Why Own A Racehorse? Because They Fix A Lot of Problems in Life

(Miss Jacqueline jogs and gallops this morning / Photo by Gene McLean)

Got my fix on Tuesday morning. Got it good.

Woke up at 5:30 a.m. in my cozy Louisville bedroom, and hustled to put on my “work clothes.” Blue jeans. Golf shirt. Baseball hat. Boots. Just a tip. Put on the boots after you have the blue jeans on and pulled high. Easier that way.

Hustled down the stairs, avoiding three dogs and three cats along the way — like a barrel racer in the County Fair Finals. Hustled to the office to grab my computer, and binoculars. Hustled out the door to the car. Hustled out the driveway. And, then hustled all the way to Lexington. Made the 11/2-hour trip to the Thoroughbred Center in about an hour.

If you know anything about me, you know that I can stay up till 5:30 a.m. easier than I can get up at 5:30 a.m. Late nights have always been easier than early mornings. And, hustling in the a.m. does not come naturally. Unless it is a midnight bathroom call.

But on this morn, I looked more like Pete Rose motoring around third base and headed to home plate with the winning run than my normal Weeble-Wobble, teeter-totter stroll. My stride resembled Zenyatta in the final furlong and not our ole’ farm pony that used to pull a plow of a day, and play with the kids at night. My attitude was more Piglet, than Eeyore.

And, why not.

After all, I was on my way to the racetrack.

I was on my way to see my newest addition to the racing stable.

(Miss Jacqueline has a perfect “diamond” on her nose. In tribute, perhaps, to her mom, Diamond Seeker / Photo by Gene McLean)

I was headed to see Miss Jacqueline, a fancy 2-year-old filly by Jack Milton and the latest arrival to the barn of trainer Stephen Lyster. I was on my way to see Miss Jacqueline, a filly born to my very own Diamond Seeker — who I had raced and loved. A filly that I had carefully and meticulously chose her breeding and dreamed of foaling. A filly that I had helped raise and watched grow from infant to potential runner over the last two, long years.

I was headed to my Happy Place.

(Miss Jacqueline takes in the sights and sounds of the racetrack / Photo by Gene McLean)

On Tuesday morn, bright and early, I rolled into the Training Center in Lexington; headed to Barn #9; and right up to the first stall — the new home room for Miss Jacqueline. The gal arrived here for the first time, oh, about 3 weeks ago, after spending all of her young life with her primary caregivers at Legacy Springs Farm just a few miles down the road.

And, the transition has been a bit of a culture shock.

Gone is her comfortable, quiet stall. Gone is her comfort zone.

Gone is the still of the farm life. Quiet bird chatter has been replaced by the signing of barn workers. Fun time outside has given way to work time every morning.

Gone are her human friends, that fed her and kept her every day since she was foaled about two years ago. The ones that she knew by the sound of their voices and the patter of their hard boots have been replaced by new friends, who pick her feet and comb her hair. And, most of all, make her behave.

Gone are her horse buddies, that she loved to bully and nicker. No more horse play in the field. Replaced by horse work on the track.

Gone is her former life.

Arrived, now, is her new life. At the racetrack.

This was the first time I had gotten the chance to see the filly in her new digs. This was the first time I had the chance to see her at the racetrack. This was the first day I got to see her get up, eat a little breakfast, and head off to elementary school.

And, it was just like going to the first school play to watch your own kids perform for the first time in public. Anxiously, you arrive and sit in your seat — wondering if your child knew their lines and the choreography of the songs. Nervously, you await to see if your child can walk in line with the others; stand correctly; listen attentively; and perform accordingly. Excitedly, you look to see if your baby is learning; can do what the other students are doing; is growing.

As soon as I saw her in her stall, Miss Jacqueline looked up from her feed tub and caught my eye. Quickly, she spun around and headed to the stall door. She draped her head over the webbing and snuggled my neck. She smelled my hair, and nibbled on my shoulder. She breathed on my, and I breathed back on her.

She seemed happy to see me, for sure.

I was darn happy to see her. Ever since Seek N Justice — Miss Jacqueline’s half brother — was claimed off of us at the Fair Grounds on March 9, I haven’t had a horse at the racetrack, or in training. I haven’t had a buddy to go see at the barns. I haven’t had a friend to go see. I didn’t have my fix. It was withdrawal. And, I didn’t like it.

On Tuesday morn, we both got our fix. There were smiles all around. Especially on my face. And, I think,  even on Miss Jacqueline’s face, too.

(Miss Jacqueline on the inside / Photo by Gene McLean)

A few minutes later, Miss Jacqueline’s groom came to prepare her for her new morning routine; her new normal. He crawled under the webbing and picked her feet. He rubbed the night sleep from her eyes, and the hay strings from her mane. He wrapped her legs with bandages. And, he carefully positioned her saddle cloth on her back. Then, he wrapped the saddle on, and tightened her girth.

All the while, Miss Jacqueline never moved a muscle. She stood still as a church mouse on a Sunday celebration. She looked at me the whole while, as if to say, “Look Daddy. I can be good. I can be really good.”

Dad smiled. Inside and out.

A few minutes later, the groom came to get Miss Jacqueline. It was time for her trip to the track. Just like a young teenager ready for her first prom date, she pranced out of the stall and into the shedrow. Looking like a grownup. All dressed up and nowhere to go.

The rider came and got a leg up. A couple of trips around the barn, and then they popped out into the sunlight. Miss Jacqueline walked the entire runway to the racetrack as if the spotlight was on her. Just on her. Only on her.

Head held high. Hooves clicking light. It was showtime.

Right behind her, watching all the way, was both Stephen and me.

It was just a slow gallop around the training track. One mile. And, then nearly two. The whole time, Miss Jacqueline was inside another 2-year-old filly, who was bigger and stronger and farther along in her studies. The “other” filly acted as her bumper. Her coach. Her partner. Her buddy. And, her mentor. Together, they galloped along.

Nothing to get excited about, in the normal, day-to-day life of being a horse in-training. Nothing to get revved up over, if you are a horse trainer that has done this dozens of times with hundreds of horses. Nothing to shout about. Just another day at the office. Just another day of math lessons and art classes. Just another routine.

But for me? And, Miss Jacqueline?

It was everything. It was every reason to be excited. It was all the reasons to get revved up and shout. It was so much fun.

For me, to be sure.

For the filly? I want to think so, too.

She seemed so proud to show what she had learned in just a few short weeks. She seemed so proud to show me what she now can do.

She didn’t duck and weave, as she had done previously. She didn’t kick and buck, as she had been used to. She didn’t act scared or frightened by the horses galloping to her outside, and breezing to her inside.

She just galloped along — nice and easy. And — to me and for me — she seemed to smile. Especially when she pulled up. Stood for a stoic second or two to observe the others. And, then slowly made her way back to the barn for a bath and a walk.

She was proud. So was I.

(Miss Jacqueline exits the racetrack / Photo by Gene McLean)

It’s still a long, long, long way to go for Miss Jacqueline. She has many more miles to gallop, and lessons to learn. She has to be schooled in the starting gate. She has to be taught how to change leads. She has to go from a jog and a gallop to a breeze. And, after that, from a breeze to a race.

There are many days ahead. There are many lessons to be learned, and challenges to overcome. Such is horse racing. Especially with 2YOs and youngsters.

There will be humps and bumps along the way. Such is the way of life for all horses. Especially with 2YOs and youngsters.

I know. I have been here before. Ain’t my first rodeo, as they like to say and write. There will be disappoints and setbacks. There will be tough times and question marks. There will be hopes dashed, and dreams crashed. Such is the life of a horse owner.

But for this day? This one day?

It was all sunshine and rainbows. It was the first day for the school play. And, my damn kid nailed it.

Nailed it.

Can’t wait to be back. Just can’t wait.

And, that’s the reason I own a racehorse. They fix a lot of things. One of them, quite honestly, is me.

Here are a few photos from this morning:

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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