The Winners 2003 Under 26 Winner

He was one of our big hopes for the Keeneland sale. Furious and naughty, dark and threatening, everyone said he would either make a hell of a racehorse or be too much a bastard to even back and train. Our first meeting was an unpleasant one. New to the farm, I was warned to watch my back around him at feeding time and turnout - they said he was a real beast. Good luck, they said - hang onto your fingers.

The first afternoon on late feed duty I started with him first, to keep his temper at bay. Straight to his stall: Dance Brightly-Pleasant Reign, with the feedbag in my hand and my reflection in his wary eyes. In one motion, I reached up to hook the feed bucket, and he had already taken a preliminary taste of my arm. So I stood there watching him eat greedily, wondering what was going on in that big bay head, and then I backed quietly out, wincing under my breath.

He was also the one exception to the three-times-per-day feed regime. Big as he was, and all the energy he spent acting up tearing around the mechanical walker, we grooms took turns at the fourth extra late night feeding. Silly as it seemed, midnight would find me hopping into the beat-up pickup truck in my pyjamas and boots, and winding across the dark farm to his paddock. Those out-of-the-way colt paddocks were always spooky at night, especially since it was just me and him out there, the other yearlings already settled down to rest. The routine was to drive up to the gate with the headlights running so I could get a better look at him and avoid his notorious sneak attacks. Most nights I would climb up and sit on the top rail of the fence with the feedbag and couldn’t see him out there. Maybe I would hear the tinkle of his halter tag or see the glow in his eyes from the headlights. Other nights I would drive up and he would be chasing up and down the fence rail, challenging the next-door colt to a practice race. His mane would be flaming behind him, flapping with the effort. I could almost hear the crowd in the grandstands yelling out encouragement to the front of the pack, and then there he was. Those nights I could see him. He was in my mind, three years of training and sales past, surging down the track under a jockey; and then he was back, muscles rippling in the Toyota’s lights, stopping only to eat when I called to him.

We had a rough relationship. No one else wanted to handle the bad-tempered colt. He scared me from day one, and after that we started to get along, give-and-take, a few quarrels along the way - him flashing his teeth at feeding time and me threatening him with the bucket. I actually began to like him, chose him first at turnout, saw his potential as a racehorse. He would put Watercress Farm on the Kentucky sales map come September. With weeks to go, Keeneland sent us the hip numbers for our horses and we started to radiograph legs with the vet. That colt needed to be sedated so much, his head hung low in my arms as the vet shot the films, and he almost looked vulnerable. He dreamt away, a weak whinny here and there, drooling like a baby. Didn’t take much to wake him up at feed time, though. That afternoon, the books were sent to the sales office. Looking at the films in the darkroom, they would have read hip #1697, legs sound and strong. But they couldn’t have known.

The last two weeks, he developed a peculiar way of going, stepping on our boots as he swayed side to side on his way to the paddock. The head groom held us responsible for causing his sloppy wayward walk, and the way he dug his straw into a pit in the stall. I resented the blame, as I had fallen in love with that horse. At night in the field, I would see him in the headlights wheeling around in tight circles, nipping at his hooves. Even food wouldn’t get his attention now. Something was wrong, even I knew it. The old groom chalked it up to boredom and started handwalking him an hour every day in the hot sun until he shipped to Lexington. I think I was the only groom sad to see him go, for there were many harsh words in his wake.

They found out what was wrong at the sale barn. Our champion in training, our hope, our sweat, our reason for the bruising all over our bodies, was finished, at age one. My baby was a wobbler. Looking back, anyone could have seen it, but no one wanted to. All they saw was their excitement for the racing future of the colt, and the money he’d bring. They shot him there at the sale, the day before his lot went under the hammer. I cried that night, mourning his lost youth, the dreams that must have fuelled his endless energy, and even his legendary attitude. They were right - no one would ever be able to back him.