Out in the field, Full Return romps and nickers with a half dozen other mares, all of them, like her, pregnant and scheduled to foal this spring.
“Doesn’t she look great?” Dave asks me.
“Uh, yeah,” I reply. “Fabulous.”
Since we bought Full Return back in the summer of 2000, this has been an ongoing call-and-response refrain between us.
“See how swollen that ankle looks?” Dave asked me warily early last year, minutes before we ended her career as a racehorse.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “Appalling.”
Truth to tell, in each instance—and in many other instances over the past three years—I failed to notice what Dave so readily discerned. In fact, if he didn’t point out Full Return to me now, I’d likely confuse her with any one of the other mares gamboling in this field on a central Virginia farm: All of them some shade of brown, with varying degrees of white on their faces and legs.
My affection for horse racing dates to boyhood in the early 1960s, when my father, a weekend horseplayer, took me along on some of his racetrack jaunts; it helped that kids were admitted for free. The horses, the jockeys and their colorful silks, the crowds (back then, horse racing enjoyed considerably more popularity than today)—the whole whoosh of the scene excited me. Dad even served as my personal bookmaker, handling my occasional 50-cent wagers on fancifully named horses (Faint Saint!).
In the years since that time, I’ve maintained an avid interest in thoroughbred racing as a sport, visiting numerous racetracks around the U.S., and attending the Triple Crown races— Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes—plus other big events. Periodically, I’ve also set aside a few months from my career as an editor and writer to play the horses full time, although seldom with much success. When people learn that I’ve sometimes “worked” as a horseplayer, they usually gave me a fishy look, as if I had been engaged in an unsavory enterprise.
Until four years ago, I never gave any thought to owning a thoroughbred racehorse—seemed like too much trouble to me—changing my mind only when the gambling aspect of “the game” gradually lost its appeal. Now, when folks learn that I own racehorses, they look flummoxed, because, I suspect, it seems so arcane—as if I’d just told them I spend my free time parsing the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd for hidden meaning.
Anyway, in July 2000, Dave and I plunked down $5,000, going halfsies, for a then-4-year-old Full Return. For almost a year beforehand we had discussed the possibility of establishing a one-horse operation on the cheap, with the hope, over time, of perhaps recouping our investment.
Both of us were well acquainted with ownership’s most sobering reality: Only an infinitesimally small percentage of racehorse owners show a profit, with most just grateful to break even. The costs are brutal and relentless, the setbacks sudden and dispiriting, the joys few but enduring.
It was what amounted to an irresistible deal for me; Dave would completely care for the horse, and we’d split expenses. At that time, Full Return had raced eight times, winning once, while finishing second twice and third three times. That eight-race campaign, however, had battered her ankles and knees and left her with a deflated attitude. Rest, pampering, and a judicious training regimen, Dave speculated, might transform her condition.
“Uh, sounds good to me,” I offered brightly.
Whatever happened, we agreed that if any infirmity ultimately threatened to cause her serious injury, we would retire her (and support her as a pensioner) rather than allow her to wind up in a can of pet food, the true, tragic—if cliched—fate of many discarded thoroughbreds.
At Pimlico’s Barn B, Dave patiently began to nurse Full Return back to health, while I brainstormed a dashing nom de guerre for our stable: “The Mares of Diomedes,” a coy allusion to one of the 12 Labors of Heracles. Six weeks of Dave’s TLC restored both our filly’s physical vitality and mental outlook. Of course, her renaissance came at a price: vet bills, blacksmith bills, feed bills, bedding bills, medication bills, tack accessory bills, exercise rider bills, shipping bills. By late August, when we entered her in a four-furlong (one-half mile) race at Timonium, our $5K investment had grown to $6,500. Now it was time, we reasoned, for her to begin paying dividends.
Our jockey, Manny, attired in the white/green/red of the Mares of Diomedes, warmed up our girl around the track’s Lilliputian oval before the race, and when the starting gate flew open a minute later, Full Return broke slowly, soon trailing the leaders by several lengths. Swell, I sighed inwardly, watching from the track’s teeny grandstand. But as the field reached the tight, banked turn, Manny guided Full Return way outside, gobbling up several rivals in the process, and as the horses raced toward the finish line, she continued to close in on the front runners, winding up third, beaten by less than four lengths. Two minutes later, the order of finish was declared official. I was quietly ecstatic.
Back in the stable area, a coterie of our track chums celebrated as if we’d won the Preakness, instead of an insignificant race at Timonium. While others toasted Dave and plotted an ambitious future for our filly, two cooler heads nodded indulgently: Dave’s and mine. We knew her innate value, her limitations given the suspect ankles and knees. Gratified, yes. Delusional, no. Onward, with caution. Meanwhile, I tramped over to the track’s racing office to collar the horsemen’s bookkeeper, who advised that Full Return had earned $990 that afternoon.
Two weeks later, the Mares of Diomedes racing stable hit the road, chartering a van to ferry Full Return up Route 83 for a night race at Penn National Race Course. Fully recovered from the rigors of her Timonium race, our filly seemed primed for a top effort. Or so we imagined. Instead, we sucked in our breaths as she limped in an undistinguished sixth, beaten by 10 lengths. Riding high in August, shot down in September.
Matters worsened: Full Return’s right front ankle promptly ballooned. We called in a vet to perform a costly ultrasound examination. His diagnosis: a dime-sized hole in the ankle’s crucial suspensory ligament. Further activity would likely cause irreparable damage, so Dave desisted training her. A second ultrasound at the end of October showed the suspensory tear had closed by half—insufficient to resume training. Rest and relaxation might eventually bring her around, and so at the beginning of December we packed her off to a northern Baltimore County farm for an indefinite vacation, cognizant that she probably wouldn’t race again until the following spring—if ever.
In mid-March 2001, the now five-year-old Full Return—all horses advance a year in age on New Year’s Day—returned to Pimlico, still clad in her shaggy winter coat, considerably plumper after five months of inactivity, her ankle back to its normal size. Almost immediately began a glacial, months-long reconditioning process, with mounting bills and no opportunity to recoup expenses. Gradually, though, Dave’s extraordinary care transformed Full Return into a racehorse again.
“She looks better than last year, doesn’t she?” he asked me.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, clueless as always. “Unquestionably.”
Throughout that spring, I visited her on a regular basis, almost always at “feed time” in the late afternoon, when horses start to nudge their plastic tubs with their noses in anticipation of dinner. And while Full Return paid me little heed—like most thoroughbreds, she can readily distinguish between humans who understand them and those who do not get it—I enjoyed soaking up the setting sun while kibitzing with the barn regulars as they conducted their quotidian chores, a convivial group of trainers, owners, grooms, and hot walkers who did get it, and who generously indulged my ignorance.
This made it easier to ignore the fact that we were $11,500 in the red by the third week of June.
With Dave having given his benediction regarding Full Return’s readiness, we began to search for a suitable spot for her comeback, finally selecting the six-furlong (three-quarters mile) second race at Pimlico on July 4. Going solely by the horses’ past performances published in the Daily Racing Form, this appeared to be an evenly matched group of fillies and mares. But while all of the other entrants had been active in the recent past, our mare had been idle for 10 months. Was she ready? Would her legs hold up under the pounding stress?
Our entourage certainly thought so, and made no secret of their collective opinion, touting Full Return to anyone who would listen.
Consequently, by post time, Full Return, who drew the outside post position in the field of seven, had been bet down to the point where she was co-favorite with Gimmewater, who had been performing competitively against similar competition. When the starting gate opened, Full Return broke alertly, and after a quarter mile, six horses, strung in a line across the track, vied for the lead, with Full Return on the far outside, losing ground. Not good. But as the field approached the turn, our jockey, Phil, eased Full Return away from the others. She drew off to lead by two lengths. Then four. Halfway through the turn, she led by six lengths, still running effortlessly.
From my vantage point on Pimlico’s outdoor mezzanine balcony, I slowly tumbled to the fact that she might win. While steeling myself not to cheer openly, inwardly my mind chanted over and over, mantra-like, “Hang on, girl. Hang on, girl.”
With an eighth of a mile to the finish line, Full Return remained unchallenged, with only Gimmewater launching a belated bid. As our mare hit the finish line, four lengths in front, Pimlico announcer Dave Rodman, in a bit of inspired ad-libbing, proclaimed, “Full Return has returned to the races a winner.”
When the track’s stewards declared the race “official,” the reality of the situation seeped in: We’d won—rather, she’d won.
Mildly lightheaded, I made my way to the winner’s circle for the traditional picture-taking ceremony. Dave beamed. I flashed the “V” sign. Our friends offered congratulations, flushed with bonhomie because they’d wagered on our filly. In fact, it seemed that everyone at Pimlico except one person had bet on her: me. An ardent adherent of the power of the jinx, I had decided to watch only—no betting. My scheme, I like to think, had worked a powerful mojo on the outcome of the race.
A bit more than one month after her victory, on what probably was the most oppressive day of the year, with the temperature reaching 101 degrees, Full Return faced another group of fillies at mares at six furlongs; to judge from their records, this field would provide stiffer competition. Breaking from the number 2 post position, Full Return engaged another speedster from the start, and the two of them dueled together into the turn, several lengths in front of the others. But mid-turn, Full Return began to shorten stride, slowly falling back to last. The heat—and her tender legs—had undone her.
Given her ouchy ankle, we decided to put her away for the year, hoping that in the spring of 2002 she would respond in the same fashion that she had in spring 2001. But that never happened. When she began jogging around the Pimlico racetrack in February 2002, that ankle quickly swelled up. The suspensory, Dave noted, was “too far gone.” Her racing days, we agreed, were over. Four races in the colors of the Mares of Diomedes: a win, a third, and two races best forgotten.
Since neither of us had ever bred a racehorse, we decided the try our luck, choosing a venerable Virginia stallion named Purple Comet as Full Return’s mate. Stud fee: $750. Now she’s due to pop out a little filly or colt in late April, meaning, of course, another mouth to feed. (By the end of last year, our investment stood at slightly less than $19,000—and counting.) That foal will be eligible to race as a 2-year-old in 2005. Provided it survives the complicated birthing process. Provided it is not afflicted with any one of a myriad of physical abnormalities. Provided it responds to training. Provided it can run faster than an a-rabber’s cart horse—among countless other potential obstacles.
“Doesn’t she look happy?” Dave asks as we take turns feeding carrots to a pregnant—and showing—Full Return in her stall at the farm.
“Uh, yeah,” I reply. “I think I saw her smile.”