Cup of Coffee: The Rhythm

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It’s the rhythm of the backstretch.

Rob and Phyllis Griffo took their annual tour of the Saratoga backside Tuesday morning. Rob is a war veteran, Phyllis used to ride horses before a couple of hip replacements, they own a few retired horses, near Finger Lakes. Rob works on a crisis hotline, he had a guy on the line for two hours last week, pills and alcohol supposed to ease the pain but causing more. I’ve written about them before.

Rob and Phyllis have a friend who works on the frontside of a racetrack, she has a negative opinion about the backside of the racetrack.

We talked about why. I said, she doesn’t get the rhythm of the backside. We nodded, agreed and talked about the rhythm. Rob and Phyllis come to Saratoga once a summer, just to feel the rhythm. They ask questions for the first half, then sit and watch the horses for the second half. I catch them, drifting away, bathing in the rhythm. They met Orb on their first visit, Verne on their third. Orb won the Kentucky Derby, Verne pulled up in Monday’s jump race. Rob and Phyllis don’t care, they like the horses, the rhythm.

It’s all about the rhythm.

It’s the rhythm of the golf carts, zinging along the macadam, sand in between tires and road, the sandwich, zzzzzzzzzz. Todd Pletcher and his dad going to the half-mile pole, the rhythm of a nod. Ivan going from one kitchen to the other kitchen, a crate of rolls on the back. Anthony Bonomo, in the muscle car of golf carts, the owner and his trainer early, the owner and the kids later. Jocks’ agents, shuttling their jockey to the barn, then shuttling trainer to the stand, then swapping back at the barn – rides in the cart, rides in the balance.

It’s the rhythm of the horses. Oh, the horses. The rhythm of hooves clopping along the road, the tracks, the path. Never in a hurry, walking, some jigging, some scattering, but all in rhythm. It’s the rhythm of a gallop, a good one, energy pent, energy subsided.  It’s the rhythm of a roll in a sand pit – walk, stop, stare, paw, knuckle, wiggle, over, up, shake. The rhythm of the sand cloud falling from the horse’s back to the ground.

It’s the rhythm of Steve Asmussen’s pony, ground tied, always cocking his left front, eating grass steadily, peaceful, waiting to go to work.

It’s the rhythm of the hotwalkers, scuffing their ankles, dirt ingrained deeper with each turn, walking to the horse’s rhythm, the horse’s gait. Stopping at the buckets, the rhythm of the gulps, slurp, slurp, slurp, eight and gone. They walk all day and never get anywhere, the rhythm.

It’s the rhythm of the Union Avenue gate. The rhythm of the bellow from the James Earl Jones of crossing guards, starting low and getting lower. I can hear it in my sleep. The rhythm of the cars, turning left, turning right, slowing down and stopping. It’s the rhythm of the horses, heading to work or heading home.

It’s the rhythm of the exercise riders. The day starts early, first ride at 5:30, second one at 6:00, third at 6:30…finished by 10:00. The rhythm of their hands, their legs, their songs. The rhythm of their walk, from their last horse to their next, a limp, a spit, a leg. The rhythm of the soap on the bridles, saddles, swirling, foaming, up and down, around, finishing a full day by mid-morning.

It’s the rhythm of the Morning Line Kitchen. Dollar bills going one direction, cups of coffee going the other. Owners and fans, trainers and degenerates, hangers-on and hanging on, riding the rhythm of the morning.

It’s the rhythm of the bikes. Big men on little bikes. Little men on big bikes. Helmets dangling off the handlebars, a whip in the back pocket of an exercise rider, waving like it’s on the back of a float, a bag of cans, bigger than the boy carrying it. The chains need grease, the tires need air, but there’s still a rhythm.

It’s the rhythm of the hoses. Spraying down the dust, a five-finger fan of water scattered lightly, reflecting the sun, droplets like fleas across a dog’s back. Hosing a horse’s bum knee, water hitting the heat, and ricocheting left and right, making puddles.

It’s the rhythm of the rakes. All day, leveling the holes, the hoof marks, the straw. Then again and again and again. Perfect at first call and perfect at last call. In between, a rhythm.

It’s the rhythm of the stopwatches. In the distance, in front of the trees, the rhythm of the horse increases, flashing toward the pole and in unison, beep, beep, beep, the rhythm of the timekeepers, signaling the difference of greatness and futility in a matter of tenths, a matter of beeps, a matter of rhythm.

It’s the rhythm of the morning. A full day in a matter of hours, the beginning, the middle, the end. Every day, every month, every year, the rhythm of the backstretch.