Saturday, December 1, 2007

Horses Are Such Beautiful Creatures

My best friend Starr Ann (hi, Starr Ann) and I try real hard to avoid letting the good stuff in life become transparent. You know what I mean? That old trap of not realizing what's important to you until it's gone? Or not fully living until you face your own mortality?

Anyway, it's easy to get all caught up in caring for horses and forget to enjoy their company. We see people doing that all the time. But the only thing Starr Ann and I have to do to realign our priorities is start talking about Broadway Chief.

When we were on the racetrack, Starr Ann always did like galloping horses, but I eventually stopped doing that to be a groom. Although riding was fun, I always did get more out of grooming horses.

So, we had this locally famous horse in the barn - Broadway Chief. He was a nine-year-old gelding when I became his groom. Chief ran near the bottom of the racing card, ran in middling claiming races, and had the worst way of going you ever saw. When Chief came charging down the stretch, his legs made anybody with a trained eye do a double-take. I can only liken Chief's form to a helicopter with a bent blade. He wasn't lame, by any means. Just had a weird way of traveling.

Chief was a big favorite of fans around Churchill Downs and Turfway. Dang, could that boy put on an exciting show! Broadway Chief may not have been a stakes horse, but he didn't know that. When he ran in realistic company, Chief loved to be hanging last as they rounded the final turn. Once he saw the stretch in front of him, he would dig in and lay his heart right down in the dirt to get to that finish line first. People who didn't even fully realize what they were seeing got choked up watching Broadway Chief run.

One time, at Turfway Park, I was walking Chief around after a race, cooling him out. Starr Ann was fluffing up his stall, and keeping his water bucket topped off as he gradually drank his post-race fill. A very elegantly dressed lady had somehow wangled her way into the receiving barn and you could tell she didn't know where she was supposed to stand or how to move around horses. She came right up to Chief and me, on his outside, and said, "Could I please just touch him? I've been to every one of his races for the last five years. He's my hero."

Of course, I let her pet him and even told her she could wait over by his stall until he was cool enough to go in. But she said people were waiting for her and she was happy to have just touched him once. That says it all about that boy's charisma.

I'm not saying he was a saint. Chief was one of the most cantankerous horses I've ever been around. The second you darkened the doorway to his stall, he would swing his butt around and throw a hoof at you. Just catching him in the morning was a challenge. And brushing him was a whole lot like trying to wax a racecar, during a race, in high winds. Perfect gentleman, though, about having his hooves picked out.

I used to keep Chief's forelock a little longer than the usual racing length. Made him look real roguish to fit his personality. On race days, by the time I gave him his lighter ration of oats first thing in the morning, he knew what was up. And as soon as he realized he'd be running that afternoon, his game face was on. He would stand at the front of the stall, fire filling his eyes, psyching up. For hours before hitting the track, Chief methodically prepared himself mentally for the big stretch run. Starr Ann and I were in absolute awe of him.

Before Chief and I came to our understanding, the one where I figured out exactly how he wanted things done and did them that way, he took advantage of a lapse in my concentration one morning and bit my shoulder blade pretty good. It really hurt, and left a big white scar. All of that barely mattered, though. Chief's presence, his personality, his determination, are what endeared him to Starr Ann and me forever. When we had to part ways with him, we knew he was near the end of his racing career and would have given anything to be in a position to adopt him. Best we could salvage was the solemn word of his owner that Chief really did have a carefree retirement ahead of him.

So what has us thinking about all this so much? A member of The Posse, Joyce over at Hapless Tigger, has lost her heart to a nine-year-old gelding who's still racing. Joyce's dream is to claim Proud Patrolman and give him a home someday. We send her all good energy with regard to that dream.

Yesterday, I was changing my shirt after cleaning stalls and Starr Ann happened to come into the room. She ran her hand across my right shoulder blade and said, "Chief's scar really looks pretty today."