One Time

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The tree blocks my view. The squat tree in the distance, like a curtain pulled in a hurry, hiding what I want to see, what I don’t want to see.

I walk, half run, my tie flies up and down, I pick up my binoculars again and see men with hands on their hips. Nothing good comes from men with hands on their hips. The men are looking down. Nothing good comes from men looking down. Nobody’s moving, they’re just standing, looking down, like they had run over a cat or broke a pipe.

I see the outline of the dark blue and light blue silks, red cap, worn by Kieran Norris, he’s standing, he also looks down. His tack lies in a heap on the ground. I walk, half run. The motion of the horse ambulance catches my eye to my right. I run, half walk, as fast as an unfit man can go. Still, the tree blocks my view. The questions roll fast through my mind, looking, searching. Is he prone on the ground? Is he holding up a leg? Front or hind? Left or right? Now, I run down Heartbreak Hill, past the last fence, almost to the second-to-last, duck under the white rail, cut across the helicopter pad, a man in a chair nods, he’s guarding the helicopter. I pick up my binoculars, the tree still blocks him, but I see ears between branches, a tail jutting out to the right. He’s standing. Still, men with hands on their hips look down.

I walk around the tree and duck under the rail, just past the third-to-last hurdle, 3 furlongs from the finish, from what should have been the finish. There’s Yellow Mountain, standing, gingerly, awkwardly. Norris sees me, without looking up, he says, “…sliced his tendon.”

Now, I’m a man with his hands on his hips looking down.

A vet starts to explain the injury, caused most likely by his hind hoof overreaching and grabbing a front tendon, as the other vet wraps a tight bandage around Yellow Mountain’s left tendon and Courtney Dankanich holds him by the bridle, part coddle, part crutch. The vet doing the wrapping doesn’t say a word, as another roll of cotton and another roll of Vetrap are applied, attempts to stabilize a leg that now bends where it shouldn’t. The tight bandage leads to a bulky bandage, layers and layers. The horse ambulance, rattling, maneuvers into place, a few feet from Yellow Mountain. A team sponges him down, buckets coming and going like right out of a kid’s book about a fire station. The water douses him, slides across his back, down his belly and drips into the green grass. His veins bulge, his nostrils flare rhythmically, his sides go in and out without heaving, without distress, his eye is settled, a quiet calm in a thundering storm.

The day has gone from prospective to perspective. Hopeful, bright and free to taxing, draining, expensive – not monetarily expensive (well, yes monetarily expensive too) – but emotionally expensive. Yellow Mountain steps with his right leg, then stubs and rolls over his left toe, he’s broken. Simply broken. With a patient on board, the horse ambulance slowly turns and begins a long, arduous journey back to the barns.

I fall into in the seat of a golf cart, a passenger hopping out and into the back, my binoculars clanging off the handrail, sweat beads down my forehead, I wipe it with the sleeve of my navy blazer, already dirty after one race. We bump our away along the racecourse and back to the barn. The horse ambulance slows and parks and ramp clangs to the ground. Dankanich asks Yellow Mountain for a few steps, he listens, hobbles out of the van and parks himself, taking as few steps as possible, he moves like a tractor trailer driven by a student driver, herk and jerk.

The sedation given to him on the racecourse tempers Yellow Mountain’s actions, he’s quiet, like he’s drifting somewhere else. The vets bustle, a triage unit, moving with precision, darts with purposeful movement. Dr. Michael Caruso explains what has happened, a lacerated superficial flexor tendon, that’s for sure. A possibly lacerated deep flexor tendon, an ultrasound will tell us if he’s overreached into the deep flexor, if he has, we’re in trouble, he’s in trouble. Caruso explains the tendon sheath and the vagaries if he’s sliced into it, infection becoming the danger, the panther in the tree. We’ll know in minutes about the deep flexor and the tendon sheath.

The vets begin to cut the bandage applied when Yellow Mountain was on the course, he fidgets, then they decide to unwrap it, slowly. He stands still. Like he’s waiting. Everybody’s waiting. We offer him a drink of water from a bucket, he drags his lower lip through it but declines. His eyes are soft and innocent, but piercing, like he’s looking deep into our souls. The bandages unspool and begin a heap of discard. It rises as gauze, bandages, cotton rolls, rubber gloves, plastic tubes and tops, the detritus from a bloodbath.

Caruso begins to maneuver the ultrasound over the tendon, blood spurts like he’s squeezing a full straw. He explains what he’s seeing to other vets, I don’t understand if it’s good or bad, the ultrasound images on the screen look like yet another swirl of black and white lines and clouds to me. Martini Brother, Yellow Mountain’s stablemate, reaches over his stall door and tries to grab the chord of the ultrasound, then nips at Dankanich who tries to persuade him to leave it, us, alone, eventually, his door is closed. Caruso finishes, explains that the deep flexor is OK, untouched. I exhale slightly, ever so slightly.

Blood drips, but doesn’t gush, from the wound, pooling on the barn floor. The horses for the second, tacked up and ready, circle under the trees, a soft toss from us. They look like rock stars, I don’t recognize any of them. I try to remember what it was like to be hopeful, expectant, excited for what was about to happen. Richard Valentine walks past and pats me on the shoulder. Dr. Jeff Witer catches my eye with an unsaid gesture of here-if-you-need-me. Kate Dalton hovers but knows there’s nothing she can do. Other trainers and grooms, owners and hotwalkers, walk past and offer a few kind words or a nod of togetherness, simple gestures. Comrades in arms, all of us. 

Caruso explains how he’s going to check the sheath, a needle…liquid…if it comes out the bottom…I’m not really listening, to me, it’s either yes or no, the process useless as far as my decisions – my emotions – go. It doesn’t take long as Caruso explains that he has cut into the sheath, the panther is in the tree. I hear the word infection, I shudder at the word, septic.

The vets rewrap his leg – thick padding that could temper a falcon’s grip. Caruso and I talk about the van ride to the clinic, about the danger of infection, about the drop down in the ankle, about timeframe of recovery, about quality of life. Bailey Poorman offers to ride with Yellow Mountain as Brian Hogan jumps into action, orchestrating his van to pull up as close to the barn door as possible, another triage unit in motion. Yellow Mountain, the perfect patient, follows Dankanich out of the barn and onto the trailer, backing into a stall and a half so he’s got support behind and to his sides. Dankanich hops out as Poorman hops in, we shut the door, latch the latches and the truck rumbles into first gear.

Like that, it’s over. He’s out of my hands. Everything stops. Everybody leaves. I walk away, past assistant trainer Beth Supik sitting on a wall, past the vans, past the storage sheds and barns, past a man walking a dog. I walk, an agitated, frenzied walk out of the barn and into my head. I wipe away the tears from under my sunglasses. No one sees me.

I think about what I wrote earlier in the morning, about the Iroquois, the prospects, the possibilities, the energy, the buzz, the thrill of the second Saturday in May. The last line ringing in my ears – Come on Yellow Mountain. One time, just one time. It was meant as a request, an imploring for him to win, one time, just one time. It was heartfelt at the time. Now, it’s simply heartache.

I kick the ground.

“Come on Yellow Mountain. One time, just one time.”

Editor’s Note: As of Thursday, May 18, Yellow Mountain was stable and responding to treatment at the Tennessee Equine Hospital.