“God forbid that I should go to any Heaven in which there are no horses.“
R.B. Cunninghame Graham, letter to Theodore Roosevelt, 1917
Wendy used to say she’d always wanted a horse. But she says she wants a lot of things. If we watch Game of Thrones, she’ll say she wants a dragon. But I love to spoil her. If she says she wants a dragon, I’ll try to find a small, friendly, affordable one for her.
When Wendy was in grade school in Needles, her best friends Sheila and Chris Jennings owned a mustang from the wild herds of horses managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Smokey the mustang was laid back, very tolerant, and gentle with little kids. Wendy and her friends used to take turns riding Smokey bareback through the desert. Every year, Smokey tolerated them dressing him up and marching him in the parade through downtown Needles.
My horseback riding experience, however, was limited to the pony ride at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where they made you wear a seatbelt as the pony walked around a circle at a glacial pace. When I was twelve, I did have a trail ride experience at a dude ranch in British Columbia called Lucky Strike Ranch. Since I didn’t know anything about horses, I was assigned to an old gray draft horse (also, in a strange coincidence, named Smokey). But because Smokey had a chronic flatulence problem, ol’ Farty and I were banished to the back of the line. It wasn’t quite the thrilling equine experience I was expecting, when I compared it to watching the jockeys and horses at Longacres with Grandma.
During my later teen years, my mom owned a horse named Like a Dime. Her horse kept her busy in the evenings while my dad enjoyed his current hobby of Texas Hold ‘Em at his favorite poker room. I never rode my mom’s horse, groomed it, or even touched it. I was all about photography and rock music during those years, although I did go out one weekend and take photos of her riding in a weekend horse show.
So Wendy and I couldn’t really qualify as horse people. Neither of us knew much, apart from Wendy’s bareback rides as a kid. But we had exhausted most of the typical sights as we drove around Pennsylvania, looking for something to do in our free time. One of our Friday evening drives took us to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, about an hour away, to visit a small casino. The casino had a horseracing track called Charles Town. We planned on getting dinner at the buffet and maybe catching a couple of races, just for fun. I hadn’t been back to the races in 35 years, even though we always made an effort to watch the Triple Crown on TV.
We found we really enjoyed the energy of the racetrack and the intense, athletic beauty of the horses. Watching horse racing as an adult was much different. When I was a child, it all seemed so much grander—the people, the track, the pageantry. Racetracks and casinos had been magical places. I had visions of James Bond playing baccarat in his tuxedo at Monte Carol, or guys in red jackets with tails playing a long trumpet as the horses marched on to the track, watched by women in big flowery hats holding mint juleps.
But when you go to a racetrack in person, when it’s anything but Derby Day, James Bond in a tux begins to morph into an obese man in Birkenstocks driving a motorized scooter, or an elderly woman dragging a cart with an oxygen bottle. Many of the people were there for a good time and to drop a few bucks, like the smiling, happy faces you see in the ads. But some reeked of desperation, of people unhappy with their lives and placing money down they can’t afford to lose in the hopes of hitting it big and scoring a chance at a better existence. I’ve been known to play blackjack but, if I had a million dollars in my pocket, I’d probably still only make a two dollar bet. Gambling isn’t about trying to make my life better, it’s just about having a little skin in the game to make things more interesting.
But the horses were the same, just as beautiful as they were when I was a kid. I especially loved the way the horses danced in the paddocks before the race, all legs and quicksilver movements, energy and passion sparking off their hooves as necks bowed and tails switched around in excitement. You couldn’t get the same experience watching a race on TV, so Wendy and I began to make the Charles Town track, and other tracks within driving distance, our regular Friday night date.
I worked hard to learn the art of handicapping. Surely it was in my blood, as my grandma had done so well. But since she never shared her secrets, I still struggled to read a racing form, trying to make sense of the numbers on a horse’s past performance so I could pick a winner. I could never seem to get the hang of it. It felt like high school algebra all over again.
Wendy, on the other hand, developed her own trademark betting system. She bet on any horse that was gray in color, had the word “bear” or “cat” in its name, or gave her a special, knowing glance in the paddock. There was no research involved, no sweating over the forms, and she always ended up winning money.
My hours wasted trying to decipher the endless numbers in a racing form could never compete with Wendy’s system and I quickly gave up on betting. So while Wendy was busy making money, I simply enjoyed the spectacle of the sport. I loved the sight of Thoroughbreds running all out at full speed. I looked forward to every Friday visit to the track and I couldn’t get the horses out of my mind.
“Let’s buy a racehorse,” I said to Wendy on a whim one Saturday morning. If I couldn’t be successful betting on horses, maybe I could be successful owning a horse. I’m not really sure where the idea came from, but I knew I enjoyed watching the horses in the paddocks more than the races, and I didn’t want to wait anymore to only see them on Fridays.
“We can’t afford a racehorse,” Wendy said.
“Not a whole racehorse. We can buy shares.” I had done my research and found a stable that operated out of Penn National called Renpher Stables. We could own part of a racehorse for as little as $300.
I’d also done twenty years of research on Wendy, and I knew what to say next. “If the horse wins a race, you get to be in the Winner’s Circle photo.”
Her eyes got big. Wendy loves being in the center of the action. She was in.
We bought small percentages in a few of Renpher’s horses and it made going to the races even more fun. One night, on our way to a an evening of racing at Penn National, Wendy knew we were going to see one of our horses and asked me about it in the car.
“Who’s running tonight?”
“Metro Meteor,” I answered. Metro was the fourth horse we’d bought into and so far, we had yet to buy a winner. We owned about three percent of Metro. I figured that was about thirty pounds of a thousand-pound horse, the equivalent of the bottom part of one leg.
“Is he any good?” Wendy asked.
Fair question. “I don’t know. His morning odds were six-to-one, so he has as good a chance as any.”
“Hopefully this one will win,” Wendy said. She was probably thinking about how to pose in the winner’s circle and which friends she was going to show the picture to first.
We got to the track early so we could see Metro in the paddock before the race. Even though we were officially owners of Metro, and had the badges to prove it, we were asked by Bob to not come into the paddock before the race. It’s different when you’re the sole owner, but this was a partnership. Metro had twenty owners, and it could get a little crowded. So we watched Metro from outside the paddock and tried to pick out which three percent of him we actually owned.
Metro put on a show. He looked different from these other low dollar claiming horses. He had the look of experience, of a horse that had done this before. At the time, I was not aware of his history in New York, that he was once worth more than our first house, or of the problems that funneled him into a low level claiming race at Penn National.
After a few laps around the paddock track, the horses were led into their assigned saddling areas. This was always an interesting part to watch as excited, nervous horses were now asked to stand in an enclosed space, surrounded by three walls as they got tacked up. Some kicked the walls in nervousness and others spun in circles while their handlers tried to slow them down long enough to throw a saddle on them. But Metro stood perfectly still. Not that he wasn’t difficult. He was, but Metro gave you the sense that he wasn’t being difficult because he was nervous, but because he enjoyed it. It was a game he played with his trainer. He threw his head wildly up and down as the groom and trainer tried to pull the hood and blinkers over his head. When the girth to his jockey saddle tightened around his chest, Metro turned and bared his teeth at his trainer to let him know the saddle was plenty tight enough.
With some last minute instructions, the jockey cocked his leg at a ninety-degree angle, while the trainer grasped and effortlessly lifted the slight man onto Metro’s back.
Wendy and I left reluctantly and then hurried to the rail, not wanting to miss the starting bell. The race was a short one, just five furlongs or five-eighths of a mile, and it was over in less than a minute. Metro Meteor lagged and finished in sixth place, never even close to winning. Some of the other syndicate partners left the rail after the finish to watch the replay on one of the monitors mounted around the track. I stayed to watch the horses come back as they cantered easily along the rail on their way back to the barn.
Metro was one of the last in and I noticed his jockey was trotting him, not cantering like the other horses. Metro bobbed his head up and down as he passed slowly by and I had a flash of insight. Is Metro in pain?
When I’d looked at him in the paddock, I’d noticed his front knees were bumpy and swollen, not smooth and flat like those of the other horses. But I’d dismissed it. That’s probably normal for him.
I suddenly felt bad for Metro as he limped awkwardly back to the barn. This was not the same proud, dancing horse that had left the paddock, ready to thunder his way around the track just a few moments before. His striking white-rimmed eyes were tired and looked a little distant, like his mind was off somewhere else.
I wasn’t the only one on the rail. Other people were standing in the tangle of discarded race tickets as they watched the horses come back in. Someone nearby spoke up as Metro limped by. His tone was observational, jaded, like he’d seen it all.
“Looks like that one is done being a horse.”
I was stunned, not quite understanding the words. I’d just seen Metro run a race. Sure, he wasn’t flashing around the track at lightning speed, but he made it all the way around in one piece. As I turned to watch him disappear into the shadows, he reminded me of an aging Mickey Mantle at the end of his career, hobbled by old injuries and unable to chase down the fly balls that used to be so easy. But he still carried the swagger of greatness.
I knew in my gut that Metro wasn’t done being a horse. I’d seen a different side of him in the paddock. But I didn’t yet know that I’d just seen his last race, and soon I’d own more of Metro than part a leg. I’d learn about his racing career, find out what had happened to his knees, and begin to forge a relationship with one of the jackass-iest racehorses that ever ran a race. I’d experience Metro as lightning bolt, going from zero to forty miles in an hour in a split second. Or Metro as rocket ride, able to levitate and shift position while in the air. Or Metro as cranky old man, looking for someone to bite because he was having a bad day and didn’t want to play nice. Soon, I would live, breathe, and die for this horse who was supposedly done being a horse. He was about to climb under my skin, and stay there.
Ron Krajewski is a professional artist specializing in pet portraits. Ron's artwork can be seen at www.ronpaintspets.com