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Published by Zachary Guadamour

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Published by: Zachary Guadamour on Sep 06, 2010
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05/22/2012

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Exercising HorsesBlack without moon or stars when I go out at four AM and kick over the old one lung BMW two-fifty. The old windmill no longer pushes the rods to suck out water, but it still groans and creaks as if it were alive. I smile with the kick ofthe motor taking hold, still not believing my parents let me buy this World WarII relic. It doesn't wheeze and gasp nearly as badly as the diesel one lung backup generator motor on the ranch.I let the old black overweight bike warm up with its single cylinder until the motor smooths out, chugs along as if a horse's heart pumping blood. I head up Campbell and after it turns into Cherry, I hang a left on 18th and follow it alongthe tracks to Park. Not one other vehicle cruises the streets at this hour, and it looks like I'll make it across the tracks without having to wait for somemiles long freight to pass. The bike bounces over the rough crossing.I think about the track where I'm headed, and how I've come to be exercising race horses at fourteen. I met Mister McCloud five years ago when I was at the track with my mom. To get away from all the cigarette and cigar smoke which mademe sick, I wandered down to the stable area where I wasn't suppose to be. After the horses raced they needed to be walked and cooled down slowly, and not beallowed to drink too much water so they didn't flounder themselves. I askeda couple of men f I could walk their horses for them. All I got was a few, “Beat it kid. What the hell you doin' here anyway?”I looked away guilty, knowing I wasn't suppose to be in this area, yet very comfortable with the smell of sweaty horses, the powdered alfalfa blowing around, the dust which I had grown up around. I approached a man leading a bay geldingup to the cool down ring. He wore a gray felt sweat stained Stetson, had a growth of white/gray stubble on his face and rheumy light blue eyes. “I'll walk thehorse for you.”He looked at me coolly and coldly, handed me the lead rope. “Don't let him drinktoo much.” I smelled whiskey on his breathe and imagined that he was unsteady onhis feet. “What's his name?” He looked at me in disgust as if the horse's name really made any difference at all. He grunted “Seagondollar.” He realized that horses didn't talk any real known language, and if they did he would have learned ityears before.It got so every time I went to the track with my Mom, I'd end up cooling down horses for McCloud. That is when he thought the horses were gentle enough for meto handle. Some of them were just too mean and would have stomped me.Slowly I pieced together information about McCloud. He was a well known trainerand knew most everything about horses there was to know whether he was drunk orsober. For years he was one of the most prominent trainers in California, training a whole stable at Bay meadows and running horses from Agua Caliente to BayMeadows, then his wife left him, and not too long after his only child, a son,was killed in Korea. He started seeking solace at the bottom of a bottom of abottle, until he trained horses at a two bit half mile oval which was a far cry from the bigger tracks. Now he rented an extra stall for himself and had itset up as an apartment he could collapse into.I pull up at the track stables. McCloud is up, looking bleary-eyed, rumbled andin need of a shower. “Good Morning,” I say brightly. He grunts and glares at mefrom under his smashed down straw cowboy hat as if it was my fault that the damnsun was starting to show signs of arriving up for another day. His breathe smells of the morning nip I know he's already taken.
 
McCloud owns three horses. He lets me exercise them because he only pays me half of what he would pay a licensed jockey. The other dozen horses he trains heuses jockeys and charges the owners. I've ridden all my life, but I'm still getting accustomed to the tiny racing saddle where one rides with their knees and arms.He has Willy's Boy saddled. The big dun thoroughbred stands nineteen hands at the shoulder, and the son-of-a-bitch turns his head around and tries to bite me when McClouds boosts me up into the saddle. I whack him on the head with the racing whip, and he gives me an evil eye as if to say, “I'll get back at you.”In that gravelly whiskey voice of his, McCloud says, “I want you to run him six furlongs after walking him around the track once. Make him go as fast as you can,and don't put up with any shit from him. He'll try to swing wide around the curves and knock you into the rail. The old bastard knows all the tricks.”I walk him once around the track, and every once in a while he will turn his head around and glare at me. Every time I give him a whack and think he truly hates me. I pull him up where the gates would be for six furlongs on racing days.I hold him steady for awhile, scream,”Let's go you son-of-a-bitch,” and take the whip to him. A big cumbersome lanky horse, he starts slow which allows me to pick up the rhythm of his long strides. I balance on my knees, stretch my body over his withers. He lumbers along, seeming to go much slower than he moves.. The ground seems a hell-of-a-long ways away.My knees and arms move with his ground eating strides. Willy's Boy likes distance, and isn't really good for anything under eleven furlongs, and prefers a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half, trailing the field until midway throughthe backfield the second time around the track, then he'[ll close. He doesn'toften win, but is generally in the money with a place or a show.We approach the first curve and he tries to swing wide. I keep tension on the left rein, and tap his head on the right with the whip and he pulls alongside theinside rail were he's suppose to be. When we come up onto the back field, I bring the whip to bear on his hind quarters and he starts lumbering faster with those deceptively slow grown eating strides, while the rhythm in my knees matchesis long strides.We come into the next curve much faster than the first curves, and I have to pull hard to keep him where he's suppose to be. The faster he goes the less the tapping of his head seems to work. He shakes his head as to say, the hell with you.Soon we pass the finish line. I stand up in the stirrups, take the tension ofthe crouch off my legs, and now I can feel where my arms have been straining. Iam always amazed at how easy jockey can make this seem.Willy's Boy and I walk once more around the track to cool him down. In the coolmorning air, he really hasn't broken much of a sweat.By the time I bring him back to the stables, McCloud has saddled Mountain Fur, asixteen hand sorrel. “How did I do?” McCloud grunts and answers without looking at me. “Not bad. But tomorrow you'll have to see if you can move him out a little faster. For this critter I want you to run four furlongs. I want you to use the whip the whole way. He's lazy, but he'll move if you hit hm good.” McCloud had his stopwatch out and I know he had been timing me, though now he smells stronger of whiskey from the nips he's taken.Up top of Fur it feels a lot different than being on Willy's Boy. The ground isn't so god awful far away, and I don't get the feeling the horse would like to
 
kill me if it could.We walk around the track once and get down to business. I let him have it withthe whip and we move at a good clip. Around the tight curves on a half mile oval you always have to keep the horse from going wide, though it is much less ofa fight than with Willy. The feel aboard Fur is much different, and I ride in atighter crouch, urging him on with my voice, “Come on, Old Man. You're doing great.” I don't let up with the whip, because I know if I do he'll loaf without it.I think he enjoys the fact that I talk to him. He has an easy going personality and likes people..We walk a circle of the track to cool down. McCloud smiles, looking at his watch. When we get back to the stables he says, . “Damn near a perfect ride. You keep at this, you might amount to something.”At fourteen I'm only ninety-five pounds, but I haven't had my growth spurt yet,and I like exercising horses, and I'm making five times what I did with the paper route, though I don't think I want to make a career of it. I've seen too manybanged up jockeys who can barely walk.Once I'm top side on Seagondollar whose getting a little long in the tooth, McCloud says, “I want you to run him six hundred and sixty yards. He'll try to breakaway from you. Hold him back. He's got no wind and doesn't know he can't runany distance. Let him open up coming to the finish line just like in a race.”I hear that whiskey voice, and I have trouble keeping this aging horse to a walkonce around the track. Dollar is ridden without a whip. He's one of those horse that if you take a whip to, he'll just pull up and not go anywhere. He's what I think of as a smart horse. Riding him one gets the feeling their sitting on a powder keg. His muscles ripple and he wants to go. At fifteen hands, he has a tighter stride than the other two I exercise.We stand at the start line, and I let him go. I don't have to urge him. He takes off fast, and it's all I can do to hold him back so he doesn't spend himselfearly and has enough go left to make the distance. Somehow he thinks himself aquarter horse and not a thoroughbred. I don't know why McCloud doesn't race him in a four forty or a three thirty.I pace him as best I can, and with the urging of my voice we make a good fast finish.When I get back to the stables McCloud says, “You're going to have to hold him back a little more. The old bastard wants to go too fast.” McCloud hands me my fifteen dollars and says, “I'll see you tomorrow.”“Manana,” I say.I go out to the bike and have to kick it three times to get it to start. My legs are tired from riding and I don't even realize it until I get on the old motorcycle. My arms also feel heavy. I can't believe I'm getting seventy-five dollars a week in cash for doing something I like.I head home for breakfast, and then I go to my algebra class. I'm determined toget through high school in three years.I smile at the singing birds, and the sun now up, making the clouds intoxicatedwith color and a raspy voiced as if from a whiskey bottle.

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