The Inside Rail

Iroquois morning.

Blacksheep just went for a swim and wrestles with a broken rocking chair. George Baker, in a towel and a dress shirt, looks over the back deck like the lord of the manor. James complains over the American coffee. Brits.

In today’s world, within the realm of Airbnb accommodations and GPS navigation, I have no idea where I am, somewhere in the trees, in a rolling neighborhood a long way from Percy Warner Park. The horses are somewhere, east, west, south, north…no idea. Nichols Canyon is not, hurt in transit with $500,000 burning in Willie Mullins’ nostrils, bummer. Horses are fragile, I was reminded yesterday, yet again, staring into a deep, innocent eye and wondering what’s the right thing to do.

George, the horse trainer, just asked me what time I’m going to the races. I said early, “I’ll be getting anxious, restless, walking the stall…” He smiled, “Yes, I know the feeling.”

The rain came yesterday, the sun has come out today, a light breeze, a perfect day for racing. Well, I admit, I’ve never seen a bad day for racing, but today seems like a perfect day for racing. Like always, the second Saturday in May in Nashville, Tenn., the tradition and the charm and the energy of the Iroquois Steeplechase.

My first foray here was in 1984, Red Raven in the Large Pony Race. Dad put my race pony on the van with Augustin Stable’s race horses. Nobody remembers how they ran, we just remember Red Raven cutting the turn, lowering down and mowing down a bunch of Quarter Horses to win with ease. Never mind that I was the only “jockey” wearing silks and a helmet, I was the only one riding English. 

Dad, being a cautious dad and a strategic horse trainer, met me at the start, partly for safety and partly to get me the inside path. It worked, Red got a great position, the perfect inside, stalking spot, the one that I eventually mastered in the waning years of my riding career. It didn’t work for Dad, as Angelica Fisher’s mount wheeled around, hesitated and then launched from well behind the field. As my father stood for a moment to watch his son, Fisher’s pony knocked Dad to the ground, actually, he looked like the ski jumper in the Agony of Defeat, flying up in the air, twisting and falling like a leaf off a tree.

When I returned to the winner’s circle, jubilant, Dad leaned against the fence, bent over, bracing against the top rail. Hoof prints went up the back of his yellow dress shirt and down the front. Broken ribs, busted shoulder, he hobbled through the rest of the day, through the airport to go home, I barely noticed, a check for $500 in my pocket and a silver pitcher in my suitcase. Then, I thought it was about winning a pony race. Now, 33 years later, I realize it was more about a father and a son.

Over the years, the Iroquois has provided many moments – To Ridley and Pinkie Swear still put chills on my arms. Today, we’ll share moments with friends and family, the tradition of the second Saturday in May. Horses will win, horses will lose, we’ll think it’s the end of the world or the start of something big depending on which one comes our way.

Come on Yellow Mountain and Motivational. One time, just one time.