Saturday, May 07, 2005

My Equestrian Past

It is Derby Weekend! Exciting, isn't it? I had to watch the re-run tonight, but I saw it. Giacomo! Who's that!? I love when underdogs win!

I practically grew up on the Belgrade Racecourse. Horse sports being really small in Yugoslavia, it is an unusual place. The mile-long dirt track is on the outside. Inside is a 1000m long hard track for trotting races. And in the very center, there is a large show-jumping ring. The Sunday racing program would usually start with a jumping class (and you could bet on jumpers, too!), followed by a trotting race, followed by a galloping race, another trotting race, another galloping race, and so on, alternating between two types of races and, sometimes, ending with a second jumping class. This also made it easy to have shorter breaks between races - 30 minutes at most.

The Belgrade Racecourse (Hipodromme) was the center of all horse-related activities. A piece of "country" smack in the middle of the "city". There was a riding school (later several schools), a few jumping barns, and a number of horses used by their owners just for pleasure. That was "city". Several barns were owned by state-owned stud-farms - this is the place where they kept their racehorses during the season. The racecourse itself had several barns that it used to lease to private owners, mainly of racing trotters. That was "country".

While there are several other racecourses in Serbia, and more if you look at the whole of former Yugoslavia, the Belgrade racecourse was the largest, the oldest, the prettiest and it held all the Classics and other top-money races (including trotting races) in the country.

My strengths were always in teaching, be it young humans or young equines. I worked for a while in one of the riding schools, teaching mostly kids, and proudly watched some of my little students grow up and enter the jumping competition at national and even international level.

At the same time, I loved bringing up young horses from foal to first competition - that is, if I was lucky to get my hands on one (I finally buckled and BOUGHT one). Usually, this meant not training but re-training horses (some not so young) that were ruined by bad riders, or racing rejects (usually for behavioral reasons, not just lack of speed), sometimes even horses already on their way to the slaughterhouse.

Working with such horses was difficult and often dangerous as hell (sorry, mom!), not to mention that it required nerves of steele and the patience of an angel. Cold weather always reminds me of old injuries and the horses that incurred them.

My own specialty were abused fillies and mares - the kind that nobody else wanted to waste their time on. I worked with them usually somewhere far away from everybody else's eyes. Horse-world is full of people with a big need to go around and give everyone advice - usually bad advice. I needed privacy because I was not going to employ the harsh methods popular at the time. It took a lot of time. But it was worth it.

One of the fillies I worked I remember very well. Stella grew up on a mountain somewhere in Bosnia. When she arrived she consisted of wool, skin, bones and parasites - no flesh whatsoever. We kept a blanket on her at all times not because she was cold, but because we were ashamed of the way she looked. I had to hide in order to work with her so nobody can see her without a blanket. She quickly gained weight and muscle and was easy to break-in. She grew up six inches in four months at the age of four! For the first year or so she was still a bit nervous and reared when ridden in any but the gentlest ways. She calmed down over time, though. She ended up winning the Junior National Jumping Team Championship the following year.

A young mare we pulled off the slaughterhouse truck was initially impossible to touch. It was dangerous to even enter her stall. For the first couple of months Aria was my "project" - my trainer was just the first to be brave enough to actually get on her: a hair-raising experience. Once that was accomplished she was mine again to work with. She was the nicest, sweetest, smartest mare I have ever ridden, yet nobody even knew her pedigree or age, though she was beautiful and obviously had a lot of "blood" in her. She was also the most supple and elastic horse ever. Series of lead-changes took a day to teach. When we started early spring training with some grid-work (multiple jumps one after another in a straight line with one or no strides in-between), I was laughing at my friends on their expensive German and French horses. They were crashing into jumps, poles flying all over the place, horses jumping with their heads up and their legs pointing at Four Corners Of The Earth! At the same time, riding her, I barely had to do more than steer her towards the first jump and let go - she did the rest of the job beautifully by herself. Within a year, she won or was placed (with my trainer aboard) in every class she entered, a little kid started working with her, and we ended up selling her for big money to Italy for jumping.

Spending so many hours every day for so many years at the Racecourse was quite an experience. One learned how to talk to quick-tempered jockeys (each with a file at the local police station) without getting beaten up. One learned how to talk to farmers who owned trotters without offending their backwards sensibilities. One learned how to deal with a lot of strange caharacters, all highly opinionated, all aggressive. It was a way for a city kid to learn both how not to step on other people's toes and how to assert oneself in a crowd of morons.

And I was a skinny bookworm with glasses, an obvious target for everything ranging from "city-slicker" mocking to "anti-elitist" bashing. However, unlike here, there is a degree of reverence for learning in Serbia. Though some of them liked to tease me or laugh at me, they still respected me and later, when I was in vet school, seriously asked me for advice on their horses' health. While openly laughing at my bookish knowledge of horses, they secretly admired it and envied it - at least they noticed it worked in the real world.

Succesfully accepting challenges to ride some crazy bucking horses also earned me some respect. At this age I would never do that again, but back then I was young and crazy and that was the basic survival tactic in such an environment. If you stay on such a beast, you are one of them, forever. I did. Later I earned some months-worth supplies of hay and oats for my horse by riding a bunch of racehorses during the winter training - not a bad trade at all, as I learned so much from riding them.

One of those horses was a sprinter that was pulled out of retirement by his new owner. Belvit was seven years old and has not raced in two years, enjoying the pasture and pleasure riding for that time. In his day, he won a number of short-distance races, and held the national records for 1000m and 1300m. I rode him all winter, trotting endlessly until he built back up a lot of muscle.

The first nice day of early spring, the owner came out to the track and watched us, then said: "OK, it's time to start some cantering. One mile should be more than enough. Start slow and don't worry - he'll stop by himself after the finish line." Well, I started slow. After the half-mile mark he started pulling hard but I somehow managed to hold him back. When we got into the final curve before the final stretch he took a breath...and I almost lost my stirrups how broad his chest suddenly got. Next moment he took off. I had to hold on to his mane for dear life. I could not look up because the wind was making my eyes tear. Looking down, I could not make out the details of the track (like little pebbles) - those were lines and bands instead: we were going too fast. A couple of second later, we passed the finish line and the horse stopped, as promised. I've never experienced, before or after, such speed on a horse. It was time for a professional jockey to take over the "fast work".

A couple of months later Belvit was entered for his first race after the retirement - no less than the Sprint Derby ("Express"). While many people put some small bets on him for sentimental reasons - he was a crowd favourite when he was younger - the odds against him were still very high before the race started. He was old. He hadn't had a race for two and a half years. Nobody saw him train. People were glad to see him again but thought he had no chance against the best younger horses of the year.

Well, he won. He led the field from start to finish. He won by a few lengths. And he almost beat his own old 1000m record. We drank a lot of champaign out of that silver cup that night!

I was also a licenced judge for show jumping, for trotting races and for galloping races. I worked at the track for a couple of years in various functions, mostly as an assistant handicapper (the only one they could find who could do the math?) and the finish-line judge. And throughout all those years, while watching all those horses train and knowing all the stuff going on behind the scenes, I never ever, not even once, placed a bet on a single race. Never in my life. This fact was known, and that was useful for being a judge. Nobody could ever accuse me of fixing results to satisfy someone's betting ticket. Looking back - I should have placed a big bet on Belvit that day he won. But I was too honest to do that when I was young...

As I said, the horse sports in Yugoslavia were really small. There were no more than about 2000 sports horses (all sports and disciplines combined) competing in any one year. Thus I knew them all. Actually, I knew their mothers and fathers and often even more of their pedigrees. Every year I made a round of all the big stud-farms to see the foals and yearlings.

I was a sports-stats fanatic, too. Here, people know every detail about baseball. I knew results of races and jumping classes dating years back. I do not remember any of it now, but back then I was a walking encyclopedia of Yugoslav (and international) equestrian sport.

On more than one occassion I would get a phone-call at home at a strange hour, a friend calling: "Hey Bora, I thought you could help me. I am in such-and-such village which is really close to such-and-such town. I am looking at a dark bay two-year-old filly here and I am interested in buying her - good build, good moves, nice temperament. Her name starts with B. Her mom is a light-bay nice-looking cart-horse...I saw her, too. The farmer who owns her swears that the Sire is such-and-such stallion, but has no papers to prove it. Is that possible?" A couple of seconds of calculating years, and I would have a definitive yes-or-no answer - I knew when each important stud stallion was stationed in various places around the country.

When I arrived in the US, this changed. There's just too many horses and too much going on. I gave up. Every year I try to watch all three races of the Triple Crown, and occasionaly the Breeder's Cup, but I know nothing about the horses. I just enjoy it just as much as any layperson, rooting for Smarty Jones or whoever. I watch the equestrian sports at the Olympics every four years (if NBC deems it worthy to show) and generally manage to follow that crowd a little better as top riders, at least, don't come and go that fast!

But most importantly, I haven't been on a horse in years. I dream of horses almost every night. Once we got married, Mrs. Coturnix and I both quit riding. The kids are not encouraged to take up the sport, either. As much as we love it, we know, firsthand, what a disease riding is: you are either a horse-trainer/rider full time or you don't do it at all. Once you've done it professionally, there's no middle ground. I am incapable of just going for a pleasure ride for an hour once a month or so. Every horse is a project. There's always something that needs to be "fixed". I hope one day I'll be old enough and wise enough (and rich enough!) to be able to have a couple of nice horses and just enjoy them as they are. In the mentime, I'll try to catch the World Cup jumping finals tomorrow afternoon.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 9:51 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink