New Peace

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It was late Wednesday morning, the morning’s work nearly complete. Tractors were idling, ready to erase the hoof prints. Exercise riders hurried through the tack. Trainers checked legs and finalized tomorrow’s set list. Jockeys headed to the room. Clockers recorded names and times. Water trucks settled the dust on the horse paths. Journalists retreated to their laptops, quotes to be typed, notes to be recorded. Fans and red-vested workers trickled to their posts.

There were moments of stress earlier in the morning, moments of stress still to come.

Later in the day, there would be 10 winners and many losers. Grooms would get hot. Horses would get dirty. Owners would get mad. Trainers would get frustrated. Jockeys would question their moves, their luck. Bettors would curse and grind tickets into the Saratoga dirt, a racetrack’s compost.

But at 11 o’clock, on the backstretch of Saratoga, peace reigned.

Sean and Adam walked along the horse path, away from Bill Mott’s barn, past a filly of Nick Esler’s, around the bend of the Oklahoma and then stopped, their week in Saratoga nearly over. They soaked up the last vestiges of tranquility.

One steadied his walk with a cane. The other walked slowly, deliberate, scanning the horizon. They weren’t really going anywhere. Just strolling. You could see they had nowhere to go, unlike the rest of the backstretch workers who rushed home or rushed to their next post. Sean and Adam, eyes wide, like kids walking into a zoo, they were different than anybody else on the Saratoga backstretch Wednesday morning. Out of place, yes. Out of rhythm, no.

You could hear the birds chirp, if you listened. You could sense the presence of the horses, if you allowed it. You could feel the sun, if you noticed it. You could see the freedom, if you looked. I hadn’t heard, sensed, felt or seen any of that Wednesday morning, until meeting Sean and Adam.

War veterans, they had come to Saratoga for the Saratoga WarHorse program, founded by Vietnam veteran Bob Nevins and directed by Marilyn Lane, the program introduces veterans to horses for a three-day program. The veterans learn about horses, learn how to communicate with horses and eventually participate in a training session with horses. Taught by Melody Squier, the veterans eventually go in a round pen, just horse and human, and build a bond with the likes of Butter and Whiskey and other retired rachhorses. They go in scared, disbelieving – even after watching comrades succeed before them. They walk out, confident, changed.

I’ve known Lane for 20 years, at least. She’s relentless in her passion for horses, racing and now Saratoga WarHorse. I have promised her that I’d go see one of the sessions, to meet some of the veterans and perhaps write a story. Wednesday morning, she briefly took me into her world, their world.

We talked for a few minutes. That’s all. I wish I had hours, days to talk to Adam and Sean, hear their stories, feel their pain. Instead, it was minutes, just a few minutes of conversation. But long enough to walk away with a bit of perspective, to think I get stressed about a deadline, about an unwritten column and these guys went to war for us. We take our freedom for granted. We take our safety for granted. We take the horses for granted. Most of us have known horses our whole lives. Sure, they amaze us, but seldom do we stop long enough to consider it.

For Sean and Adam, they basically met their first horse this week. They left Saratoga with an indelible mark, put there by the horse.

“It was a good connection with the horse, that’s really what it was,” Adam said about meeting Butter, a former Todd Pletcher runner. “As a kid, I would help my best friend carry bales of hay into the stables, things like that, walk past them, that’s it. This was a first for me, to actually meet a horse. There was a lot of testiness, testing the leader. He wanted to do what he wanted to do and see if you were going to stop him. That was fun. That was fun.”

The quieter of the two, Sean stood back, nodded, looked at his feet before choosing his words with delicacy and accuracy.

“I haven’t been around horses,” Sean said. “It was definitely an experience. To get in there with those horses was amazing. It was amazing.”

Horses can bridge divides. For Sean and Adam, they had met champion Royal Delta at Bill Mott’s barn earlier in the morning. Suddenly two war vets were in simple awe of the Thoroughbred.

 “As soon as you see her, you’re like, ‘That’s a horse there,’ ” Adam said. “That’s what they’re supposed to be.”

Walking away, Adam turned and looked across the Oklahoma backstretch one last time.

“I would gladly scoop up poop around here,” he said. “It would be wonderful.”

The quote was comical. And genuine.