(Miss Jacqueline ready to go to work on Thursday at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington / Photo by Gene McLean)
It took me a little longer to gain entry to The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington early on Thursday morning. For the first time in memory, there was a team of security personnel blocking the gate entry to the training center.
As I slowed and pulled up to the gate, two gentlemen wearing badges and frost-biten smiles walked up to the door and asked to see some ID. I showed them my Kentucky racing license, and then one of the men stuck a 5-gig thermometer up to my cheek to check my temperature.
All the while, the other gentlemen began his questionnaire. In earnest, I might add.
“Have you been sick at all lately?” “Have you had a cough?” “Have you had any temperature?” (I hoped that I had a little, but it was not the time to joke.)
“Have you been around anyone that tested positive for COVID-19?” “Have you been out of the country lately?” “Are you feeling OK?” (I was before the interrogation, I thought for a second, surpassing a grin. Then I remembered. It was not the time to joke.)
“What is your reason for coming here today?” “Whose barn are you going to?” “Are you a trainer or an owner?” (Well, I was an owner before the questions starting flying fast and furious. I was just hoping that my horse was as quick. Good line, I thought. Better not. It was not the time to joke.)
I guess I answered all the questions correctly. Couldn’t remember, really. But the man with the high-tech thermometer handed me a bright green wrist band and waved me on.
As I slowly pulled away, three things truly dawned on me. Again.
First, I am so happy that the security peeps were taking the precautions to help prevent the spread of this awful, terrible, killing virus. No matter how long it takes. The precautions are worth it. The extra care is essential for everyone’s health.
Second, I was so sad that our world has changed so greatly in such a short period of time. Made me realize how we all are so vulnerable and so frail; so exposed and so fragile. Made me appreciate the days that we did not worry and made me hope for days like those again.
Third, I was so happy to be headed now to see my 3YO filly — Miss Jacqueline. So very happy. I could just feel the grin grown under my face mask and gator.
It had been awhile since I last saw the beautiful daughter of Jack Milton, who I had bred and raised from scratch. After she won her career debut at Churchill Downs last November, we were anticipating and expecting a busy winter up at Turfway Park. We had big plans. We had a busy schedule mapped. We had dreams built.
But Mother Nature has a way of dancing to her own beat.
So does Miss Jacqueline.
Just a week out from running in December, she came down with a bucked shin. A little shin splint on the left leg. Something normal for most young, aspiring 2YOs. She needed December and much of January off.
In February, the month of my birth, it looked like we were back and just about ready to race again. But…just a week out, Miss Jacqueline apparently sustained a stone bruise on one of her hooves. Nothing serious. Something that needed time, though. She got off another month.
Then, in late March, it looked like we may be ready again. So much so that we entered a race up at Turfway Park. We were going. We were pumped. We were back. But…suddenly the COVID-19 situation hit Kentucky with a tornado-like force. Things changed. Turfway Park postponed. Plans diverted.
When Gov. Andy Beshear ordered and asked for most of us to shut down and stay home, I did. So did Miss J.
When the country was extending “Shelter at Home” orders and asking all of us to limit our exposure, I did. So did Miss J.
But earlier this week, I telephoned trainer and friend Stephen Lyster to ask when Miss Jacqueline may get a serious work. When he told me that he had plans to breeze her today — Thursday, April 16 — I wrote back a text:
“I will be there. Come hell or high water.”
Hell has been here in this country for awhile now. This ugly, awful, deadly killer of a virus has put our country and our people through just that. Pure hell.
But when the alarm went off at 6:45 a.m. this morn, I sprang from my bed like the opening of the starting gate. Clothed in 2 minutes, or less. Headed out the door.
It was time to visit with Miss Jacqueline. It was time to live again.
And, on Thursday, that is exactly what we did.
As soon as I saw the filly sticking her head over the webbing of her stall, I sprinted like Mitole toward the gap. Miss J stuck her head out. I stuck my hand out. And, we hugged. Like two family members separated too long.
We chatted a few minutes. I braided her mane a bit. Snuck her a candy or two. And rubbed her neck.
Miss Jacqueline giggled with a hinny or two. Dropped her nose into my shoulder. And, she rubbed back.
It was reunion.
A few minutes later, after getting tacked up, the filly pranced out of the stall; gave a quick lap or two around the shed row and headed to the track. She looked over her shoulder to see if I was following.
When she reached the track, Miss Jacqueline bucked a bit; squealed a bit more; snuffed a tad; snorted a second and then tucked at her reins as if she had not played in a month of Sundays. She wheeled on the track, not content on standing. She spurted toward her jog and into a gallop. She tucked her head and snuck a last look to see if I was watching her little display.
And then, she was off. Off to go play. Off to go work. Off to go breeze 3 furlongs. As I watched and smiled, I wondered if a workout could still stir my soul. I questioned if a morning breeze could satisfy my need for live racing. I wondered if I would be impressed with the growth and development of my 3YO gal.
As things turned out?
She rolled from a jog into her gallop.
She galloped into her breeze.
She breezed into a full out assault with ears pinned and legs churning. Easy. Effortlessly. Impressively. Convincingly.
I don’t know about her. But my mood had brightened. My eyes had opened. My heart had jumped. And, my smile had returned.
I met Miss Jacqueline back at the barn. She had already disrobed the saddle and bridle. She was getting a drink from the water bucket.
But as soon as I appeared through the barn door, she popped her head up and gazed a long gaze at me. It was as if she asked the question in real words:
“How did you like that Pops?”
Without waiting for my approval of an answer, she was off to her walk. A lap. Another. Each time she stopped for a second to allow me to rub her forehead. Soon, it was bath time. Soon, we got to actually share a few minutes together.
In these worst of times, my morning was suddenly the best of times.
My horse seemed happy. Her trainer, Stephen, even said so. “Look at her. She is a happy girl today. Been awhile since I’ve seen her that way.”
I was definitely giddy. As in giddy up.
And, then I knew exactly why I got up and drove 11/2 hours.
I knew exactly why I waited to get through track security.
And, I knew. Then and there. I was going to get through this crap of a time. We are going to survive. I have better days ahead. You have nights to dance in the future. We all have lives to live. Again.
It was a bitty chilly. But it warmed me to the core.
I loved my morning. And, I love my filly.
Just love her.
Most of all? I knew precisely why I own a racehorse.
Here’s my looks at Miss Jacqueline this morning: