"If it wasn't for Red Raven, you might not have ever been a rider."
That's what my 81-year-old father said to me over Christmas vacation. I thought about it for a minute. And then I thought long and hard about it later. He's right. If it wasn't for Red Raven, I would not have made a rider.
Thirteen years old - an observer, a non-participant in sports, classes, conversations, middle school dances. Thirteen years old - a kid who said he wanted to be a jockey but was afraid to ride. Thirteen years old - hiding and hoping I didn't get found.
I was trying to ride a pony who was too small for me. A Strawbridge hand-me-down, Doughnut. Wretched little creature, but how did I know? I blamed myself when he stopped, ran out, ran off, fell. If you don't know good, you don't know bad. Dad came out to ride one afternoon, in a big group of horses, Strawbridges, Neilsons, Millers and me. Doughnut stopped or fell, I couldn't tell and I landed in the mud, in the woods. My dad came over, picked me up off the ground and put his foot on the relationship.
"You need a new pony," he said, as we trudged home. Unhurt, physically. Crushed, mentally. A few days later, I came home from school, walked in the kitchen, Dad looked at me and said, "You can ride Red Raven." It was like boarding a plane and the pilot telling you, 'You can fly the plane.' I scoffed. Dad instilled confidence, never wavering. As a kid, I'll never forget his confidence. Now, as a father, I can't fathom his confidence.
Red Raven, a Thoroughbred twin by Gun Shot, was the fastest race pony in the land. Over a decade, he had skipped to victories with Ricky Hendriks, Bernie Houghton, Sanna Small, Sanna Neilson, Jeb Hannum, Blythe Miller...legends in my book. Me riding Red Raven? I thought Dad had gone back to drinking, but Dad continued to instill confidence. A few days later, Dad and I drove to the farm in Andrew's Bridge. We tacked up the 14.1+ hand pony - copper red, clean blaze, two white socks - and Dad led me out of the barn and to the round pen. Yeah, he put in the confines of the round pen, six feet high of wire-mesh, about 20 feet across, Dad walked me around in a circle. Like the pilot putting you behind the seat and never backing away from the hangar.
We walked around the round pen for a few days. Dad eventually turned me loose. Jogged a few circles. Red was kind, confused, but kind. After a few days in the round pen, Dad hopped on his lead pony, Yahtzee, and we hacked out into the field. Red was still kind, quiet, ambling. He was nothing like the race horse who I had seen rip through 3-4 furlong dashes before the steeplechase races at Far Hills, Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Andrew's Bridge, Brandywine, Middleburg.
Well, nothing like it until we reached the end of the field along Bell Road. Dad had coached me, still instilling confidence, "When you get to the end of the field, just turn left and let him go. He'll pull up at the top."
It was a few months after my 13-year-old birthday and the fastest I had ever been was when my brother talked me into riding my foot-brake bike with a broken chain down the driveway. I wound up in a cornfield. I thought that was fast.
Dad coaxed me along, as we jogged along the post and rail fence to my right.
"OK, Bud, go ahead and turn..." Dad said.
I didn't hear the n in turn as I pulled gently on the left rein, which slid the steel D-bit in Red's mouth. Red launched, or lowered, or exploded, maybe a combination of all three. It felt like a train had caught me by the pant leg. The wind hit my face, my eyes burst - like faucets on a summer day - and I clung. I simply, clung. All the rules I had been taught about riding, heels down, elbows in, shoulders back, look straight, don't panic...I forgot each one, well, I didn't forget them, I just couldn't catch them, as they disappeared like ducks falling off the ledge of an arcade game.
Red powered up the long incline, the post and rail fence flashing past, sky getting closer, grass disappearing underneath us - a kaleidoscope gone wild. At the top of the hill, the natural contours of the gallop opened to the left, a sweeping expanse of land that continued across the top - this is where Owhata Chief put in his final breeze before winning the Iroquois and years later where Victorian Hill, Flat Top and Campanile did their priming. All I knew was Red was still flying, like a cheetah across a desert.
I kept thinking, 'Dad said he would stop, Dad said he would stop, Dad said he would stop.' I tried to steer him left but I think he did it on his own and he released, he backed off, like downshifting from fifth to fourth. He was still a long way from park but at that moment, I knew he would stop. I pulled hard on the left rein and began a long, slow, winding-down pony stop, Red circling like a helicopter over a crash scene, slowing with each loop - about 10 in the end - until he had siphoned all his speed and broke to a jog. Oh, like a buoy in a storm, there is no feeling in the world like the one when a horse breaks to a jog, that first, jolting, releasing step to a jog, when you know you'll live to do it again.
Dad galloped up to us, stopped and looked me in the eye.
I guess he knew I was a rider then.
- Red Raven won 10 of 14 starts (with four seconds) for me, taking me to Far Hills to win three in a row and the Iroquois Steeplechase to win a check for $500. He retired in 1985 after a 5-for-6 season. We found out later he was 22 that year. He lived a long, beautiful life.