Walking in Circles

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“If there wasn’t a horse race, I’m not sure I would have ever ridden a horse.”

I say it nonchalantly, offhandedly, at a hunt ball in a dairy barn Saturday night. Well, a converted dairy barn, yes, a hunt ball in a dairy barn…that’s another story for another day.

I’ve said it before, same style, a throw-away line to answer why I don’t go fox hunting five days a week like many of my contemporaries, here in Middleburg, Va. Having a job is part of it as well, but I like to think of it as the lack of desire rather than the burden of necessity.

My old comrade Peter Walsh, still rides every day, after a wicked fall last season. Some day his arm might heal but for now, he’s riding, one-handed, but still precise and accurate. Peter was the only guy who could see your spot and his spot in a race. At the first fence in a maiden claimer at Aiken a thousand years ago, trying to count strides fast – 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5… – I couldn’t see anything. Then I here Peter out of the corner of my ear, “Oh, buddy…’ and then I see him out of the corner of my eye, still empathizing, “Oh, buddy…” as he jumped past me in mid-air, his horse flying, mine stumbling. We survived.

Looking back at my career, I’ve learned that I loved riding races and I like riding horses. There is a big difference.

When I stopped riding races, I was ready, knew it was time and I’ve never felt a moment of ache – at least mental – when I watch a steeplechase race. Halfway through a race, I have to lower my binoculars and shake the blood back to my left shoulder, separated so many times before, but that’s my only pain. I miss it like college – a great time of life, over, not going back.

As for now, I ride most days – using two hands – but it’s out of necessity rather than desire. I don’t really know where my desire went, I guess driven into the ground after 13 years of riding races, 13 years of reducing, 13 years of sliding on the ground wondering/hoping to walk away. Yes, those were the days and I’m glad they’re over

Today, I ride two or three a day on the farm. The rehab assignment – congratulations, you are the just the man for the job. Apse, Royal Bonsai and Situational Ethics walk 30 minutes a day, well, Apse walks 28 minutes and jogs two, the rest walk 30 minutes or attempt to walk 30 minutes. It’s brutal. I check the bridle once, the girth once and the yoke a dozen times. I adjust the yoke like it’s a bow tie before a black tie. Once secure of my security, we go out and make long, languid figure eights inside a three-board paddock next to the barn. San Juan Capistrano runner-up Eagle Poise watches from his stall, retired and looking for another activity, I can almost hear him snickering about when it’s his turn.

Saratoga hurdle winner Apse is like a favorite pair of jeans. So easy, he’s smart, attentive, engaged. You could ride him into Times Square, “Cool, we’re going to Times Square today.” Whatever you ask, he does.

Two-time flat winner Situational Ethics tries hard. He’s the city slicker trying to adapt to farm life, he spends most of his 30 minutes looking for the white rails at Monmouth Park. He would be more at ease on the first set after the break, action rather than solitude. He kicked an osage orange with his right front hoof the other day, it bumped like a ping pong ball down a flight of stairs and stopped 20 feet in front of him. He snorted, couldn’t decide if he should stomp on it, eat it, run the other way. Each time we passed the drop zone, he sidestepped, hoping it wouldn’t lash out at his ankles. If it did, he was ready.

Royal Bonsai, third in the 2012 American Grand National, is the class clown of the group. He begs you to loosen your reins, slide to the knot, then when you do, he leaps in the air, like he’s playing the “What’s that on your shirt?” trick and laughing at you for falling for it again. You’d want him sitting next to you at a dinner party.

Against my wife Annie’s wishes, I’ll tuck an ear bud into my right ear, click John Stewart on Pandora Radio and hope to hear “Let the Big Horse Run” just once. Old habits die hard, even when they’re gone.