Sports & Outdoors

One Hammer of a Heartbeat

By

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Synopsis

This is a memoir written by a middle-aged man, about his younger self and his first experience at the racetrack with Thoroughbred horses.
But it is about more than that.
The racetrack is a wonderful place, but it can also be a cold and hard place. One can meet every sort of person in one afternoon at the track, from the wildly successful to the tragically unlucky. This book, about the racetrack, is also about life, death, love, and heartbreak.
The racetrack is mostly about the horses; the career of the horse this book chronicles, a diminutive and ordinary Thoroughbred named Officer's Citation, was not a champion, or even a very successful racehorse.
He did have the heart of a champion, and he also had an unusually kind disposition for a racehorse. He was the sort of horse with whom one falls in love.
On the ledger's negative side, Officer's Citation had a suspect knee and a tragic date with destiny.
In this book, we experience the high of a win at long odds, the low of being second best, and the heart-wrenching end of an ill-fated charger who deserved better.

Arrival

The first time I saw him was in late March of 1987, as he was walking through the gate to the barn area at Playfair Race Course in Spokane.

He was slick as an eel, his winter coat already shed, a little brown Thoroughbred horse maybe fifteen-two hands in height. His legs, mane, and tail were black, and his sleek coat was shining in the sun. He was registered as a dark bay as far as the Jockey Club of America was concerned, but he was seal brown in color. He was alert and casually swishing his tail back and forth, looking left and right as my father led him through the gate to the barn area. The horse had seen it all before, and he didn’t seem to feel much about it one way or the other.

“Name of the horse?” the man in the guard shack asked.

“Officer’s Citation,” shouted the man who had sold the horse to my father. “He looks good, Marv,” said Jerry Franklin, a mountain of a man, tacked three and a half, at least.

To the uninitiated, Jerry weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds including the saddle, if so equipped. About two hundred thirty pounds more than the average jockey at Playfair. The jockeys usually tacked about a buck twenty. All equipment or “tack” is included in the weigh-in. Jerry was not a jockey, but he was a fixture at Playfair.

This little brown Thoroughbred did look good. To me, he looked like he was pretty well put together, but I didn’t know enough about the conformation of a Thoroughbred to support my opinion. He was muscular and understated, had a keen head and kept his ears pricked forward, always interested in what was going on.

My dad, Marv, was a farrier but he called himself a horse shoe-er. He was also a construction worker and usually operated a backhoe, big or small, the Case 980c his preferred machine. After work, he would drive two hundred miles or more to our home out on the edge of nowhere. He’d arrive home, bail out of the truck, and my brother and I would find ourselves suddenly involved in a very intense basketball game, us against him.

If the job was any less than two hundred miles away, he was home every night. He would usually be up for a game of hoops on that gravel driveway. He always wore cowboy boots with a low heel and a cowboy hat with a low crown; white straw in the summer, brown felt in the winter. Weekends, it was the sweat-stained gray felt, brim curled and worn smooth on the left side. He really wore that hat, and it fit. He wore it cocked off a little to the left, and a little more to the left if he was tuned up with a drink or two. The hat migrated further left relative to his blood alcohol level. His preferred drink was a screwdriver, his preferred singer was old Hank, not Hank, Jr. He liked Barbara Mandrell, too, as far as modern country went, but he would tell you Patsy Cline might be a better singer. “Jesus, that Barbara Mandrell is a looker, though.”

Weekends, we’d shoe horses. My brother or I would be cleaning up and straightening the re-usable shoes, while the other one would be holding the horse, head straight as a string and up, still as a statue. Marv would trim the hooves and tack the shoes on, fifteen dollars a head, seven for a trim. It wasn’t long before it was thirty and fifteen, Marv as busy as he wanted to be, and then some.

He’d stick nine nails between his teeth and only need eight, every single time. Tack the shoe on and then that ninth, take it out of his mouth to emphasize a point to one of his customers, usually along the lines of Nixon was a no good son of a bitch and that’s just a fact. After 1980, of course, the name was Reagan, but the same principle applied.

To be fair and balanced, he never said many good things about Carter in those days either. And while he liked the policies of Lyndon Johnson, “LBJ was one of the crookedest sons a bitch’s in history,” according to Marv. The truth is, you had to go all the way back to JFK to hear him say something good about a President.

His political views were a minority viewpoint by a wide margin in Whitman County Washington, also known as the Palouse country. There was nothing but wheat farms and fields as far as the eye could see. But Marv was the only union member as far as the eye could see, and he wouldn’t stand but a word or two of union bashing before he set things straight.

He was a member of Local 370 of the Operating Engineers, and proud of it. Marv was very intelligent, and one of his friends in the union wanted him to run for Business Agent, head of the local.

“What the hell makes you think I’d be any good at that?” Marv asked Jerry Young, a friend, co-worker, and astute observer of human nature.

“Because, Marv,” Jerry said, “You can tell a guy to get fucked in such a way he just wants to go do it.”

Marv did have a way with words, as you will learn. He had a way with horses also, a horse whisperer long before the term was invented. He didn’t always whisper. A stubborn old gelding with his own ideas might get kicked behind the right ear if Marv wanted him to turn left, but only when the horse was not responding to the traditional cue. Pretty sudden-like, the horse would be responding. Marv could adjust their way of thinking in a hurry, and it hardly ever took brute force. He got on a lot of bad horses and got off a lot of good ones.

The horses he traded only needed to do two figure eights at a very fast walk in the auction ring. The rider, me or one of my siblings, would pull the reins back and the horse would slide to a stop, and then on demand, walk in reverse four or five steps. “Sell that son of a bitch,” Marv would say as the rider dismounted, and peeled the saddle off the horse as we sent another short term guest down the road. The good sales sometimes got us a steak dinner at the Stockyards Inn, just around the corner from the Stockland Livestock Exchange on Freya street in Spokane.

We bought and sold a few Arabian horses, imported some wild Pintos from Moses Lake, and even a couple of Belgians from Kettle Falls. Marv had to borrow a farm truck with a stock rack on it for the Belgians. It was a little more than the Ford f-250 could handle. Eighteen hundred pounds is a lot of horse, and there were two of them, one bay and one white.

The first thing I remember about the Belgians, was when we pulled over the hill to arrive at home with them on the back of the truck, my little league baseball team was finishing up a game. I was the catcher and clean up hitter. Not that afternoon, though. That afternoon, I was a surprised catcher who just realized he had missed the game, and it was the only game I ever missed.

I preferred baseball to horses by a pretty wide margin in those days.

The best thing about the Belgians was that all four of us, my brother, two sisters and I could all ride the white Belgian at the same time. She was very docile and actually had a pretty good rein on her. The bay gelding wasn’t broke to ride. When we sold them, the four of us rode the white mare into the auction ring, and we were leading the bay. It really wasn’t fair to the buyers. An audible gasp uttered when a horse entered the auction ring usually meant steak after the hammer fell.

Buying and loading the Pintos was an adventure. We sold a horse or two in Moses Lake, and as I recall, one was the sale topper, the most expensive horse sold through the ring that day. Whatever the situation, we had sold, and weren’t looking to buy. But then these two skinny and wild-eyed Pintos ran through the entrance and into the sales ring. Having been born on the range, they hadn’t seen a human being before that day. They were fired up and looked like they might try to jump out the ten-foot-high fence around the sale ring.

The auctioneer had the price up to seventy-five for the pair; going once, going twice, “Sold, to the cowboy, thank you, Marvin,” he said, as the hammer fell and the big door opened. The pintos scurried out of the auction ring and into a holding pen outside.

If they sold horses, they knew him. We owned a pair of wild Pinto horses who weren’t very big, but when I say wild, just let your imagination go because they were wild.

My Uncle Baldy was there. Baldy said “how the hell you gonna load those Pintos, Marv?”

Marv said,“In a hurry.’”

Baldy loved to tell that part of the story years later, and usually did whenever we were watching someone load a stubborn horse at the racetrack.

“Hey,” Marv said. “How did we load them?”

“In a hurry,” Baldy replied.

They would both be watching the difficult to load Thoroughbred while reminiscing about loading wild horses in a hurry. I could almost hear the gears turning sometimes.

When we loaded the Pintos, Marv set up a path through the alleyway between the loading chute and the pen they were in. He then opened the gate, went into the pen, got behind them and snapped his fingers. Nine hundred total pounds of spotted fury zig-zagged its way through the alley, sprinted up the loading chute, and into the truck. My brother and I had the doors closed with the safety bar in place faster than you can say loaded. “Come on boys, we gotta roll,” said Marv. “Get that tailgate, watch out you don’t get kicked.” Once we were on the road, the horses would settle down, busy trying to keep their balance in the back of a moving truck.

Only one Thoroughbred passed through the gate, though, the whole time we lived in the farm country. This must have been the winter of 1976-1977.

We kept the Thoroughbred and Marv’s good Quarter Horse, Hard Hearted, in box stalls at night, putting them on the nutrition and fast fat program. The Thoroughbred was a horse we bought as a yearling and sold as a two-year-old, eventually named Redda Rosa. I don’t remember him as anything but calm, kind, and gentle. He was not much different than any two-year-old horse, just better looking. I do remember noticing how light he was on his feet compared to some of the old saddle horses. Marv sold Redda Rosa and started a couple of savings accounts for my brother and me, five hundred between us in separate accounts. The first Thoroughbred in my life paid off pretty well, I thought.

Officer’s Citation was my second Thoroughbred, and I found him to be a kind and gentle soul as well. His pedigree was laced with Thoroughbred stallions said to be of nasty disposition and foul temperament. He was neither of these, and he taught me many things about life. He taught me about the razor-thin line between every emotion in the spectrum, and he showed me how everything can change in one hammer of a heartbeat.

My aunt and uncle, along with my parents, had been in the racehorse business previously, winning the Washington Championship with a horse named Stiltz in 1964, the year before I was born. Stiltz won the Harvest Handicap, and the Inland Empire Marathon Handicap at Playfair that same year. I used to study the trophy and picture for hours growing up; the “Two Miler” would stir my imagination, for some reason I still don’t understand.

They sold Stiltz ten days after I was born, my once in a lifetime horse. I often wondered if it was to pay the bills I created, but it turned out they bought another horse with the money, so I rest easy. Mariah’s Best was the name of the horse. “That son of a bitch could flat haul it for a quarter mile,” said Baldy.

“Baldy called me from Tanforan and said he was gonna run Stiltz in a claiming race, and they were gonna claim him if he did,” Marv said. “I told him, ‘sell that son of a bitch and get up here with the money, I got one picked out.’”

Baldy spoke up, “We’re watching the race, here’s this son of a bitch twenty lengths out of it at the three-eighths…”

“Padding along like an old hound-dog,” said Marv. “Baldy look over at me with that eyebrow arched, like…” Marv arched an eyebrow.

“And then he un-corked,” Baldy said, shaking his head, “I said to Marv…”

“He said ‘Jesus, we shoulda bet a hundred, we’d a had him for nothin’.’”

“Twenty-five to one and run second.”

“Big Mirage won seven races for us the next year.”

“So did Flying D, they both win seven that year.”

“We had some tough horses in those days.”

Every one of my siblings was in multiple winner’s circle pictures in the sixties and early seventies, but I had to wait until July 22, 1987.

The Putzier Brothers dissolved the partnership in the early 1970s, busy raising families. I was the youngest in my family, twenty-one years old in the summer of 1987. Officer’s Citation was my formal introduction to the Thoroughbred at the races, and the first Thoroughbred campaigned by the Putzier Brothers in about fifteen years. He was the entire stable, and his purchase price was eight hundred dollars.

The day I met him, I had been waiting in Barbara’s Backstretch Cafe, after going to the race office with my uncle and brother and procuring my first groom license from the Washington Horse Racing Commission. I had no idea how it all worked at the track, and I felt like it would be fun to find out. The cafe was beside the entrance to the backstretch at Playfair, on Haven street, in Spokane.

Barbara’s Backstretch Cafe itself came to be kind of a magical place in my eyes, quite a feat considering it was just a small cafeteria with a concrete floor. It was a place where a groom could get a half-order of the Backstretch Scramble, eggs, potatoes, onions, peppers, served with toast, topped with cheese or gravy. The half order was nearly as big as the full order, but for half the price; it was usually heaped high and nearly covered the entire platter. I don’t know if the woman who ran the place was named Barbara or not, I just know she called me honey and had a soft spot for underpaid grooms.

I was sitting near the door with my uncle and brother, watching out the window, waiting for my father to show up with the horse. I stepped outside just as they walked up to the entrance. Marv signaled Baldy to handle the business at the guard shack.

The horse walked past, calm and casual, his ears pricked forward; he knew he was back at the track. He had a big beautiful rear end, not at all unusual on a Putzier Brothers racehorse. MD Putzier could put a horse in prime condition, and that is the truth.

I admired Officer’s Citation as he strolled by, and walked with my uncle to the guard shack in case they needed a signature. Baldy had ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease was slowly trapping a razor-sharp mind inside a deteriorating body. I’d seen him get angry about it but never heard him complain. I wasn’t aware of how much he taught me about masking the pain with humor. Maybe he wasn’t, but he could make you laugh for hours, and dealt with enough pain to last anyone a lifetime.

They called me Bass, Marv and Baldy did. I won’t tell you the back story on the nickname, you probably wouldn’t understand, and I normally don’t volunteer this information. But the best quotes always started with, “Y’know Bass…,” so I feel like I should mention it before we go much further.

Baldy and I would sit on the bench at the gap, the entrance to the track on the backstretch. I would light cigarettes for him and listen to his observations on horses, horsemen, horsewomen, life, local and worldwide events.

He’d watch a horse walk by, and then ask me, “What’s wrong with that horse?”

I would feel the same sensation as when the teacher announced a pop quiz.

I would listen to the sound of the aluminum shoes clicking and clacking over the pavement as the horse walked away from the racetrack. “Right fore?” I would offer.

He’d nod his head once, ask “Where?”

“Looks like up in the shoulder, but I don’t know…”

He’d nod again, once, acknowledging the answer and then would school me.

“Pretty sure it’s a knee. Sometimes it’s one joint lower’n it looks like it might be.”

He watched a horse walk by once; I don’t remember the name, but he was never behind another horse for the first three calls of any race on his form. Something Mercury, Mercury something, I don’t remember. But I remember what Baldy said, he said, “If we were in this for real, that son of a bitch would be standing somewhere around the barn tomorrow morning.”

Then he laughed and told me I wouldn’t get far at this track claiming horses from Joe Baze. “He’s worth a quarter though, for damn sure,” Baldy said as we watched the horse walk away.

Hours Baldy and I spent on that bench throughout the summer, into the autumn. I passed many quizzes and failed my fair share. He called the track “The Evil Oval.” His close friends and family called him Baldy, while his associates and some of his cohorts called him Rollin, his given name. One or two of his buddies even called him Rollie.

But anyway, back to the horse.

I don’t remember if we had to sign anything at the guard shack or not. I walked with Baldy as he shuffled to the barn, which was right along the outside rail of the track, the stall facing away from the track. It was almost adjacent to the starting point for the mile and 70 yards, and the mile and a sixteenth races on the five-furlong track.

Once that summer, I was holding Officer’s Citation for the farrier. The gate crew was loading the starting gate behind his stall for a race. As they loaded from the inside out, the noise kept getting closer. The horse kept getting a little more up on his toes, a little more alert. We paused until after the start, thinking he might break with the horses in the starting gate. He was a cool customer, though, and just pricked his ears forward as he listened to the break, ignored the noise of the tractor pulling the gate off the track, and looked once in the direction the horses raced.

I did love that horse. Memories of his mannerisms haunt me to this day, so bittersweet is the time we spent together. I am sorry, my old friend is all I can ever think to say. I can’t think of our last moments together without getting emotional, all these years later.

It is supposed to be a business. You aren’t supposed to fall in love. A cold heart can have a lot of success in this game if success is measured in wins. But I don’t understand how you can be around these majestic animals and not fall in love with at least one of them. I loved them all, but I admit I liked some more than others, and Officer’s Citation alone captured my entire heart for all eternity.

He had ‘heart’, The one intangible every trainer looks and hopes for. He would give his all, and then he would give more. He earned his keep, and he paid his bills. He filled my heart with joy, with optimism, with pride, and with love. He is the reason I love the Thoroughbred in general, and he is the reason I have traveled through tornado spawning thunderstorms to take photographs of racehorses in the winner’s circle.

He is the reason my father and I finally had a meeting of the minds after twenty-one years, the reason we finally bonded, and who we talked about in the hospital the day before my father died.

He was my highest high, and my lowest low.

This book is intended to be about the horse. I will let you decide what it is actually about. I thought I would start at the back gate, just outside Barbara’s Backstretch Cafe. The cafe was about seventy yards east of Officer’s Citation’s stall next to the track.

It took about five minutes to walk the distance with Baldy.

Marv could cover the distance in about thirty seconds. He was generally in a hurry.

I can hear Marv now, saying, “Come on, Bass, get that stall bedded.” I heard him say something similar many times that summer. I wish I could hear him say it again tomorrow, over the sound of muted hoofbeats coming out of the fog early in the morning, on the backstretch.



About the author

A construction worker, painter, hardware store manager, photographer of performance horses, and now a writer. Raised in the Palouse country of Washington state, he resides currently in Kennewick, Washington, but will probably live in the Philippines when the covid has gone. Because sunshine. view profile

Published on July 03, 2020

80000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Sports & Outdoors