[emaillocker]TJK Racetrack, Istanbul, Turkey
The track was still quiet as Tarik made his way up to the owner’s box, frowning at the programme in his hand. His horse was number 7 in the first race of the day. Down below the spectators had begun to gather. Suddenly, the level of sound rose, applause surfaced and Tarik knew without turning around that his horse had arrived.
Craning their necks, everyone tried to be the first to catch a glimpse of the magnificent horse emerging from the tunnel that separated the stable area from the track.
And there he was: the people’s champion. With his big, floating stride, even from a distance Wolf’s Son was unmistakable. Tossing his head, he gave his handler Halim a hard time, but once they reached the paddock, he settled into a long, relaxed walk.
His jockey was already waiting for him on the grass patch inside the paddock, receiving some last instructions from the trainer. Once mounted, the shiny maroon outfit with white stripes contrasted starkly with Wolf’s Son’s black coat.
Tarik smiled. He was always excited to see his horses race, but especially Wolf’s Son. The powerful stallion, who could run on turf or sand equally well and usually left his competition in the dust, was his favourite.
Tarik sat down and engrossed himself in the racing programme. The Yilmaz stable stood a very good chance of winning again today with Wolf’s Son. In his mind, Tarik saw his colours crossing the finishing line first.
Suddenly there was a stir in the crowd and an unsettled wave swept from the rails up to the top seats. Tarik jerked his head up to see what had caused the agitation. A whirl of action centred around Gate 7.
Men were shouting, tufts of dirt flying around Wolf’s Son as he threw his body from side to side, resisting the men trying to push him into the starting gate.
Two men holding a wide, brown leather belt around Wolf’s Son’s hindquarters forced him forward while Halim, up front, tried to pull him into the assigned gate. Violently shaking his head, Wolf’s Son pressed backward so hard against the belt he sent the men flying. Rearing up, he turned sharply left, dragging Halim away from the gate opening. The groom hung on, gathering the reins to lead Wolf’s Son in a small circle just outside the gate. After three rounds, one of the starters snuck up on the horse and blindfolded him. Halim circled him a few more times in hopes that he would lose his orientation, then led him back toward the gates.
Feeling like ten thousand eyes were fixed on his difficult horse, Tarik nervously lit one cigarette after another, smoking each only halfway before throwing it down and lighting another. He dreaded what might happen next. Would this escalate into outright panic in the gates again?
As Halim again approached the entrance with Wolf’s Son, two professional starters hopped up on the partitions on either side of the narrow stall, while another switched position with the groom and grabbed hold of the lead rope to pull Wolf’s Son in. Without interrupting the flow of the horse’s forward motion, the pair on the partitions took hold of Wolf’s Son’s reins the moment he had his head in the enclosure. The three men hauled him forward while a few more men closed in on his hindquarters with the brown belt and finally pushed him in.
The back gate clicked into position, and one of the starter guys yanked the hood off Wolf’s Son’s head. The moment he could see, he exploded. Rearing up, smashing the jockey’s helmet against the metal bar above, he rounded his back and leaped into the air. On the way back down he slammed his body into the wall on his right. Panicked, the black horse crashed and banged around in the small enclosure, rocking his body forward and sideways, trampling, frantic to find a way out. Unsuccessful, he leaned hard against the partition on his right, with his legs crossing over into the stall on his left. Wolf’s Son froze for a moment, gathering his energy, before suddenly erupting again to make one last desperate attempt to escape.
There was a gasp from the crowd that echoed through the race grounds, and when it died down, a hush covered the place.
This is bad, thought Tarik. This is the worst I’ve ever seen him.
Then, Wolf’s Son started to go down. In slow motion, he sunk to the ground with his back arched, then lowered his hindquarters, bent his hocks underneath him and began to push backward with all his might. He got so low, his hind end began to come out under the back latch.
More men crowded around the horse, shouting, yelling and attempting to push Wolf’s Son back in, but to no avail. Seeing they couldn’t force him back in, they tried to open the back door so he wouldn’t come out underneath and break his back or crush the jockey.
Finally, the little back flap burst open and Wolf’s Son flew out, falling, crumbling onto his hocks, losing his balance. Leaping into the air, he managed to make a sharp left turn and trotted in long strides across the green grass, away from the start of the race and the starting machine. The jockey dangled from his side, foot hung up in one stirrup, unconscious.
With a runaway horse on their hands, the men on the course immediately spread out a roll of strong white plastic mesh as a barrier. Just before Wolf’s Son shot through the gap and could run onto the race track, they blocked him. Someone grabbed his bridle and brought him to a stop.
Tarik sighed and walked down from the owner’s box. He knew the consequences would not be light for what happened today.
It was late in the evening. Umur stood on the cramped, concrete balcony of his flat in Istanbul, looking over the city. From here you could see one of the bridges spanning the Golden Horn river inlet to the west, and directly in front lay the narrow Bosphorus channel separating Europe and Asia, one of the busiest canals in the world.
Umur watched the heavy traffic crossing the bridge that led to the Atatürk International airport. It was an extremely busy city. Congestion and chronic over-building, a lack of greenery and an abundance of concrete, man-made materials contributed to the city’s cramped, stressful atmosphere.
Making his way into the living room in his navy blue bathrobe and bare feet, the 76-year old man thought back to the beginning of his racing career. When Tarik was seven years old, he and his wife had moved back to Turkey from the United States, where he ran a construction company. Once in Istanbul, he had been asked to care for an acquaintance’s Arabian racehorse. Surprised, he found racing to be a thrill. He began studying all he could about racing, taking two years to amass his research before he was ready to buy his first thoroughbred horse, a filly named Tilsim. She was followed by the purchase of a colt. Continuing with his studies, he ventured into buying five mares. And then came Wolf…
The famous Wolf. Born in Chile in 1987, he had raced superbly, becoming the 1990 Chilean Triple Crown champion and Chile’s Horse of the Year from 1989-1991. He was eventually sold to California, where he won in Santa Anita and placed third in the Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park. After an injury he was retired from racing and moved to Land’s End in Kentucky as a breeding stallion.
Umur recalled the day he had travelled from Belmont, New York to Kentucky to meet up with twenty of his Jockey Club friends to visit all the Thoroughbred farms. When he saw Wolf for the first time, he wanted him. Land’s End was interested in selling, but they wanted him to go back to Chile. Luckily it wasn’t possible, as he had been injected with live vaccines. After heated negotiations, he bought Wolf for $350,000 and transported him to Turkey in 1996. Immediately, he sold 17 shares to other owners and kept 18 for himself. Wolf’s first foal in Turkey was born in 1997.
It turned out that Umur had a talent for picking the right combination of dam and sire. He stuck to a formula of matching a dam with endurance and the ability to run the distance, with a sire of strength and speed.
His best move by far had been to buy Fantasy Flyer in Newmarket, England and cover her with Wolf. The result was Wolf’s Son, their most promising horse, born March 19th 2000.
His quiet reflection was interrupted by a hard knock on the door and a loud voice calling “Dad!”
“Come in,” Umur replied. His son flung the door open and, losing his grip, let it bang back against the wall. A few flakes of white plaster floated to the stone tiles.
Lacking his usual calm, Tarik burst out, “Did you see the race today? Wolfie is… he is… I don’t know what to do.”
Startled, Umur looked up at his son. He knew what had happened at the track and that Tarik would be upset. But he was surprised at hearing the words “I don’t know what to do” come out of his son’s mouth.
“Son, have a seat.” Umur kept his voice even and welcoming. “Yes, I watched the race. That was quite a scene by the gates. How is Kadri?”
Tarik slumped into the big leather seat opposite his dad and gestured hopelessly into the air with both arms, shaking his head from side to side. “Kadri is concussed, but otherwise not in bad shape, thank God. But Wolf’s Son…”
“It’s happened before. Wolf’s Son will get over it. What is the matter?” the older man asked gently, his forehead wrinkling slightly with concern. Tarik never acted frustrated or upset. What could be so bad?
“They banned Wolf’s Son from racing. For a whole month.” Tarik jumped to his feet again, pushing the chair back harshly, making an awful screech, and paced up and down the short distance between the desk and his dad.
Umur raised his eyebrows: “What? Surely there must be some mistake.” It was inconceivable that a Yilmaz horse should be banned. Wolfie was a crowd favourite, people came out on non-race days just to see him train.
“I wish it was a mistake! But no, it’s the truth. It was a downright horrible day. First, the mayhem Wolf’s Son caused at the gate. Then I had to go deal with the jockey, before I went to see Wolf’s Son. The horse was in bad shape. Shaking, agitated, he wasn’t able to calm down, so Kaan had him injected with a sedative, which I don’t like doing. On my way out, I was stopped by the officials and called into a meeting.” Tarik sighed.
Shuffling his feet, he returned to the mahogany chair and let his body sink into it.
“Yes?” Umur was encouraging.
“They told me the other owners are unhappy with Wolf’s Son holding up the start of the races while their horses have to wait in the gates. Race after race, Wolf’s Son is allowed to enter in last, and the very second the back gate slams shut, they pull the lever to start the race. The other owners believe this gives him an advantage and messes up the betting.”
Umur waited, raking his memory. He recalled the facts from the last two years. Every race that Wolf’s Son hadn’t run well, he had kicked up a fuss by the gates and refused to enter nicely. But those incidents were few and far apart, and in between there had been plenty of races where Wolf’s Son entered the gate without an issue and crossed the victory line first. The assumption was made that the little glitch suffered by the great racehorse would eventually subside and all he needed was more experience.
But starter officials hated difficult starts. Having to call a ‘false start’ put them in the bad books of the bettors and the Jockey Club authorities. A good starter is highly respected for his skills and is a vital influence in running a successful, fair race.
“He is to have a test in one month to determine whether he’s fit to race again. So if we don’t get this fixed, Wolfie’s racing career in Turkey is over, although I suppose we can still take him abroad to race.”
Umur just sat and listened, refraining from adding more tea to his cup.
“Of course, it’s not Wolfie’s fault, but I feel completely humiliated. Our family name is on the line.” Deflated, Tarik’s voice trailed off.
Rising from the chair, Tarik walked back and forth across the study, sweat pearls growing bigger on his forehead. Leaning over the desk, he winced, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know what to do. I really don’t. It’s a disaster. This great horse, Yilmaz yard’s biggest hope, has a huge problem. And therefore, so do we.”
A peaceable man, Umur believed there was a solution to everything, and since he usually knew what to do, he would offer his advice without hesitation. But knowing his son the way he did – he restrained himself until he saw an opening.
“Kaan told me he had fixed Wolfie’s problem. But he didn’t. Or he can’t.” Tarik added with quiet despair. “Kaan should have known. He is the trainer, after all. He is the one who is with the horse daily. I have asked him about it every day and he just kept saying that the horse will be fine. But Wolf’s Son isn’t fine. He’s far from fine!”
Finally Umur asked, “Has Kaan been able to tell you what is going on that Wolf’s Son panics so badly?”
“Kaan says he’s tried everything he knows, but for no reason, Wolf’s Son just freaks out. And it’s unpredictable: in some races he is fine, in others he spends all his energy fretting and resisting, so he doesn’t have enough power left to run well. You know his stats better than I do,” Tarik finished gloomily.
Then his father, with a gentle smile on his face, said: “You might remember me telling you about Dr. Anderson, the breeder in Kentucky?”
Umur had probably told Tarik a dozen times what he was about to say. But maybe this time his independent son was desperate enough to hear him.
“Last year, he had a big problem with a million dollar horse at Land’s End. They decided to call in professionals that specialize in horse psychology, so a couple of natural horsemen came, and they managed to “talk” to the horse and he was fixed in a matter of days.”
“Yes, I seem to remember us having this conversation, Dad. And you tried it out on your old mare Keep Shining.”
“Yep, and it worked wonderfully. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but the DVD is pretty clear and hmm… I think I have it around here somewhere.”
Umur went to his desk and pretended to rummage around, rustling papers to cover up the fact that the DVD was placed neatly at the corner of his desk, where it had been since he put it there six weeks earlier.
“All I know is that these people are able to talk to a horse. They are against… ah… wait. It says they are ‘against using fear, force and mechanics’ to get the horse to work for them, and instead ‘use love, trust and leadership.’ They make the horse their friend and build a relationship with him.”
“Yes, but how could that help with his panic in the gates?” Tarik asked.
“I don’t know Son, but somehow the horse in Kentucky was able to overcome his fears with this.”
Umur held out the DVD, as if he didn’t care if Tarik took it or not.
Without much enthusiasm, Tarik reached for it. “Alright Dad, I’ll watch this and look into it.”
Tarik excused himself to go home, and the old man walked to the window, staring out at the city lights, rocking contently back and forth on his feet.
Back home, Tarik stayed up until three in the morning watching the DVD and researching everything he could find on the Internet about natural horsemanship. By dawn, he had decided to get in touch with the most highly-recommended horse person he could find in Europe.
– by Ingela Larsson Smith & Tobi Elliott[/emaillocker]