Wrestling with a large horse in a small room tends to excite the senses, so I was surprised to see Charles Becknell smiling benevolently as he was being thrown about by a beast named Sampanion. I was strolling down the shedrow, sipping coffee when I heard the commotion in a nearby stall. Charles was a slender brown man, Sampanion a huge brown stallion. They were having a disagreement over the animal’s plans for the day, much as a mother might have with her third grader on a cold school morning. The horse didn’t want to run around The Oklahoma, the training track at Saratoga Race Course. He wanted to stay in his warm, moist barn and watch the world go past. But Charles had a job to do; the trainer and the exercise rider were waiting for Sampanion out in the early mist, whether the horse was ready for a workout or not.
Charles was a skinny man and had one of his skinny arms slung around the beast’s thick neck. The snorting horse was able to raise him to the balls of his feet and haul him from side to side while I watched silently, but Charles knew that even a big human was no match in strength for a horse, so he just hung on, not resisting. He used his wiles to outmaneuver the animal. In another minute he had the bridle on and the halter off. Sampanion gave in to the inevitable then and calmed down. He clopped out of the stall behind Charles as if he’d intended to do just that all along.
“Nice job, Charles.”
He smiled widely. “Thanks, reverend. You seen this rascal fussing, eh?”
“I did indeed. It looked like he wanted to kill you.”
Charles laughed at that.
“He don’ mean nothing. It just the way he is. Ever’ day it’s the same ol’ thing now.”
Charles clipped the bridle to a pair of shanks hanging from the wall as he talked in his high voice. He pulled a pick from his back pocket and cleaned the horse’s feet. Sampanion lifted each hoof like a child’s pony.
“That fussing’s a game we play ever’ morning, gets me going like that coffee does you, father. Warms my blood. His too.”
When Charles took the horse away I continued down the row, visiting with the grooms and hot walkers who were mucking out stalls or feeding horses. It was May in the mountains, months before the race meeting began in late July, but there were already dozens of racing thoroughbreds stabled at Saratoga, many of whom were babies. Two-year-olds, according to racetrack vernacular, are babies. The ones housed at the Spa, as Saratoga is sometimes called, were in training.
Many racehorse babies never make it to the track. Some are not fast enough, some can’t be taught adequately; others strain their young muscles and become disabled. These at the track tended to be the more valuable babies that will eventually race, since it is expensive to house them here, much more than at a trainer’s yard, and only owners with deep pockets and wise trainers got to train their horses at the track itself in the off-season. The excitement of a race card each day was absent from the track, so the people who cared for the stabled horses were pretty much free from the distraction of betting and racing, and most injuries. They were even becoming a little bored. That was probably one cause of the terrible crime Mary Higgins was about to uncover.
Mary was a hot walker whose current lover was the exercise rider Carlos Ramirez, and whose former lover was the decedent, Harry Milford. All three were hard-bodies in the prime of their lives, until Harry wasn’t. Mary heard a baby she knew thudding his feet and blowing in a saddling enclosure inside the paddock. Horses were not supposed to be in the paddock, a fenced area where racers were readied for a race and paraded before bettors and officials, because there were no races yet to prep for. A trainer may have brought his horse into the paddock to acclimate him to the place, but no horse should ever be alone there. Being a helpful sort of person, Mary went in to take a look.
She found the bay Massive Man in a lather. His eyes showed white and he was trying to leave the stall, which was open on the front to the inside of the paddock, but he was tied to a metal ring. As she petted his face and talked soothingly to him—remarking to herself she used much the same technique to calm the men she’d known in her young life—she noticed the cause of the animal’s anxiety: a bundle of rags in a corner of the stall. She unhooked the bay’s lead rope and walked him out, thumbing her phone as they went.
That’s where I found her, walking a huge beast around the dirt and cinder ring of the paddock, avoiding Saddling Stall #2 and appearing agitated.