8:57 am. Three minutes early.
The rhythm of the blacksmith’s mallet keeps time. Three horses walk a few turns around the shedrow to cool off. Their nostrils open and close with decreasing regularity, barely visible and no longer audible by the end of the second lap. A groom picks pieces of straw out of a gray filly’s still-black tail.
“The boss can see everything with her binoculars,” said Kieran Norris, co-owner of Ballyerin Racing, grinning, “so we can’t send anything out with straw in its tail.”
It’s a typical Tuesday morning at Ballyerin Racing. Norris oversees the barn while his wife, trainer Madison Meyers, watches their horses work from a hill overlooking the Middleburg Training Center’s 7/8-mile track, binoculars in hand. Three-month-old daughter Charlotte drinks from a bottle and cattle dog Bobbie Gentry stands guard.
After saying my good mornings to Norris, another rider and a groom, I made my way past the blue vinyl wall box with the stable’s BR initials emblazed on the door, to look at the set list.
First up, Grunion.
The 5-year-old is a half brother to Zanclus, who Norris rode to win the 2018 Virginia Gold Cup. The Virginia-bred son of Yarrow Brae hasn’t made his first start yet, but that doesn’t worry Norris.
“We’ve jumped him quite a bit but it’s taken a while for him to grow up,” Norris said as I hopped up on the substantive plain bay gelding, “He’ll make a timber horse.”
Owner Sara Collette sent her homebred to Norris and Meyers to prepare for the spring steeplechase season. The plan for Grunion is to race on the point-to-point circuit before graduating to the sanctioned ranks. He hopes to add another success story for Collette’s green and white jumping dolphin silks.
Norris mounts a 2-year-old in for pre-training. After a turn around the shedrow, we hack out to the track. I jog to the quarter pole, turn back, bridge the reins and ask Grunion to step into a gallop. He settles in and I slip my right middle finger through the yoke.
A healthy set of ears frame a red fox crossing the track about 20 yards in front of us. “Tally ho,” I say, perhaps a little too loudly, forgetting for a moment that I’m not at my day job. A rider jogging by looks up. It’s Middleburg. It’s excusable, I tell myself.
Grunion swivels his ears around, paying more attention to his excited rider than to Charlie, who’s now safely in the infield. We kick on and finish our work.
I pull up Grunion, we jog down the long side, turn and stand, watch and listen. He takes a breath. I slack the reins. It’s mid-winter. Everything is brown and barren. The Blue Ridge Mountains form a gray silhouette against a gray sky. Back to the barn. Tack off, cooler on, carrot for Grunion.
Next up, Safe Journey ’19, an unnamed 2-year-old filly.
She ignores a squealing stud colt a few stalls down and turns around to look at me, ears forward, as I adjust her quarter sheet. Wide blaze and soft eyes, she’s solid, not dainty, but decidedly feminine.
Breeders David and JoAnn Hayden sent the daughter of Bodemeister to Norris and Meyers to complete the six-month stint required for enrollment in the Virginia Thoroughbred Association’s Virginia Certified Residency Program, making the filly eligible for lucrative bonuses when she reaches racing age.
A full sister to stakes winner O Dionysus ($452,074 in earnings to date), Safe Journey ’19 comes from a deep Maryland-bred family developed by the Haydens at their Dark Hollow Farm in Baltimore County.
“Her great-grand dam Safely Home put Dark Hollow Farm on the map,” said JoAnn Hayden. “She was a by nothing out of nothing claimer who went on to produce (1990 Breeder’s Cup Sprint winner) Safely Kept, who hit the 2-million-dollar mark.”
I jump up and meet Norris outside. His filly spooks and jumps to the right. Safe Journey ’19 grows tense for a split second and considers her options. I put my leg on, she exhales and walks forward. She makes the right call. I scratch her on the neck.
Two-year-olds jog once around the track, stop, turn, then gallop once around. It’s a low-pressure, high-reward program. We pass the white donkey in a pasture that abuts the far end of the track, no problem. Norris grins and says we’re lucky he’s not braying today – the 2-year-olds aren’t sure what to make of him.
Safe Journey ’19 will graduate from the Virginia Certified Program in April. By then, she’ll have learned to load into the starting gate, will have hacked out on trails and through hay fields, and will have jogged down Millville Road, the same approach used by Hall of Famer Sidney Watters Jr. so many years ago and Centennial Farm today. It’s a solid foundation for the racetrack and beyond.
“First we’ll have to name her,” JoAnn Hayden said when asked what’s next for her filly. “Then she’ll go to our trainer Mike Trombetta to race in Maryland. When she’s finished racing, she’ll retire to our broodmare band. We don’t sell the fillies, only the colts.”
After finishing the set, Norris and I stand the fillies in the gap. Safe Journey ’19 plays with the bit, a fat copper snaffle, and relaxes her ears. We turn and walk back to the barn beneath the limbs of the stark pin oaks that line the path.
“The track was good today,” Norris says. “Like galloping on a cloud.”