Tom Voss: He Pushed Me Beyond What I Thought I Could Do

 

            It’s a cold, miserable, windy day in December.  A few owners are coming. He wants to show them something.  Celeste and I jog and canter around the indoor track. The wind bangs against the northwest wall of windows. Tom and Robert Cutler, who “rubs” the seven horses stabled in the new stalls inside the perimeter of the track, start wrestling with the twelve-foot tree limbs that lie in the dirt alongside the inside wall.  They pull the limbs out and set them across, inserting the ends into the ladder of two-by-four slots in the walls. Two feet. We are on young horses. We jog around, jumping them. Three feet. We turn, go the other way, canter over them. The owners and Tom are standing up against the inside wall between two of the jumps.  Tom enlists the help of one owner, who is no help, in setting the limbs apart from one another, forming a three-foot wide spread fence, and bringing the top limbs up to four feet. These are limbs six inches in diameter that do not break slid into slots made of two-by-fours hammered into the main support posts of the walls. Make a mistake and you’re out of luck.

The indoor does not have a high ceiling.  On its front side, running along the driveway and facing the “finish line field,” the original builder made two sections in the roof beneath which fences could be set up.  In those sections, the rafters do not go straight across from the top of the inside wall to the outside wall. Instead, two A-frames were built into the ceiling creating an extra three feet of overhead space so that your horse can jump high without tearing your head off.  However, a decade ago, the back side had collapsed in a storm, and when it was rebuilt, no A-frame spaces were constructed. The two-by-six rafters go straight across. In short, I ride a little tall in the saddle, and as the fences went up, I did worry about my forehead catching a well buttressed two-by-six at a gallop, which could’ve been the end of me, but I didn’t bring this up.

           “Patrick,” Tom says.  “You go this direction.”  He points to the right. “Celeste, you go the opposite, and I want you both to time it so you meet here at this fence and jump it at the same time.” I stare at him as if he is crazy.  Does he really mean it? Yes, he does. And there my potential owner stands beside him. He owns the timber horse I want to ride in the spring. Celeste notices my hesitation. “What’s the matter, Patrick?  You scared?” Her favorite means of relaxation on Sundays is to jump out of airplanes. Tom takes a pull of his Pall Mall. He is training me. He is showing this owner what I, an old timer, can do. He has confidence in me.  He takes another pull. Hands on hips, keeping his face directed toward the fences, squinting his eyes, he looks up at me, directly into my eyes, and holds it for a second.

           I did it.  First at a canter.  Then at a gallop. On a young, but athletic, horse.  Celeste was not even fazed. It took my breath away. Day after day, he pushed me beyond what I wanted to do, what I thought I could do, whether it was breezing horses, schooling over hurdles—fast!—or following him down the row of a just-cut corn field at a full gallop out hunting, sprinting up a steep hill, and then jumping out over a four and a half foot board fence.

Just Perfect: Building the Fence with Ansley

          “That’s good,” my wife of forty years said, standing straight, and grinningly looking into my eyes.  “Now we’ve got to build this fence.”

“What?” I laughed.  “You and me?”

“Yes.”

            I went out, pulled on my leather gloves and starting digging postholes.  Soon, she came out in a pair of my old cut-off khakis and a thread-bare Gilman School T-shirt, her only pair of tennis shoes, and on her little, knobby fingers—now with the arthritis, I must massage those fingers, why not with the Amish ointment?—our emerald engagement ring and diamond wedding ring.

           She watched me lift the rickety posthole digger, holding its five-foot long handles, pound the two curved steel plates into the hole, spread the handles wide, clamp the steel plates together, slide my hands half way down the handles, lift the digger out, a handful of dirt and rocks caught in the jaw of the plates, swing it to my side and drop the contents.  “You need a heavy-duty post-hole digger,” she said. She made some calls, drove up to the hardware store, bought a new post-hole digger; returned, and with her bare hands picked up the shockingly heavy six-foot steel bar and started breaking up the clay and rocks two feet down in a hole. We dug through the morning, through hard-baked clay and omnipresent rocks.  

          We began to set the posts.  I held a post steady while she scooped dirt into the hole. “Is it straight?” she asked.  

“Yes, yes, it’s fine.”  

“How do you know it’s straight?”

“What do you mean?  I can tell.”

“No you can’t.  Where’s the level?”

            I sighed, released the post and headed for the garage.  “We need the ball of string too. It’s on the counter in the kitchen.”

            We set the two posts at either end and one post on the turn.  We tied the horizontal string to the two far posts, ran it around the middle post so that the inside of the posts ran down its length.  She used the level—making sure every post was perfectly straight, and she eyed the taut string, making sure the posts were in a perfect row.  Down on her bare knees, emeralds and diamond glistening on her hands, scooping dirt and stones into a hole while I held the post, beads of sweat dripping from her nose, she looked up at me, blue eyes suddenly sparkling and wide open, dilated, and said, “Do you like my organizing?”

             “Yes,” I said.  “Yes, I love your organizing.  I’m looking forward to you organizing me tonight.”

             We laughed and continued with our work.  I fell into a role I’ve learned to adopt over the years, lost focus on the big picture but continued to push myself along, knowing she’d keep me going in the right direction.

 Saratoga: In Its Own Orbit         

 

          Time flows differently at Saratoga.  It passes in an unreal, dreamlike state—the town, the lakes, the majestic trees; the horses, Oklahoma training track, the barns, the beauty of the main track and the irreplaceable century-old clubhouse; the betting, the Bentleys, the wads of twenty and hundred dollar bills; the bars, the restaurants, the late nights dancing; the early morning screwdrivers and fresh melons; the early evening scotch, roast beef, perfectly ripened tomatoes and just-picked corn on the cob all remaining consistent, unchanging, pooled in a deep reservoir, while friends, relatives and I launch ourselves, incrementally changed each year, into the current: we marry, have children, introduce them to the Spa, develop careers, leave racing, return to racing, lose the youthful money-making ability to pick winners through hunches, lose the endurance to get by on a few hours sleep per night, gain the wisdom to savor every moment. . .  .

           When I look back at Saratoga, I see the year as an oval, like a racetrack, much like the mile and an eighth main track at Saratoga.  The oval is stretched out, with winter at the top—white and gray; summer on the bottom—faded green, yellow; spring on the left—a lush green; fall on the right—rust. August is an exception; it is red and it is shimmering, flickering. Down on the bottom, right before the track heads up into fall, it intensifies for four weeks: brighter, even more heat, faster paced, much faster, a daily lifestyle like no other, little sleep, much gaiety, go-go-go, action, meeting new people, seeing old friends, making incredible connections, spending money, dishing out twenty dollar bills like they’re ones, and racing—horses, fast horses, the fastest in the world, running day after day as Rolls Royces roll by, actors and millionaire investment bankers step up to the $100 betting window, jockeys head to the jocks’ room and the “hot box” to sweat off another three pounds, trainers stand outside their barns talking to owners.

            One trainer speaks intently to four septuagenarian Louisville boys, fraternity brothers, who’ve just bought a yearling at the Fasig Tipton sales the night after my father’s race for half a million, then turns and speaks just as intensely to one of the last of the old-time grooms, also a septuagenarian, a slim, fit black man from Camden, South Carolina, who knows more about how to take care of a horse than anyone in the barn—his father rubbed horses, his grandfather rubbed horses—and who doesn’t have enough in the bank to retire and who doesn’t give a damn, he doesn’t want to retire, he doesn’t have much time left, he’s racing time, and this new half-million-dollar colt in the stall behind him is going to be his big horse next year; this new horse will be taking him to Churchill Downs the first weekend in May.

Tom Voss and Eliza Smithwick: Saratoga Book Signing

            Eliza insisted we return and sit at the little table with the stacks of books. I was embarrassed, I was humiliated; the signing was not going well. But she was right, and she kept my spirits up.  The waiter followed us, or rather—Eliza. At that moment, Tom appeared. He was recuperating from a tough afternoon: what a heart-breakingly close loss it had been for him in the A. P. Smithwick. He sat in “my” seat.  He grabbed the attention of the waiter who had been hovering around Eliza, held up a copy of Flying Change, asked if he’d read this book, didn’t wait for an answer, opened the book up, and on the title page scrawled a dashing, devil-may-care “T H Voss”—as he loved to do, as he had been doing all his life on pads of paper, the initials “THV” carved into trunks of trees, knifed into an old glass panel of the window in our dining room, tattooed into his arms—then handed the book to the waiter.  No mention of payment. A pretty waitress headed past us. He signed again, added an inscription to this one, handed it to her. Her eyes sparkled at him; she was laughing; she said she couldn’t wait to read it and would tell all her friends.

“How long did it take you to write it?”

            He put his hand on the stack of Racing My Fathers.  “This one . . . took all my life.”  He moved his hand to a copy of Flying Change.  “This one, ten years.”

            “You’re so nice to give it to me.  I’m going to tell all my friends about it.  Thank you…”

             Eliza had used her calligraphy skills to make a handsome card: Flying Change— $30.  Racing My Father—$25.  Tom slid it under our cigar box.

             The cocktail sippers and hangers-on spotted the action.  They drifted over, started picking up copies of Flying Change, looking through it, asking Tom questions. He signed a couple “A. P. Smithwick,” scrawled a note, gave them away.  Then there were twenty people lined up at our table. He signed “T H Voss” on the title page, handed the book to me, I inscribed it to the buyer.  We had a system. We were selling books. Eliza and Tom were laughing. A pack of young steeplechase jocks shyly meandered over and began flirting with Eliza.  She laughed at their awkward comments and kept them—all short arms and deep pockets—on their toes. Tom told inquiring prospects that they’d get a deal if they paid in cash: $80 for a pair of signed books, one Flying Change, one Racing My Father. They fell for it.  $20s, $50s, hundred dollar bills. Eliza stuffed the cash in our cigar box. The party was ending and we couldn’t leave.  They were demanding more books and more inscriptions and more of a piece of Tom and Eliza. Eliza was laughing and helping Tom sign and hand out book after book.

 Pimlico Tack Room          

 

           Five-fifteen a.m.  Into the tack room: instant heat and humidity and the cloying, overpowering, sticky pungency of oiled and saddle-soaped tack combined with the acrid scent of metal polish and the funky locker room odor of drying sweat from the helmets and protective vests. Two floor fans do their best, but there is no window and no fresh air.  This room is locked tight every night.

           Britanny is leaning against the table holding the coffee machine, pulling off her flip-flops, and pulling on socks, boots and half-chaps.  Fair-skinned and blonde with a long torso and short legs, she’s in a pair of black skin-tight spandex riding britches and is giggling as is Justine, who is in her “dressing room”—seated behind a curtain of saddle towels hanging to dry from a clothes line stretched the length of the long, narrow room.  Justine, tall, slim, with long legs and big brown eyes, did some modeling in Florida over the winter and spring—thus her deep tan—but didn’t have the patience for it, and she is bent over, thick auburn hair mane over her head, gathering her hair into a pony tail, laughing and revealing a tattoo of a favorite horse—a filly of Dickie’s that she gallops—racing across the nape of her long, outstretched neck.

            The two girls are joking back and forth and Jose is seated there—his tack ready beside him, his arms crossed, taking it in, and grinning at me.  I pick out a bridle I like, pull my saddle off its rack, pick a medium-length girth and ask Britanny, “What the hell’s going on?” She’s still giggling and I know what it must be.  It has to be the tattoo. I’d been lecturing against tattoos for three weeks now. She had wanted to have a heart, festooned with ribbons, and LOVE KILLS SLOWLY emblazoned across it, and, below that, a skull and cross bones, all this tattooed on her—lower belly.  I’d spent several mornings trying to talk her out of the skull, and offering up edited and revised versions of LOVE KILLS SLOWLY.

             Standing in the tack room, zipping up my protective vest, I ask, “What’s so funny?”  and with that, the eighteen-year-old with short blonde hair, wide shoulders, narrow waist, grabs the belt-area of her spandex britches, pulls them down, revealing a bright red strawberry tattooed on the smoothest skin of the prettiest ass you’ve ever seen displayed in a tack room.

 Navigating the Rapids with Tom        

 

           I turn into a driveway, back out, coast down the hill to the bridge. Begin to cross Deer Creek again. Stop.  Look down at the rapids, and instantly I am in the stern of a canoe with Tom. It is late one afternoon, in the midst of a hurricane, the river three feet higher than usual, and we are sweeping around a turn, the water rough, brown, foamy, branches and trees being swept down with us.  There up above us on the bridge is Tiger’s red army jeep, Tiger waving—not hello, but Stop! Stop! Halt! We give our old go-to-hell hunting call, pass the take-out spot, and dart into the chute, a funnel, the canoe seeming to go out from under us.

           We paddle hard, keeping our speed faster than the river’s, making it around one boulder, then another.  The current takes us straight into the third. The starboard side of the bow smashes against the rock—Boom!  Then, it scrapes along to the left. We try to push away. We whoop and yell. We’re going to make it. But we are leaning in slightly, leaning upstream into the flow of the river, and the power of the current is pushing the hull out from under us, the canoe is filling with water, and over we go.  In the stern, I’m relieved as I see Tom go over into the spray, away from the rocks. Then, I too am overboard.

            I’m struggling under the canoe, thrown against the boulder.  My head whacks against the solidity of it. The water is in my eyes, in my ears, in my mouth, pummeling me.  It’s roaring. I’m dizzy. Weak. The canoe, incredibly, is bending, wrapping around me, trapping me against the rock.  I’m sliding downwards. It looks like this is it. I see Tiger throwing something down to Tom. I hear Tom, “Grab it! Grab the rope!”  He’s on a boulder upstream, throwing a line to me. I miss catching it. Miss again. And then I have it. He pulled me out, many a time.

Racing with Charley and Speedy Kiniel

           . . . Pulling Charley up, I feel it all come together. All the work and trust and effort and planning and patience has paid off.  I pat Charley on one side of his neck, switch hands, pat him on the other. He had been in control, saving his energy and speed in the early part.  He hadn’t insisted on increasing the length of his stride and surging into every fence. He had jumped every fence well. He had done everything I asked of him.  Yes, I love him.

Speedy is waiting at the winner’s circle.  He is joking and patting Charley and posing for pictures.   After the trophy presentation, choking up a bit, I tell Speedy “I wish Mikey’d been here.”

           “He is, Patrick!”  It has power, and I love it, the way, just once in a blue moon, he says Patrick.  “Mikey is here now, Patrick.  Don’t you know it? Can’t you feel it?  It’s Mikey Power.”

           Then, for a second, my thoughts drift to my father and riding a race much like this thirty-five years ago on a horse called Wild Amber, at Saratoga.  A current of hot-emotion surges through my body. I wish Pop was there with us, and I imagine how he would congratulate me on the training of the horse, on the settling him down, and on the using my hands—wait till I tell Janon—and getting him to relax in the race, riding with a deep seat and a long hold, catching the front-runner and passing him, riding strong and steadily without any wasted energy to the wire.

            “Your daddy’s here too,” Speedy suddenly asserts, looking me in the eye.  “Your daddy’s here too, just as real, just as powerful as the day you was just a kid and won on Wild Amber at Saratoga.”  

             How does he know?  How does he know what I’m thinking?  How the hell does he remember that day?

             “I bet on you that day.  I knew your daddy didn’t come all the way to Saratoga to finish second with that horse.  You caught’em at the last fence and then took off down the stretch!”

At the van, I take the shank.  Speedy has half a dozen groupies around him.  He’s rubbing Charley like he’s trying to peel the skin off him.  The corners of the rub rag snap and pop.

Suddenly my red BMW M-3 owner of three boarders back at the farm is there.  She’s crying. Tears are running down her face. She’s hugging Speedy. She’s hugging me.  She’s hugging Charley. “I’m late. I’m late with this payment,” she says, handing me a clump of cash.  Six one hundred-dollar bills. Then, she’s gone.

               There Speedy and I are, up on the knoll, overlooking the course, with Charley. The sun is setting.  We laugh, look at each other. I peel off three one-hundred dollar bills, hand them to Speedy.

               Speedy folds the bills, sticks them in the chest pocket of his overalls, looks at me.  “Where we going next?”

"There is Nothing But Immortality"

           After the gallop, we hack home the long way, cooling the horses out, Celeste and I getting chilled but the cold doesn’t affect Tom. . . .

           We ride them right into the stalls, slide off stiffly, slowly—trying not to get that painful sting in the feet—onto the straw, pull off the tack.  “I got him, Patrick,” Jack says. “Go get warm,” the sweet smell of bourbon combined with my frozen state bringing me back to galloping at Pimlico in the winters before classes at Gilman and then Hopkins.  I hobble to the dark-stained, pine-panelled tack room, ribbons Tom’s grandmother won in the show ring in the 1930’s and ’40s strung across one wall, old photos of Tom’s earliest horses winning on another wall. . . ; and Tom, smoking, still in his parka and pommel pad for a hat, sitting at his big wooden desk covered with condition books, Racing Forms, envelopes holding horses’ identification papers,  half-smoked packs of Pall Malls, an open check book, ash tray, legal pad with notes, a battered leather brief case, sheets of paper with his signature scrawled over and over across them, and an “itcher”—a dollar bill folded into a small triangle, like a guitar pick, which he uses to scratch himself.

             I sit on the collapsing couch, springs having no spring, my butt almost going to the floor.  Pull off my boots, set them on the crackling iron radiator, wave irritably at Tom’s smoke, rub my feet.  He grins, pulls open the bottom desk drawer, shuffles through papers. “Damn, it’s not in there. I forgot.  Have to hide it from Jack.”

             He stands, walks to a yellow tack trunk with black cross sashes, opens the top, flips through the tack, pulls out a fresh bottle, cracks the seal and takes a pull.  He hands it to me. I take a swig. It goes down beautifully, smoothly, warming my chest, my soul, connecting us, connecting us to the farm, to Wassie, to my father, to our love of horses and racing, sealing off the outside world of modernity and computers and terrorism and cell phones and political correctness so that all that exists is the two of us 8:00 Sunday morning sitting together in a tack room with memorabilia from our youth—before our youth—all around, the radiators clanging, the air thick with tobacco smoke and the scent of saddle soap and Lexol and Neatsfoot Oil, the pungency of horse sweat rising up from the pile of dirty saddle towels and rub rags by the washing machine.

             The door opens.  The frigid air blasts in.  It’s Celeste. She laughs at us sitting there in the warmth, then says, hopefully, “Got three tacked up and ready to go.”

He squints and looks at me.

“Let me get the boots back on.”

Out we go and do it again.

* All art by Sam Robinson *
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