The first story I ever wrote was about a racehorse. His name was Stubs. He was a short, scrubby horse with a broom tail and a coarse head. He was the laughing stock of the track. He was mean and ornery. Nobody could get any speed out of him. He bucked when he was supposed to ho. He turned left when asked to turn right. He slowed down when asked to speed up. Then he got a new owner and trainer who saw he had potential. The problem was that Stubs was a real smart horse. At least he was a smart-alec horse. Instead of trying to beat other horses, Stubs had taken on a more formidable opponent — men. He was using his brain and will to beat them. He wasn’t even thinking about running a race. He just wanted to ruin the jockey’s day. Stubs was turned him around with love and firm understanding. He became the greatest racehorse of his day.
50 years down the road I am listening to the audio book about Seabiscuit, by Laura Hildebrand. There is my horse, Stubs. Looked like a cow pony. Rough, small and ugly. He fought his trainers. Finally he gets the one man who understands him; an old cowboy named Smith who never had anything but a few horses on the backstretch. Smith turns him around. He becomes, arguably, the best racehorse of all time.
I must have heard that story sometime when I was little. My grandfather was a jockey on the tracks in Colorado. He was banned for slapping another jockey in the face with his whip in a race. But he was a horseman to the heart. He was also a storyteller. He surely must have been the one who told me the story of Seabiscuit. I made it my own, and years later it came surging out my fingers and transformed my life. Before that I was leaning towards art. I drew horses beautifully. I had private art lessons. I was flattered and praised. Showered with compliments. Told I would be great one day. But I only felt good when drawing horses. When I tried anything else I would end up ripping up my work. Hating it. I could not make it look like what I saw in my head. Only horses satisfied my need for perfection. And drawing never had the rush with it that I got from writing. So to the dismay of my art teacher and my mother I quit drawing and wrote endless bad poems.
It was 1952. I was ten years old. I wrote with a pencil and a fever. I was possessed by the need to tell this story. In school I hid my writing by propping my book up in front of me to shield my writing. I paid no attention to what the teacher said. I heard nothing. My grades went from A down to D. Nobody knew what had happened until one smart Moab teacher named Dwayne Wimmer managed to coax it out of me. I showed him my book. He set aside the normal schedule for me. He told me to go to the library, pick a subject and write about it after I was done with my book. I got an A from him. I was given time to complete my work so I was better able to pay attention in class. My grades improved. I was hooked right there on the high of a story rushing out my fingertips. A story I did not know, given to me in a great rush of adrenaline. I was hooked on horses already, now I was hooked on writing.
I wondered where that story came from. I thought maybe it was about me. I was short and uncoordinated, but I did have a great will to succeed. I never backed down from a challenge. I was a fighter. I would dig my heels in and fight any effort to change my drive to be different from everybody else.
The neighbors had a buckskin gelding in a scrubby desert field next to our house. They didn't care if I rode him. So I took him out for runs on the desert. Bareback. I fell off many times, but I never got hurt. I wanted to be a jockey. Never mind there were no women jockeys. I would be the first and the best. I would win the Derby on my golden buckskin horse with his flowing black mane and tail. Never mind he was not a thoroughbred. They would see that this horse was the exception. He would be so fast they would have to bend the rules and let that buckskin horse run the Derby. With me on him we would leave the pack behind and win without even being contested. I was sure of it. We practiced everyday for the big race. I hated being away from him so much that I often wore his halter to school like a harness over my shoulders. I could smell him in the leather and it made me calm and happy.
I reached puberty and all that changed. I wandered off to San Francisco. The other side of my personality took over. All the will and power I knew lay inside of me I turned upon myself. Self-destruction was my goal. Death my victory. Explosive, glorious death was my desire. Just as suddenly as that had swept over me, it suddenly let go of me. I started the long climb back to sanity. I won.
Or one of me won.
I was almost fifty when I moved to Boonville. I was writing more than ever. I had published in a few publications in Santa Cruz, and we had our own magazine in San Francisco when we managed to get it out. It was called Vapid.
I had forgotten about horses. Then, on the next mountain over from us in Rancho Navarro, I started hearing the long nicker of a stallion. I could just see the corrals from our mountain. Then I saw a mare with a new foal. My heart turned suddenly back to horses. Eventually I got to know the people with the horses, Cliff and Jean Lyons. It so happened I lived on Seabiscuit Drive. Jean and I had become fast friends, horses forming a constant basis for conversation. She told me Seabiscuit lived here for awhile after he was retired. He died in Willits but he once roamed free on this land in Navarro. She claimed she rode him often. He was a good, sweet horse. She loved him. Whether she did or not I cannot say because some of Jean’s stories bordered on the implausible. But Jean always believed her own stories. I do know Jean Lyons, and if she had a chance to ride Seabiscuit nothing could have stopped her. She was a great horsewoman. Tiny, pale and frail with wispy blonde hair, she was as strong as a coiled cat. Horses loved her and she loved horses. I ended up buying that colt from her. He was a mean, ornery Appaloosa. He was weaned early because he was battering his poor mother half to death. I couldn’t handle him at all so I volunteered to work at Nick Alexander's racing barn with Jean and Buffy Paula, practically for free just so I could learn to handle my nasty colt Hawk better.
But it turned into something else. Once again I was swept into the racing world, only this time it was real, not the imagination of a little girl with a buckskin cow-pony. We had some nice horses. Nick bred to the best horses in California. He tried to buy mares with good bloodlines and some wins under their belt. But few were stakes-grade mares.
I began to see what it takes to make a great racehorse. You can have the best confirmation in the world, but if that horse does not have nerve and the will to always win in every battle then that horse will never run his best. He will see no point in beating himself to death for nothing. And you can’t make him do it if he doesn’t want to. Maybe once. Maybe twice. But then the tricks won’t work and he will run well back with no interest in winning.
But there is a certain type of horse. Willful, cocksure and aggressive. That horse will win all the spontaneous races around the pasture. That horse will be the first to eat when dinner is served if she so desires. But then other things come into the picture. She can run, she has the will, but can her body take the punishment? We had some like that; they had will but they didn't have the bodies to go with it. End to End's babies had will but they didn't have the bones. Only one of End to End's had speed and tenacity — Norman. The others had the cannon bones of a deer. I just knew they would not hold up. They would break down. If they didn’t crack a bone and die on the track they would retire early from stress fractures. Which they did. End to End had only one colt with bone. That was Norman, the colt born dead and saved by us. You may have read about him in an AVA story I wrote several years ago. In spite of all they say about what the sire gives to the foal, that is mostly just an effort to extract a big stud fee. I found that the truth is usually this: what you see in that mare you will get in that baby.
That is why we did not have more winners. I am sure of it. The mares were chosen from a cheaper grade of horse than the sires. The mares reproduced what they were themselves, complete with the flaws that kept them out of the stakes races. Except Norman’s sire. He was what they call a pre-potent stallion. He overrode the mare’s genes and his foals were always big, lumbering creatures with massive bone. Norman had everything going for him after he survived his own death. He was huge. He had long sturdy legs. A long neck, the better to stretch over the wire when nose to nose, and a long muscular body.
But Norman did not care about winning. I knew he could if wanted to but he didn’t. He was a big, happy, lovable colt. Having lived his first month sleeping with me every night I was as much his mother as End to End. He loved people. He held other horses in slight disdain. When he left mom and went into the yearling herd he rarely exerted himself. The yearlings held their own races, circling the pasture at break neck speed just for the fun of it. Norman loped along easily, head held high in the middle of the group, towering over the smaller horses exhausting themselves trying to win while he never broke a sweat.
I kept thinking, if they can get him to try he will win. He could beat any horse out there in a heartbeat. But can they get him to try? If they beat him into it he will get worse. He will try even less. How is it possible to get the right trainer who will coax him into running to his utmost? I had high hopes.
But then I noticed something that settled it for me. When the feed wagon appeared Norman stood back. The others rushed forward jockeying for position. When they settled in Norman quietly turned his butt to them and backed into the group threatening them. Some horses moved right away fearing a kick from his massive hooves. Others held their places. Norman quietly raised his back leg and took aim. Another horse peeled away, he backed further in lifting both his hind legs in a little half kick. All the horses moved. Norman quietly turned around. All the other horses went to the other side of the feeder, leaving Norman his full share and some of theirs.
You could say that Norman at the feed wagon shows will. It does. But it also showed me that Norman would exert only as much energy as it took to get what he wanted. No more. No less. Lots of horses would have run in teeth bared, giving it all they had and then back off if anybody fought back. Not Norman. He was conserving his energy. He just wanted to get what he wanted while expending the least possible energy doing it. So right then I knew Norman was not racehorse material.
Of course he never raced, much to the dismay of Nick Alexander. He was sold for $700 at Barrett’s to a guy who wasn’t sure what he would do with him. Nick flew me down for the sale and I cried uncontrollably. Nick wanted me to learn about the real world of racing and all I did was embarrass him with a publicly unprofessional display of womanly tears and anguish. I ran up to the man who bought him. My heart was full of guilt and pain. I told him Norman was lame from a torn muscle in his shoulder. He was enraged and said he would have to send him to the canners. I cried and pleaded, spilling out the story of Norman’s birth. I told him he would make a great jumper but you have to give his shoulder time to heal. He left mollified a bit.
The man who bought Norman told me he would give him a chance for my sake. I got his address and sent him a copy of Norman’s story from the AVA and all the letters of response I got from the story. I never heard anything back. As the months went by I grew more hopeless. I hated myself for letting Norman go.
Finally a year later I could take no more. I had decided I would buy Norman back if I could. I would force Nick Alexander to trailer him back to Boonville and loan me whatever money it would take to buy him then take it out of my paycheck. If Nick refused I would quit my job on the spot. Walk right off the ranch.
My deep fear was that Norman was already dead, that I was too late.
I was wrong. The owner was very happy to hear from me. He said he had turned Norman into a great hunter-jumper. He loved the fences. He had blossomed. He could not get enough of jumping. His shoulder never bothered him. Norman's owner told me that he'd just sold him for $30,000. He said he'd had two buyers who wanted him. He chose the one who offered a little less money because he took Norman’s past and my story into account. He decided to go with less money knowing that person would give Norman a happier life. Norman had just moved to his new home on a big ranch in the Sierra foothills near Sacramento. So I was happy. I did not have to call Nick and beg to get my horse back.
I went back to doting on my horses and watching for winners on Nick's farm in Philo. One thing you can not do is tell the owner that you believe a horse has got as much chance of winning a race as snow ball in hell. But of course this is the question owners invariably ask. So it becomes a tricky art form. You point out the good qualities, sticking in a few negatives and end up with, “But how can anybody know? It’s a horse race isn't t it? Anything could happen.” The only thing you know for sure is only one horse wins the race. That means all the rest are losers. You can have the best horse in the world but if you have bad luck you will still lose the race.
I started to think I wanted to work at a prestige barn. Something like Harris Farms in Southern California. Or Blooming Hills over in Clements where our horses often went to train. I loved taking them over there. It looked like a barn in Kentucky, grand wrought-iron gates where you had to be buzzed through. A training track, with horses parading around under jockeys. Hundreds of horses. Four or five different complexes devoted to breeding, training, foaling, and lay-ups. There were small green paddocks for the stallions on one side and more green paddocks for the mares with foals. They had not only a walled in hot walker but also a giant Eurocisor. This allows the horses to circle free in between mesh panels that are electrified to keep the horse forward if he lagged back and keep him back if he pushed forward. You could set the Eurocisor anywhere from a slow walk to a gallop. Of course I was later to find there were some problems with this marvelous contraption. But no matter what the problems were it was still a great improvement over the old hot walker where horses were snapped to a rope and sometimes ended up dangling from it strangling while you fought your way through flaying, death dealing hooves to cut them free.
Blooming Hills was always in bloom. Flowers everywhere. Roses lined the paths. Trees shaded the buildings and the paddocks. Every time I went I cultivated the owners, Ron and Fran Stolich. They were rich people. But they had some class. Ron was a great horseman, although I noticed he was prone to be hot headed. He was in his sixties. Once he jumped into the trailer with me to calm a fractious horse then looked scornfully at the erstwhile Bruce Patterson as we brought the recalcitrant horse out. “What are you being paid for?” Ron shot at Pat. “I’m just the driver,” Pat said, chuckling amiably. Ron grunted in disgust and led the horse away with a grim set to his lips. I was to learn that Ron was a lovable, enthusiastic boy in a tall, old man’s body, but if he saw any weakness, or if someone neglected his horses he turned into an angry, vengeful tyrant. He never had reason to turn his rage on me, but I certainly saw it turned on others.
Then my plans fell apart. I had a heart attack. I was terrified. My husband Rick and I were separated at the time. He took me back and cared for me for a year. I thought we were married forever. But he told me he had only come back to get me on my feet. He was in love with someone else. He was leaving. I was alone. I could not live alone. I knew I had to go back to Utah. But I had to leave my beloved racehorses.
I told Nick I was going. But then I couldn’t do it. I had to get Blooming Hills out of my system. I called Ron and asked him if I could join his foaling team. He agreed immediately.
I did not tell Nick because I knew Nick well. I knew he would be angry. He had offered me commission on selling some horses. He had not sent me my commission yet. It was to be in my final paycheck. I knew that when Nick is angry he will refuse to pay what he has promised to pay. “And what exactly will you do about it?” The agreement on commission was a verbal one between him and me. How could I prove it? I knew he would be even angrier later but by then I would be out of his power. So it was that I went onto the Alexander shit list and there I will no doubt always remain, although I still love the man with all my heart.
We moved to Blooming Hills. The dogs and me, although Boonville was my home. All my friends were there. The valley had become almost a family to me. I would never stop missing Boonville. Clements is 20 miles past Lodi on a little road that starts up into the Sierras. Although it is in the ugly, miserable Central Valley you would never know you're there when you arrive at the gates of Blooming Hills.
Ron and Fran have transformed their little piece of land into a place of beauty. The main barn, where I was to work, was the most beautiful. Dark gleaming wood, beautiful beamed ceilings. Sparkling clean. The shed row was shaded and quiet. The tack room was filled with modern equipment. Ron was very proud of his barn and always showed everyone around as if he were a schoolboy on show and tell. We had an aquacizer where horses stood on a moving treadmill forcing them to a certain speed while water ran over their feet and cannon bones. We had everything we did not have at Horse Haven back in Philo.
I began to see how impossible were the tasks Nick Alexander had set for me. I saw, with a twinge of anger at Nick, that he was trying to do things on the cheap. It could not be done. Not if you want a first-rate race horse. I knew I had done my very best. I failed more times than not. He showered me with blame. Undeserved blame. Ron, however, stood by and watched. What Nick and I had seen as my failure, Ron saw as success. He knew that what I had done with those horses without the proper facilities and equipment was nothing short of a miracle. That sold him on me. If I could do that well for Nick against all odds then, given what I needed for the job, he figured he had a winner. Now I saw it too. All those sleepless nights back in Philo. Over nothing.
I had two foaling partners. Katey, who had been there for years. She saw me as a bush leaguer upstart and set her head to knock me down as quick as she could. My other foaling partner was an old cowboy quarterhorse trainer named Harold Nichols.
Harold was over 80. He was a tall, thin man. His body was bent, his knuckles stiff and malformed from arthritis. But Harold still started his own colts. He still heaved his jockey up for the quarterhorse races at the fairs around the Central Valley. He wore a white straw cowboy hat. A fine weave, like a panama. The sweat ran dark and permanent around the band. I asked him how old that hat was. He reckoned so old he forgot when he bought it. I saw a picture in The Blood Horse awhile back of Gerry Hollendorfer (California's leading trainer) with one of his more famous horses. And with his back to the picture wearing his hat and holding that horse with his arthritic fingers was Harold Nichols. I knew it. I would know that hat, that back, and that way of holding a horse, forever. It was Harold. The picture had been taken 15 years before. So that hat was at least fifteen years old.
The very first night I met Harold I walked in and a mare was foaling that minute. Harold was yanking at the foal trying to pull it straight out. I said, “Stop that.” I am like Ron in that way, if I see somebody do something I think is wrong with a horse I stop them. An alarm goes off and I turn into another person. No more Mrs. Nice Guy.
Harold, always amiable, let go. I showed him how to arc the body of the foal up at first, going the same direction the muscles of the mare are going. She is pushing the baby up and out. If you pull straight you are going against the line of least resistance. Then when you get to a certain point you begin to arc down again.
There are many who say you should leave nature to its own course. But I learned in Boonville that I was not of that opinion. I wanted the baby out as quickly as possible to keep from tiring him or the mother. I fought people over it at my old barn, but I found at Blooming Hills they were moving even faster than I had been. There was no question at all. You get the baby out — now.
I can not say that Harold learned more from me than I did from him. I might have given him a few pointers on foaling, but he gave me so much more. He spent many a night telling me about his glory days at Los Alamitos and every other track in the west. He had worked everywhere. Every track. He knew everybody. It was to Ron's credit that he hired him. He worked Wyoming Downs. He worked Santa Anita. He worked thoroughbred barns and ran his own quarterhorses. He won 500 races and he was still going. He never made much money. He said if he had been in thoroughbreds he might have been rich, but he chose quarterhorses so he stayed poor and was here working all night with me to feed his horses. His wife was a rich real estate agent so he wasn't really poor. But he said she had no interest in feeding his horses.
The thing I learned most from Harold was his composure. He never lost it. When I tell you how easy it was to recognize his hands and his back in that picture it is because when we went to get the horses I always let Harold go in front. I stayed behind him. He would have a horse start out rearing and jumping and dancing around him but Harold walked straight ahead never responding. His hands, which could not close, holding the lead rope quietly. After a minute or two the horse realized he wasn’t getting a rise out of Harold so he quieted down and strolled along beside him the rest of the way. My horse, having seen this, usually quieted down too. I learned that this 80-year-old — stiff and crippled as he was — could calm any horse simply by never losing it. I tried to copy him. My rodeo romps from the barn to Eurocisor declined. My confidence went up a notch.
We had to do rounds in between foaling. We took turns. Checking on horses, giving meds to sick ones. I noticed Harold was gone a long time. I would go out and see him leaning his head on his hands on the fence at the paddocks. Finally I went up and asked him if something was wrong. He said, “Nope. I’m just resting a bit. I learned a long time ago you need to rest whenever you can, because sometimes you will get no rest.”
I have seen a lot of cowboys doing that. They just lay down and take a nap wherever, whenever. I always laughed and said how lazy they were. I was always pushing, using every scrap of time, every ounce of energy I could summon up in myself, then I slept lightly, constantly thinking of what I did wrong, what I should have done, all night long. Harold was 80 and suffering from slightly high blood pressure. I was 54 and had already suffered a major heart attack. For the first time it started to sink in why Harold was always conserving himself.
I saved the lives of a few horses by my quick responses to signs of trouble. Katey had refused to acknowledge a problem. But when I forced the issue she gave in. The vet always confirmed my suspicions and slowly Katey was coming around to give me a little begrudging respect. But she still ruthlessly denigrated my horses. We had a handful of Alexander horses on the farm. She picked them apart unmercifully whenever she could. Knock-kneed ugly, low-class horses. So I always said, “If they're so bad then why does Ron always buy them when he gets a chance?” He had every offspring of Reckless Rose, our best mare, plus he now had Reckless Rose herself. He invariably said she was too old and a waste of his money, but he bred her right away to his best stallion.
Katey couldn’t understand it. She had no idea why Ron would do such a stupid thing. In the meantime, Nick sent the only Reckless Rose baby he had left to the track and she was winning. Ron would come flying into the barn waving his race papers. He was as happy as if his horse had won. He gave me hugs and congratulations. Katey looked on in amazement. How could that ugly headed, blocky, knock-kneed mare have produced a winner?
I saw Rose every night. I fed her carrots. She was always happy to see me. I think I made it okay for her to be there. But in my heart I was saying good-bye. I did not like the impersonal environment of a big barn. I wanted to know all my horses and have all the horses know me. That couldn’t happen here. I made a vow that I would rescue Rose if Ron decided to put her down because she was too old. She would be well cared for in her old age, not just cast away when she was no longer useful.
At the end of the season I left Rose behind and went home to my family. I promised Ron I’d come back in the winter, but I knew deep down I wouldn’t do it. Not unless Utah was awful. I broke my promise. I let them down. They were disappointed but I had to be with my family.
I wrote Ron a letter letting him know that when Rose was finished with being a brood-mare I intended to ask Nick to take her back to Navarro. If he would not I would trailer her to Utah myself. He told me that Nick had already bought her back and she was home again on the ranch in Navarro. I wonder how much Nick paid to get her back? Knowing Ron it was more than Nick got when he sold her. Ron is a wily old fox. He hasn’t made his way in the racing business being stupid. He had a bank roll when he started but he and Fran have increased that bankroll where most people in the horse business decrease theirs .
But all anybody really wants is not the money — they want Seabiscuit, that big horse. The horse that will run his heart out, who never gives up, who can reverse even the wind of bad luck that always seems to run through the racetrack. Ron has never had that horse yet. Nick Alexander hasn’t either, but every year when the babies are born they jump out of bed and run to look at the new baby, eyes gleaming with pride and hope, sure that now at last right there they have got the next Seabiscuit, the new War Admiral, the shining Secretariat. That is what it’s all about. Money is a side issue. You only notice it when you don’t have enough of it.