Breaking Stride

Don’t you remember me?

September 9, 2016

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“I heard a neigh. Oh, such a brisk and melodious neigh as that was! My very heart leaped with delight at the sound.” [Nathaniel Hawthorne].

by David Mattia

When I was a very young trainer, I had a quiet mare who never raced with any degree of enthusiasm. According to her driver, the late great Jim Doherty, Rita Lee Lobell was, “…a nice, slow mare.”

Not content with that career summation, the owner called in a horse psychic. The psychic herself was not a horse. She was a human being – I assume – who claimed she could communicate with horses on some spiritual level. After a private consultation with the mare – and a whole lot of money – the psychic announced: “Rita does not want to be a racehorse. She’s sad and she misses her mommy and the nice old lady who took care of her at the baby farm. She wants to go back and run up and down the hills with all the friends she played with when she was a little girl.”

Being a somewhat paranoid person, I wanted to ask the psychic if the mare blamed me for her sadness, but that would have cost another $500.

Okay, so now we had our answer. Rita was a 2:05 pacer because she missed her mommy and some nice old lady. Lucky we called in that psychic before we went and spent far less money on a very thorough veterinary examination. I don’t know why I’m sounding cynical and snarky about this when, at the time, I kind of believed the psychic — and to some extent I always will. I’m pretty sure that the North American standardbred is the most intelligent breed of horse, and for that reason, the psychic might have accidentally touched on a valid point.

They say that elephants never forget, but what about harness racehorses? Apart from the rather complex and repetitive things they’ve been trained to do by human beings, how much about their non-professional world do trotters and pacers actually remember from day to day? Do fillies and colts who were raised in the same fields at Hanover Shoe Farm or Winbak or wherever remember each other when they meet up on the track two or three years later? Do they recognize their schoolyard pals in the paddock or post parade and then reminisce about the fun times they once had together? Do they remember us the way Rita Lee Lobell remembered the little old lady?

Sadly, folks who study animal behavior will tell you a lot of discouraging things about a horse’s ability to ponder the past or to anticipate the future. They’ll tell you how horses don’t really think or reason the way humans do, and anything that passes for abstract memory on a horse’s part is simply a manifestation of their various instinctive and learned behaviors. Naturally, most horsemen will readily disagree with these scientific opinions because for every zoologically researched factoid about horse behavior there are a million anecdotal rebuttals from foolish people like me who truly believe that horses remember us as much as we remember them — perhaps even more so.

Long before we had a great trotter named Marion Marauder, we had a great pacer named Marauder and he was my favorite horse. He was a talented colt who earned nearly $700,000 and is probably best remembered for winning the 1985 Adios in a walk-over when Nihilator was scratched from a third heat runoff.

When Marauder went to stud I bought a yearling filly from his first crop. Her name was Backinthehighlife. She wasn’t much of a racehorse, but she was very professional and incredibly smart. In fact, she was so smart that she was accidentally broke to the jog cart the morning after the sale. I’d forgotten to tell my helper that our “new horse” was a yearling, and when I arrived at the barn I found a scribbled note that I still keep in my box of treasured possessions. This is what it says.

“Hey, Dave. Jogged the new filly and she was good but I think you should put a tie down on her because she starts off a little crazy. After the second mile she calmed down and paced nice. I’ll be back at feed time.”

So that’s how Backinthehighlife got broke. I told you she was smart.

In early April, I brought my precocious filly to the Meadowlands where she could train down with a lot of other horses. When I shipped into my digs at the Meadowlands — thank you Joe DeFrank — I discovered that a filly in the adjacent barn was also sired by Marauder. Her name was Light Of Heart. Mind you, the world was not overflowing with daughters of Marauder, so I found this to be kind of interesting.

One Sunday morning, I was caring for my three horses when suddenly I heard a horrible roaring and gurgling sound in the distance. It sounded like a T Rex was eating a horse, and it was coming from the next barn. When I quickly located the source of the horrific sound, my heart sank. I discovered that Light of Heart had somehow reached over her gate and her stall door. She had hooked her halter on the door latch, and she had fallen. Now she was suspended only by her neck and was loudly strangling to death on her throat latch.

The barn area was virtually deserted, and if anyone was going to do something, it had to be me. I raced around looking for something… anything. Atop a bale of hay, I found a pair of the luckiest wire nippers in the history of wire nippers, but by then the horrifying gurgling and gasping had stopped. I reached over the gate, and, after three hard slices, I cut through the filly’s halter. It broke free violently. Light Of Heart’s head and neck fell to the ground hard, and perhaps startled by the sudden drop, she again began gasping for air.

Soon, help arrived and a veterinarian appeared on the scene. Her head and neck were, by now, badly swollen. It took a lot of IV fluids and medications to get her heart rate down to an acceptable rate. Within two weeks Light Of Heart had completely recovered, and that was the last I ever heard of her — or so I thought.

About nine or 10 years later, one of my owners took me out to Ohio to look at a horse and to see his friend’s breeding farm. This guy had a broodmare field that went on for what seemed like miles. Broodmares in the distance looked like small dots on the horizon — and there were dozens and dozens of them, too.

For the most part, the mares stayed away from us, but then, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, I heard a neigh… a melodious neigh. It was coming from a mare who was trotting towards us from hundreds of yards away and leaving behind an impressive trail of billowing dust clouds with each stride. She stopped a few feet short of me and then ambled up to my face. She put her head on my shoulder and puck-puck-puckered at my earlobe.

I didn’t think much about this. I figured she was just another friendly mare. Then, the breeder said to me, “I got a little scared for a minute there with her running down hollerin’ to us like that. She’s not exactly a friendly mare. I guess she likes you.” I said, “Who is she?” He responded, “Her name’s Light Of Heart and her daddy is Marauder. I guess you never heard of either one of them, right?”

Suddenly, his words sounded fuzzy and far away, and I got very emotional — almost frightened. When it was time to walk away, Light Of Heart followed me all the way to the gate. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, and I knew this time for certain that when I left that field, I would never see her again.

Backinthehighlife lived a long and happy life and so did Marauder, but I wonder what Light Of Heart did with all of her borrowed time. I only know that when I walked away from that gate and glanced back, she was still looking at me quizzically, as if to say, “Don’t you remember me?”

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