Once the Downs Empty

I pitchfork hay into the Appaloosa’s stall. I massage a strong salve onto her legs, working the muscles deep. She shudders as I rub the menthol into her fine hairs. The smell of her sweat and the salve is as familiar as my childhood in Montana.

The jockey enters the stable. After his fall last weekend, his career is over. I saw his Thoroughbred tip forward; the other riders careened to avoid. He sailed over the neck. As he became airborne, the jockey held his crouched position as if a new horse, shaped by a gust of wind, swept underneath to carry him off. I’d never seen a jockey remain in riding position without a horse between his legs.

I once had an Appaloosa whose spots were ringed with halos, and when she returned from the pasture, from the rain, they would glow. She gave birth to a black colt. The colt grew into a strong yearling, piquing the interest of competitive buyers. But the horse was so spirited he was almost deranged. At fourteen, I knew almost nothing, but I knew the yearling would never see a racetrack.

I learned that most Thoroughbreds descend from the same stud—the Darley Arabian—his bloodline imported in the pregnant mares riding ships across the sea.

The jockey strokes the Thoroughbred. The jockey is young; he could have had a long career. He’d be lucky now to teach private lessons.

“You really fucked me,” the jockey says. He grabs the pitchfork I left against the wall and rolls the staff between his hands. “Ya! Ya!” he shouts, jabbing the air in front of the horse’s nose. “You really fucked me!”

The Thoroughbred kicks back and whinnies. The jockey rattles the pitchfork against the bars.

By the time I free myself from behind the spooked Appaloosa, the jockey is gone. I calm the horses, thinking back to the stables in Montana. We found the yearling miles outside pasture on a wildflower mountain, lips folded back from his teeth, a spear sunk deep in his neck. But now his restless figure sails toward me through the air, suspended mid-leap, a riderless mount.