We have an assortment of part-time helpers and hot-walkers, youll meet all of them eventually." Dena finishes as she sits back down.
"Nice to meet you all." I tell everyone.
"How did feeding go this morning, Gen?" Dena asks as she points me to an empty seat besides hers.
Grateful to be included in their conversation, I pour myself a glass of juice. "It was great, all the horses looked fine and Al is just finishing up."
Dena nods, suddenly looking deep in thought. "Good." She responds, as everyone else resumes their conversations and the room is suddenly loud again.
"Hola." Fernando speaks to me shyly as we follow Dena down to the barn.
"Hola." I respond, and he grins. Hes a cutie, thats for sure. Hes as short as I am and probably only fifteen.
"You should see Fernando ride." Dena speaks proudly, "Hes a natural." Fernando blushes at her compliment and I grin, immediately taking a liking to the mild-mannered boy.
Charlene accompanies us to the barn, the grooms already there to prep the first string of horses for the morning workout. Breakfast was fun, I seemed to fit in and feel at ease with the employees. Dena seems to have gathered a big, very diverse, family and I dont regret my decision to work here.
"Im going to put you up on Foxy today." Dena states suddenly and Fernando looks at me in awe, his dark eyes glowing.
"Foxy?" I question, not having learned all the names of Denas horses yet.
"Foxfire." She responds and I swallow audibly. "Foxys her barn name."
I nod, knowing most horses are never called by their full registered names.
"I dont want any speed from her, just gallop her out slow and make sure shes settled down from yesterday. Dena continues, waiting for my reaction.
I grin widely, eager to be on the filly even if we just walk around the barn. Dena returns my smile, obviously pleased with my reaction before explaining her other instructions to Fernando and myself.
We reach the barn and Charlie is waiting directly outside, holding the fillys bridle. Dena nods at me and I strap on my helmet, my stomach clenches with anticipation and my hands already clammy from the heat.
Giving me a leg up, Dena rests her hand on my thigh as I settle onto the fillys back. "Shes a peach to ride, but smart. Shell try to fool you into thinking youre going slower than you really are. She loves to run and will probably fight you a bit when you try to keep her slow. Just loosen her muscles up and gallop out a mile."
"Okay." I tell her, patting Foxfires red neck. Sitting on her back, I admire her black-tipped ears and well-shaped neck. She is small, especially compared to the gigantic Foghorn I rode yesterday. But theres something about her that feels different from any other horse Ive ever ridden, its like she is burning from the inside with spirit. Its an almost overwhelming feeling, especially when shes just standing still. I cant imagine what she will feel like at full gallop.
Charlie releases her rein and brings out a round quarter horse wearing an English saddle.
Dena gracefully swings onto the horse and settles her long legs into the stirrups. She rides over to me and takes the fillys rein, acting like an attending rider to the post.
"Charlene, go ahead and get the second string ready and bring them over to the track." Dena calls before catching my eye. "You ready?"
"Yep." I answer, smiling at her. We ride slowly over to Denas half-mile training track, a few hundred yards away. The fillys walk is elastic and filled with the promise of speed. She reminds me of a cat in full crouch, just waiting to pounce.
"So, are things working out so far?" She asks as I notice her relaxed posture while in the saddle.
"Yes, thank you." I answer. "I made the right decision."
Dena nods, her bright eyes twinkling. "Im glad. Everyone here is great, Im sure youll feel right at home in no time."
I grin. "I already do." I notice that Dena isnt as tall as I originally thought. Because Im just under five feet, everyone seems tall to me. But Dena is probably only 58, not 6 as I first thought. Maybe its her personality that makes her seem so looming, or the fact that shes surrounded by jockeys and exercise riders all day.
"There a horse I want you to rate this morning." Dena starts and I turn my attention back to business. "Hes a four-year-old named Irish Cream, and hes going in a race the day after tomorrow. Id like you to ride if youre interested."
"Sure." I offer immediately.
"Good. Hes going in the second string today, so well see how he goes with you." Dena finishes as we arrive at the track. "Okay, dont break her from the gate, just warm her up quickly and ease her into a gallop." Dena orders as the filly steps onto the track.
The dirt is soft, and still a little thick from the previous rain. Its a deep, sandy track covered in loam, making it easier on the horses legs than the hard surface of most tracks. The filly immediately changes her demeanor, on the walk over she was relaxed and now shes bursting with energy.
"Easy Foxy." I tell her and she flicks her small ears back in my direction. Obeying Denas instructions I ask the filly for a trot and she immediately complies. I rise in my stirrups and post to her fluid gait, amazed at how long her stride is for her small stature.
I trot her once around the track, familiarizing myself with her natural movement and rhythm. Shes not as comfortable in the trot as Foghorn or any of the bigger horses Ive ridden, but I can feel her collected movement and I cant hold back my smile. She reminds me of all the dressage horses Ive ridden in my life, perfectly balanced and in control of every muscle. This is a filly that will be able to handle any track surface with ease and switch her leads perfectly when coming off of the turn.
As we pass Dena for the first time, the dark-haired trainer nods at me and I allow the filly to canter. She immediately rolls into a gentle rhythm and for a moment I feel like Im on a carousel horse rather than a racehorse. Shes got the sweetest canter Ive ever experienced, and the marker poles fly by as she never breaks from her even gait.
Shes not fighting or pulling on the bit, simply waiting for me to allow her to run. We pass Dena for the second time and she gives me the thumbs-up.
"Okay, baby." I tell the filly, as I am careful to keep the reins taut in my hand. I dont want her bolting into a gallop and taking control, so I give her a gentle squeeze with my leg and she flies into the faster gait.
I look down at her flying shoulders in wonder. Her perfect balance and control over her body result in the smoothest transitions Ive felt in a racehorse. Even at this slow gallop she seems like the fastest horse Ive ever ridden.
And shes a dream to ride, I expect her to be angry at the firm hold Im keeping, but she seems content to run like this all day. I talk to her the entire time around the track, telling her what a good filly she is. She seems to like my voice, her small ears turning in my direction the entire time.
We make it around the track once, and have one more time around to go. I absorb everything about the filly; especially how she runs with her head upright rather than stretching her neck down like most horses. In a race, knowing that fact is important because bigger horses with stretched out necks could sneak in and win with whats called "a head-bob" win.
She doesnt fuss with the bit like most horses either, or wing out with her front legs. Everything about her seems to be in perfect control, much like when I saw her being saddled before the race yesterday. Shes a very mature and mild-mannered little filly, and I cant help but think of what a wonderful dressage horse she would make one day, maybe after shes through with racing.
We make it around the track once more and I reluctantly start slowing the filly down. It is only now that she gets upset, shaking her small head in annoyance as I ease her back into a canter. I know she wants to keep going, and I dont blame her. She seems like she could run all day and I would gladly accompany her. As I trot her out, I notice, just like yesterday after the race, that she doesnt even appear winded. I wonder how long she can keep up her blinding speed, and if the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter so early in her three-year-old campaign is too long for her like it is for most horses. Ill have to ask Dena more about the fillys history and breeding.
I glance over at Dena and discover she has a small crowd with her, several horses and people all watching me ride Foxy.
The beautiful trainer waves us over and I keep a firm hold on the prancing filly. Its as if shes showing off to the crowd and I laugh as I stroke her damp neck.
"Good job, Gen." Dena says, her voice tinged with pride. Charlie takes hold of his fillys bridle and I hop down, throwing my arms around her neck in an impromptu hug.
Foxy nuzzles my back, her lips tickling my back through my shirt. "Good girl." I tell her again as Charlie chuckles and leads her toward the barn.
"Shes wonderful." I tell Dena, elated from my ride. "What next?"
"This is Irish Cream, but we call him Irish." Dena explains as she points me to a dark bay horse with a generous white blaze down his long face. I quickly introduce myself to him before hopping onto his back. Dena explains the fractions she wants him worked in and to break him from the gate. I nod in understanding and warm him up on the track before heading over to the chute housing the starting gate.
Bob and Frank are there to lend me a hand getting the bay into the gate, and as soon as hes settled Bob pushes the button to release the doors.
Irish breaks cleanly and I give him his head so he can find his stride. Hes a rough-moving horse, especially compared to the filly. Denas instructions were to keep him fast, so after he settles I encourage him to move out a little.
I dont have a stopwatch, relying on my internal sense of pace to keep him running at the precise fractions Dena specified. The bay is hard on the bit, constantly clamping his teeth down as if hes looking for a fight.
I just ignore his antics, which seems to infuriate him more. I can tell hes testing me, trying to see how much I will let him get away with, but I just sit calmly on his back and concentrate on keeping him going smoothly.
Coming off the first turn he slows a bit as he struggles to switch his lead. Its a problem some horses have; they need to lead with the correct foreleg in order to maintain their balance around the track. Unlike Foxfire, who can change leads in mid-stride without the rider really even feeling it; Irish is a big less coordinated and has to really think about it.
I shift my weight slightly in the saddle and keep my outside rein firm; encouraging the lead change much like I would on a dressage horse and it seems to help him. He finally switches and I praise him, letting the rein back out and giving him a bit of leg.
He speeds up down the straightaway and I encourage him further. The time Dena specified for the last few furlongs isnt going to be made unless he really gets going. Instead of speeding up like Ive asked, Irish tries to fight me further, shaking his head angrily from side to side and weaving out on the track.
I struggle to keep him straight, my arms protesting from the strength of his neck. "Easy, easy." I coo to him, trying to convince him hes not bothering me one bit. I know if I fight him, hell just fight back and that wont do anyone any good.
My gentle tone seems to have caught him off-guard and he stops pulling for a split second. I use it to my advantage, giving him one good smack with my whip and a lot of leg.
Irish responds like Ive hoped, with a burst of speed that instantly releases the pressure on my arms and back. I go with it, pumping my arms and legs for all Im worth.
We pass the furlong marker and I pull him up, knowing we didnt make the fractions Dena asked for at the end, but came damn close. "Good boy." I tell Irish, who has immediately gone back to his nice self, relaxed and light on the bit.
I wipe my face with my shirt as I let him cool down. Hes pretty lathered up; he got a good workout as prep for his race and hopefully realized that Im not going to fall for his tricks.
Glancing at Dena, I find her face unreadable. I hope shes not upset I couldnt make Irish complete the work she specified. She motions me over and I direct Irish over to her.
Hes still blowing from his run and a generous amount of sweat covers his body.
"Hop down Gen, Maya will finish cooling him out." She directs as the groom takes hold of Irish so I can dismount.
"Thank Maya." I tell her, smiling at her suntanned face. Shes probably not much older than I am and seems pretty nice. "Good boy." I tell the horse as Maya returns my smile and clips on his lead rope.
I turn my attention to Dena. "Im sorry I couldnt finish out the workout like you wanted, he got kind of rank down the stretch." I offer, her blue eyes unreadable.
"Dont worry about it, well talk later." She says and my stomach drops. I cant tell if shes really pissed at me or just wants to keep the morning running along.
"Okay, fun time!" She states, and the assortment of people around her laugh. "Gen, youre on the bay there." Dena instructs as I walk over to the horse. His groom, Alice is patting his head. I climb on board as Dena directs the rest of the riders onto the horses.
"Whos this?" I ask the petite, middle-aged gray-haired woman.
"Elmer." She answers, and I smile at the horses unusual stable name. "Hes real name is Seeyalater, but we call him Elmer cause Dena just bought him from a slaughter-auction. Hes three and real nice to be around, must be slow though." The groom adds, grinning.
I smile, understanding how Elmer got his unusual nickname. If Dena hadnt bought him, hed probably be dog food, glue, or a delicacy in France. I pat Elmers long neck, pleased he has found a second chance here with Dena.
"You all right with him?" Alice asks and I nod, the mild-mannered Elmer looking around curiously at the other horses. Alice mounts a tall chestnut and pulls on her helmet, surprising me. I guess she doubles as a rider here, Dena said everyone did a little of everything.
"Everyone ready?" Dena asks, and the five riders on horseback nod. "Okay, were going to have a little race here today." She says, and we all start grinning and cheering. Holding up her hand, we immediately quiet down and she chuckles.
"These are the new horses that just came in last week. Ive yet to see most of them run, so I cant tell you anything about them except they havent been real successful so far." The trainer adds, causing a few of us grin.
"So, break from the gate, and let the horses run where they want. Its up to you to tell me about them and to let the race play out, go six furlongs. Keep them safe and have fun." She adds and the five of us set out on the track. Im surprised to see Denas assistant Charlene on one of the horses. Shes riding with myself, Fernando, Alice and Jose.
Elmer is just plain cute as we all warm up. He is trying to look everywhere at once, like a curious little kid. He probably needs to be run with blinkers to prevent him from seeing anything except whats in front of him to help him focus on the race more.
He lopes contentedly over the track, seemingly more interested in his surroundings than the race ahead.
"Lets go." Charlene announces, obviously the leader of our group. Bob and Frank have their hands full trying to load the five horses, but Elmer contentedly walks in the gate. I settle myself over his black mane and grab a fistful of it in my hand.
The bell rings, and the gates open. Elmer stumbles a bit at the break, but soon regains his footing and lopes off.
Charlene, on a little bay mare, surges to the front. Fernando settles his dark chestnut just off the pace and Alice encourages her colt to go with the early leaders. Jose, on an almost black colt runs alongside the easily striding Elmer.
As I expected, Elmer is more interested in the black colt than running. He turns his head toward Joses horse, and I have to practically yank his head around to keep him straight. Jose grins and I shrug my shoulders in response. Elmer has no problem keeping up with the pack; he just seems to have no interest in racing.
We keep the horses in their positions as we make it around the track once, leaving two furlongs to go. Charlenes mare increases her speed, lengthening over the rest of the pack. Fernando effortlessly asks his chestnut to go with her, and the horse does. Alice doesnt move from her perch, but her chestnut speeds up and soon draws even with Charlenes mare. Not to be left behind, Jose yells to his black colt and waves his whip at him.
Its a four-horse race as we near the wire, and Elmer makes no effort to include himself in it. I try everything, smacking my whip against my boot to make a loud sound that will make him go forward, talking to him and encouraging him with my voice, and getting excited myself and riding him forward.
Nothing works, and the placid Elmer never breaks from his easy gallop, staying just a few lengths behind the leaders.
My last attempt is to give him a few slaps with my whip on his haunches. He bolts and veers sharply to the left and I luckily am able to slip him through the inside without running into Charlenes mare. Elmers entire personality changes and I can feel his body tense up and begin to shake with fear.
Okay, so hes afraid of the whip. I try to undo the damage Ive just done in the last few seconds and speak calmly to him, tucking my whip under my boot where he cannot see it or feel it. Elmer seems to settle down, still having no interest in the race and I pat his brown neck and just let him gallop out.
Charlene is using her whip fluidly on the bay mare, who is responding gamely against the stretch dual with the other three horses. Joses black colt is tiring quickly and fading as Alice keeps her chestnut steady.
The real surprise is Fernando, his whip tucked under his arm; he rocks in the saddle of his handsome chestnut that is accelerating past the others. As we sweep under the wire, Fernandos horse wins by a head, followed by the bay mare, Alices chestnut, the black colt, and Elmer.
"Good run!" Charlene calls to him, and the boy turns in his stirrups and grins. Dena was right, the kid can ride and he seems to love to do it. Hell be a hell of a jockey one day.
"He never fired, eh?" Jose says to me from his perch on the black colt. I shake my head, patting Elmers sweaty neck.
"Nah, racing isnt for him." I tell him honestly. "Your colt looked pretty good."
Jose smiles. "Yeah, he okay."
We cool the horses out and head over to Dena.
"Good work. Ill talk with you all individually." The trainer calls as she mounts her bay horse. "Lets head back over to the barn."
On the walk over, Dena rides up to me. "Hey." She greets me, her eyes twinkling.
I offer her a smile, figuring shes not that mad about my ride on Irish. I still feel compelled to apologize, maybe if I bring it up first she wont mind as much.
"Im sorry I couldnt make those fractions you wanted on Irish." I tell her, meeting her stunning eyes.
Dena raises her hand. "Christ, dont worry about it. That horse is the angriest one we have in the barn. Hes fine one minute, and than insane the next. Im surprised he didnt start bucking and kicking with you like he does with everyone else. So the fact that you got him to complete the workout and actually show some speed is good enough for me. Id still like you to take him in the race."
"Sure!" I agree. "Thanks."
"Anyway, how do you feel about everything else?" She asks, that sly grin on her face and I know shes speaking about my ride on the filly.
"Shes incredible." I say dreamily, remembering her intense desire to run and win, so unlike Elmer.
"You looked good on her, she seemed to like you. You interested in riding her in the mornings?"
"You dont even have to ask, of course." I tell Dena honestly. "Now, about this fellow " I begin, glancing down at Elmer who is enjoying his walk to the barn.
"He hates it, doesnt he?" She questions.
"Everything about it. Hes more interested in the other horses and his surroundings than running, and I dont think blinkers will cure that. He seems to have some natural speed, but doesnt care if the other horses are behind him, in front of him, whatever. He just doesnt want to run, and he really hates the whip." I say.
"I noticed, he didnt take kindly to that at all." She responds, tapping her full lips with her index finger. "I figured he was bound for slaughter because he wouldnt make a racehorse, but he has some good breeding and I liked the look of him so I thought Id at least try him."
"Im surprised you bought him. Most trainers wouldnt look twice at horses like him." I tell her as I stretch my legs out of the short stirrups.
"Im not most trainers." Dena tells me wryly. "I bought the entire trailer-load and sent them to a friend who runs an ex-racehorse adoption program. I picked out these five as possible prospects to keep in training."
"What?" I question, unbelieving to what I just heard. "You saved an entire trailer-load of horses youve never seen race before?"
Dena looks at me. "I hate to see horses who have worked so hard for anyone go for meat, or worse. Its disgusting because most of these horses have the rest of their lives to live."
"I agree, Im just surprised you would do that. Most trainers dont give a damn what happens after the horse cant earn any more money." I respond honestly.
"Like I said, Im not most trainers." Dena tells me in a quiet voice. She suddenly looks like a lost child, and her bright blue eyes fill with unshed tears. "Anyway, this fellow wont have to race anymore." Dena says, motioning to Elmer. "Ill send him over to my friend and shell find a home for him."
For some reason, the thought of Elmer leaving saddens me. Maybe because hes new here, just like I am, and its obvious hes had a troubled past, being so afraid of the whip and all. I can relate to that and I suddenly feel like a friend to Elmer. I want to earn his trust.
"Um, actually, hed be a good attending horse." I mention casually. "He seemed to like trotting around on the track and hes really calm, so hed be good to take the horses over to the gate. Plus, hes a gelding so he could be a good pasture buddy to some of the colts or the mares."
Dena meets my eyes, the faint traces of a smile visible on her full lips. "So we should keep him around, huh?"
"I think so." I tell her, wondering if she knows my ulterior motive.
"Well, that would work out okay, he could live out in the front pasture that has that really nice run-in stall. But you have to keep him in shape, so hed be your responsibility to exercise and everything. Im pretty busy, so youll have to work with him to show him the ropes of being an attending horse. Youd have to be in complete charge of him." Dena responds, unable to control her smile.
She knows. She definitely knows. "Okay." I grin at her happily as I pat the neck of my new horse and we walk the rest of the way back to the barn in silence. The warm Florida morning is filled with colors and sounds, the bright sunlight making Denas dark hair look like the coals of a smoldering fire.
I think Im going to like it here.
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