Counting the Days

There it is in cold, hard print next to Valdez’s name. 1204. Yeah, 1204 days since his last run. We knew it had been a while, since that fateful day at Chepstow, two, three, four years ago…yeah, the day he fell, slid, strained, the day the house of cards came down.

It’s been a battle ever since, trying to get the long-striding chestnut back to the races. We’ve had fits and starts, bulges and strains, one step forward and seven backward. Yeah, it’s been a rocky road. Now, 11, the 2-mile chaser returns against the two best 2-mile chasers in England. Altior and Politologue, in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Three horses. That’s it. They say never duck one horse, not sure what they say about two…Altior makes his long anticipated return after wind surgery (287 days, a blip on the Valdez calendar), last year’s Arkle winner is 6-for-6 over fences, 5-for-5 over hurdles while Politologue rides a three-race win streak over fences.

Valdez, a winner at Newbury a long time ago, needs a run, needs to knock off some rust. Safe round…deep breath…deep breath…deep breath…

Here’s a look in the archives…

• October 26, 2014.


Valdez fell at the second-to-last while traveling strongly in the feature chase at Chepstow Saturday. Unsure to go short or long, he and jockey Tom Bellamy clouted the fence, slid, flipped over. That’s the facts. The emotions, well, they run deeper.

I have sayings during races – as we all do – “Come on, my son,” when the race is secure and you’re yelling for the joy of it, the tribute to your horse. “Get a jump. Get a jump,” when you need a big one or at least a quick one. “Just jump it,” when you simply need to pop and win. As Valdez rolled up to the outside of the two leaders, Bellamy sitting motionless, I said it, “Just jump it. Just jump it.” Then he didn’t. The birch parted, knees too low, head awkward, twisting…race over.

The perfect start to a long, arduous season of National Hunt racing – poof – gone. The perfect start to a long, arduous globe-trotting week – poof – gone.

Valdez rolls, then quickly springs to his feet, then stands, again awkward, one leg limp…Alan King and I start running. My phone is blowing up in my pocket, we’re running. I see the screens, ‘please be the reins, please be the reins, please be the reins.’ In the distance, it looks like his leg is caught in the reins, ‘please be the reins, please be the reins, please be the reins.’ As we cross the flat track, through the deep, wet grass, Bellamy grabs the reins and starts walking Valdez toward us. His big white face, like a buoy in the night, grass wedged in his bridle, up and over his ears, in his mane, across Bellamy’s saddle, down his chestnut rain-soaked back.

Bellamy looks at us, then the ground, he winces, not from physical pain, “I’m sorry…” We are not mad. We are simply thankful our horse is standing, our jockey is standing.

It’s the game we play.

We walk back to the finish line, King and I consoling Bellamy, Valdez and his groom walking back to the barn, consoling each other. Nothing accomplished, but thankfully nothing lost.

• November 21, 2014.

Guess I have to write about it. If I write about the dizzying heights of Cheltenham (just think if he finished better than fifth in the Arkle…) then I have to write about the down days of November. I knew it when I saw the missed call. Matt Coleman never calls. He emails, texts, never calls. In this game, calls are bad. Nobody calls to say your horse ate up this morning…slept well…galloped great…had a nice roll in the sand.

They call to tell you they’re broken. Those are the only calls you get. I remember all of them, where I was, what I was doing, the bombardment of emotion, disappointment, realization and pragmatism. Matt knew it when he saw Alan King’s name pop up on his phone. I, in turn, knew it when I saw Matt’s name under missed calls on my phone. I guess caller ID has tempered the emotion to some degree, at least you see the punch coming. This time, I was driving Miles to school, before the dip on St Louis Road where the signal cuts out, when I called Matt back, he told it to me straight, matter-of-factly, knowing the quickest cut is the best cut. I said, “F— me,” then realized Miles was in the car, he never looked up.

“These jumpers will put you through every emotion…” Matt said. I wasn’t listening.

I’ve got plenty of calls this year – Eagle Poise is lame, Hear The Word won’t make Saratoga, Apse has some filling, etc., etc., but, this one was the worst. Valdez’s leg has some heat in it, the scan showed…finished for the season. Alan King revealed it in the Weekender this week, I guess. I saw it on Twitter. Nice to have a horse worthy for a mention on Twitter (evidently, there is also a volleyball player named Valdez). I guess, but what a disappointment. The long, cold Virginia winter just got longer and colder – and it hasn’t really started. Valdez got me through the snow days last winter, just dreaming about big days still to come. 

Most likely from his fall at Chepstow, the injury showed up a few weeks later, which is always the time frame. Race, walk for a few days, jog for a few days, couple of easy gallops, first real gallop or breeze…then the call. Nobody’s fault, I keep saying, “It’s the game we play.”

Tough game.

It’s certainly tougher for the ones dealing with Valdez every day, they’re the ones investing their time, energy and effort. We are across an ocean, showing up at Cheltenham and simply taking phone calls.

I remember years ago when Dad’s best horse Gogong bowed. He won the Carolina Cup in the final stride, beat four-time champion Flatterer at Middleburg and then Dad ran his hand down his leg and knew. Dad was crestfallen. “You just don’t get many horses like him,” he said. Yeah, I know what you mean. Gogong returned, I won a claimer on him at Tanglewood, many years later, he was never the same. When you play this game on a small scale, you realize why owners play it on a grand scale. Because of the attrition. It’s not the losses that hurt, it’s the injuries. The what-might-have-beens, the what-ifs…if he would have just met the second-to-last at Chepstow a half-stride earlier…or later.

Riverdee Stable isn’t any different than any other owner dealing with injuries. We just don’t have a replacement for Valdez. At least, right now. As tough as the trainers have it, they can at least go on and run horses, they’re still in business. King will have a fleet of horses and a book of chances at Cheltenham in March. I’ll have a press pass and a pint of Guinness. 

• March 12, 2014.

I’ve said it over and over, a mantra learned and relearned – all you want in this game is that moment when it can actually happen. That moment when your horse is in the right place, he’s traveling, it’s going as planned, you can see it. Many times, you don’t get that moment, things are going asunder from the moment the flag drops, the gate opens, and you can’t possibly imagine a positive outcome. You don’t shout, hell you don’t utter a sound, you stand in utter disappointment, without a moment. In with a shout. That’s all you want.

We were in with a shout at the second-to-last in the Arkle. We’ll take it. Certainly not satisfied or sated but we had that moment when you could see it. I’ll admit, my heart raced for a moment there, my friends and family yelled, we had that moment.

As always proud of Valdez, he’s a classy horse who will have big days in the future. We have had our runner at Cheltenham, turn the page, look for the next runner, the next winner.