Campus and Local News Since 1968

Morning Ride


What the hell am I doing out here? The summer is over and it’s too bloody dark for work at 5:15 in the morning. My breath appears faint in the blackness, before a rude wind gusts to dispel it. Treetops start to wave at scurrying leaves below–quite a clamor for this lonely time in the morning. I hope my mount can keep relaxed. She doesn’t need to jump around on this concrete and aggravate her sore knees.The trainer deserves a meat cleaver for running her so often. Meanwhile, the wind insists, and dead leaves scrape the asphalt about my horse’s feet.

I bow my head to avoid the frigid air that abruptly snuck up on us. My helmet does nothing to protect my ears from it. I should have wore a headband. It’s no worry that I didn’t wear enough layers to keep from shivering—riding this horse will warm me up–but that won’t help my ears. I just wish the guard, sitting in his warm car, would get out and open the track. There are too many beasts to ride this morning and the weather isn’t going to help anyone’s patience. My filly starts shuffling her feet. I think about springtime honeysuckle, wishing it was practical to take the looming winter off.

At least, on blustery days like this, no one is anxious to go to the track. Having other horses around would make mine get stupid. She is the competitive sort that winds herself up at the sight of a rival. Other horses are rivals to a real racehorse. And, even though she can be a dingbat, she is a racehorse, and I have to do what I can to help her take care of herself. That’s why she goes out first. Life is much easier if I can get her around the track before it becomes a cavalry charge.

Just open the bloody gate, so I can get this thing up the ramp and on the track. I only want to jog her back into the chute, at the start of the backstretch, turn her around and send her on her way. If it weren’t for her sore knees, I’d go straight off as soon as we hit the track. But she has to warm up; otherwise she’s liable to fall down. I don’t need to be laid out on the track, in the dark, with the wind knocked out of me. I just need to get out there before a crowd of horses arrive. And they’re on their way. The sound of horseshoes, clip-clopping on pavement, is approaching. My eyes fix on the guard’s car.

His door opens and the guard walks slowly to open the gate. He almost gets run over when we bounce up the ramp. Once on the track, we make a left, keeping close to the ivy covered outside fence. As we jog towards the chute, I strain to see if there are shadows entering the track at the gap right before it. So far, it’s clear. The filly stumbles. “Pick your feet up, horse,” I mumble to her. An ear flicks back towards me, letting me know I have her attention. We reach the gap at the chute. And, with the sight of shadows making their way up the ramp, I pull my horse up to turn her around.

After a very brief pause, I nudge her flanks with my feet to make her jog off before the shadows are on top of us. I stand up in the saddle, feeling the brunt of the wind. My upper body is bent parallel with the horse’s neck; my head about a foot above and behind her ears. Her ears are perked, telling me that she’s got her mind on her business and is happy about life for the moment. I’m happy too, because we’re going into our gallop with no traffic in front of us. The increasing number of shadows are still warming up and going the other way.

The filly starts galloping, leaning towards the outside fence, where there are now numerous shadows. I resist the temptation of trying to steer her away from them. I can’t panic. That always leads to a fight. She sees the shadows and will not run into them if I just nurse her along. She’ll continue to lean until the turn, switch to lead with her left leg, then drop in towards the inside fence, where she should be. But that’s also when she wants to take off in a dead run.

Approaching the turn, her right ear flicks. She sees something that I see a moment later; a shadow is loping, mid-track and mid-turn. Shit. I hope I’ll be able to drop in before we get to it. We hit the turn, she switches leads, clamps down on the bit and knowing there’s another horse in front of her, takes off after it. Again, I can’t fight her. If I do, she’ll run off and I won’t be able to steer her. So, I let her do her thing. She’s so happy about it, we have no trouble getting by the other horse.We hit the stretch and straighten out. She switches back to lead with her right leg, which lets me know we can both relax.

At the wire, a siren screams above the sound of pounding hoof beats and galloping equine breaths; a rider got dropped and there’s a horse running loose. What’s a hazard in daylight is compounded by the dark. Entering the clubhouse turn, in between siren screams, I hear a commotion at the start of the far turn we had just come from. I decide to park my filly on the inside fence–loose horses tend to go for the outside–only when we straighten up on the backside and she switches back to her right lead, will I ease towards the outside to pull her up.

Though I’m straining to find him in the dark, I can’t see the loose horse as we go around that last turn. Neither do I hear anymore hollering above the din of the siren. We reach the top of the backstretch, where the screams are coming from. The moment we straighten out from the turn, I see the loose horse. He’s on the inside fence, galloping the wrong way, right for us. There’s hardly time to consider my life. I await the inevitable collision.

My horse sees the riderless one a moment before they collide. She plants her feet and drops her head to brace herself. I launch, as horse flesh and leather meet with a wallop. That fleeting moment in flight, while clearing both horses, I wonder if I might get some time off from this. It amazes me that something so stupid has come to mind. I land in the dirt, ten feet beyond the point of impact and check my condition by trying to stand. Comfortably up, I see a fallen shadow struggle to rise. Another shadow stays down. The outrider—mounted patrol of the racetrack—arrives at the scene and gives me hell for scaring him. I apologize and he asks if I’m OK. The only thing broke is the routine of my morning.

It’s a short walk back to the barn. I’ll wait there while the “meat wagon” picks up the injured horse. Afterward, the track will have to be harrowed. Everyone’s morning is on hold. In the barn, I sit down to wait. Shivering, I think about the rest of the horses I’m supposed to ride this morning. Too bad I can’t jump right on the next one. Time will oblige me to think about not doing what I’ve done, ever since I was a thoughtless kid.

Robert Lages grew up in Vienna, Va, and currently lives in Allentown, Pa. with his wife Johanne and daughter Emma. He has been exercising thoroughbred race horses the past 32 years in the mid-west and on the east coast. Lages started attending Mercer in 2009.

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