The Thrill of Victory

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One thousand, one hundred and fifty eight miles. Door to door to door to door to door. Middleburg to Camden to Aiken to Queen’s Cup to Middleburg.

I pulled out of the farm at 8:30 Friday morning, packed Subaru, concerns about a friend and dreams about the horses as my compatriots, and arrived home at 3:03 Sunday morning. Oh, and midnight mass for Greek Easter in Winchester on the way home Saturday night. Communion, Christo Anesti (again and again) and dinner afterward, Miles was asleep in the pew when I got there, he rallied, we prayed, stood and sat, stood and sat and repeated phrases that I didn’t understand. Nothing has changed there.

When you win a $100,000 stakes before the night-time drive and midnight mass, well, it’s a lot easier, a lot more entertaining. Growing up in steeplechasing, there were numbers that stood out – Joe Aitcheson’s 440, the Colonial Cup’s inaugural running in 1970, winning 100 races as a jump jockey (once you realized you weren’t going to be Joe Aitcheson) and $100,000 stakes. The latter was the pinnacle purse. There were only a few of them, hunt meet directors tried to raise the money and steeplechase participants tried to win those races – the Iroquois, Turf Writers, Atlanta Cup, Colonial Cup, novice stakes at Callaway, Iroquois and Far Hills.

My first was Talamero at Callaway Gardens, 1991. It was the thrill of a lifetime, Janet Elliot finally relenting to my Monday night calls for calls, allowing me to ride the Chilean import for Jack and Melinda Bass. The future Hall of Famer ran three that day – Jeff Teter chose Nordic Surprise, Keith O’Brien continued his run with Rainlough and I was the last man standing for Talamero. Blythe Miller was committed to My Lear, Chuck Lawrence had Darby Sky, half the colony went to Montpelier and I got the coveted call. I called Elliot from the NSA office (no cell phones, no Internet) when the overnight came off the printer. She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no. Two days later, there was my name on the overnight when I went back to the NSA office after scratch time for the updated version. I ran out of the office like I hit the lottery and in a way I did. I lived and died by the overnight, actually arranging my classes at University of Delaware around Monday and Wednesday afternoons so I could concentrate on hustling rides.

Sean “Stretch” Reiley was at the helm, I somehow engineering a perfect trip from the easy-going Talamero to beat British import Ronnie Beggan and Waroquier by a neck. I stood up at the wire like I was let out of church, thrust my whip in the air like Cauthen, I’ll never forget that moment, I still have the money, I still have the thrill.

Saturday wasn’t far off that feeling.

Gibralfaro came through to win the Queen’s Cup feature, his second win since coming here and Riverdee’s first $100,000 steeplechase stakes. Mikey Mitchell found a perfect spot, and the Irish-bred 7-year-old did the rest. A similar and different feeling compared to Talamero. The rush of winning a race still there – whether you ride it or own it. Now, it’s more of a deep satisfaction of making a good decision among all those decisions you make, you’re ecstatic for your partners, for the team, for the horse. When I rode, I couldn’t understand the thrill of owning a horse, now, so many years later, I understand it, part of life’s changes. The difference between being 21 and 49. I’m thankful for both.

I like to watch by myself, muttering and uttering, pacing and racing. Saturday, I walked halfway up the stretch, imploring Gibralfaro for two good leaps at the last two while keeping an eye on City Dreamer who loomed for a moment, the perfect call of Mark Johnson resonating but not necessarily registering in my ear. When I rode races, I always loved the time between the finish line and the winner’s circle, that moment when you’re in the moment. There is no phone. There are no bills. There are no alarms. When time stands still. You shut your eyes, clench your fists and try to corral and save the fleeting magic of sport.