Winners come from the cold

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Winter has come. Late. Fast. First set at a little after 7, the light starts to come through the window of the guest room. A glean of frost covers everything, fence rails, grass, roofs, tree limbs in the distance. Cars roll down the country road, commuters going to the office, they don’t notice the frost, don’t care about the ground, temperature means nothing to men in ties.

One of my long-lost training mentors used to say races aren’t won in April, they’re won in January, on the soul-searching mornings in places like Monkton, Middleburg and Unionville – hamlets of countryside in an ever-changing world across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Sure, some horses and horsemen are relishing the warmth of Camden, South Carolina and other southern points, they’ll be ready for opening day in March, over the top by May. For most – champion Jack Fisher at the top of the list – it’s a three-month battle with the elements. An indoor track at Elizabeth Voss’ farm, a straw jogging track at Todd Wyatt’s, a treadmill at Fisher’s, dirt roads at Richard Valentine’s, anything and everything at Jimmy Day’s over the mountain in Virginia.

When Blake and O’Callaghan came up with steeplechasing, they probably weren’t thinking about the east coast of America, where it’s too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. 

This year, winter comes late, we were in short sleeves a week ago, transitioning flat horses learning to jump, fox hunting was being called off because the ground was too deep. Now, the ground is frozen like a door of a safe and we’re layered like a good paint job, it happened in a matter of days. I can’t find my gloves, my wool socks, I remember why I became a writer, to avoid days like this.

But, today, I’m racing manager, traveling to see Hear The Word, Biedermeier and a few others at Todd Wyatt’s farm in Monkton, Maryland. The night before, we stayed up late watching replays of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham – Flatterer, Istabraq and so many other legends. 

I look out of the window again, it’s getting lighter, slightly, only offering more glare off the layer of frost, making it look colder. Wyatt walks in, blows his nose in a navy bandanna and pulls off his first layer, dropping a parka on the floor.

“It’s cold out there. My car says 10 degrees.”

I check my phone, 16 degrees.

I ask if I can skip the first set. Skip watching the first set, I might add. I don’t ride any more – well, I ride sparingly – seems pathetic but it’s reality. Bad back, sore shoulder, frayed nerves. Wyatt looks at me with disdain, “Come on, man, you’re just riding in the car with me.”

He pours me a cup of coffee.

“We better go,” he says, “We’re late.”

We walk to his car, idling, sputtering, windshield wipers slashing a layer of frost from the windshield, or at least, attempting to offer visibility.

We drive a few miles to Poppett Pitts’ farm on Pocock Road to check on Racy and Biedermeier, both turned out for the winter, nursing aches and pains after big seasons in 2015. Biedermeier has eaten most of Racy’s tail, his hair is falling off his shoulder, Pitts tries to doctor both. Wyatt shakes his head, “They’re fine, Poppett.” I run my hands down Biedermeier’s ankles, both cold and tight, amazing what a winter will do for a horse. Pitts tries to sell me a just-turned yearling and an old horse van that hasn’t run in two years. I don’t need either but wonder if the van would make a good office, then think about Annie’s reaction to parking a six-horse horse van in the back yard. I tell Pitts I’ll get back to her.

Back at Wyatt’s farm, the first set is ready. Young amateur jockey Lia McGuirk, Blair Wyatt and Ross Geraghty ride down the long driveway heading to the straw path in the back of the farm. The set ranges from the 2015 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Raven’s Pass to 7-year-old hurdle prospect Situational Ethics. They look like wooly mammoths.

Geraghty smiles from behind a newly grown beard, he looks like a lumberjack, “Come on, there’s another set of tack in there.” I ask McGuirk about school – again. “Well, I thought about it when I broke my collarbone.” She’s still not enrolled. I won’t give up.

The three horses jog a long, slow loop around the straw track. Joe and Blythe Davies’ set shows up, six horses and two dogs who won’t go home. Todd jumps up and down, trying to feel his toes. I bury my hands in my pockets, thinking about how races are won in January, not April. The horses look well as they slowly, quietly turn into racehorses, one slow, cold step at a time. I offer advice about training horses, about giving horses time. “You know, right now, it seems like April is a long, long time away. Then we’ll get to April and look back and think January wasn’t that long ago.”

And for a moment, it seems warmer.