The Inside Rail

“Mr. Hooshean, Mr. Hooshean, when does the pony let me go?”

“He doesn’t let you go,” Mike Hushion said.

“Oh, OK, Mr. Hooshean.”

Hushion walked a few more steps and turned toward a young, overmatched freelance exercise rider on a big, fire-breathing gray. 

“Look, whatever happens, the pony doesn’t let you go,” Hushion said.

The foursome began to walk to the Oklahoma track, Rosenose and I, Chile the pony boy and his pony. Chile held the pony strap taut from the corner of the ring bit, I hadn’t picked up the reins – yet. Rosenose coiled as he got closer to the track, by the time we got to the gap, I had picked up the reins, reaching and reaching like I was pulling a bucket full of stones from a well, Chile had already braced himself like someone threw a punch and we began to jog along the outside rail. We jogged to the backside and tried to stop Rosenose, it took us furlongs to get him stopped, turning him into the outside rail. I jacked up my stirrups another four holes and took a deep breath. Chile took a deep breath. We turned to gallop and it was three against one, Chile, his pony and I against Rosenose. He galloped you, like a passing truck had hung its bumper in your belt loop. We galloped a mile like this every day. I’d pray every night, “Bless my family, my friends and Chile’s pony strap.”

It rained hard that summer of 1993, the track got worse and worse, Rosenose ran twice, finishing third and fourth 10 days apart, sprinting on the dirt, he’d go as fast and as far as he could with Richard Migliore pumping like a piston. By now, I knew Mike Hooshean was Mike Hushion and also began to respect his horsemanship, his approach, his steadiness. 

Hushion asked if I thought I could hack Rosenose on the grass in the parking lot between the old horse Horse Haven track and Union Avenue because the tracks had gotten so sloppy. We managed this for a few days, just walking. Then Hushion asked if I thought I could jog him in a few circles. Twenty-three and brave (stupid?), I said sure. I asked, well, it was more like I released and Rosenose picked up a trot, he was at ease when we went toward the Northway, but the moment we turned toward Nelson Avenue, the first one percent into the turn (looking back on it, it was the direction they ran in the afternoon), he bowed his neck, coiled, grunted and grew all at the same time, sidestepping with his nose to his chest. I turned him quickly into the old wooden rail of the Horse Haven track. I tried it again, once, maybe twice, then I dismounted – I like to call it “step-off-before-you-fall-off” and led him home.

Hushion met us at the barn.

“He’s gone…” Hushion said.

I nodded.

He never went without the pony again. That was one of the first lessons I learned from Mike Hushion – deal with what you have.

I galloped for Hushion for another summer or two, freelancing a couple of sets every morning, working with an eclectic crew – Dr. Gallop, Jen and Jen, David Figueroa, Mig, Frankie Lovato – and basking in the engine room of a stable which I respected and adored. I remember all the horses, don’t need to look them up – Distraction, Crafty Goldena, Boom Towner, Two The Twist, Game Wager, Pension Fraud, Greening, Alpine Music, Promised Relic, Golden Tent, Stars Knockout, Reappeal and my favorite Contract Court.

I didn’t get on all of them, but I can still remember the saddle slipping up Distraction’s neck every morning, the time Crafty Goldena slammed on the brakes in the middle of a gallop (I thought I got away with it until Hushion asked me what had happened) and the way Contract Court would stroll through the paddock like they built the place for him.

Hushion didn’t say much, but when he did, it was a snippet about his old boss, Allen Jerkens, about working as a bartender while trying to get going as a trainer, about how the guard at the gate had tipped off a trainer to claim one of his first horses, about sneaking into the back of the bar that became Leon’s for a morning pop, about watching Boots Malone yet again.

Beyond the horses, I remember Hushion’s quiet sincerity, his quiet conviction, his quiet loyalty. I freelanced for him for a couple of summers at Saratoga, that’s all, and I knew from that day forward, I had somebody in my corner. He wouldn’t necessarily tell you he was in your corner, but stagger toward it and he was always there.

Matt Groff worked as his assistant before Hushion convinced him to get off the track and do something else. Matt calls once in a while, we tell a Hushion story, just to recalibrate, rebalance. 

Hushion quietly announced his retirement this spring, his last runner was on the last day of the Belmont Spring Meet. Don’t play Taps, he went out on his own terms, his way. They say he’s in Saratoga, sleeping late, golfing, eating breakfast in town, enjoying life.

Nobody deserves it more.

Click here to read the entire Saratoga Special. 

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