If someone gifts you a Thoroughbred these days, you could be excused for taking a careful look inside his mouth. If the horse was ever entered into a race, he’ll have a unique tattoo, in blue dot-matrix pixels, concealed beneath his upper lip. Some quality time with the inside of your new horse’s mouth, quite possibly taking a photo to enlist the help of strangers on the Internet, and you might just be able to decode those numbers and run them by the Jockey Club, who will cheerfully tell you your mystery horse’s name, free of charge.
With a name, there is power. The power of pedigreequery.com, the power of Equibase, the power of Google.
Without a name, you’ve got just another horse.
In the olden days, the Jockey Club didn’t give out tattoo research results for free. They charged fifty bucks for it. Fifty bucks, to go into their files and find the number they issued. Even if they were riffling through a cardboard file box in a storeroom closet, it couldn’t possibly have cost them fifty dollars of time to connect the tattoo number with the name. But that was the policy.
So when I took off Packin’ Six’s bridle, I did a casual flip of the lip. I got a line of blue numbers, still reasonably legible. The first letter confirmed his year of birth and the seller’s tale that he was only five years old. The numbers, though, didn’t tell me anything. Only the Jockey Club could have helped me with this mystery.
His close-lipped sellers certainly weren’t telling me anything.
“So where did he come from?” I asked, as the barefoot teenager stripped off the rag-tag saddle. One of the stirrups fell off and landed near my feet. I didn’t like to think about how different my ride could have been.
“My husband brought him home,” the mother said. She balanced a baby on her hip now; I’m not sure where the baby came from. It wasn’t there at the beginning. There were now four children of varying degrees of grayness. Florida Scrub sand is white on top, black underneath, and uniformly filthy to play in. “Sometimes when he’s on jobs, he brings home horses.”
“Oh, what does he do?” I asked, pushing the boundaries of what’s ‘friendly’ on a north-Florida patch of dirt.
“He does contracting work,” she said vaguely. “All over.”
Okay. “Is Packin’ Six his registered name? Does he have papers anywhere?”
She adjusted the baby and slipped on a pair of flip flops to come down to the yard. “Naw, no papers came with him. My husband calls him Packin’ Six on account of his big chest muscles. Look at ’em!”
I took another good look at his front end. She was right. The horse had massive chest muscles. He looked like a WWE wrestler. I suppose Packin’ Six was a good name, compared to what he might have ended up with. Hulk. The Undertaker. The Rock. And fake names are easily changed.
“But he was a stallion, right? He’s got a huge jaw.” Stallions, like tom-cats, get huge jowls that easily stand out from a more sleek gelding or mare.
“Oh yeah, he was a teasing stallion.”
“A teasing stallion?” Teasing stallions are typically angry and dangerous, living a sexually-frustrated life as they check out mare after mare for a positive reaction before they’re sent to more expensive stallions to be bred.
“Yeah, he was a teasing stallion and then we had him gelded right away… been about five weeks.”
“Do you know what farm he came from?”
“Nah, my husband doesn’t say, he just brings ’em home and expects me to take care of them!” She laughed and went over to open the gate. “Put him back,” she said to her daughter, and the girl led the former teasing stallion across the grass and sand in her bare feet. He walked quietly next to her, thin tail swaying from side to side. He had a nice walk. He had a nice everything.
Except a name and a history. And I guessed he’d never have either.