An early morning mist rolled across the damp turf of the racetrack. Partially obscured by the veil of dawn; behemoth earth moving machines, the color of a jaundiced alcoholic, lurked menacingly at the edges of the property. Restrained only by a temporary chain- link fence they awaited a signal from the lawyers to begin their work. The end of horse racing at this track was only a matter of time. To Heather Owens that was the future; her concern today, the here and now. She leaned against the rail and focused on the far turn.
Her filly suddenly burst through the fog, grey- on- grey like a thundering shadow. The ground reverberated under her feet as the horse swept by at a full gallop. Heather clicked the stop-watch and squinted at its face. She let out a low whistle, ducked under the rail and ran toward the horse and rider. Grey Fire pranced and snorted. With her head and tail held high, she circled back toward Heather.
“She is quick! “ Heather panted. “I think we have a chance.”
The filly had a legitimate shot, to win the San Lucia Derby next month and Heather held on to that glimmer of hope, wishing that her run of bad luck was coming to an end. Three months ago her horse training husband had split to parts unknown. Heather was not surprised by his departure. Their marriage had been rocky from the start. His love affair with the bottle had become stronger with each passing year. When their daughter was diagnosed with cancer he really fell apart. Heather remembered the night. He just walked out the door with a gin bottle clasped in his right hand. He staggered into their rusted Toyota sedan, turned the key and the engine coughed and sputtered to life. As the car left the driveway, a cloud of blue smoke billowed from the exhaust. He yelled out the window something undecipherable. Heather pulled the front screen door open and watched the plume disappear into the night At that moment; she knew that he would be gone forever.
Since that fateful night, Heather had been religiously taking Annie to the hospital for her chemotherapy and appointments. After months of treatment, the doctors were cautiously optimistic about the leukemia’s remission. Her stack of unpaid medical bills grew taller and taller. A win with her grey filly would be the answer to her prayers.
Heather glanced at her watch. She would be a little late to Annie’s appointment even if the early morning traffic was light. The morning sun peeped through the clouds and she flipped on her sunglasses and trotted towards the back stables. The small aluminum trailer leaned slightly to the left giving the appearance it might topple at any moment. She carefully pried open the flimsy screen door lest she pull it off its last hinge. The early morning light gently illuminated her daughters’ angelic face as she slept peacefully on the sofa.
“Annie, Annie, wake up, you’ll be late for your appointment.”
The sofa creaked and the child folded a quilt, embroidered with a pattern of running thoroughbreds, away from her face.
“Hi Mom, I’m awake.” Annie murmured and rubbed her eyes.
“I’ve been waiting for you. How did ‘Grey Fire’ do?”
“Great. She did five furlongs in her fastest time ever!”
Heather gathered her daughter’s backpack.
“Now let’s get going. Get dressed and brush your hair and teeth.”
Annie rolled out of the sofa and trudged slowly toward the bathroom. She turned to her Mom.
“Do we have to go? I’m tired of being hurt and poked with needles.”
Heather gently touched her shoulder.
“I know this sucks. If I could do it differently I would, but we have no choice. We have to do what the doctors tell us. Now, please go get ready.”
After the appointment, Heather carried her gently sobbing child back to the truck.
With a forced a note of gaiety in her voice she said,
“Hey, how about we stop for an ice-cream?”
Annie rubbed her bruised arm where they had taken the blood sample and quietly nodded and smiled.
Traffic slowed to a halt. Heather turned on the heater and felt an overwhelming desire just to let go and bawl her eyes out. Her daughter had gone through total body radiation treatment and a subsequent bone marrow transplant, not to mention, countless visits to the hospital and her pediatrician. It had been a long and trying ordeal, and not without collateral damage to the entire family. With the back of her hand, Heather quickly brushed a tear away and mentally focused on the good news. The doctors were still hopeful that Annie was in remission and this last battery of blood tests would confirm their prognosis.
Heather downshifted and turned into the back entrance of the race track; her truck rattled in protest. The rain streaked windshield blurred her vision and a white truck suddenly appeared, stopped directly in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt inches from its back bumper. Feeling even more drained and exhausted, she slowly climbed out of the truck. She walked over to the driver’s side of the vehicle and wearily said,
“Why, for God’s sake are you parked in the middle of the road?”
A large man with wavy black hair and steel grey eyes took up much of the space behind the steering-wheel; a crumpled map lay open on the dash board.
“I’m sorry…I’m Dr. White, the new researcher and I’m looking for the university horses.”
“The university horses?”
“That’s right. The university has contracted with the track to stable a few horses here for a study that we are doing and they are supposed to be stabled in barn D.”
“Oh, those horses. Why don’t you park over there …out of the middle of the road?” Despite her being dog tired she heard herself sarcastically say.
“I’ll be right back. It will be easier for me to show you than having you wander around the barns all afternoon.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to bother you.”
“No bother at all, I’ll be back in a second.”
Heather climbed back into the cab of her truck and said to Annie,
“I’m going to drop you off at home and show this guy where those experimental horses are, it will only take me a few minutes.”
Annie nodded her head.
Heather parked the truck at the trailer and quickly got Annie settled. As she jogged back to the waiting professor, she ran her fingers through her blonde hair and silently cursed herself for not washing it this morning.
Dr. White rolled down the window and peered over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses.
“That was quick. Hop in.”
“Actually, it is quicker if we walk.”
He stuffed some papers in his briefcase and got out of the car. Heather led them down a narrow mud-slick path toward an old grey wooden structure with a cupola on top of the roof. A small rust pocked weather vane, the silhouette of a race horse, teetered precariously unbalanced at the pinnacle of the cupola. One big gust and it would lose function as well as form.
Heather turned to the big man following her and said,
“We’re almost there. It’s the building straight ahead. I haven’t been by here in a while. It looks like they have made some improvements.”
New doors stood in startling contrast with the rest of the building. Recently installed and made of stainless steel, they possessed a startling array of brass bolts and locks.
“Wow, looks like your university is a little security conscious. What are you actually doing here?”
Dr. White fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a large key ring with multiple keys dangling from the loop. He turned to Heather.
“The research is really quite benign but, so-called ‘animal-activists’ have become more militant and can seriously disrupt years of work. Because of those misguided souls, we have had to beef up our security measures, thus the reason for the heavy doors and multiple locks.”
After punching in a code at the doors’ keypad and unlocking three secured padlocks, the doors swung quietly inward.
Heather squinted from the bright fluorescent lights that illuminated the laboratory. The glare off of the stainless steel tables and white tile walls further magnified their intensity. From somewhere in the back of the building she heard a horse whinny. A door in the rear of the lab opened and a slight statured, balding man, with a fringe of grey hair entered the room. He wore dark green coveralls with the university seal emblazoned on the chest pocket.
He boomed, in a deep voice that did not match his size.
“Welcome, I’ve been expecting you. Did you bring your notes from your prior research?”
“Yes I did they are right here in my briefcase.”
“Excellent and is this young lady your technician?”
“As a matter of fact she is.”
Heather raised her right eyebrow and quickly looked at Dr. White. She offered the old professor her hand and he shook it with exuberance.
“Now, let’s go look at our patients.”
The door in the back of the lab led to a dimly lit stable. The smell of alfalfa hay, horse sweat and the metallic odor of blood permeated the still air. When Heather’s eyes re-adjusted to the low wattage bulbs in the barn, she saw five thoroughbred horses standing quietly. Their eyes were half-closed with heads and necks arched lazily toward the floor. From the right jugular vein of each animal ran a clear plastic tube to a glass gallon jug. Coursing through the tubes and dripping slowly into the containers ran the ruby-red blood of the horses. So as not to startle the drugged horses Dr. White whispered to Heather.
“We have been working on ‘blood –packing’ horses to see if by increasing their red blood cell hematocrit or “packed cell volume”, they will have more endurance in the longer stakes races. Technically, it’s fairly easy. Under sterile conditions, we slowly take four quarts of blood from the horse one month prior to the race. We then inject the horses with an experimental drug that stimulates their own red cell production. Finally, one week before the race we transfuse their own blood back into the horse.”
He took a breath and continued,
Theoretically, that will increase their hematocrit and oxygen carrying capacity of their body. Simple enough?”
Heather answered hesitantly,
“Hmm, but have you put your theory into practice?”
“Only with ponies, not real race horses. That’s why we are here.”
“Well thanks for the tour, but I’ve got to go.”
“Wait before you leave would you like to meet for a drink this evening?”
Heather paused and thought for a moment. What the hell. A drink with this rather handsome man would be a welcome break.
She reached into her jeans pocket and scribbled her number on a scrap of paper.
The after-work crowd filled the local hangout. Pictures of past race triumphs graced the old mahogany walls and racing paraphernalia hung from the ceiling. Heather wedged her way through the sea of humanity that surrounded the bar. She acknowledged a few of her colleagues with congenial hellos and an occasional hug. She scanned the room and spotted Dr. White sitting alone at a small table in the far corner. Simultaneously, he stood up and gave her a quick wave. He pulled out a chair for her and said,
“It’s a little quieter back here. I’m glad you could make it.”
“I don‘t get out much, but when I do, I like to come here, it’s close to home and friendly.”
Heather flipped her blonde hair back off her shoulders and sat down. Despite her worries and the fact that the jeans she wore felt a little too snug, she relaxed. With a wry smile she said,
“Well, how about that drink you promised me Dr. White?”
“Of course, but you’ll have to call me Geoff.”
“It’s a deal. I think I’ll have a martini up with a twist.”
The drinks came quickly and they both took generous sips. Heather looked down and slowly twirled her glass.
“So Geoff, about this “blood packing” thing. I understand that it is all natural and no drugs are involved and theoretically it would be an advantage to a race horse in the longer distance races. Are there any down side risks?”
He took a drink and their eyes met.
“Like I mentioned before we have never tried this on performance horses and I wouldn’t think that the racing association would be real happy if this practice became commonplace. The only risk that I can imagine would be some sort of arterial rupture due to the increased volume of blood and thus higher blood pressure.”
Heather lowered her gaze and leaned forward.
“I really need my horse to win the Stakes Derby next month but, I don’t want to risk her life.”
“Life is a risk. I would be willing to help you out…just for the sake of science mind you. You will have to make a decision ASAP. We need a full four weeks.”
She sighed and propped her chin on her hand.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’ll start tomorrow.”
“O.K. remember, there is no guarantee.”
Days sped to weeks and the required procedures were performed on Grey Fire. The filly improved both in speed and stamina. Heather and Dr. White spent long hours together at the track. As the big day approached, even a casual observer could tell that their relationship had become more than just business.
Derby day dawned crisp and clear. San Lucia Race Track never looked better. Blue and white striped tents covered the grass infield. On the top of the grandstand, flags of all colors fluttered gaily in the breeze. The full capacity crowd chatted noisily as they watched the parade of horses. Women in huge straw hats and flowery dresses punctuated the crowd. Groups of men gathered and poured over the daily racing form.
A trumpet blared forth the familiar call to the starting gates. Heather pushed her way through the crowd. She ducked, scooted here and there, weaving like a running back trying to avoid tacklers. Finally, she arrived at the rail.
A hush fell over the track. The main race was about to begin. One by one the horses entered the starting gates, all tense and glistening with the sweat of anticipation. A bell rang and the gates clashed open. The horses rocketed forward and the crowd surged toward the rail. Heather tripped, lost her footing and stumbled to the ground. With the help of a neighboring spectator she clambered to an upright position. The horses were already a half mile into the race as she grabbed for her binoculars and focused on the near turn. Grey Fire ran easily in third place. The jockeys, with their whips flying, urged the horses around the far turn into the home stretch.
As the horses neared the finish line Heather heard the excited announcer over the loudspeakers.
“Grey Fire on the outside! Grey Fire passing Pea Vine! Grey Fire! Grey Fire! The Winner!”
The post race party was winding down and the last stragglers were leaving the tent. Dusk had settled over the track and Heather looked up at Geoff and gently kissed his lips. She was rich and happy. She sighed and whispered in his ear.
“Thanks for everything. Are you free tomorrow for dinner?”
Geoff gave her a long hug and said.
A beep from Heather’s cell phone interrupted their conversation. The barn number appeared on the screen. The groom’s urgent voice sounded on the other end of the line.
“Come to the barn! Something horrible has happened to Grey Fire and the track vet is here!”
Seconds later Heather arrived at her horses’ stall and flung open the double door.
The track veterinarian and groom knelt next to the still grey horse. Bloody froth like a strawberry milkshake leaked from her nostrils. She lay on her right side and her left eye gazed fixed and unseeing at the ceiling. Heather let out a gasp and fell to her knees next to the lifeless form. The attending vet put his arms around Heather’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry, it all happened so quickly there was nothing that we could do. I would guess that she must have had a weakness in her pulmonary artery and it ruptured into her lungs.”
Feeling nothing but a numb emptiness, Heather walked slowly back to her trailer. She opened the cupboard above the sink and reached in the back and pulled out a bottle of gin; a legacy from her husband. Her daughter, Annie, thankfully was away visiting her grandma. She poured the warm gin into a plastic cup and took a gulp. The liquor burned her throat. No amount of alcohol would be an anodyne for the pain she felt yet, she poured herself another. She shut off the lights and slumped back onto the old sofa. A faint smell of Annie wafted from the comforter and she pulled the tattered edge up to her neck. She took another drink and for the first time noticed the blinking red light of her answering machine. Compelled, slowly focusing through her haze, she punched the button.
The recorded voice of Annie’s pediatrician jolted her back to the present.
“I’ve got great news. Annie’s hematocrit and white blood cell count are all normal. I feel that she is in total remission and should live a long and happy life. Call me in the morning.”
Heather lay back down on the couch and buried her head in the pillow trying to shut out any noise. A glimmer of light peaked through the window, hinting at the beginning of a new day. Now, in the stillness of the early dawn, she clamped the pillow harder over her ears. But try as she might, she could not stifle the distant sound of the rumble of heavy machinery beginning their work.