Daybreak at Sunshine Park, Part 2
by The Steward posted 2009-07-14 8:07 am PDT
Just an hour outside of Sunshine Park, Vishtapa Stables was nestled into a small but well laid out plot of land. The ocean breeze drifted through in the morning, and just after dawn the training track buzzed with activity. Many of the Steward’s Cup runners, unaccounted for at Sunshine Park, were calling Brianna McKenzie’s training facility “home.” Six-horse vans were idling inside the gates, ready to take the first set across town to take up residence at the track, but training continued for those not shipping until the afternoon.
Jolene Danner paused just inside of one of the barn aisles, adjusting Moya’s sleek black forelock over the headband on his leather bridle. The tall bay colt lifted his head, sighting a set of Brianna’s yearlings taking a lap the wrong way around the mile-long training track. Moya’s painted hooves moved restlessly over the springy gray tiles; he tugged at the bit and then whinnied shrilly.
“Cut it out!” Jolene snapped, raising a fist in warning. Her ears rang and she shook her head to clear them before leading the lanky colt out into the already-warm morning air.
The sun hit them like a brick, and Moya danced excitedly on the end of the shank. Jolene’s main exercise rider, Miguel Byrne, swayed easily with the colt’s movements, gripping the reins but barely touching the colt’s mouth. Jolene was in control on the short walk over, passing the other barns, painted medium blue with three blazing white stars painted on the side of each one: the McKenzie racing colors.
Upon reaching the hedge-lined gap, Jolene unclipped the leadshank and gave Moya a firm pat on the neck. He snorted and ducked his head gleefully, moving out into an immediate jog the right way towards the wire. There was no fooling around with standing and watching other horses where Moya was concerned: the big horse just wanted to get going. He remained the polar opposite to Jolene’s Steward’s Cup fillies, J U M P and Rockappella. The two white-faced fillies, currently waiting back at the barn for their turn on the track, loved to stand and stare at the activity for as long as Miguel would let them. While J U M P took a relaxed, curious stance, Rockappella would fidget, eyeing every other horse nervously. Once on the racetrack, however, both fillies were all business.
Jolene could see Brianna herself riding a retired Standardbred, heading down the backstretch going the wrong way, ponying a stout filly with a white stripe. From the distance, Jolene couldn’t make out which horse it was, but she could see Brianna’s vivid strawberry blonde hair bouncing away towards the first turn. For a few minutes Jolene lost sight of both Brianna and Moya, but then saw them both reappear on opposite sides of the track. Moya had burst into a gallop and was rolling up the backstretch rail, and now Jolene could clearly recognize Salute the Sky as the filly and her trainer pulled up near the quarter pole, gazing out across the track.
A much smaller bay colt was galloping behind Moya, tracking his rival around the far turn and dragging his rider’s arms forward painfully. Jolene’s heart skipped a beat as she recognized Anemone, one of Moya’s most terrifying rivals in the Steward’s Cup Turf. The light-framed colt churned over the track easily, whereas Moya ducked out a bit heading into the stretch, pricking his ears and sailing gaily along. Jolene slammed her fist on the top rail, frustrated, recalling how easy it was to train Moya’s older sister, the Grade 2-winner Baraca. Bang a Gong, Moya’s full younger sister, was also focused and easy to train, and had won easily first out.
Jolene uncoiled the lead shank and turned to grab Moya coming off the track, and noticed the smiling Emily Klein leaning against the rail, riveted to Anemone’s professional walk coming off the track behind Moya. The younger trainer swept a lock of brown hair behind her ear, then ducked under the outside rail and grabbed hold of Anemone’s bit, as if he needed help getting back to the barn.
Miguel posted easily in Moya’s saddle as the leggy colt half pranced, half jogged back to the barn, while Jolene cast an envious glance towards Emily Klein’s departing back and Anemone’s swinging hindquarters. Then she looked back at Moya and smiled, all jealousy vanishing instantaneously. Two completely different horses with a common goal: dethrone the undefeated Sahara Dune in the Steward’s Cup Turf, and take down the brilliant Magician in the process. For one sweet moment, Moya dropped his muzzle into Jolene’s palm, nudging her, as Miguel slipped the bridle over his head and the bit out of his mouth. Then it was back to a sideways jig down the aisle towards the wash rack.
Salute the Sky’s left ear flicked back momentarily, then pricked again, eyeing the racetrack with controlled eagerness. Brianna leaned forward over the side of her Standardbred pony horse and hugged the filly’s silken neck close, which Salute the Sky tolerated for ten seconds before shaking her head and stepping away.
“She just wants to get going,” exercise rider Zoey Mackey explained, hinting that the idea didn’t sound half bad.
“I know,” Brianna agreed, but still didn’t release her hold on the shank. Instead, she carefully rearranged the fine black hairs of Salute the Sky’s bridle path, then rubbed the filly’s ears until Salute the Sky turned towards her, mouth open, swiping at the pony. The second to last racehorse on the track, a muscular gray filly of Brianna’s named Ice Flow, finally stepped off, but until that moment, the farm owner did not release Salute the Sky to the track.
Set free, Salute the Sky turned and bounded away with no fanfare of additional warmup. Within seconds her long strides had swept her to the first turn, Zoey crouched over the filly’s sturdy neck. As soon as they hit the backstretch, Salute the Sky roared into a racing gallop, breezing a final six furlongs before her date with destiny against boys in the Classic. Salute the Sky hugged the rail, her head bobbing and releasing in time with her strides.
Brianna’s heart swelled as the filly rounded the last corner and struck out for the finish pole, moving impossibly faster than before. As soon as she hit the wire, she dropped to an easy gallop, Zoey rising firmly in the stirrups. On cue, Salute the Sky turned and jogged agreeably back to Brianna and the pony, ears pricked, nostrils flaring for air.
“You’ve got that party later today, don’t you?” Zoey asked, pulling the goggles up onto the top of her helmet and unclenching her forearms, slowly stretching the muscles back into place.
Brianna noticed the movement and frowned slightly. “Was she pulling you around out there?”
“You didn’t notice?” Zoey asked, incredulously. “I was using every bit of strength to hold her!”
“No,” Brianna admitted. “I was just watching her! But yes, there is a party this afternoon, since most people are leaving tonight or tomorrow morning for Sunshine Park.”
“Is it all set up?” Zoey asked, running her hands up and down Salute the Sky’s slightly damp neck.
“Er, no,” Brianna looked up at the single white tent outside the first blue barn, overlooking the training track. “But the DJ will be here in a few hours, and the caterer, it doesn’t start until three.”
Over 100 trainers crowded the yard outside of the main training barn at Vishtapa, listening to the Shawn Mullins lyrics floating over their heads. “She grew up with the children of the stars, in the Hollywood hills and the boulevard. Her parents threw big parties, everyone was there….”
The song seemed a fitting tribute to the party, which was in full swing as the clock ticked towards seven p.m. The music changed to a more up-tempo current hit which sounded vaguely like Lady Gaga, causing Brianna to look up from a frozen strawberry daiquiri, glaring at the DJ, who swiftly faded the music into a slightly more acceptable “I Kissed a Girl.”
A bar was set up alongside Brianna’s main training barn, lit up by the blazing disco ball hanging from the roof of the tent over the dance floor. A crush of bodies was jamming in rhythmic formation on the floor, sweating in the warm Florida evening. Away from the tent were high tables draped in purple and yellow cloths – Steward’s Cup colors.
Keith Maidlow leaned against one table, a diet soda in one hand, grinning as he listened to Jon Xett, who was strongly professing his love of the miler sire Gezellig, who happened to stand at Jon’s California Connections farm. Bob Oliva stood at the table as well, narrowing his intense eyes and running a hand over his short-cropped hair.
Gerry Hardie approached the table, grinning at the assorted collection of older gentlemen. “Not into teenage dance hits?” he asked, setting his drink on the table and nodding at the floor. “I see even the most distinguished of us is out there.” The four of them glanced towards the dance floor, where Eric Nalbone was rocking out – miming air guitar on his knees - to the Flight of the Conchord’s latest hit song, crushed on all sides by Steph Wilder, Alysse Jacobs, Michelle Calderoni, Tasha Langley, Sarah Chase, and Laura Ferguson. They all seemed immune to the pressures of the coming weekend, carefree and slightly buzzed.
“It’s irresponsible if you ask me,” Bob Oliva snapped in a heavy Eastern accent. “We’ve all got to be up and working horses in the morning, and here we sit, drinking and in some cases, dancing.” He frowned again, taking another sip from his plastic cup.
“And yet here you are,” Keith observed shrewdly, eyeing his friend and rival.
“Free food and drinks,” Bob admitted, toasting the space above him.
“I see others of our kind are reacting the same way,” Jon noted, his brown eyes sweeping the party scene.
Off to one side, Rob Kilbourn and Donnie Hidalgo were huddled in deep conversation, most likely about business. Sean Furney stood, arms crossed, eyes screwed up in a wince, as if the noise emitting from the huge speakers were physically hurting him. His wife Ramey bounced over, more at ease with the dancing, and he relaxed his stance, smiling. Paul Heinrich and his barely-of-age son Tim were ducking to avoid the camera held by Nikki Sherman, who seemed determined to eternally capture the fun of the event. In another corner, just outside the tent, Doug Kidwell had his head bent over Jolene Danner’s shoulder, in an image that looked a bit like he was whispering in her ear, but it was equally probable that he shouting over the music. Jolene seemed to be listening until the music switched from Pink to The Pussycat Dolls. She jumped at the music and shrieked, “I love this song!” then bolted out onto the dance floor, her fist still clutching her vodka sour.
“Is this a sixteen-year-old’s birthday party!?” Brianna shrieked, disgusted with the DJ and headed over to have a word with him. Sara Kendall touched Brianna’s arm, stopping her in her tracks. Sara looked worried, holding a Mountain Dew in one hand and her blue eyes pushed together by nervous wrinkles in her forehead. “Don’t you think the horses will get upset?” Sara asked, genuinely concerned.
Brianna shrugged, as if the idea hasn’t quite occurred to her. “There’s just babies in this barn,” she reasoned, then pointed off to the row of barns a good two hundred yards to the right. “The big horses are all over there.” Larry Burndorf caught her eye, and Brianna forgot about her issue with the DJ, ducking towards her friend.
All the sudden, a roar erupted on the dance floor, and fifteen bodies rushed towards four new arrivals, fresh off a plane from Maryland, led by the grinning AR Roberts. “Now the party can really get started!” he proclaimed, immediately searching for the bar. Behind him, Katy Turner immediately started to groove to the music, and Jon Smythe, momentarily blinded by the flashing lights, spotted his friend Nick Gilmore at another table with Karie McBrian and Mac Silver, whose ever-present cowboy hat dominated his handsome face. Stormy Peak hung back, slightly overwhelmed, and trying to spot a familiar face in the throng of people.
Within minutes, AR had joined the mob on the dance floor, jumping up and down and waving his hands in the air, euphoric from a six-hour-old victory in the Steward’s Cup Steeplechase. Paul Sellers clapped him hard on the back, his younger brother Nathan followed suit. “Congrats, man!” Paul crowed, briefly allowing himself to get lost in the shuffle of dancing bodies. Amy Schmidt, never afraid to get join a party, soon plucked up the courage to invite a somewhat sulking John Slotman to the dance floor.
“Nooo,” John protested, digging his heels in, but the music changed to a Bruce Springsteen classic, and he relented.
No one heard two car doors slamming over the music, but when Emily Shields and her husband Dave came around the corner, another loud roar of approval washed over the party. Scott Eiland tackled hugged Dave, nearly knocking him off balance, while Kevin Hern bounced from one foot to the other, avoiding the same mistake. “You came!” he gasped excitedly, following Scott in hugging Dave, who he hadn’t seen in a year.
“You think Emily would let me miss Bri’s big bash?” Dave answered, rolling his eyes, as Emily had already vanished in the crowd, likely joining the brigade on the dance floor.
Only one person didn’t seem to be enjoying the festivities, and that was Ian Nicastro, who bent over a table outside the tent on his own, pressing his face into his arms and looking slightly green. Either the humid summer air or his omnipresent nerves had caused sweat to break out along his brow and behind his neck. Even the cup of rum imported from Barbados did little to calm him.
“Are you okay?” Janey Adams asked him, concerned, her hand wavering slightly above Ian’s shivering back.
“I think I’ll just go check on Dune,” Ian responded, feeling faint and queasy. He slipped away from the party, and the air was cooler on the horse path back to the barns. Night had long since fallen, and the summer’s remaining cicadas chirped as the blare of the music died away. Ian entered the first training barn and walked five stalls down on the right side, where an inquisitive white face peered over the stall webbing.
The sight of Sahara Dune melted Ian’s nerves away completely, stilling his thundering heart. “Hey, Dune,” Ian whispered, allowing the flashy chestnut to smell his palm before running his hand down the colt’s sleek neck. “How are you doing? Is the music bothering you?” Ian could already tell it wasn’t, most of the horses were either sprawled on their sides or standing, dozing towards the backs of their stalls, heads down, eyes drooping. Sahara Dune nickered in response anyway, breathing a long sigh on Ian’s wrist.
“I really need you to win,” Ian explained, the words spilling out before he had time to feel guilty about the pressure he was putting on his colt, who might or might not be able to understand the desperation in Ian’s voice. “That John Slotman says you can’t do it, and no horse has done it in a long time, and I need you to stay undefeated, okay? You want that, right? To stay undefeated? To go down as a legend?”
Sahara Dune blinked, then raised his head, ears pricked, as if trying to find the source of the faint music notes in the distance. He butted Ian’s shoulder affectionately, then disappeared into the back of his stall, gazing out the small window in the back, examining what he could see of the training track’s outer rail. As if to say, Put me there, and I will run.
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