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Ride

It was a lazy Sunday morning, The horses were all fed and turned out for the day, the sun was shining and it was a warm day in early June. There was nothing pressing he had to do, no phone calls to return, no sick horses who needed tending, no races to be run.

No one wanting to ask questions, no reporters wanting an interview or a picture, no training, no pressure.

He had a few hours to himself.

On impulse he headed towards the stallion barn, gave Satan a scratch on the nose as he went by and took the Black from his stall. After a quick brushing he slipped a light bridle on the horse's head, grabbed a hand full of mane and pulled himself up on the high and glossy back then walked calmly out the tall double doors and headed off towards the trails.

Alec couldn't remember the last time they'd gone for a ride, just the two of them with no agenda or plans. It was almost like it used to be when it was the two of them, before everything happened, before the racing and the farm and the pressure and the attention. Back when it was him and his horse spending some time together.

No saddle, no boots, not even a helmet (Henry and his parents would have fits if they knew) and the rare feeling of having nowhere to be, no one to see and no time he had to be back. Even the horse seems to be loving the feel of wind in his mane and no stop watch on his every move.

They headed for the trail at an easy trot, just ambling along, Alec smiling at two squirrels running up a tree at their approach and Black snorting, shaking his head as they passed, hearing the annoyed chittering being thrown down at them. If squirrels were the only ones who ever yelled at them life would be a lot easier but Alec shook his own head, refusing to allow those kind of thoughts to make any impression on his day. A hundred or so yards down the path they came to the fork; left would take them down to the pond, right would lead them through the woods to the far fields.

Heading left Alec gave his horse his head, allowing him to set his own pace and laughing when the animal made a smooth transition into a ground eating lope. The rocking chair motion was easy to sit and they both enjoyed just watching the scenery pass by. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, the leaves were a thousand shades of green, God was in his heaven and all was right in the world.

It had been a long time. Too long.

Big time racing; he loved it, loved almost everything to do with it but it was a hard life and the constant pressure was difficult "I understand why they're always following me around and asking questions, Black—I do. I just wish sometimes they'd stop and leave me alone."

Alec let his horse slow to a walk, enjoying the warm sun on his skin as much as the animal did as they quietly ambled along.

"I get it, I do—the shipwreck, the big races, the Triple Crown and everything else and you, of course but still...I wish I could just walk around a track and not have to stop to talk to everyone. It's not that I don't like people, you know that; it's just that, you know how it is—it's like everyone wants a piece of me and after a while I don't know if I have anything left to give any of them. You feel the same way, don't you?"

The horse tossed his head, snorting in what might have been agreement.

The small pond was just ahead, their unwitting destination. Black went straight to the water as Alec slipped off his back into the high grass.

"That's not completely true, either. If no one recognized me it would be because none of this had happened and then where would we be?" Black was noisily drinking from the shallow water. "Okay, I know it's a tradeoff, but sometimes I just wish—you know what I wish, don't you Black?"

Alec lay down, stretching out on the ground, the earth softened and padded by the long grass. On his back. His head pillowed by his hands, he looked straight up through the trees to the brilliant blue, not a cloud to be seen. "Hey, Black, remember the sky on the island? I think this is even bluer today."

He heard the horse walk into the water, wading like anyone might do to cool off on a hot day, finally stopping about knee deep, splashing his nose though the clear water then shaking his head, spraying drops before repeating the motion, clearly enjoying himself.

"You know, you could have used that technique to help me catch fish when we were stranded."

Unimpressed, Black walked out of the pond, stopping to sniff Alec's head.

Reaching up to scratch the animal's chin he was laughing as he said, "That tickles." A few moments went by, the two enjoying being together and alone; a rare thing for them the last few years. Finally, the horse lowered himself to the grass, rolling, all four feet in the air and grunting with pleasure.

Watching, Alec thought again of the idea which had been keeping him away at night for months now; how much longer he could ask Black to race, to endure the chaos of the track, the attention, the confined quarters, the crowds and the stress. A part of him knew he was asking the same question about himself as well.

He loved racing, loved the competition, loved the adrenalin rush, the knowledge that he and his horse were the best, as good as any pairing which had ever set foot on a track and would go down in the record books. It was heady stuff but it came with the price of nonstop scrutiny, constant pressure to perform and to win, fear that every race could be the last for one or both of them and that the end could well involve blood, pain and possible death.

He turned back to the stallion as he got to his feet in search of something to graze on, shuffling just a few feet closer to the water before he bent his head to eat.

On average one jockey a year died in the US. That was a simple fact and Alec knew more than one rider who'd gone out of the gate on the back of a horse but been carried off the track in an ambulance. He'd taken that ride more than once himself, though he'd been relatively lucky.

Nine out of ten race horses ended up broken down. Only one out of ten made it through their careers without serious injury.

That was another fact.

He sat up, studying the sheen of Black's coat, the play of muscles under his skin as he cropped the long grass, the way one muscle would twitch, followed by another; everything about him telling anyone who looked that he was whole and healthy.

A couple years ago when Barbaro had broken down, his ultimately doomed try to recover from serious injury covered by every news station on TV and every newspaper in the country. When Eight Belles had broken both of her front ankles as she crossed the finish line of the Derby and been euthanized on the track-both tragedies had caused Alec to have nightmares for months. In his dreams the stricken horse was the Black and he was helpless to help him, sitting on the track, holding his head as he was given the final shot to end his suffering.

Watching him now, the picture of health, he didn't know how he could allow him to race again.

Laying back down, staring up to the sky again, as though to find answers in the endless blue, he saw a hawk sail above them. Hunting, soaring on wind currents, wings barely moving with his effortless flight, the bird seemed to represent what they'd had on the island; freedom, with boundaries and the need—and means—to provide for themselves without any outside help or interference.

He smiled at his longing for the cliched 'good old days', feeling like Henry or his parents must when they told their stories of growing up. He was still in his early twenties, plenty of time for nostalgia in the years to come, and no sense in wasting energy in it now. Besides, what was that song he'd heard a few days ago playing backside at the track? There was some line in which had caught his attention--'these are the good old days', that was it. A few years or decades down the road he might look back on today—perfect sky, warm, no place to be and no one to answer to, just him and his horse enjoying one another and a chance to relax, freedom to do what they wanted for a while—it was as close to a good old day as he could hope to have and that was the truth.

Looking up at the sky again he saw the hawk still lazily circling.

Without warning the bird folded it's wings and dove straight down, almost too fast to follow and struck less than a dozen feet away, causing Alec to jump and Black to bolt away, whinnying in alarm. Held in the hawk's talons was a small rabbit, already dead as the bird started to tear into it.

Alec watched dispassionately for long minutes, ignored by the hawk as it ate it's fill.

Death, violent death was part of his life and something he'd become almost too used to, knowing it was common in racing whether you were on a track or a farm.

It happened all the time.

A storm could strike, killing animals with flash flooding or lighting. A horse, foal or stallion, could break a leg on a track or running in a field. Colic could hit. Stillbirths. Barn fires.

Like the dead rabbit, it happened without warning, dropping from nowhere without warning, from a clear sky.

It could happen, just like things had happened to him over the years; the shipwreck, plane crashes balanced by tremendous success in racing. He'd won the Triple Crown at eighteen, won the Hambletonian, a second Kentucky Derby, helped found Hopeful Farm, their stallions were in demand and, while still getting established, were doing as well as anyone could hope.

The hawk finished eating but stayed for a long minute watching Alec, trying to gauge if he were a threat or not, finally leaving in a flurry of wings as Black made a high spirited charge at the bird. All that was left of the rabbit was a smear on the grass and a few bones and bits of fur.

Sobered, Alec got to his feet, vaulted onto Black and let the horse get them home at his own speed, picking a path through the woods.

Back at the Stallion barn Alec brushed down his horse then let him loose in the field reserved for his own use. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm; there was no reason for the animal to be cooped up in his stall. Next he walked back to the barn, to his office located at the end of the corridor. He sat there for over an hour, watching the mares and foals in the field outside his window, quietly thinking, turning over the possibilities, the limitations and the ramifications and consequences of his decision.

It made sense, anything else would be foolhardy and tempting fate.

It was the right thing to do.

Picking up the phone he started to dial but changed his mind and replaced the receiver in it's cradle. No, better to tell Henry in person when he arrived back at the farm from the New York tracks later tonight.

"Alec, you all right?"

Startled, he looked up as his father crossed the room and sat in the visitor's chair. "I've been thinking, 'made a decision."

"Oh?"

"It's time to retire Black to stud. I want to make an announcement this week."

Bill Ramsay nodded, thoughtful. "I'm not surprised, you've been considering this for a while now."

"He's done enough."

"'Have you said anything to Henry about this?"

"No, but I think he'll agree. He's almost eight, he's earned it. Besides, if he breaks down during a race we could lose him and then we'd lose the fees he should generate for the next decade or so." Though they both knew that Alec's decision wasn't based on finances.

"The tracks, the managements will try to talk you out of it, try to get you to run him at least one last time, give him a big send off."

"I know, but..." But he was afraid that something would happen. One last race would be a media circus, would involve a trip to whatever track they ended up at, Belmont, Santa Anita, Gulfstream. There was always some danger moving a large animal. "No, just let him retire in peace."

"Fine, if that's how you want to handle it. You may not be able to avoid the press, but you can try to minimize it for the horse."

"I think this is for the best."

Bill turned to tell Alec's mother the news. "But you're not thinking about retiring from riding, are you?"

Alec looked up from some papers on his desk. "Me? No. I'm still the farm's stable rider, nothing changes with that." He smiled, "'Still lots more races to ride, we still have a lot of race horses."

Alone again in the office, Alec's smile faded.

An important part of his life had just ended. There would be more races, like he'd said, but he'd never cross the finish line on Black again, never hear the deafening cheers for his horse, never ride another horse like him.

He knew he was doing the right thing, but...he walked out to Black's field and stood watching his horse.

5/19/10

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