The Post of Don Sam Incognito

Il Cannone

Since solstice, there’s been Christmas and the rush of baking and socializing, then collapse into flu, then travel to Florida to visit family, then a return sick with strep, and now here we are about to begin another semester.  We’ve passed through the darkest time of year, and now the afternoons are lengthening so that there is still some light in the sky at four in the afternoon, and there are longer and longer periods when Mattie and Sam can stand with their sides to the sunlight before the sun shifts behind the ridge.

Sam and Mattie are likely bored and waiting for it to be warm enough—above 10 below, that is—and light long enough for us to be back to our spring training routine.  So I’m not telling them about Ocala and Il Cannone.

We were visiting family in Orlando over the holiday and Ira called his friend, Allison, a former TV writer who loves the process of breeding racehorses—mixing bloodlines, finding a bargain mare at auction and breeding her to a stallion who just might have the right mix of qualities to produce a colt or filly who could run and take our breath away in the process.  It’s a kind of slow gamble fraught with the pleasure of choosing the mare, dreaming of the foal, then seeing it—long legs and all—grow into a two year old in training.

He now owns two mares and their two fillies and a colt, boarded at a brood farm in Ocala. We rented a car and drove north from the gated developments and malls of Orlando to the farm country around Ocala.  I was still a bit sick, maybe even a bit feverish, but when we got to Ocala, I noticed something unusual: there were horse trailers parked everywhere.  The land opened up into farmland—no more swampy areas, and no more palm trees, but slightly rolling pasture land and spreading live oaks and loblolly pines.  Under the trees: horses.

I needed to buy gear for summer riding and we found a tack shop where I found boots, helmet, breeches—all I need for this summer’s Intro A and B—and maybe C–dressage tests.  Then we went to a deli for lunch.  Standing by the cash register, a guy in breeches and boots; at the next table, the talk was horses; the images in the deli were of horses.  I felt much better, suddenly.  Out the window, I saw horse trailers zipping by every few minutes.

We used the GPS to find the horse farm.  As we came to the intersection, there were arrows with the names of farms lined up, pointing in each direction, rather than road signs.  Finally, we turned into a long sandy lane and pulled in under the live oaks where we were greeted by Elaine, on her golf cart loaded with alfalfa, feed buckets, and two Jack Russell terriers.  The air was softly moist, as it can be in Florida, and smelled of pine needles, sharp and sweet.  We followed Elaine to the paddock where a half-dozen brood mares stood, their attention divided between the feed buckets and Elaine and the two strangers.

“When they see strangers,” Elaine told us, “they think it’s either the vet with shots or the farrier.”

We walked into the paddock with her as she dumped the contents of the feed buckets into the feeders in the plank-sided pens at the near end of the paddock.  Each mare knew where her feed pen was and walked into hers as her feed was dropped in.  Elaine closed the pen gates behind each mare and we stood talking about them as they ate.  Allison’s horse, Fiddle, is a small dark chestnut mare, well-built and sweet-faced.  Her colt is Il Cannone, a gentle chestnut yearling, named after a famous violin.

Elaine took us to see the yearlings—a rowdy bunch of colts and one filly–in the next paddock over.  The filly, whose name I’ve forgotten, had a wide blaze and a high-headed alertness—she was already the boss mare.  The yearlings came over to see us and let us scratch their wide foreheads and brushed our hands with their muzzles. Il Cannone sniffed my curled fingers—curled to resemble a horse’s nose.  He was curious and gentle; all the potential of a yearling is in the personality and conformation before humans get much of a hand in.  This bunch seemed playful and energetic and very interested in people.  But Elaine had the buckets. They each went to their feeding pens and waited until Elaine fed them.

All seemed peaceful on the place—the arching live oaks, the tall pines.  We bumped around the farm, three in a golf cart plus two small dogs, and visited some coming two-year olds and some older yearlings.  As we rattled around, Elaine told us about her life in the racing business and how, when she went college, she made sure not to go anywhere more than two hours away from a race track. She dropped out half way through college to make her life with racehorses—the farm is her retirement.  She made the life of a breeder seem so simple, but, as I thought about it, I realized that it seemed simple because of her years with racehorses—on the track, in the breeding shed, on the brood farm, training—a life’s worth of experience.

We stayed as long as we could under the trees, talking, breathing in the pine scent, listening to the horses eating and moving about.  While we were there, a truck and trailer pulled in with a dapple gray filly, just off the track, coming home to the farm to rest up and “just be a horse” for a while.  Elaine went into the stall to greet her and, though the filly had been away on the track for more than a year, it was clear that she knew her as she turned her head towards Elaine in the dark stall.  If I were a racehorse, I could think of no better place to come home to to recover from a stressful season on the track.

Finally we left and made the drive back to Orlando.  We didn’t make it back to Ocala again during that short visit, but now, here in the Interior where it’s hitting 30 below on a full-moon night, I go back to that spot in my mind.  Mattie and Sam don’t know that place exists, and I’m not telling them till spring.

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