Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"He Could Have Given Up"

Keen Ice, the 16-1 shot son of Curlin, lay in the weeds along with the ghosts of the "Graveyard of Champions," winning The Travers Stakes, besting Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.   Only Whirlaway in 1941 escaped with a win at the Travers after his Triple Crown victories.  Man-O-War lost the only race of his storied career there and the great Secretariat fell to an unknown named Onion.

It is tempting to say, "I saw it coming," because the Pharoah has earned more air miles than a business class flier in 2015, as he traveled between California and Kentucky, or Maryland and whatever race destination might follow.  Think of an eight race win streak that includes seven grade 1 wins in 385 days. Consider the physical toll training exacts from an athlete and add the emotionally and physically draining rush of adrenaline needed to compete  Still, it may have just been a bad day at the races for American Pharoah.

AP "working"

AP broke cleanly from the gate and swept to an early lead.  Sliding easily along the rail, he was shadowed by the perennial groomsman, Frosted, runner-up to Texas Red in the Jim Dandy stakes. The first quarter was taken in a leisurely 24.28 and the second in 24.02.  Frosted, under the hand of replacement rider Jose Lezcano, showed strength and will, dogging the Pharoah at about a half a length behind along the backstretch.  Frosted's trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he didn't expect for his colt to press American Pharoah.

Frosted caught speeding

Kentucky Derby pre-race workout

Still running first and second, Saratoga race goers waited for Victor Espinoza to give AP his head, waited for the horse's great engine to churn, to hum, to lengthen his stride and to pull away from Frosted.  Rounding the turn for home, Frosted played his trump card, steaming to a brief lead over American Pharoah, who showed his will and courage by regaining the lead with a sixteenth-mile to go.  Frosted, tiring but gallant, faded to a third place finish 21/4 lengths back.

But American Pharoah was spent, his head bobbing up and down, his energy and momentum drained away by the duel with Frosted that covered the third quarter in 23.60 seconds.  He looked for all the world like a child's sad hobby horse.

Espinoza later said, ".. I feel like from the five-eighths pole, his energy level, it was not the same like before...I noticed the horse that was next to me, I was trying to open it up and not let them get close. And he (American Pharoah) just stayed in the same place."

Trainer Bob Baffert said, "He was empty, empty at the top of the stretch and he was still trying to win.  I thought there was still a chance."

Bob Baffert and American Pharoah

Keen Ice settled into the middle of the pack but remained within striking distance of the leaders as they turned for home. Trainer Dale Romans remarked, " We (Donegal Racing head Jerry Crawford and Romans) said there's no riding for second.  Let's put him in the race, closer and try to win the race.  He was closer than he had ever been."

When the fast closing Keen Ice came to the tiring American Pharoah, he had nothing for him and AP finished three quarters of a length back in second place.   Keen Ice had but one victory in his previous ten starts, running a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont Stakes.

Baffert said, " I could tell he wasn't on his A game today, but he tried hard.  I could tell by Victor's body language that we were in trouble at the half-mile pole, and the only reason we ran second was because he (American Pharoah) is such a great horse.  The winner ran a really good race."  Of Frosted's effort, "...he (American Pharoah) was getting pressured from a very good horse.  He never left us alone.  You can't blame them,  It was just an aggressive, competitive ride."

I am very partial to grey horses.

And finally Baffert said, "It almost ended well,  He almost pulled it off.  He tried so hard under the circumstances and he was still trying to win. He could have given up."

Such a long way to go
American Pharoah as a yearling.

Copyright, September 29, 2015 by Loren Schumacher
All photos in the public domain

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Old Friends, Bookends

Because it is so appropriate, I borrowed Paul Simon's lyric for my title.

Like bookends, these Belgian draft horses are seldom far from one another.  I've driven past their ten acre patch of land for nearly twenty years and have always seen them there, never more than a few feet apart.  They share their large pasture with several head of Hereford cattle.   All of them rummage through grass as long and dry as the day.  Their shadows are August short and the day's searing heat rises breathlessly, stretching closer to 100 degrees with each passing hour.

But there is a pond that the cattle wade in and several large maples that they share with the horses.  If it weren't for the hordes of face flies. this bucolic scene might be mistaken for idyllic.

Despite their imposing size the horses were nervous and shy, shuffling off and turning away whenever my camera was poised.

Old Friends, Bookends

I won't look at him.

Copyright 9/23/15 by Loren Schumacher
Photos: Copyright 9/23/15 by Loren Schumacher

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

But Aren't I Your Horse?

July arrived for a second time in September this year.  The sun is intense and direct, pointed like a finger stabbing at your chest.  If you shake a box of corn flakes (you pick the brand) you'll hear the sound of feet shuffling through the brittle grass of yards begging for water.  Storm clouds build, then fritter away the afternoons, gliding away across the sky on hot breezes that become still at sunset and dissolve, only to reform the following afternoon.  And the flies!  The flies are a plague now as they too search for moisture.

The raspberries have come and gone and are replaced by the fruits of early fall, green apples, quinces and small, brown ripening hackberries.  Callie stands on her long muscular back legs to reach them, gorging herself, just as she does in the late spring when the mulberry trees bear fruit. The berries are tasty but are mostly seed.  Stormy, though, still prefers grass to berries and she delights in a bit of poison ivy.  Carol, wildly allergic to poison ivy, only has to pet Stormy to develop a rash that festers and oozes.

Callie in her winter coat looking a bit like a fuzzy stuffed toy.

 Until recently we have had so much rain that we began to complain, all the while knowing that sooner or later our dry season would come.

Stripping away their fly sheets late in the day brings a nearly audible sigh of relief from both horses. Bathed in sweat, Callie, a dark bay, is nearly black.  Her pretty face is a mass of bloody spots, peeling skin and scabs from rubbing her itchy, sunburned face against the closest stationary object.. Quite often it is me that she uses a rubbing post.  Being selectively head shy, she won't allow me to spread a soothing salve or sunscreen on her tortured face.  I feel sorry for her, but beyond putting a fly mask on her, which she gladly accepts, I can do very little to make her feel comfortable.

Stormy drops to her knees and rolls back and forth, back and forth, using her head as both lever and fulcrum to scrub away the days sweat and fly spray.  Snorting and jumping to her feet, we are sometimes treated to an exhibition of farting, running and a horse in the throes of joy that only a good kick in the air can bring,

The air is alive with insects of every kind it seems,dragonflies, paper wasps and low flying, meat eating deer flies,  While fewer in number than the rest, the deer flies are large and determined to have a meal of flesh and blood.  Even a direct hit sometimes only disorients them.  Falling to the ground after a solid cuffing, a deer fly, tough as a cob, takes only a moment to regroup and fly away.  Only the most nimble and determined of us can bring a just end to the misery a deer fly can inflict.

It was on just such an afternoon recently that I tacked- up Callie, her dark bay coat nearly black with sweat, for an hours workout.  Seeing the training halter in my hand, she hustled to the back side of the stable, but being lazy to the bone and a firm believer in energy conservation, she circled our small red stable once, then walked to within a foot of me and bowed her head.  It took just a moment or two to tie the halter.

Where there is a blade of grass to be eaten, that's where you'll find Callie.

Callie is the sweetest horse I have ever known?  She is without guile or grudge, unlike her stablemate Stormy.  She is a "pleaser" by nature.  Under saddle she is feather-light, responsive and not reactive. But she owns her faults and they can be consequential.  If her feet are stuck, she normally will protest by rearing.  Once I lost the reins when she pawed the air and only a handful of her mane, good luck and a seven-inch cantle kept me in the saddle.  And if she has had enough, enough of anything, she will buck.  That is BUCK!  Really big ones, the kind that show her belly markings to anyone who might be near enough to see them.  But allow me to defend my big girl by saying that the more she is ridden the more she learns and the less inclined she is to those antics.  Remember, she's been babied because of her navicular distress.

When the weather is hot and dry and the air buzzes with flies, Callie wears orthopedic boots to ease the pain as she pounds the tabletop-hard dirt to shake off her tormentors..  The boots make a curious "galumphing" sound when she trots or canters, a sound that always makes me laugh.  Her summer trousseau usually consists of a quality fly sheet with 95% UV protection, a fly mask and, of course, her boots.  I might buck too if I were her.

While I finished tightening Callie's cinch, Stormy stood dejectedly off to one side, her head lowered in an almost submissive way.  The softness and sadness in her dark eyes indicted and convicted me.  Before I could speak, she nickered softly to me in a way that only her best friend would understand, "Hey, what about me?"

Stormy.  Unforgettable.