Ten minutes with a horse

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Calls to make. Calls to return. Bills to pay. Jobs to do. Stories to write. People to see. Answers to give. Questions to ask. Podcast episodes to schedule. E-mails to answer. Grass to cut. Kids to worry about. A plane to catch in a couple days. A knee that won’t stop swelling. 

Life piling up all around you? Take five minutes and go see a horse.

Late Wednesday morning it is Alwaysmining. The 3-year-old rides a six-race winning streak after sweeping to wins in the Miracle Wood, Private Terms and Federico Tesio stakes at Laurel Park this year. He’s being pointed for the Preakness Stakes next weekend. Television cameras visited him today, watched him gallop 1 3/8 miles like a boss. More are coming tomorrow. The Baltimore Sun wants a few minutes, and so does the Cecil Whig (a little like a trainer running a horse at Saratoga and Great Barrington Fair on the same day).

But Alwaysmining knows none of this. Or at least he doesn’t care.

He’s minding his own business a couple stalls down trainer Kelly Rubley’s shedrow at Fair Hill Training Center. Training is over. He’s had a bath, picked some grass, done everything a racehorse typically does in a day. Lunch is coming, because he can see the feed cart, but he’s standing along the side wall of his stall in a light blanket (horse people would call it a sheet) on a damp, kind of chilly day.

He spies Rubley, who stops “hiding” in her car for a few minutes, and me and steps over to see what we want. Nothing, really. Just a hello. Alwaysmining hangs his head over the screen, rubs his muzzle on Rubley’s jacket and pulls on a zipper tab – up, down, up, down, up, down – repeatedly opening and closing a pocket for the sheer novelty of it.

Rubley laughs, I laugh, Alwaysmining just keeps zipping and unzipping at about a 44-second half-mile clip. It’s funny, this horse simply messing around. He gets a little bored and moves over to me. I’ve got no mint, no carrot, no horse treat to scarf down. My quarter zip has a zipper but no long tab for a horse to grab. I could almost hear him think, “OK, what do we have here with this guy?”

He sniffs, blows some air on my left hand, looks for something. I rub his forehead, scratch him between his eyes and pull on his forelock – which feels like it could be in a commercial for the Garnier Fructis one-minute hair mask. Smooth, silky, not a tangle to be found. I don’t sniff it to see if it was avocado or coconut.

Before he gets bored and heads back inside his stall, I pull a reporter’s notebook from my back pocket. The wire rings at the top are interesting – to a horse – and he wrinkles his nose as I move the notebook back and forth. The space between a horse’s nostrils might be the best part – soft, short hairs that feel good. It’s like felt, velvet maybe, or the trim of a baby’s favorite blanket. It’s not any of those things, of course, but it’s close. And better. I have no idea what Alwaysmining thinks about this part of a horse, but he’s all about those notebook spirals. If the Ampad Earthwise Gregg-Ruled reporter’s notebook ever needs a second career horse toy could be in the mix. Alwaysmining rubs, fiddles, fidgets, curls his lip way up to show off his Jockey Club tattoo and comes back for more.

That cool, soft spot on a horse’s nose is also an inch or two from a horse’s teeth and you couldn’t do what I’m doing to some Thoroughbreds. But Alwaysmining shows no signs of biting.

“Other than when he gallops, this is what he’s like,” says Rubley. “He’s great to be around.”

The gelding messes with my notebook for another five minutes or so, and might have done it all day if I didn’t have to go (see that list in the first paragraph).

Eventually, he curls that lip one more time like a big goof and looks up at the ceiling before diving back in. I speed up the notebook rubbing – right on the edge of his lip. He doesn’t bite, not once, doesn’t try to steal the notebook and shred it or toss it over the wall though I got the impression that this would all be more fun for him if I had something he could eat. And then the list truly calls. 

The Preakness – with its pressure and noise and crowds and attention and $1.5 million purse as the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown – is 10 days away. Owned by Greg and Caroline Bentley, Alwaysmining could become the first Maryland-bred to win the historic race since Deputed Testamony in 1983.

But Wednesday he’s just a horse, who makes my day.