mardi 3 janvier 2012

My kingdom for a horse

A horse and a woman

It's incredible to me that I was able to write an entry about Satwa Sunrise without spilling ink going on about the way I feel about this horse. Feelings I trust because I discovered them slowly, watching Sunrise closely and waiting to see what I thought about her.

My first encounter with her wasn't like it was with any of the other 6 horses in Gina's yards. I had contacted Gina Rarick in part for my stepdaughter, and in part to inquire about her announcement of a partnership developing for this horse. I knew that going to Maisons-Laffitte I wasn't just introducing my stepdaughter to a possible position as "stable slave", and I wasn't going just to maybe make a great friend, I was going to -- eventually, at the right moment -- talk about ownership, although how I ever got the idea that such a thing might be possible for myself, I have no idea. I was following a hunch, and I tend to trust my instincts, fallible as they have been proven to be.

So, it was with particular interest that I heard that Satwa Sunrise was in that box over there, the first of Gina's out on the courtyard, after the 4 belonging to the neighbor. Next to her was Magical Flower, a younger filly, followed by the two colts, and then Triple Tonic and Gina's baby, Hard Way, in the barn. Last was the other Newmarket acquisition for Cagnes-sur-Mer, 2-year-old Surrey Storm, over by the yard owners' front door. I didn't make a beeline for Satwa Sunrise's box. It was only in the course of the morning, when Gina was getting her ready to ride out for her work, that I first approached her.

She was a big filly, or so she seemed to me. Gina confirmed it. She was easy to approach, calm. I walked around her and looked her over, ran my hand down her muzzle. Later, when she was back and the sun was fully out, warming the box doors on the northeast side of the stables, she and Magic stood there with their heads out, like sunflowers, eating their hay. It was harder to photograph Sunrise. Magic had better light, possibly better features, just a knot of white hair on her brow to Sunrise's flame. She wasn't a favorite. Not yet.

As the weeks went by, and I developed a little competence at basic yard duties, I came to have reason to go into each box and interact with the horses, delivering hay, topping up the water, cleaning out manure. Gina and I still hadn't talked more than passingly of ownership, and never of owning Sunrise's remaining two available legs. I was prepared to be patient. The horses and the other owners trusted Gina, and I liked her and her way of working; I figured I could trust to her methods in developing owners, too. Still, I talked to Sunrise a little differently, trying on what it might feel like to have a particular interest in her. She didn't come after me. She stood there and accepted my awkward embrace.

Okay, I thought, stepping back, feeling a little silly, I did that. I felt like a young teenage boy just after his first kiss, possibly wearing braces and glasses. Sunrise looked about as nonplussed as the object of such a young boy's interest probably felt. She might as well have readjusted her own glasses on her nose. She stood there and looked at me, not unkindly.

I found a nickname for her.

Good morning, Sunshine, I said. Other times I tried it this way: Hello, Little Miss Sunshine. She didn't seem to care what I called her. I knew it was for me.

I was still watching her. I didn't know her yet, but I was pretty certain I had reason to like her. It amounted to her presence, her way of going about her life in the yards and her work. She hadn't done anything really to distinguish herself, but I thought I was seeing something in her. If there were horses coughing, it wasn't her. If there was fever, she had none. She was said to be a bleeder, but she never so much as cleared her throat after a work-out, that I know of. She posed, in short, no problems, no real worries.

It was the first time I accompanied her to Deauville with Gina and Mark that I knew for certain, as much as anyone who actually knows as little as I do can know. It was watching her stride off at Mark's side to her box on the backside that I had my first hint; this is a racehorse. It was watching her walk around the exercise ring in the middle of our Maisons-Laffitte courtyard of stables that I saw her look at and see her world, including the people who are part of it, and I thought, She is intelligent. She is interested. She knows where she is, and why she is here, and it is good with her.

She held her head high and looked all around her. She stepped lightly at an athletic, wide-awake pace. And each time she came around to her corner of the courtyard, she turned her head and looked at her people: Gina, Sebastien, Annie, Annie's friend Denise. Me.

Yes, me. After all, I had known her nearly since she had arrived from Newmarket. I had helped to feed her, give her fresh water, and I had cleaned her box and talked to her, hugged her and offered her caresses, exchanged regards. I had admired her size and her strength, and her quiet, calm demeanor.

I noticed how everyone kisses and leaves a lingering hand on Sunrise. Mark while she was with the vet. Annie, when she offered her encouragement before heading to the owners' and trainers' section of the grandstand to watch her race. I noticed how gently she accepts her saddling, and how smartly she stepped out to the track.

"J'aime beaucoup ce cheval," I said to Sebastien, who has been around Gina's yards for years. "Je pense qu'elle peux vraiment faire quelque chose."

Sebastien had picked Satwa Sunrise out with Gina at Newmarket, but before the deal was sealed, he had found a thing or two to pick at about her. I couldn't find anything. Then, she ran a great race and acted afterwards like it was nothing. She'd only finished 9th out of a field of 16, but it wasn't her fault. Where were the problems? I was sure she was going to do something, if the next jockey let her thread the first hole that presented itself coming out of the last turn and fly.

She runs like a light bulb operated by a switch. Off, she is calm, gracious, alert. On, she runs like the southerly wind of which she was made. There is no fuss. Nothing lost. Everything with Satwa Sunrise is easy and easy going. If I had wanted two legs before that day, I had no idea until then what it was to want them.

We took her to Deauville again yesterday, and I fell hard for this horse. I fell for her watching Annie love her. I fell for her watching her let Alexandra walk her. I fell for her watching her nuzzle Alexandra's neck while she received her breast plate, race blanket and saddle. She watched everything; she watched everyone; and then, she walked out to race and ran from the southerly wind.

She found her eye in the needle this time, and Tristan Normand let her thread it, coming out of the last turn. He had kept her on the rail, and then the front runner on the rail began to fall back as she surged forward, and she tried to catch the number 10 horse, Counterbid, followed hard by three horses, nose to nose. The number 11 horse, Dolce Bambina, and her jockey made their bid, but were beaten by a nose by Sunrise for the second spot.

We were delirious, jumping up and down, yelling, Annie clutching her cane and beaming from Sunrise at the post to Gina and the rest of us. We hugged and kissed and trooped down the staircase, bathed in the sunlight that came out at post time after the early afternoon deluge. Unlike last time, when I had hoped for it, Sunrise made the sun come out, and Tristan's silks the color of sun and sky shone in it. Annie walked alongside Gina and Mark, and Alexandra leading him, still up on Sunrise, into the winners' enclosure.

"Qui l'aurait pensé? Ma Sunrise dans l'enclos?" said Annie, turning to me to share seeing the wish she'd made at lunch fulfilled, and I wanted those two long legs more than ever, but joked to Gina, "I knew you didn't want to give up your two legs, and I knew why last time." She laughed.

I didn't feel jealous, not even of the ones who had found their way to the guichet to place their bets for the win and the place on Sunrise. I knew they'd be turning their tickets in for more money than they'd handed over the counter just 10 minutes before. I wasn't sure how I felt about betting on the horse I accompanied to the racetrack.

Later, over champagne just before leaving the racetrack and heading home, I wondered aloud if it was silly only to want to feel the joy of them doing well and not having anything to else to gain, aside from the prize money eventually. After all, betting is allowed. It  brings money into the coffers of countries around the world, and it helps to pay the prize money. It keeps the sport fast turning big -- very big -- business going.

"No," said Mark, "it's a good attitude."

I wondered, and I snapped photographs of Annie beaming, Gina gratified. Genevieve, a breeder and friend of theirs, satisfied. Mark, well, Mark I remember his goofy grin, walking Sunrise around the exercise circle after her shower. Now I knew what Mark looks like when he is very happy with a horse, when his horse does well. I remembered Sunrise turning as Annie approached her, reaching into the pockets of her powder-blue wool coat, light blue and yellow colors in honor of her husband's city and happier days still, for the heart-shaped sugar she always remembers to bring for Sunrise, "I'm old-fashioned," she said, "I do things the old way."

Gina called out to Mark, who stopped and let Sunrise turn to Annie, leading her off the circle. Sunrise lowered her big head and turned her gaze to Annie's hands at her pocket, took her heart-shaped sugar and pressed her muzzle against Annie's palm. They stood there like that, and looked at one another.

"Elle les aurait pris de votre poche," I said to Annie as we walked away.

"C'est vrai! Elle le fait" she replied, nodding, and Mark walked back onto the circle, his hand on Sunrise's flank, a smile surely still on his face, the taste of heart-shaped sugar, near victory and steel in her mouth.

Mark and Sunrise, after her race

"When God created the horse, he said to the magnificent creature: I have made thee as no other. All the treasures of the earth shall lie between thy eyes. Thou shalt cast thy enemies between thy hooves, but thou shalt carry my friends upon thy back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. And though fly without any wings, and conquer without any sword." 

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