The Inside Rail

I utter “I can’t f’ing run” as I start down the driveway, my ankle tottering, wavering, then the uncomfortableness, uneasiness subsides and I begin to lope, like an old claimer backing up on the Oklahoma, gradually, slowly, methodically, it starts to get easier. Not easy. 

Left on Snake Hill, to the corner of Millville, turn around, up the hill, past the driveway and turn around at the Mortgage Hall driveway (where Alphabet Soup honed his craft) and back to the driveway, creeping past the 3-mile barrier and the 74-mile barrier for the year. 

I’ve been hurt many times. The first few moments of a comeback can feel like the most important moments of your career, your life. The first time you gallop a horse, when you lean over and can sit and hold, trusting your strength, your balance, your body. Whether you’re coming back from a broken ankle, or a broken arm, or a separated shoulder or even a concussion, the moments when you know you can do what you used to do, with confidence, with conviction, with instinct…it’s a good feeling.

Now, a sore ankle on an old, out-of-shape, amateur runner is a long way from a broken limb on a real athlete, but those first few steps, the first few miles feel the same as they always have, laborious and liberating. 

We’ll see how I feel tomorrow. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Janet Elliot texted. Charlie Fleischmann called.

Hokan had died. 

The 28-year-old son of Trempolino, long since retired from the flat, from steeplechasing, from the Pennsylvania hunt field, walked feebly to his feeder Saturday morning, Jan. 30. Fleischmann could see his wobbliness and darted to the field to check on his comrade, his compatriot.

“What’s the matter, old man?” 

Hokan looked at Fleischmann and laid down and died. Always an independent, Hokan had a way of telling you what he thought, telling you he was in charge. In charge of the 1998 New York Turf Writers Cup, in charge of his death. 

I read Janet’s text that Saturday morning. Shook my head at the memory of the Turf Writers so many years ago. Late that afternoon, Fleischmann called, I sat down on an old stump in the back yard and talked about a horse who changed my life and changed his life. 

I rode him in one race. 

From Saratoga Days…

I see it. Right there. A hundred yards away and I recognize it like my written name. The long stride. Hokan makes the same discovery. We accelerate with every move and nail it, soaring through the air together. 

The perfect jump. The greatest feeling in the world. 

There is a split second that decides that perfect jump in a steeplechase race. I rode Hokan around the turn at Saratoga as hard as I could ride a horse. 

Straightening for home, I pause to see when the last fence is coming. I don’t stop riding, but freeze enough to see that perfect stride. Or at least that what I’m looking for; sometimes that perfect stride never shows and no-stride-at-all is the only thing I see. The perfect stride is when my horse reaches the fence without having to slow down, and he can accelerate and launch off the ground in a long powerful motion, making up time in the air. The perfect stride means I win the race; the no-stride-at-all means falling on my head. 

The one moment of hesitation comes when I’m trying to see what stride my horse is going to be on when we reach the fence. Sometimes I see it a long way out. This was one of those times. I saw it, the most amazing site. I wouldn’t trade the sight of the long stride at the last fence at Saratoga for the view from the top of the world. 

Man, what a view. 

I saw it on Hokan in the biggest race of my life. 

The story goes from there, from meeting Hokan as a rogue flat horse, to begging for the ride, to celebrating at the Parting Glass, over 11 pages in the first book I ever wrote. 

Thanks, Hokan, you changed my life. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021. 

Todd Wyatt asked when I was SOTA president. All I could remember was hosting one of my first board meetings from a rental car pulled off a highway in Arizona. Six years. Six short and sometimes long years ago. I delved into the archives and found exactly what I was doing six years ago. 

February 9, 2015.

The hiker leaned on his walking stick, sweat dripping from each eyebrow, off his nose like an old barn faucet, "You're about a third of the way there."

Huffing, verging on puffing, I stammered out, "Great." It was part spit, part response as I grabbed a rock with my right hand and lifted through a worn ledge of desert. The sun rose to my left. A dog flitted past. Two hikers passed me, smiling, on their way down, a woman corrected my route, "This way," as I wandered off course and wished for those eight strides back. On I walked, trekked, staggered, over rocks, past cactus, scree sliding beneath my light running shoes.

The sign did warn us...

Welcome to Black Mountain

Warning: This is a steep rocky primitive trail

Please help keep Black Mountain Beautiful by staying on the designated Path

Distance: 2.2 miles Round Trip

Enjoy your hike

BEGIN

I gave it little thought. Now, a third of the way to the top, I started to become a believer, as I thought about the last three things I drank, two local draft IPAs at the Buffalo Chip Saloon last night and a cup of room-brewed coffee, complete with non-dairy creamer this morning. I yearned for water, as I watched a water bottle slosh from a woman's pack, a few hundred feet above me. Hiking shoes would have helped, water might have saved.

I twisted through natural crevices, snaked around boulders, navigated like a mountain goat, pulled off a long-sleeve running shirt, finally seeing the top, or what I thought was the top.

"How much farther?" I asked a descending climber.

"Another mile or so."

I grunted. He laughed.

Onward and upward, I reached the top - a flat, scraggly, roundish platform of peace. I ascended about 10 minutes later than I expected, well past 8 o'clock. You should never hurry a hike, but I needed to get back to the Carefree Resort to listen to the final conference on medication at the National HBPA convention. Yes, medication, I felt a long way away from a conference on medication. It was nice to feel a long way from a conference on medication.

I took a long, deep breath and slowly turned 360 degrees. The sun burst above the horizon, creating an artist's mist between the mountains and the sky. Cacti jutted like buoys in a frozen ocean. Rocks and boulders laid and leaned everywhere, like they had fallen off the back of a delivery truck and were forgotten, centuries ago.

All I needed was a guitar.  

"Whew," I said, trying to slow my breathing.

"Welcome to Arizona," a woman said, sharing a rock with a friend.

I didn't even know they were there.

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I snapped a photo in each direction - east, west, south, north. The "Welcome to Arizona" girl asked if I wanted her to take a picture of me at the top. I almost said no, but am glad I said yes.

"Be careful going down, it can get slippery," she said, handing my phone back to me.

"Thanks," I said, sliding my phone into the back pocket of my sweat-stained khaki shorts, and headed down, hurrying and relaxing all at the same time, content to have pushed away my laptop and pulled on my sneakers. At 44, I find myself observing more than participating, I thought of this as I descended, the euphoria of the climb replacing the arduousness of the climb.

There is nothing like going downhill, after going uphill. I reached a paved road at the bottom and arrived at my rental car. I looked back at Black Mountain, my new friend, standing in splendid isolation.

If I squinted, I could just make out the path to the top.

Monday, February 8, 2021. 

Miles has discovered the Andy Griffith Show.

Mr. Tucker’s car broke down, needs spark plugs, eight of them. Gomer and his brother Goober are fixing it. Andy peels an apple in one swipe. Barney goes home for a nap. Mr. Tucker paces and puffs on a cigar. 

I need to be less like Mr. Tucker.

As for us, Monday barn chores are complete, only night check still to go. 

I’m going to try to run tomorrow. As Coach Tom instructs, “When you think you’re ready to run, wait another day.” 

Tomorrow is the day. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021. 

The Boys in the Bunkhouse. Number five. Week five. On target. 

Great book. Chilling, haunting. Dan Barry reports with naked abandon and writes like it’s coming out one way or another, the faster, the better for him, a bursting hose of staccato obvervation. 

On page 345 of Oliver Twist. Dickens isn't exactly a bursting hose. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021.

Went for a walk with George Grayson and Chris Ambrose, up and over a long, steep hill, past what was once a winery, now a shack with old broken-down furniture and weeds growing where vines once grew, to the stop sign, left or right, “you decide,” Ambrose says. We go right, past flaking sycamore trees, an old walnut tree that it would take the three of us to complete a hug, no hunting signs posted to trees, stonewalls, some standing, some falling, the relentless vines choking out the trees. We stop at a shared, silent decision and turn back, up and down the hill, past an old Christmas tree discarded, tossed aside like a mannequin after the closure of another department store. “Was that there before?” Nobody seems to know. 

Too much pavement. Jarring to old joints. 

We talk. Nobody looks at a phone, if they even have one. The last year of our lives, upheaval and unknown, and politics, yeah, politics, briefly, as oversized pickup trucks blast past us without tapping the brakes. We talk about our parents, our drinking habits, our travel plans, and, sure, our hopes, our dreams, our fears. 

George wrote his college term paper on how Route 66 would ruin the country. Forty years later, we nod our heads, knowing the pressure on a cherished land. 

We go 5.6 miles in one hour and 45 minutes. Nothing but a stroll. A mild jaunt. No goal. No deadline. Just three old men getting out of the house, sharing a moment of escape, a momentary calm from the storm. 

Friday, February 5, 2021. 

Cheltenham can be a challenging place.

An American tourist in a closed shop. I have grown more comfortable there over 20 years, making friends, establishing routines, sharing the passion for a sport which burrows into your bones. My annual trek, the Strides of March, has been one of the highlights of my life. 

Lord Vestey died yesterday. The former chairman of Cheltenham was 79. Managing director, Edward Gillespie, introduced me to Vestey on one of my early trips to Cheltenham. Somewhat starstruck, I was immediately put at ease by Vestey, it was like I had just walked into his living room, the fire warm, the drink warmer. He asked questions about American steeplechasing, asked me where I was staying, who I liked in the Supreme. He simply made the world a better place.

Read Alistair Down’s tribute. 

Read George Baker’s tribute. 

Thursday, February 4. 2021. 

Meetings. Winter meetings. 

Wednesday, Feburary 3, 2021. 

Finished the second edition of In the Room yesterday.

This time with Trevor McCarthy. Worked on limiting how many times I said I mean and think I cut in half, down to 103 times. Tricky. I’ll improve. McCarthy doesn’t have to improve, he’s a talented rider and a sweet, honest, humble kid who has built a strong career on those attributes. We knew him when. 

Listen to In the Room with Trevor McCarthy.

It will air Saturday morning on HRRN. 

Listen to the first In The Room with jockey Kendrick Carmouche

Still sidelined with a sore ankle, although, it’s improving. R.I.C.E. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. I can handle the latter three but rest, on a farm, impossible. Mucked stalls and shoveled snow Monday. Climbed around in a well pit yesterday. Today, inside, so far. That could change in an instant. 

Read another 50 pages of The Boys in the Bunkhouse, nearing halfway. Have you ever read Dan Barry? His collection of columns in “This Land” is a must. A gift from my brother, Joe, it sits next to my bed. When you can’t handle 50 pages and need just two or three, wow, you can’t do much better. The Boys in the Bunkhouse, Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland is a good read, a wrenching read, but a good read.

How did we get so lucky? Think about it. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021. 

Two-hour delay.

Nothing like a two-hour delay. Found money. Bonus coverage. Miles sleeps upstairs. Fluff, once a stray cat, sleeps on the floor next to me. I read, write, type, scan, dream, brew a second cup of coffee and then a third. The house is quiet. Like snow-on-the-roof quiet.

Then it gets loud. 

“The dryer repairman is on the way…”

“Miles has a fever of 100…”

“The water’s not working…”

I climb into the well pit, with a page of instructions and a nozzle to an air pump. It’s like going into the catacombs, cold and damp, spiders and their webs, Virginia clay oozes above the treads of my boots, gauges and levers stare back at me like I missed the punchline.

“Antique,” Jose says.

I sit on a cement block, read the instructions, fiddle with gauges. Breaker off (key). Water spigot on. Blue lever to the left. Air tank on.  

Hours – days – later, I climb out of the well pit. Like a miner after an all-day shift. I blink. 

And hear the news. 

The dryer needs three parts, they’ll be delivered by UPS, the repairman will be back Feb. 23. 

Miles still has a fever of 100. 

The water is working. 

Monday, February, 1, 2021. 

MilesSnow

Snow Day. 

Miles sleeping in while Annie and I trudge to the barn, navigating tire tracks strategically placed last night as the snow was tapering. Eagle Poise, Kissin Conquest, Apse and Gameboy waiting for our arrival to the barn. Sliding the barn door to four faces hanging over the yokes in their screens, four yearning faces, wondering and wishing. Routines. Routines. Usually, Eagle Poise, Kiss and Apse spend nights in the big, back field. With the snow, they stayed warm and dry, but now, they look at us with disdain. Well, Eagle Poise with disdain, Kiss with anxiousness, Apse with dismissiveness. Gameboy, always in at night, offers little in approval or disproval. They’ll be out after breakfast, standing by the gate before dinner. 

In a year when appreciating what you have rather than lamenting what you don’t have has been a clear necessity and difficult objective, I try to appreciate winter. It’s what makes Middleburg distinct, special. Four seasons. We have four seasons. Of course, spring and fall are the best, summer is tough, winter is tougher. 

Miles and I play the simulated Super Bowl in the backyard. I’m all-time quarterback, Miles draws up the plays. Gronkowski has a big game. Two point conversions, no extra points. Patrick Mahomes wins it with a touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill, Miles diving for an over-the-shoulder catch near the corner of the garden – with four seconds on the clock. 

It’s the highlight of the snow day. 

Read Sean's January's blog – 31 days.