Born to Trot
THE sun was no more than a pink promise. Yet the first horses were already skimming the track, legs winking blackly against the white fence. In the half haze of morning the spider-web sulkies barely could be seen. The drivers seemed floating along on the outflung tails of their horses.
In the vast, deserted grandstand a lone boy was scratching the head of his old dog, Bear. The boy was in his early teens, tall for his age, lean and rangy, with eyes dark except for flecks of golden light in them. As he patted Bear, he gave no sign that he was thinking of the dog at all. His eyes were rounding the track with the trotters and pacers, and there was a look of awareness in them—as if something had long been brewing inside him and now was ready to boil over.
“Morning, Pony Boy!” A jovial voice cut across his thoughts and a roughened hand tweaked his ear. “How come you’re not out there on the track working your pony?”
Gibson turned and saw the old horseman, Bill Dickerson.
Pony Boy! That was it—Pony Boy! The name rankled. He was tired of forever jogging his pony up the stretch instead of down the stretch, tired of getting nowhere. Even the pony must be bored with the monotonous, treadmill sort of work. Even he might get to thinking less of himself for it. Suddenly, right there in the grandstand while the horses flew past him and while the old reinsman waited an answer, the boy was struck with a knowing. He knew he belonged with the horses and men skimming through the morning light. He felt himself old enough to take a green colt as they had done, to train him on and on until life for that colt was all smooth-flying trot.
Bill Dickerson stood grinning, putting on his gloves, adjusting his racing goggles. Gibson realized the man had not meant to belittle him. “I’m going to hitch up my pony now,” he answered at last.
But instead of moving off at once, he waited, watching the famous reinsman step out on the track where a groom stood holding a nervous mare. He watched the old legs arc over the sulky seat, heard the soft voice cluck to the mare, saw her strike up a trot. Then he lost them all to the mist.
Troubled over his problem, he came down out of the grandstand and trudged slowly toward his father’s stable. Bear sniffed on ahead, stopping occasionally to growl at a pet goose or to chase a bantam rooster.
Beyond the stables in a shaded paddock Tony, a sturdy pinto, stood rubbing himself against the bark of a tree, trying to shed the last of his winter coat.
At the sound of Gibson’s whistle Tony left off his scratching and loped over to the gate. He knew each day’s routine. First the grooming, then the harnessing. Then the cart pulled up behind him and the shafts made snug in the harness straps.
Usually Gibson talked to Tony while he brushed and buckled and tied, but this morning he worked in broody silence. He felt tired, somehow. Only Bear was excited as ever, yapping
and dancing on his hind legs to lick the pony’s face. It was one thing, Gibson told himself, to know with a piercing sureness that you were hard-muscled and ready to do a man’s work, but it was another thing to convince your father. Not that Tony isn’t the best in the world, he thought as he checked the shaft straps, giving a pull to see if they were tight. It’s just that a fellow outgrows things. First he outgrows his little Shetland. Then he gets too big for his cow pony. And suddenly he’s ready for a big-going horse.
“What’s the matter, boy?” The words came low-pitched from a groom washing leg bandages. “You ain’t chatting to that pony of yours this morning.” The voice drawled, going up and down with the sudsing. “What’s the matter?”
“We’re both thinking, Jim. That’s all.”
“Ho-ho-ho! Tony don’t think nothing but oats.” Then Jim cut his laughter short as he saw Gibson really was thinking. His glance followed after them as boy and dog climbed into the training cart and Tony trotted off toward the red mile, important as any big horse.
The sun was more than a promise now. It was up and about its business—gilding the knobs of the quarter poles, firing fence rails, gathering up dew from the grass in the centerfield.
Gibson started jogging Tony up the stretch. The big trainers started their horses the same way. Three times the wrong way around at a slow jog, then the right way, spinning faster and faster with each mile. Tony, of course, never went the right way of the track at all; he might interfere with the big horses. His workout was humbug. Only make-believe.
For the moment the boy’s problem fell away. It was good to be alive on a Kentucky spring morning. Bear must have thought so, too. He grinned from ear to ear, not minding at all
that his paws kept slipping down between the slats of the rig.
One by one the drivers, including Gibson’s father, passed and waved hello. A meadow lark on a tree stump whistled a string of silver notes. But to the boy the most exciting music was the snare-drum roll of hoofbeats, the trotters picking them up, putting them down, tap-tap, tap-tap, playing their own fanfare to the day.
“Say, Gib!” It was Driver Tom Berry coming up from behind. “Dickerson and I are having an argument. He says you’ve been working Tony two years. I say three. Which is it?”
Gibson thought a moment. “Four,” he replied, biting his lip.
“When are you going to retire him?” Tom Berry laughed in amusement. And he was off in a cloud of red dust that set the pony to sneezing and the boy to coughing.
Shamefaced, Gibson drew rein and headed back to the paddock. He felt the drivers’ eyes following him off the track, imagined them laughing behind their goggles. I’d rather they laughed out like Tom Berry! he thought.
With slow, deliberate fingers he unhitched Tony and turned him loose. Then with extra care he cleaned the harness—the collar and girth and crupper and reins. Each piece he soaped and wiped and oiled and stored away in a harness bag. He wiped the cart next, each spoke of each wheel, until it was clean and shining as Tony’s bit. In every move there was finality.
A groom looked up, puzzled. “Quitting early?”
Gibson nodded in silence. Then he walked slowly back to the track, pulled by some invisible lead strap. He sat on a tree stump there, feeling tired and lonely. And although his head was bent, watching his boot make a groove along the ground, he was conscious of the horses whisking by, of the drivers glancing casually in his direction. He read their thoughts.
“There sits Pony Boy.”
“Why isn’t he driving that cute pony of his?”
Mr. White’s assistant, Guy Heasley, came up now, talking more to the horse he was leading than to Gibson. “Man, oh man! Lookit Ben steppin’ that filly along!”
Guy Heasley always seemed to know just when to come, just when Mr. White was ready to exchange a worked horse for one that needed working.
Watching his father dismount, Gibson wondered why the newspapers lumped his name with the veteran drivers. His shoulders were not rounded, and even though his hair was almost white, his step was sure and easy, as if time never bossed him.
Instead of exchanging horses, Mr. White asked Guy Heasley to hold both a moment. Then, slow-paced, he sauntered over to Gibson. “Son, Alma Lee should be worked another mile. Want to hold the lines over a real trotter?”
Gibson seemed rooted to the stump. He didn’t trust his voice. Had his father read his mind?
“Her sire won the Kentucky Futurity,” Mr. White was saying. “She’s a chip off the old block.” Then, taking the answer to his question for granted, he placed his own stop watch in Gibson’s hand.
With that, the boy was on his feet, the golden flecks in his eyes dancing. “Mean it, Dad?” he asked, showing a quick look of gratitude.
“How much shall I go?”
“Let her step the mile in two-ten. It won’t hurt her.”
“Should I do the first half in one-five?”
“You can’t always go each half in the same time. Just try to step her home in two-ten. Go down an eighth of a mile, then come up ready to score and get her away flying. This half-mile pole can be the starting line.” Mr. White turned to Guy Heasley. “You work the fresh horse, Guy. I want to watch Gib.”
Carefully Gibson laid the watch on the stump. He reached in his pocket and put on his gloves and goggles, wishing his hands would steady. He felt of his head. It was bare. But no matter. He picked up the watch, cupping it in his hand. He swung one leg over Alma Lee’s sulky, then the other. As he planted his feet in the stirrups, his father turned over the reins and the whip. Gibson looked up for some word of advice, but none came. His father only smiled, standing quietly now, one foot on the stump, arm resting on his knee.
Gibson was on his own! With a horse instead of a pony! A sulky instead of a training cart! The real thing instead of the make-believe.
He lifted the reins and started off. Down an eighth of a mile the wrong way, then turning the right way, clucking softly to Alma Lee, watching her gather herself as if she were winding up to find her rhythm. Before they reached the starting line, she found it! Without looking at his watch, Gibson clicked the pin. Alma Lee was gliding away smoothly like a ship in full sail and the filaments of her mane were the rigging and the muscles of her hindquarters the rippling of waves.
Suddenly Gibson knew. This was his work. This was what mattered. The reins in his hands were part of the rigging, too. With them he could keep her course true, keep her scudding along the short mile.
Oh! the quarter pole! He glanced down at his watch. Thirty-two seconds. If only Alma Lee could hold this pace. If only she could!
“Steady, steady,” he murmured, and thrilled to see her ears swivel around to pull in his voice. He did not feel the lashing of her tail as it swiped his cheek or the froth from her mouth as it blew over him like spume. He saw only vaguely the other drivers, heard only dimly the other hoofbeats.
Sixty-six seconds at the half pole! He was part of the horse as if he were astride; yet he could watch her action too—the propelling power of hocks, the long, low way of going. And all of this power he controlled with a feather touch. If he were unsteady, she might break into a run. Steady . . . steady. One-two, three-four.
Ninety-nine seconds at the three-quarter pole! Now a horse and sulky blocked his way. They must not pocket him. This was a brush against time. Only thirty-one seconds left! He guided Alma Lee away from the rail and they sailed alongside the other horse. Now the two horses were trotting as if hitched together. Gibson looked at the whip tilting in the wind but did not use it. Instead, he made the chirruping sound he had often heard his father use. It was better than a whip! It was a low question. And Alma Lee answered. She swept by the other horse. She passed the finish line and Gibson clicked his stop watch. The hands pointed to 2:093/4.
And with that click he broke out in a cold sweat. He pulled Alma Lee to a stop and circled back toward his father. Mr. White was not alone now. Several drivers and grooms clustered about, comparing the time. And behind them sat the railbirds, the people who came to watch the early morning workouts. Gibson jumped out of the sulky. He pointed to the hands of the watch and waited eager-eyed for some word from his father.
But Mr. White said nothing. He was moving off, ready to work another horse.
“Cool Alma Lee out slowly, Son,” he called back as he mounted the sulky. “Then come to the office.”