A lone John Deere tractor makes a final pass with a harrow. Birds buzz and dive and sing. The sun peeks over the trees across the way. It’s 54 degrees and breezy, chilly compared to the day before. One horse walks on the horsepath, a human on its back and another leading from the ground.
Ten horses stand, romp, roll, graze, snort, paw, stare, dig, whinny and play in paddocks and round pens.
It’s 5:51 on a Wednesday morning at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Six minutes later, horses turn the corner from trainer Arnaud Delacour’s barn. From the track, it’s one of the most hidden on the property. One, two, three, four, five, six horses including the pony come into view. They wear navy blue and white quarter sheets with the big scripty D on the hip, looking like a team headed to a game.
One has a very big game Saturday.
Divining Rod, the 3-year-old son of Tapit owned and bred by Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Lael Stable, runs in the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. He faces the toughest task of his young racing career, including the first three finishers from the Kentucky Derby – American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund.
At 6:02 Wednesday morning, Divining Rod is just a horse – standing in on the dirt track at Fair Hill. He eyes something in the distance, just as quickly moves to something nearby, but stands like a horse in a Richard Stone Reeves painting. It’s easy to tell that Delacour used to work for Christophe Clement.
“Erasmo, you can go when you want,” Delacour tells exercise rider Erasmo Tranquilino. At 6:10, after a few playful slaps with the reins from Tranquilino, Divining Rod turns and jogs off toward the backside – backing up for a gallop.
Delacour watches, gives a few instructions to other riders – including a warning to one not to interfere with Divining Rod. Delacour is French and speaks with an accent that seems forever a step ahead of listeners.
“Are you going to the draw tonight?” I ask.
Delacour offers a simple no, a shrug and a smile.
“Are you going to the breakfast tomorrow?” I ask.
“They asked me where I would be for the draw and I said I will be with the horse,” Delacour says. “Here.”
On the backside now, Divining Rod trots. His head is high, his feet snap out at a brisk pace. He comes upon some other horses and gets keyed up while slowing to a walk.
“That is him,” Delacour says. “He’s a good-feeling horse, kind of bounces everywhere.”
Tranquilino convinces the Kentucky-bred to stand in for a bit, turns and begins a slow gallop. The pace quickens gradually and the rider, with a long hold and long stirrups, keeps his hands down and back by the withers. In a simple snaffle and without a nose band, Divining Rod does not get strong – though he looks like he could. He gallops 1 1/2 miles and pulls up on the turn.
By 6:15, he’s standing in by the gap taking great gulps of clear spring morning air. By 6:19, the once quiet track is alive with traffic and action and noise and horses. Divining Rod walks the path back toward the barn.
The Preakness is three days away.