Cup of Coffee: Free Day

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Finally, the race goes, the horse gets in, it doesn’t rain, papers are in the office, silks in the room, the jockey’s ready, the trainer’s (relatively) content, the assistant is confident, the race looks tough but not impossible.

You wake up early. It’s a free day. Your horse is in at Saratoga. Years of thinking. Months of planning. Days of worry. Hours of expectation.

The plan, set three months ago seemed so smart, now it seems outlandish, running in Saratoga off three months rest, he’ll be short, he’ll need a race, what were you thinking? Hey, you like the horse, know you need a fresh horse here, know you can’t over-face a 4-year-old. You waffle, confidence and trepidation, expectation and dread.

You shower early. Shave. Find your lucky tie, then wonder if it’s lucky anymore. It’s been a while. Show faith, pull it off the hanger, twice around and loop. Buff your shoes. Tweed or navy? Tweed, for a change. Drive to the races, by yourself.

You answer a text and offer up three horses for the first, put yours in third. You walk to the paddock, take a deep breath, fighting the urge to think about what could happen and also the urge to think about what has happened.

You’re 0-for-3 at the meet, haven’t had a rooting moment. It’s all you ask for as an owner, just once during a race to think it’s possible. So far, it’s been ‘They’re off, you lose.’ Hell, you’ve lost at Saratoga before. Actually, often. In 13 years of riding jumpers, you lost way more than you won. You haven’t won a race here since 1999, a long time ago, 30 pounds ago, you were angrier then, restless and selfish, spent your life wondering why the world was wrong.

Years later, you’ve been humbled, you’ve learned perspective, you’ve learned it’s not as easy to train the other guy’s horse.

You’ve walked to the winner’s circle for 13 years, finding the winners, watching as they’ve gone from being your idols to your peers, asking them how they did it, how they feel, looking for insight, emotion. You’ve listened to innate horsemen pouring out their intuition. You’ve listened to pretenders pouring out hyperbole. You’ve tried to give each his due.

Gradually, as you’ve become more involved, re-registering your parents’ silks, gathering a few loyal clients who believe, you’ve crept back into the competitive side.

It’s not riding, but it’s close. You’ve believed in your friends, believed in your gut, tried to do the right thing. You’ve questioned them, too, beat yourself up over mistakes. It was easier when you weren’t competing, when those embers were dead. It’s when they’re stoked that it gets smoky.

Ah, but none of that is on your mind, your horse is running at Saratoga. It’s a free day.

You walk into the paddock, say hello, shake some hands, watch for your horse. He walks in, couldn’t look any better, sleek as a seal, he walks like a runway model.

He breaks well, finds a nice spot in the first flight, just off the leaders, just as you talked about the day before. He pops the first, perfect. Then he lowers his head and pulls, your jockey starving all week, braces, you think of his little saddle, hoping it stays put.

He turns into the stretch, backs off just enough, he seems to take a deep breath, about the time you take your first all day. The favorite loses his jockey, that can’t hurt. You talk to your jockey, to yourself, ‘sit still, settle, easy.” He jumps for fun, eases off the gas. Perfect.

With a circuit to go, he’s traveling. You walk in a circle. He loses a place, but he’s fine, still traveling, unasked. Down the back, he’s tracking the best horse in the race. You recite what you used to tell yourself, ‘Sit still. Relax. Keep jumping.’ He stretches, long and weak, at the first down the back, you gulp, but he loses nothing.

He flies the last down the back, it’s a two-horse race. You hover, closer to the big screen. He turns for home, lowers his head, gets in front. You lose it, ‘Get a jump. Get a jump. Get a jump.’ Your eye better from the ground than it ever was in the saddle, sees the perfect stride a long way out, he stretches, lands running. You’re screaming like he can’t do it without you. He wins. You leap in the air. Release. Relief. You hug the assistant, kiss him for the joy of it. You’re shaking. You stop at the edge of the winner’s circle, searching for composure, knowing you won’t find it, knowing you don’t want it.

Your phone blows up. Your friends and family converge. You wait for the horse, the jockey, they’re the ones who did it. You slap the jockey. You pet the horse. It’s a free day.