04/15/2013 1:50PM

'Flying Change' details one rider's long road back to the track


An excerpt from Chapter 5 of “Flying Change, a Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing,” by Patrick Smithwick.

The ground is low lying after the fourth fence, and if there has been any rain, the going becomes boggy. Riders slow their horses as they turn to the left and then straighten to jump the fifth, a nice four-foot post and rail at the foot of a gradually rising hill. It is a “line” fence – part of the actual paddock fence – and jumping it seems as natural as jumping out of a field on a run out hunting. “You might be tempted to relax going into this fence,” says Mikey, standing in front of it. “It looks like something you’d jump in a junior hunter class, doesn’t it?” He looks at the fence as if he is embarrassed by it. “But you’ve got to be thinking one fence ahead here. You’ve got to be setting yourself up for the sixth. You know, make sure you’re not stuck behind a bad jumper, or on the right of a horse that jumps to the right. Going into the sixth, you don’t want to be worrying about the others.” Upon landing after the fifth, you head for an orange pylon, knowing that once you make a sharp turn to the left around that pylon, you’ll be galloping into one of the biggest fences on the course.

We walk along the path toward the paddock. It is the morning of the A. P. Smithwick. This is it. No horses are coming toward us. Tom, on Mickey, is beside me, Kiwana and Jonathan and Elizabeth behind us. Tom has timed it so we’ll arrive as the track reopens after being harrowed. We reach the paddock – it’s twice the size of a show ring. A white-railed fence extends around its perimeter, with the dark-dirt ring inside the fence. The paddock is vacant. It’s like walking into a theater where you know Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor will strut and act and love and fight that night, but now the stage is bare without the panoply of owners and trainers and jockeys and horses milling around, each groom leading his perfectly manicured horse to a tree with his number posted on it and then walking the horse on a narrow dirt path around and around the tree, trying to settle him before the valets in their gray outfits, holding the jockeys’ tack, and the jockeys in their colorful silks with helmets jauntily perched on their heads and chin straps dangling walk lightly with assured athletic grace onto the stage.

Each trainer – most in sports jackets or suits – motions for the groom to stand his or her horse inside the circle by the tree, and the groom leads the horse in, stands directly in front of the horse, jiggles the shank to relax him while the trainer lightly runs his hand, once, twice, down the delicate back of his horse before he and the valet set the pads, number cloth and featherweight saddle onto this smooth, sleek, flinching fuselage.

Elizabeth and Kiwana are on young horses who have never been to the main track. They’re jigging and fussing and staring wide-eyed at every new thing they see. Tom is “paddocking” them. He tells Elizabeth and Kiwana to walk them for five minutes around the paddock, then hack back to Oklahoma and jog around once backwards.

Jonathan and I walk around the paddock a couple of times. My horse’s neck is in a lather. The rubber-sheathed reins have a little age on them, and the reins are smooth, slippery. I reach back, pull a faded red bandana out of my right rear pocket – how do people make it through the day without having a bandana or two ready for use? – slap it on the rein under my right hand and feel my grip become more secure.

Tom is relaxed on Mickey. He is riding the exact same length he always has, which is about two holes, or two inches, shorter (or more racetrack-like) than what is considered proper fox-hunting or show-ring length. He is by the gate that leads out under the clubhouse to the main track. An older man in a suit walks up, leans on the rail, and starts talking to Tom. Jonathan and I circle around again. Tom is talking to the man, but he is also doing something with his arm. Without looking up at us, he is waving us over, signaling that it is time to head for the track.

The three of us walk down the chute across the path where thousands of spectators, entering from the clubhouse gate, will be crossing in just a few hours.

“Patrick,” Tom says in his clipped, early-morning business tone. “Patrick,” he says again, not waiting for me to answer, “you go off first. Jog him back to the quarter pole, turn, and gallop twice under the wire. Jonathan, you follow.”

“OK, jog down the stretch to the quarter pole,” I say, as if to myself, but really to repeat it back and ensure I have it right. “Turn around, gallop twice under the wire, and pull up...Go past the chute and then pull up?” The chute to the starting gate is around the turn. If you gallop past it and then pull up, you add an eighth of a mile.

“Yes,” he answers, sighing, as if it were the biggest effort, “and then walk back to this gap.”

We walk under the clubhouse and out onto the track, where the bugler will play as the horses for the A. P. Smithwick Memorial file out this afternoon and then the announcer will call out, “The horses are on the track.” In my mind’s ear, I hear the great Fred Capesella announce, “The horses /are on /the track,” in perfect iambic trimeter. I am hearing Capesella, I am seeing the bugler with his trumpet by the entrance gate to the track, and I am listening to the notes, which always send tingles up my spine, whether as a kid with my old friend Mike White thirty-five years ago, both of us lying on our backs, fishing poles by our sides, down by the Yaddo pond half a mile away, or up on Wild Amber headed out to ride in a hurdle race.

We’re on the track. I take a left. Sprinter immediately begins to jog without me giving him any signal to do so, feeling like one of Pop’s old cars with the RPMs set high so that the second you take your foot off the brake, the car shoots out from under you. The track is beautiful. It is inviting. The dirt surface has just been harrowed and watered, and the dirt lies in parallel and even rows, with no hoof marks, no clumps, no droppings. It’s like being at the top of a mountain in the early morning, standing in skis, looking down at the fresh powder having fallen the night before and preparing to push off. I stand in the irons, lean back against the reins and let Sprinter trot along the outside rail. I’m thinking about an old friend who is the speaker at Breakfasts at Saratoga, and yes, there she is – fit and youthful and snappily dressed – facing slightly away from me, explaining something to her tables of listeners.

I almost call out her name but decide not to interrupt her talk, and besides, I am getting down to business on this horse. She is now a successful racetrack commentator, and for years I’ve wanted to go to her Breakfast at Saratoga, to surprise her and have a good chat, hear about her life, but I have never done it. Instead, in the early morning, I’ve always been on one of these horses of Tom’s while she, who had hung up her tack, was doing something far more practical, making good money talking about what she knew and loved.

I jog Sprinter quietly for a quarter of a mile, up to the head of the stretch. Horses are entering the track from its many gaps. I pull up to a walk, turn Sprinter toward the inside rail, make him stand. “OK?” I call back to Jonathan, who also stands his horse up. “All set, Old-Blood.”

I ease Sprinter off, keeping my hands down. We gallop easily down the wide stretch, the empty grandstand – consisting of timber beams and wood planking and built on a scale relative to the human and to the horse – looming long, low-slung and historic on the right. It is open to fresh air; there is no wall of glass and steel beams partitioning off the spectators, disjoining them from the horses and riders. During the prerace post parade in the afternoons, you can smell the lather between the horses’ hind legs, the nostril-clearing scent of the droppings, the freshly saddle-soaped leather of the tack; you can hear the jangle of the polished bit of the bridle and the slapping of the reins and the quick, light hoof-pats on the powdery surface.

At the sixteenth pole, I hear my old friend over the loud speaker, “And that’s Patrick Smithwick up here to present the trophy for his father’s memorial race this afternoon. He’s helping out trainer Tom Voss, who is running the favorite in the A. P. Smithwick today...” A horse charges down the stretch and under the wire on my inside. Sprinter throws his head up and lunges a stride or two. I keep my hands down, lower my butt, and steer him in and out of horses who are pulling up – going from a gallop to a canter to a trot and angling to the outside rail – as we pick up speed going around the clubhouse turn.

Around the turn, past the starting gate chute, headed down the backstretch, and I still have my hands down. I slow Sprinter. He leans into the bit. I lean back against him, in control. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Scotty Schulhofer leaning on the rail. I nod to him, one of my father’s greatest friends and the most kind and gentle man ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I hear horses coming up on my inside. A rolling, thundering chaos of hooves gaining on me fast. The jangling of steel bits, the slapping of reins against necks and boots against saddle flaps. Men yelling. Sprinter’s head shoots up. I lean back. We pick up speed. The three horses are alongside us, two in front, one behind. The jock behind and on the outside is pushing and trying to get his horse up with the others, cussing and yelling at the riders in front to wait up. He reaches back and cracks his horse on the rump with his stick, and now they are alongside me. This is embarrassing. I can remember this feeling so well. It immediately returns. They are working – going full tilt – but they are stuck alongside me, the exercise riders pushing their horses, and this damn Sprinter is taking these huge, powerful strides and keeping up with them while I am standing straight up in the irons, looking like a farm boy galloping his first tough horse.

There’s no finessing Sprinter. He wants to go with this trio. He’s dying to cut loose and show these guys who’s boss. I have no doubt he could do it if I so much as relaxed my grip for a fifth of a second. They start to pull away from us, and Sprinter digs in, fighting me, wanting to be released. He is strengthening; I am weakening. I feel like I am about to lose him. How mortifying this would be. How dangerous this could be. What would he be like going full tilt? Would I be able to control him? To steer him? Would I be forced, in order to get past the other horses now crowding onto the track, to pull him over on the rail, where he would think I placed him to work.

Halfway around the turn, I lean back with one final recall of strength and run the bit back and forth through his mouth, and they go on without us. Their hooves blast a stream of the wet, gravelly dirt into my face, across my chest. I duck down.

I am not fit for riding a puller. To gallop a puller, more than your legs have to be fit; your hands, arms, and back have to be strong and used to this position and able to maintain it. My legs are in good shape. I am gripping, squeezing the reins as hard as I can, but my right arm – Sprinter is pulling to the left, trying to get down on the rail – is going numb. My fingers are outstretched, about to give out. I pull the arm to my side and lock my elbow against my rib cage, trying to take pressure off the arm. We gallop down the stretch. I’m no pretty picture.

Sprinter has his head down and is pulling relentlessly against me. With every surging stride, he’s trying to break away. My hands are like clamps on the reins. I am ordering them to grip, to stay strong, but I don’t know how long they can hold on. I remember this feeling of having to stay calm when you are about to lose control as if I had just experienced it on one of my father’s horses the day before: It could be Limbo, black, gigantic, incredibly long-striding, who would throw his head high before trying to take off; or it could be Wadsworth, a chestnut who liked to gallop with his nose inches from the ground, gradually pick up speed, his nose skimming the dirt of the track, until your feet were “up on the dashboard,” up on his shoulders, and you were leaning back with all your strength, and all you could do was feel those shoulder muscles powering themselves faster and faster, wrenching a notch looser from your control with every stride. Or it could be Arnold W., who would leap and plunge, and duck and spook, the entire time around, as if he were playing, and suddenly, after one plunge, he would land with his legs churning, burning up the track, and you couldn’t believe the speed at which you were going.

Pop would be standing by the rail, and when the horse would give that one fraction more of a surge, my arms would give out, and I’d have no choice but to release the reins and resign myself to letting him kick into high speed for a quarter of a mile, three-eighths of a mile, while feeling the laser stares of the riders on other horses, the trainers leaning on the rail, and Pop. I’d be boiling over with failure, feeling with each passing and irretrievable second more and more of a flop, a weakling – a race-car driver whose car has gone into a spin, a quarterback who watches as his pass spirals blissfully, perfectly, toward the moving target and then is snatched out of the air by a defending linebacker.

The red bandana is flapping under my right hand. We pass my friend, the stylish announcer, on the right as she speaks to her gathering. I don’t as much as glance at her standing there – she who would instantly see the precariousness of my situation. Nor do I look at the Bloody Mary–sipping, eggs Benedict-eating spectators watching Sprinter and me and having no idea of what is happening.

We’re under the wire. Time to pull up. There’s a confusing hurly-burly of horses in front of us. Some are on the outside rail jogging back to the clubhouse gap, some easing up from their gallops and pulling across the track toward the outside rail, some starting off on gallops and having to go closer than normal to the inside rail. We have to lace through the crowd. I’m pulling hard with all of my body. He is not responding. My legs are shot. My back is worn out. I see Peter Pugh, one-time jumping rider, now a successful trainer, riding western on a pony, cantering along, going my direction. I think about calling out and asking him to “catch me,” to gallop up alongside me, grab a rein, and ease me up. But I don’t.

Standing up straight in the stirrups, I lean back as hard as I can. We slow to a canter, a trot, a jog. I feel balanced, feel like an extension of this big, long-striding horse. Not an extension, rather a part of the horse, able to predict every movement. We’ve made it.