Mornings in Ocala are universally foggy.
No, that’s not one hundred percent true. But that is how I remember them. In my mind, Ocala mornings are swathed in gray fog, swirling through the live oaks, oddly amplifying the whinnies and snorts of the area’s chief export.
The sun comes up late in the fall and winter, and taking yearlings out to the racetrack for their jogs and slow gallops can be a precarious thing until well after seven o’clock. The track was dimly lit by a few streetlights along the street-side, farthest from the barn; other than that, we rode in an eerie darkness, shivering as the fog clung to our clothes and noses (and glasses) in cold droplets. It was a dreadful thing, that first ride, even on the babies, and I didn’t really like what I was hearing from the shedrow foreman this morning.
He stood outside of a bay mare’s stall, a lay-off getting ready to head back to South Florida. “Just gallop her once around,” he said, and walked off, leaving me alone with the tacked mare. We didn’t do niceties like leg-ups there. You lengthened a stirrup and hauled yourself onboard.
“Just gallop her,” really wasn’t enough of an instruction for me, since my knowledge of galloping was limited to cross-country courses. What we did with the babies was an easy, easy canter, breaking down to the jog around the turns, so that they would learn to swap their leads. I swallowed hard, buckled my hard hat, and mounted up.
She felt quiet enough, and in the dark there was nothing really for her to spook at. The inky darkness was punctuated far in the distance by the dim orange glow of streetlights along Highway 326. It was a beautiful track, without any of the pitfalls of some of the neighboring facilities. The farm just next door had a track lined with rustling cabbage palms; I’d heard thrilling stories of Thoroughbreds’ reactions to a sudden gust of wind rattling through the dry palm fronds.
We jogged a little once we were on the track, and then I nudged her into a canter. We went easy, easy, easy – until we reached the first turn, and then suddenly she bolted forward. I did what any good little Pony Clubber would do: I reined back. That’s what you do with a horse when you want them whoa back, right?
This was my first experience with the elusive “pull back and they’ll go faster” clause of racehorses. I pulled back and damn if she didn’t go faster. We flew through the fog, we raced past the streetlights, we went soaring back around the last turn and towards the barn. I saw the trainer sitting on his Quarter Horse, shaking his head at me. I was too busy trying (and failing) to stop. I finally stood up and leaned back, all my weight against the reins, and the rampaging beast slowed at last to a jog, and then a walk.
I went back to the barn full of outrage. I’d had no training and no warning. The trainer knew – everyone knew – I’d never been on a racehorse in training before. I bit my lip and put my head down as I walked past the trainer.
“You didn’t change leads,” he called.
“What?” I said, turning in the saddle to look at him.
“You’re supposed to change your leads in the corner. You didn’t. She ran the whole way around on the left lead. For god’s sake.”
There was a lot I could have said. I didn’t. I handed the mare off to a groom and went to get on one of my babies.