Second Auction: a short story

This is one of two pieces that inspired the book, Missionville.

There is a damp musty smell in the air; the smell you normally associate with a cold, neglected barn. This place is not much better, but it is much bigger, with an assortment of pens and a collection of horses, and the occasional mouse scurrying around. Horses were here when I arrived last night, more horses arrived throughout the morning. There are all types of horses: large working animals, smaller trotting horses, riding school ponies, and a few old racehorses. Some horses look like they were just dragged in from a field, still caked in mud. Others, like me, still have their sweat marks around their midriff from their last riding activity. Some horses are fat, many are skinny ribby horses.

This is all very confusing, I am only used to other horses like me and the occasional pony horse; I am a racehorse.

We are standing in corrals, just left to our own devices. I guess I am fortunate, Jake put me in a corral on my own and no one has been added. Quite a few horses are shoved together in their enclosures; this creates a lot of anxiety – squealing and biting. Not because we are mean or anti-social, we are just not used to sharing such close quarters.

Overhead there are boardwalks, people are walking along, and gazing down at us. The more adventurous are on our level, carrying out a closer inspection of what is assembled.

I am tired. It was difficult to rest last night. We don’t need much sleep, but this was just too weird a place. I am stood on a dirt floor, no straw for comfort. Through the night there was an occasional call out from a new arrival and a squeal from an anxious animal; it was impossible to relax. My ankle also aches.

I chatted for a while with my neighbor, Indy, during the night. He was a trotting racehorse, the kind that pulls a cart in his races. He’d raced 74 times, winning 12, which is pretty great. Like me, he has his aches and pains. Indy has actually been at this auction before. After his racing career was over, he was sent here and was bought by a local farmer. He was used as a driving horse, taking the farmer and his family around the local countryside and into town, in a buggy. Two years later, and a few more aches, he is back again. He has a story.

This is a strange place. I now know it’s an auction, but not like the one I had been to when I was younger, before I started my racing career. At that sale, I had an attendant outside my stall at all times. Whenever anyone appeared interested in me – and there were quite a few – my handler would bring me out, make sure I was clean, and trot me up and down for inspection. Conversations would move from my good conformation to my relatives; apparently my half brother, Ace of Spades, was a Grade 2 stakes winner. I sold well for $150,000.

This auction is very different. No one seems interested in me, no one is attending to me.

I was a good racehorse in my youth. My first trainer, Mike, a great guy, was always keen on me. He had his best groom look after me. I won four races for those guys, including a stakes race which seemed to particularly thrill everyone. Unfortunately, I did suffer from a sore ankle in my right front leg; my groom worked very hard to try to keep it pain free. Sometimes a vet would give me some joint injections to relieve the swelling.

I spent two years in Mike’s care, mostly they were two good years.

One day, after finishing second in a race for Mike, someone from another barn collected me after the race. And this started to happen frequently; I was now competing in a claiming system that moved me from barn to barn, from racetrack to racetrack, until I found myself at a small track in Ohio.

Two years after leaving Mike’s barn, he stopped by to see me. He had shipped a horse in to run in a race later that night at our little track; this was far from the big tracks where Mike usually raced his horses.

I remember the visit well, he was my friend. “Hey pal, I hope you are doing well. You look good,” Mike had said to me. He also gave me an affectionate rub on my nose. But I could detect an uneasiness in his voice, a hint of regret perhaps. We can sense this stuff you know, call it a gift. Mike gave me a mint, before he left he called out, “I’ll see you next time.” I remember wondering when that next time might be.

In my last start, which was only three days ago and two months after Mike’s visit, I got hurt, hurt very badly.

I was what they call, “racing sound.” I had my aches and pains, mostly that right front ankle that I first hurt when I was two, but with some drugs I was able to keep running. But now things are different. My right front ankle has blown. They needed to load me into a horse ambulance after the race to remove me from the racetrack. My ankle was painful, I could hardly put that leg on the ground. The vet who attended to me gave me some pain relief and my groom bandaged up the damaged leg.

That bandage is now long gone, the pain however, is not.

Someone enters Indy’s corral and herds him out aggessively, striking him several times on the rump with a bull whip. Indy glances over to me as he scoots out of his corral, “Maybe see you later pal, good luck.” The old guy disappears down the shed row towards the sales ring.

This is not good, my routine has been shattered. Things have not been ideal for me at the racetrack over the last couple of years, especially with my troubling ankle. But I know the racetrack, I know the routine. This is another world, and not a friendly place.

No one is paying attention to me at the auction. But I do have a story; I won seven races, I was a good racehorse. I would have won a lot more races if I had not hurt my ankle early in my career. I was very fast. When I won that stakes race, Mike was so proud; he knew how tough I must have been to beat a good group of horses when I was not 100% healthy. Honestly, I really do think he liked me, a lot. He also had pretty ambitious plans for me, if only he could have fixed me up a little more. I know he tried.

A few horses are being ridden in the shed row in front my corral. I assume that they are being tested to see what sort of horse they are. There’s no chance I am going to be ridden; I can barely limp – it does seem like an odd time to put me up for sale.

A lady enters my corral. She seems nice and talks to me in gentle whispers. “Hey pal, let me look at your lip.” It is a curious thing, but when I went to the races the guy at the entrance of the paddock did the same thing, he checked underneath my top lip. When I was young, someone had placed a mark there, so I assume this is how I am identified.

The lady speaks to a friend, who had remained outside my corral, “Shame, it’s too hard to read, there’s no way that we can identify this guy before he goes up for sale. He does look like a thoroughbred, and that ankle looks pretty shocking.” She slips me a mint.

Yes, my ankle hurts. But this is puzzling to me. Jake, the guy who dropped me off last night who is a pony guy at the racetrack, knows who I am. Surely he let the auction house know. I am a winner of seven races, a stakes winner no less.

I’m also hungry, really hungry! Jake left me here with a flake of hay, but that was nearly a day ago. At the racetrack we were fed like clockwork, three square meals a day, first thing in the morning, after training, and in the evening. A bag of hay is always there for munching. I would eat anything they put in front of me. Where the heck is Jake?

Someone else comes into my corral. He does not try to come to me, but uses a bull whip and a little hollering to herd me out. It’s the same guy who came for Indy. He’s not a horseman, it’s easy to tell these things. Frankly, he seems scared of me. Now I’m freaking out. Not visibly, in fact I act like nothing is unusual, I want to be cooperative. But inside, I will admit, I’m horrified. I also still have those sweat marks on my body from my race three nights ago. Is no one going to clean me up before I’m put up for sale?

Bull whip guy herds me onto a machine that is there to weigh me. I’m not sure what my weight has to do with things, but I guess a good weight can be a sign of health. I do have a great body, always eat well – when I am fed – and always retain a good body weight. Maybe this is a good thing for me.

The horse in front of me is ridden into the ring. He is not weighed, but he is skinny. I overhear some of the bidding; it is all over in a matter of 30 seconds. The skinny horse is sold for $600; this is a far cry from the $150,000 I had fetched at my first auction.

Now it is my turn.

Bull whip guy herds me into the ring, loose. I thought that was odd. The gallery is packed with onlookers, chatting among themselves. I spy Jake, sat in the top left corner, eating a sandwich. He doesn’t seem to show any interest as I enter. Come on Jake, help me out here!

While I do not know Jake that well, he had seemed nice enough. One time he ponied me before a race, I spooked at a black bag that was gusting across the track. Jake jumped off his pony immediately, took hold of my reins and started petting me and whispering to me in a calm, soothing voice. It was a good thing too, my jockey was getting more uptight than me. I won that race. I really need that soothing voice right now.

The auctioneer makes no mention of who I am, he hollers out over the crowd noise, “Does this horse come with a signed paper?” The audience silences, Jake replies, “Yes, I’ll sign.” The auctioneer continues, “Sold with signed paper, 1,100 pounds.” I have no clue what this all means, but I know it’s not good; everyone is now looking at me.

Odder still, the bidding starts at 10 cents. 10 cents? I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “15 cents.” “20 cents.” “25 cents.”

There are three people bidding on me. The lady who had been in my corral was one of them, I really need her to win. There is a guy in a red shirt in one corner of the audience who is also bidding. And a third guy, who is close to the front and center of the gallery. He stares at me, intently, with his dark, soulless eyes. This third bidder barely makes a signal for each of his bids, but is closely monitored by the auctioneer. He lacks basic humanity, we can tell these things. Maybe it’s the same with the red shirt guy, but there is something very unsettling about this guy.

The man with the red shirt drops out of the bidding at 30 cents. The lady’s final bid is 40 cents. The guy with the soulless eyes purchases me at 45 cents and scribbles a note onto a card he holds in front of him. He then turns to chat to his motley group of hangers-on.

The whole thing is over in less than 20 seconds. The audience returns to its buzz of gossip.

Bull whip guy herds me out of the sales ring, I am shoved into a large corral; my ankle is really throbbing now – a sharp stabbing pain shoots up my leg.

The corral is already full of horses. I spot Indy in the corner; he glances over at me with a resigned look, “Things don’t look good, pal.”

Whoever the soulless eyes guy is, he buys a lot of horses. Looking around, the other horses are all different shapes and sizes. The one thing we have in common, we are all of good body weight.

I kind of wish that Mike was around right around now. Not too much makes any sense to me anymore.

An hour passes, a few more horses have been shoved into our corral, but the sale is over now; people are leaving. The soulless eyes guy comes over to inspect his new stock; he is surrounded by his posse of hangers-on, which now includes Jake. The lady is also with them, she appears to be in an animated conversation with the soulless eyes guy and Jake. I wonder if Jake has shared my story.

Horse racing: a Kentucky Derby contestant

This is one of two pieces that inspired the book, Missionville.

It happened again, and I still really don’t understand it. I am now standing here, in an unfamiliar stall, surrounded by unfamiliar people. This usually happens after every three or four races.

The race itself seemed a little easier than the races I had run in lately. While I did not feel like I could run particularly fast, with the urging of my rider – ouch! That whipping stuff does hurt – I moved my tired and sore legs as fast as I could, and managed to finish second, about a neck’s length behind the winner.

The next morning after my race, my new groom feeds me some breakfast and fusses around me as she undoes the wraps around my legs. Having been through this routine for a number of years now, I know what to expect next.

She, or another fella who might be the trainer or assistant trainer, will rub their hands down each of my legs, twist and flex my joints, and try to find my pain points. They will jog me up and down the shed row, and then make some medical decisions, along with their vet.

In the next few days I’ll receive a series of injections, sometimes in the joints that do bother me – my left hock and right front ankle – and sometimes in other joints, for goodness knows what reason. It’s a mystery to me why these folks don’t talk to the last guys that looked after me. One time, a few months and trainers ago, I remember I was injected in my left front knee. That knee had never given me any grief in my life.

It was not always like this.

I was born to be great, or at least I used to be treated as if I would be the best colt of my generation. My youth was spent at a big and lush horse farm in Kentucky. As a baby, I frolicked and played around with other young colts and their mothers; life was full of curiosities and possibilities.

My first inclination that things weren’t always going to be idyllic was when I was put up for sale. I had assumed that all the pampering and fuss I had received as a baby was because I was loved, but apparently it was my monetary value, rather than me, that was loved. I fetched my breeders a tidy sum too, $1.5 million dollars.

I imagine my new owners assumed that I would be a rocket-ship for that price. I learned my trade as a young horse, being “broken in” – seriously that is what they call it, when we allow riders into our lives to train us before the racetrack – in sunny Florida. I was with hundreds of other young horses, all with the same target: to be the next Kentucky Derby winner.

Of course, only one horse can achieve that honor each year, and for my year it was not me, but I was close, which I think is pretty incredible.

I raced three times as a two-year-old, winning my second race in New York, at Saratoga, by several horse lengths. I was lauded upon my return to the saddling enclosure; my trainer, jockey and groom really seemed very thrilled with me and my effort. There was also an audible buzz coming from the large crowd, the type of buzz you get when you witness something special.

In my next and final start as a two-year-old, I won again, this time it was a “stakes race,” which is very prestigious. I remember my groom showing me the Daily Racing Form the next morning; on the front page there was a big picture of me. The story headline read, “Thunder Clouds, (that is my name of course) Storms to Victory in the HillTop.” I remember thinking how clever that headline was, and I will admit, I was pretty proud of myself at the time.

The next spring I raced three times, and won once, and placed the other two times. I was one of the top twenty money earning colts of my generation after three wins, so it was decided that I should take my place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

This was the real big time. Massive crowds thronged the backside each morning for our daily training exercises in the week leading up to the big day. And while I enjoyed all the attention, my right front ankle was starting to nag at me a little bit. The vets had been called out to see me, over the previous few weeks, and I had received a series of injections to try to relieve the pain. Once the pain was gone, I could run just as fast as if the pain had never been there in the first place.

I did not win the Kentucky Derby. Actually, honestly, I was a little over matched at odds of 50-1, and finished 14th in the field of 20 horses. I tried to make a bit of a run at the leaders going into the final turn, but I did not gain too much ground. Deep into the stretch I felt the urging of my jockey – ouch, and ouch again – while also feeling my right leg weakening a little around the ankle.

Anyway, I had my shot at super-stardom. The horse that won the race went on to win the coveted, and often elusive, Triple Crown series. He was sold for $100 million at the end of the year. He was then retired from racing and embarked on a lucrative – and likely quite enjoyable – stud career.

For me, it was a different story.

I had a few months off. During that time, my caretakers also decided to remove my manhood; apparently I was’t going to be good enough to be a stallion, so gelding me was supposed to help me focus on racing. Honestly, I was pretty bummed about my new condition at the time, but like anything, you simply learn to get used to it.

I returned to the races for a fall campaign. My first race was again at the end of the Saratoga meet, this time in a small stakes race, which I won. But then my ankle started hurting again, and it was really making me a little less agile in my training. The ankle was treated, and I raced again and again, each time in stakes races, each time finishing slightly lower down than the last time. You know, it is quite disheartening when you get beaten, not because you are not good enough to win – I was, I was getting beaten by horses I had previously defeated easily – but because you were not a 100% healthy.

My trainer was now getting in newer and younger horses, my turn in his barn was coming to an end.

In my next race, my first race as a four-year-old, I won, and I won easily. At first I was a little confused because before the race I did not feel particularly great; my hock had started hurting now, as well as my ankle. Nevertheless, I was still able to win. The other odd thing, after the race I was collected by someone I did not know, and taken to a horse barn full of strange horses and strange people.

This was then to be my new life, moving from trainer to trainer, every three to four races, and sometimes moving to a new racetrack.

I am now at a racetrack that is quite small. While I spent my youth running around one mile tracks in front of the large boisterous crowds of Churchill Downs and Saratoga, I’m now racing at a bullring track of about 5/8ths of a mile in god-knows-where, West Virginia.

Few people come out to watch our races; we mostly race at night, and sometimes in the dead of winter under floodlights and sleet and hail.

Oddly though, I am a bit of a celebrity on the backside. Everyone seems to know me, and say affectionate things about me as they pass me by going to and from the training track; ‘How’s ole’ Thunder holding up after his last race?’ a rider from another barn might ask. My rider would invariably respond, ‘He’s great; amazing old hoss.’ It did not seem to matter if I did, in fact, feel fine or if my ankle or hock was hurting. I was oblivious to the high stakes claiming game in which I was an unwitting pawn; the game meant that no one reveals my real well-being, in case someone listening is plotting the next claim for me.

So I am being readied for my next race. I have a new exercise rider, as is always the case when I move to a new barn. He seems like a decent chap, he was the leading rider at the track some twenty years ago. He will pet me once in a while, and let me know when he wants me to go slower and faster. Sometimes, though, he does not show up for work; sometimes he comes to work but there’s a stink on his breath that is really overwhelming. I have experienced all this before, in a couple of weeks I will be sent to race again.

But the reality is, I have pretty much had enough. My legs are tired and sore. I have not had a break since after the Kentucky Derby, which is now more than three long years ago. Since that time, I have raced 34 times, winning quite a few (10) and losing quite a few more. During my 34 races, I have been ridden by lots of different riders, none of whom paid too much attention to me. It was the same with the grooms who looked after me temporarily, and also with the vets who kept stabbing me with needles full of drugs.

I am now standing in the starting gate for my next start and wait for the gates to open and the race to unfold. I can’t imagine that I can win this race, but I have felt poorly before and won; they somehow seem to make the races easier, just as I think I can no longer compete. My specialist distance is now 5/8ths of a mile, which is a far cry from the mile and a quarter of the fastest two minutes in sports.

As the race begins and we head out of the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch. I take a bad step – well “take a bad step” is the euphemism they will use to describe my final moments.