Just like old times, I woke up worrying, fretting, irritable. My wife, Annie, recognized it, she had seen it in 1994 after we had our first date. Misdirected stress, snapping at anybody in the way, kicking the cat, the dog, hell, anything I could find. Self indulgent, ridiculously self-absorbed, it was how I handled the pressure of riding races, well, handled, would be a stretch. I rode races for 13 years and have spent the next 18, apologizing for how I acted on race days.
About a year after our first date, Annie and I flew to Chicago for the St. James Steeplechase, I had four rides – one good one, two average and one hold-onto-the-yoke-and-hope-to-survive. Annie asked, “What should we do Saturday night after the races?” I glared, “How do I know what kind of day I’m going to have?” She looked at me, perplexed, “Why would that matter in what we do tonight?”
She had a point and in a strange way, it helped ease the stress of a stressful game, but here we were 17 years since I retired and it was back.
“What’s your problem? Are you nervous about this race?” Annie asked, we had a horse in the Laurel Turf Cup that afternoon.
“No, I’m not nervous about the race,” I said.
“Well, why are you acting like a jerk? You’re nervous about something?”
Finally, I opened the floodgates and explained my mood.
“I’ve got to ride in this thing tomorrow. I’ve got to school the horse today, I’ve never seen the horse, I haven’t ridden in months, I’ve got to go back home and ride in front of all these people who told me I couldn’t ride my whole life. In a show ring. Slow. Everybody watching.”
Annie got it.
It was the day before the Real Rider Cup that I had agreed to ride in, well, I had simply relented to after the relentless Anita Motion as much as told me I was riding. She got me at a weak moment, in the middle of Saratoga, the thing was months away, I said yes, mostly, because it was months away and I just figured it would never happen, it’s an avoidance thing, just kick the can down the road thinking something will derail it. I made excuse after excuse for all the reasons why I couldn’t do it – Keeneland September Sales, I didn’t have a horse, I’d be traveling, and the worst one of all, I hadn’t raised a penny for the charity event. With each one, Anita counter-punched and here we were, a day before the competition and it had finally registered. This was really happening.
“I’m not doing it if he doesn’t school well,” I said to Anita, still clamoring for an out.
We drove to Tim Keefe’s farm near Laurel to meet War Fleet, a chestnut gelding, bred by Ann Merryman, who was now in Jodi Murphy’s care. Murphy ponies horses at Laurel, she had schooled the horse, ridden him in shows and events and, for some crazy reason, agreed to let me ride him at Plantation Field.
Annie, an accomplished show rider and event rider, stood in the middle of the ring and started giving directions. The horse jumped great, like, he didn’t miss a stride, a lead, a jump. It was good and bad. Good, because it was fun to ride well, jump fences again, on a cool horse. Bad, because there was no backing out.
I did not sleep well Saturday night and woke up as jittery as a thief Sunday morning.
When we arrived at Plantation Field, I looked around at the other riders and saw the same fear. The old line from some old song played in my head – “I never knew how brave he was, until I saw how scared he was. There was Joe Sharp, Rosie Napravnik, Leigh Delacour, Chuck Lawrence, Stowe Burke, Dean Richardson, Erin Finley, Michael McCarthy, Keefe and every rider in this crazy thing with that electric-chair look in their face. I couldn’t decide if I felt better or worse.
In short, War Fleet saved my life as I rode a line in four strides that was meant to be five or six or something (I can’t count strides) and bombed around the course like he was pulled by a magnet. I actually rode OK, until I bailed out the last fence when I couldn’t see a stride, basically, just shut my eyes and said you’re on your own, pal. The moment he touched down, rail still in place, it was the most fun I’ve had on a horse since I rode Indispensable to win the last race I ever rode in 2000.
This year, another star-studded – and sure to be nervous – group has been organized for the second annual event Sept. 23. Lorna Chavez, Sharon Dominguez, Clifford Barry, Megan Jones, Chris McCarron, Gabby Gaudet, Penelope Miller, Maggie Wolfendale, Lacey Gaudet and Tom Morley are just a few of the brave souls who have signed up.
Wish them luck, support their cause and stay away from them Sunday morning.
Support the cause: https://plantationfieldinternational.com/index.php/real-rider-cup-2018