Hooked on Horses (Oct. 7, 1998)

This story is about race horses. That means each horse has two names. I tried to use just one name per horse to keep it simple. I figured the registered name would be best but it won’t work because the registered racing name is invariably long and cumbersome. No one can or does call horses by their race name. They get a barn name when they’re born. When they are registered they get an approved Jockey Club name. The people at the track don’t know the barn name so they probably give them another name or use the official name or just say, “Get moving you dumb shit,” or something like that.

There are two horses in this story. Your Cheating Heart, or Charm, and her baby, Hard-Hearted, whose barn name is Rita.


July 4, 1995 — Working with horses is for people who thrive on extremes. Nothing is easy. Nothing feels like work. You’re outside, but in all kinds of weather. Sometimes that’s exhilarating. Sometimes that makes you wonder, Who would be fool enough to want this job? And it’s not different with the horses.

At times when you hit that right note and your mind meets the mind of the horse and it all works, it’s like being a god. It is perfect. The highest high. Higher than any dope ever got you. And when it goes bad it is all so bad. So deep in pain. A colicky horse, a baby runs through a fence and breaks a bone… A panic-stricken horse smashes you into a tree one morning because a turkey moved in the brush and you wonder who the hell would want this job anyway? Who in their right mind would put themselves through this?

I know who: the ones who are hooked on the high.

Fourth of July, 1995, was perfect. No fog in the Valley. No cars on 128 this early. “Just enjoy it while you can, my dear; we promise you a hot sweaty sticky nasty afternoon,” says the weatherman.

We have two ranches. One on a ridge above Navarro, one in the Valley near Philo. Brenda Stone called me from Philo — “Charm’s, baby, Rita, has squirty butt. We’ll take a temp and give her some pepto-bismol.”

Squirty butt is a common problem for babies, human or horse.

I wasn’t in a good mood. Actually, I hate the Fourth of July. A contrived event, celebrating nothing. Why do I have to decide whether I want to go watch fireworks? I don’t even think about fireworks on any other day of the year. Why do I have think of it on the Fourth of July? I have no interest in it. Maybe 30 years ago on acid it might have been cool, but it never happened. Certainly I have no interest now. It’s just a bunch of boring shit. “What are you doing for the Fourth of July?” Blowing up Newt’s mini-balls — Alright, fuck off, will ya?

Rita was a fine-boned, delicate filly. That’s not to say she was small. Lean and muscular. Class. She’s a chestnut with a white blaze, just like her mother. Just like her grandmother, End to End. I wrote a story about End to End (Born in Kentucky at Three Chimney Farms) a few years back. She had a foal named Norman. All of that line has the same look. But Rita was just a little more refined.

By afternoon the weather turned against us. No breeze heading in from the coast. No fog followed the river through the forest to the Valley. Still air. Dust. 101 degrees.

Brenda called again. Rita is laying out in the full sun covered in sweat. Her butt is dripping in diarrhea. Her tail is soaking wet. Her temp is the first skyrocket of the holiday show: 104 degrees.

A boring holiday has turned ugly and mean, trying to steal our baby away.

The vet got us going on the phone. He thought we could wait until morning for him to come. He gave us some instructions and we hoped she just ate something weird like babies do. But of course I knew better. We were in deep shit and I knew it.

Next morning the vet got here and he knew it too. He took a test and sent it to the lab. He started IV fluids to rehydrate her. He told us to act like we had salmonella until we knew differently.

Now the thing is that it takes so long to grow Salmonella in the lab that by the time you know you have it the entire show has probably run through the last act and the credits are rolling up the screen. So whether we had in actual fact salmonella was really just an intellectual pursuit. Right here at ground zero we put on rubber shoes and rubber suits. We wore latex gloves; we scrubbed everything she touched with bleach. We smelled like bleach. Our lungs felt soft and mushy.

I didn’t know much about salmonella on July 4, but two weeks later I considered myself a well-educated, although not the most willing, student, in the salmonella surprise intensive course. I didn’t get any sleep. The holiday temp stayed 101 outside and 104 inside Rita’s little body. We kept pushing IVs in. Hydration is the key. They die of dehydration. They can’t keep enough fluids in. It just goes out of their body faster than you can get it in.

I pinched her skin again and again to see if it stayed up, which meant she was too dehydrated. She started nipping me on the butt. It took a while but finally I saw that she thought of my pinching her skin as biting so she was nipping me back. I laughed, the deep holy laugh of the desperately hopeless. 

After two days I saw that Charm was squirting milk when she walked. What did that mean? What could it mean? Then it came to me. Rita gave up. She wasn’t nursing anymore. She was deciding to die, or maybe the strength went out of her so she didn’t have the energy to keep trying anymore. Foals have so few reserves. Either way, she was going to die.

It was still daylight when I got Pat (Patterson) there with the trailer. By the time we got to the UC Davis vet hospital it was almost midnight. That’s the hell of living here. So beautiful and so far from help when you need it fast. Unfortunately, help is something you rarely need slowly.

How many times have I made that trip to Davis? Desperately hoping we make it quickly enough. With a live horse. A horse that can still be helped.

UC Davis at midnight. That’s when I’m usually there. By the time you load up for that terrible last effort, everything else has been done. Everything else has failed. Tired. Bone tired. Running in cold burning adrenaline. As soon as I get her to Davis — if I can only get her to Davis— when I can, if I can get her to Davis— they have doctors 24 hours a day. They have unlimited student staff. They have ultra-sound, mega-radiographs, all the experts, all the things we need. If I can ever get her to Davis, because I can’t breathe unless we get her to Davis. If she dies back there in that trailer, then I’ll die too, because I did it. I killed her. I did it wrong. It was my fault. I should have done better. I should have done more. Done it faster. If I can ever get her to Davis.

And then there it is. Like a great ship in the dark bay at night. The lights burning bright in the emergency barns. People in white coats with stethoscopes.

We are unloading Rita and Charm. Rita’s alive but losing ground. I am laughing, relieved. “God, this is god-awful. I haven’t slept in days.” The admitting doctor smiled me a sardonic smile. Her hair was flying out of its knot, her pale, never-sees-the-sun face almost translucent with deep exhaustion.

I said, “I suppose you haven’t slept much either?” “On my second night.” She turned to the students as if she had no time for whiners: “Take them to isolation.”

Then as an afterthought she turned back to me and said, “Salmonella is not the end of the world, you know.”

I think she meant to console me. To let me know there was more hope than she saw in my eyes. That’s how I took it anyway.

Isolation is a place we can not go — lay people I mean. But they let me go. Because I had a hold of Rita. I wouldn’t let her go until I got her there. Wouldn’t let anybody have my baby, my little sick baby. Wasn’t ready quite yet to trust a student. Wasn’t ready to accept that I had to trust somebody else to save her now. If I let go and she dies it’s because I let go. If I don’t let go she will die because I can’t fix her.

Isolation is completely lit up — like for a major surgery. A disinfecting spray can be turned on overhead. Row after row of stainless steel stalls. No bedding. The hallway is constantly disinfected. Tubs of bleach for your feet everywhere. I saw our little effort at a sterile environment was a shadow of this.

I’ve been told that in spite of all this they still have to shut it down every few years and steam clean it with extreme high heat because they had things still grow, they find a little pocket here and there and the buggers multiply. Lots of bad things come here. Some of them don’t die, as sterile as it appears to be.

And then I had to let her go. Charm looked at me doubtfully. “I’ll be back,” I said. “I’ll be back. I promise. I’m sorry. Everything will be okay, sweetheart. This is how we save your baby. Trust me. You just got to trust me.”

I could see her eyes saying, “I did trust you. Now you’re leaving me in this scary place with strangers. How is that helping?”

I figured the fetus Charm was carrying was history in a day or so. I figured right.

Two weeks and many IVs later they came home. Of course that didn’t mean it was over. 30 more days of sterile isolation in the barn before you can be sure the salmonella is out of her system. Colleen and Norman Kobler had just come back from a honeymoon in Switzerland. Colleen had to step right into rubber boots and pools of bleach and the fear that the salmonella might cross over to us. Because it could. She admitted she was sorry the honeymoon was over.

We have our babies for two years before they go to the track. That means two years of speculation about whether or not this particular horse has what it takes to be a race horse. That means win a race. A horse can’t be a race horse unless  she wins sometimes. Nobody wants to pay to keep a horse in training with no purses coming in. At least I don’t think anyone would.

Rita was a blank card. I decided that might prove to her advantage. She’s no hotshot. So maybe I thought they would go easy on her. Take her slow. Start her in less important, less scary races.

She looks like a racehorse. Maybe that means she is a racehorse. Tall, fine-boned. Built for speed. But does she have enough muscle? Does she have the drive?

She was so good. So sweet natured. Does that mean she won’t be tough enough? It takes a certain toughness to be a racehorse. It takes a will to win. Rita seems a fragile spirit. But maybe that was just because she looks fragile. Rita just wants to please somebody. She would do anything to please, but will the trainer see that? Will he notice that she needs clear and obvious approval, not just a slap on the butt and back in the stall?

So it went for a couple of years, back and forth. Yes and no. Maybe. Maybe not. We have some big talkers at the barn and we talked it through and over, if once, a thousand times.

I leaned to yes.

September 28, 1998. Bay Meadows — Bay Meadows is like a casino with no slot machines. Same indoor/outdoor carpet. Same vast rooms. Bathrooms you could live in. Big windows all facing onto the giant roulette wheel: the track. TV monitors all over the place replaying the last race here or at Santa Anita, Del Mar, Hollywood Park — wherever the horses are running. It’s a betting game.

People come for a day at the races. They can bet on the race in LA as fast as they bet on the one on the track outside. Stepping from the inside to the outside is not like going through a door. It’s open. Big spaces. The horses are saddled inside in a paddock. The paddock is on a slightly lower level. When they come by you can almost touch their noses.

Hard Hearted (Rita) is number 3. As she went by I said, “Rita” in a low voice. She looked up. She saw me. I was surprised. Most horses are so nervous they can’t see anything. Rita was calm. Later I went across to the far side of the enclosure to buy something. I saw her look for me, then find me. I said, “Well, it’s hopeless. She is too relaxed. No way will she win.”

This was her second race. I never go to the first race. It’s such a shock to them being in a race with a screaming audience all of the sudden, that no matter what the trainers do to prepare them they aren’t really prepared. Rita placed third in her first race. I considered that a good sign. Better than dead last.

I don’t bet on horses. I have only one reason to come to the track. That is to get my picture taken with our horse in the winner’s circle. It’s a long drive to San Mateo from Boonville. And now I’m sure she’s not going to win this race. She’s just too quiet. She must not know where she is.

She has a great trainer: Chuck Jenda. He made a $300,000 winner out of Dayla (the horse that Nick, the owner of these horses, named after me). Chuck Jenda, himself, is putting her saddle on. I like the way  he runs his hand carefully over her back before he puts the pad on, as though he were actually feeling her back, not just going through the motions.

Chuck Jenda got to the track via UC Berkeley. Somebody told him you could pick up some extra cash at the track early in the morning before classes. He gave it a try. He got horses in his heart. He worked his way up. He’s 50-something now. Not fat. Gray hair. Gray/black beard.

He stops by to say hello. He says, “She looks good. She’s calm. I was worried. You can fool them the first time, they don’t know what’s coming. But you can’t fool them the second time. They KNOW what’s up. She’s not scared.”

I told him she is my favorite horse. How she came so close to death when she was a foal. He said, “Hopefully we’ll make some of that money back today.” Meaning the big bucks for her stay at Davis.

I don’t know how these guys take this pressure every day. The fear of losing. Your credibility on the line every day you bring a horse up to the starting gate. Your balls are on the line. It’s terrifying. At least for me.

I feel like if Rita loses it’s my fault. I should have realized she just doesn’t have the nerve and she’s just too fragile looking. It’s running a porcelain horse. How stupid. How can she win? Look at all those other horses. Don’t they expect to win too? Don’t they have good reason for thinking they can win? Why would they be here? They didn’t come here so Rita could beat them.

My belly is clumped up in a big knot of fear and humiliation. I come here occasionally to watch our horses. These guys come every day with their horses. They must have ulcers, every one of them. The smell of hot dogs is rotting the air. The announcer is grating into my ear and now it is two minutes… one minute… It’s Post Time. “And they’re off! ladies and gentlemen,” and, “Hard Hearted takes the lead,” and, “It’s Hard Hearted on the quarter pole,” and, “It’s Hard Hearted!”

You can’t see this when you’re outside. You could see it inside on the TV monitors, but I feel compelled to watch the actual race. Catch 22. Can’t see the race if you actually watch it live — until they come around the bend to the to the finish line. That’s when I knew. I was confused about why they kept saying Hard Hearted, Hard Hearted. Like it was a one-horse race. She couldn’t be winning. Not my porcelain horse.

She came around the bend flying over the turf and no other horse was with her. She was winning the race! She was winning so easily that the horses were way back, just fighting it out over second and third.

The other side of losing is winning. The utter despair and fear of losing reversed into total exultation.

That’s what they are here for, these guys. This feeling of absolute joy. And the love of the horse. Of course there are men here who only care about money. Maggots, I call them. But that’s not Chuck Jenda. He loves horses and he wants to win. 

Rita was a happy horse. Tired, but smiling and proud. She knew she was good. It looked like she had some fun.

Somebody told me when I mentioned I was writing a piece on her for the paper that maybe I should wait because she might do better. That’s the thing about racing. That race is over now. She proved she out-classed that bunch. Now they have to jump her up. Now it’s a new race. Now it’s a harder race.

What you did yesterday factors in, but it won’t win that next race for you. And it’s just history. Yeah, it happened once, but will it happen again?

And I don’t know how those guys at the track can take that kind of pressure. I just don’t. Guts of steel I guess.

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