The early summer mornings don't start off hot in Delaware. At least not at 6 a.m. I remember it was one of those almost cool mornings, the kind where you get a hint of a chill as you pass through the shade of a tree or building, as I made my way through the maze of barns on the backside of Delaware Park Racetrack. I had just turned 23, and had been working in some way or another with racehorses for over 3 years. I was married to a struggling trainer and he and I had four or five horses in training at the racetrack that summer. To supplement our "income" I was working as a freelance exercise rider. I had succeeded in getting hired by another small stable to ride three to five mounts a day after our farrier put in a good word for me. That's where I was headed that beautiful June morning.
As I approached the shed row, I saw the hotwalker (a person who walks the horse around the shed row, either after they exercise or when the horse is getting a day off, like after a race) walking a beautiful bay colt I didn't recognize. As I was waiting for my first mount, I asked the assistant trainer, Steve, about the new colt. It seems they had bought him in a $15000 claiming race the afternoon before off of a mass market stable run by King Leatherbury.
(Note: A claiming race is a race where you enter your horse for a specific dollar amount, and anyone who meets certain criteria (different tracks have different rules about who is eligible to claim) can put the amount of the claim into an account with the horseman's bookkeeper and claim (buy) your horse. The idea behind claiming races is to keep people honest. That way owners run their horses against other horses of equal value.)
My first question was, "Will I get him?" He was gorgeous and feisty, dancing around the shed row, and I really wanted to be his exercise rider. My second question was, "What's his name?"
Well, his name was Rightpot, and I talked them into letting me handle him. The trainer was skeptical at first because Rightpot had a reputation as a handful on the track. But I convinced them that what he needed was a lady's touch.
I wasn't just blowing smoke. I knew the way most of Leatherbury's boys rode. They stood straight up in the irons and hauled on the horse's mouth. In my opinion, that's how riders with little talent were able to ride a wide variety of horses without having to get to know them individually. Leatherbury was a master at the claiming game and had 100 horses or more stabled at Delaware Park that summer. With high turnover and high numbers, his exercise riders didn't have the chance to get to know their mounts.
I found several of Leatherbury's boys in the cafeteria later and asked about Rightpot. The one who rode Rightpot was there, and he told me the horse pulled hard and lugged out (tried to run toward the outside of the track). "Be sure you use a ring bit on him! You'll pull anything else right through his mouth trying to keep him straight."
I went back to my own barn and dug out my favorite bit, a full cheek snaffle. The full cheek snaffle is not typically a racing bit. It's used more for hunters. But I knew that with the long side pieces there was no way it'd get pulled through Rightpot's mouth.
Rightpot and I got to know each other over the next few days. I had a totally different riding style than Leatherbury's boys. I tended to ride low over the horse's back, crossing the reins and bracing them against the top of the horse's neck. That way, the horse was pulling against himself more than me. He quickly became a favorite of mine, and his whole attitude towards life changed. The new bit, the training style, and I'd like to think the rider, all worked together to help Rightpot relax and enjoy his gallops instead of fighting constantly.
Two or three weeks later I was in the grandstands on another beautiful summer day, this time in the afternoon. From there we all gathered to watch Rightpot win his first allowance race. (An allowance is a race in which a horse is entered according to eligibility conditions, usually the number of races it has won or money it has earned. Allowance races are a level above claiming races but a level below stakes races.) I cashed in a modest bet on him, but I was mostly just proud to know I was part of it. Part of helping Rightpot not only to win, but to enjoy himself doing it.
Rightpot went on to run well in a variety of allowance races that summer, and I had fun riding him for his morning workouts. That fall, his trainer left for a Maryland track and I stayed locally to work on a training farm. I worked at Penn State RaceTrack some that fall and winter, but never went full time on a track again. By the next spring I was divorced and starting life over again. But I remember. I remember the rhythm of the horse's strides, the feeling of the rough reins and the prickly mane on my hands. And the sounds, hooves thudding on the track, the snorts of breath making a kind of popping sound, the squeak of the small leather saddle, my own breath or my words of encouragement and correction. I remember the smells. The warm smell of horse and sweat, the smell of leather, manure, and the dirt track.
I never saw Rightpot again, but when I close my eyes and remember the racetrack, he's usually the horse I'm riding.