Once a year at Saratoga, I wistfully wish to ride a horse. And, most years, I lament that I didn’t ride a horse in Saratoga.
There were three.
Go Mikey Go, thanks to Diana Pikulski of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. She read my lament and saw an opportunity. I scoffed, a day later, the bay gelding was tacked up and ready to go. All I had to do was ride and write about it. Go Mikey Go had made 17 starts the hard way, from Aqueduct to Saratoga, Philadelphia Park to Northampton. He pulled up for a $3,500 tag as the favorite in his fi- nal start at Northampton in 2003. He got out and he knew it. I hurried him, squeezing and tapping my heels against his sides, like we had somewhere to go. He kept breaking into a trot and I’d reel him back to a walk. I had to force myself to accept his speed, his gait, the natural cadence of a horse, instead of the forced careen of the human. After I took a deep breath, we explored Clare Court, Greentree, Horse Haven, just ambling, it was a respite from the routine.
Another time, it was Funny Cide. Yeah, Funny Cide. Thanks to Robin and Barclay, I can say I rode a Derby winner. And, no, I didn’t dare squeeze or tap my heels as we strolled across Union Avenue, to the Annex to see Tom Voss and friends. On the way back, we hopped on the main track at the quarter pole, figured I’d jog back to the gap on the backside. The moment he stepped into a jog, you could feel the power. Long since retired, the $3.5 million earn- er swelled with every stride, each one a little faster. It took five to realize it and five to stop it as I cajoled him to a walk and that’s where we stayed, all the way to the Morning Line Kitchen. Sometimes, you are simply a passenger.
Another time I rode Silceleb, thanks to Seth Gregory. About halfway through the ride, I figured out his name, his color, his approximate age and realized it was the 2-year-old I had galloped for Leroy Jolley in 1991. Bred by Gallaghers Stud, the
son of Phone Trick had retired there and spent his summers with Gregory and Mark Hennig. Western saddle, split reins, two girths I couldn’t tighten, it was different but the same. Again, we wandered, ambled, he felt a lot different than the wind-up top I knew from so many years ago.
And now it’s Monday morning. Eagle Poise has replaced Go Mikey Go, Funny Cide and Silceleb.
I walk along the back wall and hop on the 14-year-old, allowing him to fade right, away from the riding ring behind the barn. The ring means work, anything else means wander. Retired in 2014, the son of Empire Maker knows there are two choices. Reins dangling, he makes his choice (our choice) and we walk out the gravel drive, across the dirt road and through the hedgerow.
Eagle Poise sees and takes note of workers dig- ging trenches to bury electric lines. He eyes them, watching, making sure they don’t move. If they don’t move, he won’t move. We skirt past them and make a left onto a mowed path. I squeeze for a trot, ask too quickly, too abruptly. He jumps into his cadence, my reins are too long, I slow my post- ing, offer a whoa, whoa, whoa and he understands, slowing his tempo. We jog to the top of the field and start downhill into soft ground. Eagle Poise slows and walks, naturally intuitively, I don’t ask, he just does it.
We walk along the fenceline, two black Labrador Retrievers mosey from their yard and offer a couple of half-hearted barks. Eagle Poise looks at them like the workers, if you don’t move, I won’t move. We walk through the woods, skidding over a stone in the path, through an open gate and begin a slower trot up the hill, more dogs, terriers for sure, more yap, luckily they’re inside. Eagle Poise flicks his ears, noticing but ignoring, we jog across the back of our neighbor’s farm, past the sagging shed with the door hanging from a hinge. Breeders’ Cup win- ner Alphabet Soup grazed in this field, the yellow and brown gates still hang from the broken-down fence. We jog to the far corner, slow to a walk.
The blue on the Blue Ridge Mountains juts through the morning mist. For a moment, I’m in a Munnings painting. For a moment. Birds flutter, a squirrel jumps from the fence to a tree, we both notice. I keep my right middle finger lightly looped in the yoke, an old habit that feels right. We walk past the pond, an egret, or heron, osprey, I’m not a birder, hovers on a post, now it’s two saying if you don’t move, I won’t move. With a choice of going home the way we came or making a left across the refurbished bridge, we make the left. Eagle Poise walks to the bridge and stops. Not a dastardly stop, just a long look. I squeeze, knowing not to kick, pull or yank. He exhales and backs up. I pat him on the neck. He takes a step forward, two, then stops, snorting at the change in color. I sit, wait, cajole. Once, twice, three times, I know he’ll traverse it in his own time. Fourth time is the charm.
We walk past two empty barns, past two minia- ture donkeys, past a barn cat watching from inside a window and out the tree-lined drive. The gate’s closed. I want to jump it, man, I want to jump it. Then I remember Eagle Poise was a flat horse. I step off, open the gate, latch the gate, climb on the fence and back in the tack and head home.
What a ride. What a morning.