Gallo dumped a large splash of cream into his insulated mug—an effort to mollify the strength of the over-brewed coffee in the trainer’s trailer. The coffee was never very good, but it gave him the boost he needed at 5:00 a.m. to get the workday started.
Stepping out of the trailer into the darkness, he could see a slight glow coming up on the horizon. Despite the early hour, the long barns filled with horses were staffed with attendants preparing the thoroughbreds for their morning workouts. Hay was being delivered on flatbeds pulled by all-terrain vehicles. Gallo paused to inhale deeply, enjoying the way the smell of hay tempered the odor emanating from the stalls that had yet to be mucked out. The commingling of scents infused the air, welcoming the horsemen to the start of their day.
Gallo made his way to the section of the backstretch where his horses were stabled, but as soon as he got there, he was confronted by his chief groom, Jimmy Crowder.
“What’s up, Jimmy? You got that constipated look on your face again.”
“We got a problem, boss. We got nobody to ride T-three this morning.”
“Where’s Hector Sanchez? He’s been the exercise rider on Tackle Tim Tom for the last week.”
“Ah, I guess there was a card game in the Hispanic section of the dormitory last night. It didn’t end well.”
“So, what happened? Sanchez got arrested?”
“He’s in the hospital; somebody pulled a knife.”
“Oh, for crying out loud—there’s too much nonsense going on in these dormitories at night. I guess I’m surprised more of these guys don’t end up in the hospital or jail.”
Gallo walked over to a chalkboard where the names of his six horses were listed, along with the name of the exercise riders scheduled that day. Jimmy had erased Sanchez’s name, so they were short one rider.
“We’re in the 6:30 time slot on the Oklahoma training track,” said Jimmy. “We only have the slot for forty-five minutes before the next crew of horses takes over the track. I’ll have to run around the barns and see if there’s a rider that doesn’t have a mount yet this morning.”
“No, you keep getting our horses ready. I’ll check around and see if I can get a loaner from one of the other trainers. I don’t want to put just anybody on T-three. He’s a tough horse to ride, and we need someone good.”
As Gallo and Jimmy stood there discussing the situation, they were approached by a woman. “I can ride him for you. I’m looking for exercise rides this morning.”
When they turned around, the two men found themselves confronted by a young lady wearing a down vest over a polo shirt, a riding helmet, jeans, and riding boots.
“Are you an exercise rider?” asked Gallo.
“I’m a jockey—an apprentice jockey. I need to do some exercise riding so trainers will get to know me and be willing to hire me for races.” When the girl spoke, she looked down at the ground and didn’t make eye contact with the men.
“Where did you get your apprentice license?”
“Santa Anita; I live in California.”
“Who’s your agent?” asked Gallo.
“John McCann? He’s the agent for the best jocks in the country. Why would he be handling an apprentice?”
The young woman just shrugged and continued to look at the ground.
“You know, young lady, in the racing business it’s all about relationships. A big part of building a relationship is looking someone in the eye when you’re speaking to them. Looking someone in the eye gives you a sense that you’re getting the straight skinny from somebody, or maybe they’re just bullshitting you. So . . . this little impromptu job interview we are having right now isn’t going so well for you because I can’t see the color of your eyes. Do you want to ride for me or not?”
The woman took a breath, placed her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, and turned to look squarely at Gallo. “I heard you were a really good trainer and you had a couple of good mounts. I would like to ride for you.”
Now that Gallo could see the young lady’s face, he was struck by her good looks. She had dark eyes and jet-black hair, which she’d pulled back into a long braid and fastened with a colorful artificial flower. She certainly fit the profile of a jockey, being around five feet tall with an athletic build. He was also surprised by the clothing she was wearing. Everything she wore looked brand new and sparkling clean, especially her polished riding boots.
“Well, you’re certainly the best-dressed exercise rider I’ve ever met. What’s your name?”
“My name is Cicely Jamieson, but everybody calls me CJ.”
“How old are you?”
“Shouldn’t you be in college or something like that, rather than riding around on horses?”
“I’m a student for part of the year. I go to Pomona College full-time in the spring, but I take my courses online the rest of the year so I can train to be a jockey.”
“How many mounts did you have at Santa Anita, CJ?”
“During the six weeks of the meet, I had seventy-two rides. I won five races, ran second place nine times, and had ten show finishes.”
“Jeez, that’s pretty good for an apprentice. I’m guessing you weren’t riding the classiest horses at the meet.”
“Why are you at Saratoga?”
“This is where the best horses and trainers are at this time of year. I just want to prove I can ride to the people that count.” As she spoke, she refocused her gaze to her boots.
“Hey, you really gotta stop looking for the place your snot hit the floor and look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Reluctantly, she turned back toward the men. “Mister Gallo, I watched your black colt work the other day. I think he’s spectacular, but you have to know how to ride him. If you get the right jock on his back, he could be something special.”
“Oh, and you think you’re the right jock?”
“I would just like a chance to prove it.”
Gallo looked over at Jimmy and gave him a quizzical look.
“We need a rider boss, and we need ’em soon,” offered Jimmy.
The trainer gave it a thought for a second or two, and then let his intuition overrule rational thought. “Okay, put her on Tackle Tim Tom. If she can ride T-three, she can ride anything.”
“If you put a jockey saddle on him, rather than an exercise saddle, I think I can give you a better idea as to how well I can ride him. You can put some weights in the saddle if you want.”
Gallo again looked at Jimmy, who shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Okay, Jimmy, put ten pounds in a racing saddle and get her on board.”
Gallo walked into the stall where General Custer was stationed and saddled the gelding himself—the grooms being busy with other horses. He always talked to the General when he saddled him, and today, he spoke about the strange young woman he had just met. General Custer never said anything in return, but he was a great listener.
As Gallo prepared to lead the General out of the enclosure, he happened to glance down the concourse and saw Jimmy staring into another stall with his arms folded. Leaving the General alone for a moment, he walked down to see what the groom was looking at.
“Boss, look at this. You won’t believe it.”
Gallo stood next to Jimmy, looking into Tackle Tim Tom’s stall. The large black colt was standing perfectly still with his head bowed, forehead pressed against CJ’s as she gently stroked the side of his neck.
“They been standing like that for thirty seconds,” said Jimmy. “You ever see that colt stand still for thirty seconds?”
“What the hell is going on?” muttered Gallo under his breath.
The small woman and the big animal continued like this for a few moments until CJ whispered something in the horse’s ear. He came back to life at her words, raising his head, and CJ turned to face Jimmy. “Okay, you can saddle him up now. We’re ready to go!”
Jimmy looked at Gallo, shaking his head. “Man, this is getting weirder and weirder. I sure hope this little girl can make the young stallion run.”
Gallo smiled. “Yeah, you and me both.”
Once all six horses were saddled and the riders were up, Ritchie took the lead on General Custer and walked the thoroughbreds single-file out of the stable area. They entered the Oklahoma training track that was adjacent to the barns, and Gallo briefed the riders on the exercise routine he wanted each horse to complete. He’d designed a specific training regimen for his horses—tailored to their strengths, their ages, and the distance they were being trained to run. With the Saratoga meet about to commence in a few days, he wanted his charges prepared physically and mentally for the competition they would face.
As the other horses dispersed one by one in a clockwise direction around the outer periphery of the track, Gallo guided General Custer up next to Tackle Tim Tom and held the rein that allowed him to control the colt.
“You can take him around the track on the outside, and see how he responds to your hands on the reins and your verbal commands,” he instructed CJ. “You can walk, trot, or gallop. It’s up to you as long as you’re confident he is doing what you want him to do. If you gallop, don’t go more than one mile at that pace. When you think you’re ready to let him run, back him up before the half-mile pole and get a good start. I want to see how fast he can cover the four furlongs to the finish line. I believe he’s in good shape, but if you think something isn’t right with him physically, bring him to a halt and get him back to me. I don’t want any injuries at this point.”
For the first time since they had met, Cicely Jamieson looked Ritchie Gallo directly in the eyes with a broad smile. “Don’t worry, Mister Gallo. He’s gonna do great!”
The trainer unhooked the rein from the horse’s bridle, and with a verbal click of her tongue and a tap on the shoulder, CJ walked the colt off to begin the workout. She let him walk for about one furlong, and it looked to Gallo as though she was talking constantly to the horse. She then let him trot, and it was obvious that he was complying with her verbal and physical commands. CJ gracefully absorbed the up and down motion of T-three’s stride, holding the reins softly in her hands. It was surprising how easily she directed the movements of a colt with a reputation for doing his own thing; that was the sort of handling Gallo only witnessed in experienced riders.
After an eighth of a mile cantor, CJ changed position in the saddle and moved Tackle Tim Tom up to a gallop. The horse didn’t fight the move, nor did he try to run away with the jockey. His stride was effortless, and CJ’s smooth motion on his back enabled the horse to run easily and unencumbered. Once she passed the half-mile marker, she slowed the colt down and turned him around so he could move to the inside rail and breeze in a counterclockwise direction. By the half-mile pole, he was flat-out running.
Gallo watched from his position near the finish line. “General Custer, I like the way this woman looks in the saddle. She’s really making things work.” He had his stopwatch running and was observing the body motion of T-three as he ran the far turn and came to the top of the stretch. As he transitioned out of the turn, CJ tapped his right shoulder with her whip, and he changed from a left lead to a right lead without missing a beat. T-three had the strength to overpower racetracks. He didn’t have the athletic grace of Hit the Bid, but his muscled chest and powerful hindquarters allowed him to accelerate through turns and step it up a notch when he was already cruising at top speed.
As he thundered past the one-eighth pole—where most riders would strike their horse on the rump with a whip—CJ lowered her body without touching the saddle or T-three’s back, and with her whip stowed, gave him a hand ride through the finish. Once she passed Gallo’s position at the finish line, she stood up in the stirrups and softly pulled on the reins while imploring the colt to slow down. He gradually decelerated to a walk, and she turned him around so they could return on the outside section of the track.
Gallo looked down at his stopwatch. “Damn! He ran that half-mile in forty-five and a fifth. General Custer, this colt just might be the fastest two-year-old in the country. That’s Secretariat-kinda speed.” He bent over and patted his closest confidante on the neck. “This is good, big guy. We may be drinking mint juleps next May at Churchill Downs!”
CJ walked the colt up to Gallo and General Custer. She had some dirt on her face but still looked cleaner and better kept than most exercise riders. She was smiling broadly. In the light of the sunrise, it was evident to Gallo that she was quite a beautiful young lady. “He’s amazing. I’ve never ridden a horse with his power. He accelerates like he’s been shot out of a cannon; I almost got tossed off when I asked him to run.”
“You never touched him with the whip.”
“I didn’t need to. He just listens to me.”
“Do you connect with every horse this well?”
“No, not every horse—but I really love them, and sometimes they respond.” She stopped smiling and cast her gaze towards the dirt track.
“Hey, what did I tell you about the eyeballs?”
She looked up. “Sorry, I forget sometimes. You’re going to yell at me a lot, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, probably. Okay, walk him back to the stable so Jimmy can cool him down and get him fed. Why don’t you meet me in the trainer’s trailer in about thirty minutes?”
When all six horses had completed their workouts and returned to the stable area, Gallo dismounted the General and walked back to the trailer. He picked up his cell phone and hit the contact number for John McCann—the agent that represented CJ.
McCann answered on the second ring. “Hey, Ritchie, it’s only 7:45 in the morning. I know you’re halfway through your workday, but I still haven’t left my hotel room.”
“Where are you, John?”
“I’m in New York. I just wrapped up some business at Belmont, and I should be in Saratoga this evening. What’s up with you? How’s that filly running? I may be able to put a really experienced jock on her back for The American Oaks.”
“Well, right now, I have Robles scheduled to ride her. I’ll keep you posted. I do have a question about another one of your people: What’s the story on this young apprentice, Cicely Jamieson?”
“Ah, I see she was able to hunt you down. The story on her is that she’s the daughter of an influential guy out in California. He’s the president of a bank and a general partner in a syndication group that sells partnerships in thoroughbreds. There’s a lot of money behind this guy, and his group can market shares of horses to some of the wealthiest people in the business. He asked me to help get her a license and take her under my wing. She had an exceptional rookie season at Santa Anita, and she’s determined to win at Saratoga.”
“Right. I let her exercise one of my colts, and I was very impressed. She seems a little strange but she can really ride.”
“The kid is a bit off center, but when she’s on the back of a horse, she’s a different person. The last time I spoke with her, she knew about you and said she wanted to ride for you. I was going to call you today to pitch her services, but I see she beat me to the punch.”
“Hmmm, well, I might just give her a shot. I have this colt, Tackle Tim Tom, entered in the Sanford Stakes on July 21. It’s a Grade Three race for two-year-olds, six furlongs on the dirt. If she’s not already scheduled, I’d like her to be the jock.”
“Okay, she’s available. That colt’s kind of an enigma, isn’t he? He’s won two of his four races but put out a really strange performance in his other two outings.”
“I just think he needs the right rider, and she may be it. I assume I’m getting the discounted rate since I’m hiring an apprentice?”
The agent laughed. “Yeah, you get the discounted rate—but if she keeps winning and improving, she may be able to drop the bug before the end of the fall season at Churchill Downs. Right now, her weight allowance has been lowered from ten pounds to seven because she’s ridden five winners. With her skills and a seven-pound allowance, I think you’re getting a pretty good deal.”
“Well, I appreciate that, John. You’re a real humanitarian. Let’s play golf when you get to Saratoga.”
Gallo finished his call with McCann and made entries in his journal detailing the results of the workouts completed by his horses that morning. He could hear someone knocking on the door of the trailer, but none of the three trainers working at their desks got up to see who was seeking entry. When the knocking continued, Gallo stood up, mildly exasperated, and opened the door to find CJ standing there. “You don’t have to knock, kid. You just come in. We don’t have a lot of protocols here. This isn’t the United Nations.”
“I know it’s not the United Nations, Mister Gallo. It’s Saratoga Racetrack.”
She made the statement in such a flat and emotion-free tone of voice, Gallo couldn’t figure out if she was being sarcastic or just repeating the obvious. “Come on in and sit down, I want to talk to you.”
CJ sat in the chair next to the desk. Gallo informed her that he’d spoken with her agent, and she was scheduled to ride Tackle Tim Tom in his first race at Saratoga. He expected her to be happy and excited at that news, but she just sat there with a blank look on her face and stared at her knees.
“You know, this race has a purse of $150,000, with $90,000 going to the winner. If you ride T-three to a win, you’ll make $9,000. Isn’t that something to get excited about?”
She glanced at his face for a second before responding. “That’s nice, but I just want to get the colt to do his best. He was born to run and win.”
“You’re a very strange girl. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know that,” she said softly.
Gallo put his head in his hands and rubbed his forehead. He wasn’t really sure if he was getting through to this young woman, but he knew he saw an unusual talent when she was in the saddle with the colt. He needed to see if she was the rider that could enable the horse to reach his potential.
“The race is only a week away, and I need you to build a rapport with the colt. I want you to exercise the horse for me. We’ll work him five more times on the track. We’ll only breeze him for a couple of furlongs in the first two workouts, but we’ll let him gallop for endurance in the last three. Check in with Jimmy and schedule yourself for those rides. We’re paying thirty-five dollars a ride—that good for you?”
She nodded her head in agreement.
“I’ve got another horse I want you to work for me. She’s a filly named Hit the Bid.”
The hint of a smile came to CJ’s face. “I love Hit the Bid. I saw her win the Kentucky Oaks.”
“You were in Louisville during Derby week?”
“Yes, with my mom and dad. Watching Hit the Bid on Friday was better than watching the Derby on Saturday. I would love to ride her.”
“Okay, you’ll get your chance the day after tomorrow. We’ll see you then.”
CJ stood up and walked toward the trailer door. As she placed her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated and turned her head slightly in Ritchie’s direction. “Thanks, Mister Gallo.”
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