Saturday, February 04, 2006

Chapter One, Part Four

Lise watched the filly cavort around her dam in the small turnout paddock the next day, the dark coat an obvious contrast to the powdery snow. The baby now wore a little foal slip — her first halter. The weather had warmed up nicely by mid-afternoon as promised, allowing for the filly’s first outdoor experience to be captured by the local and Metropolitan Toronto media. Reporters, photographers and film crew had recorded the arrival of Just Lucky and Sotisse’s first offspring for their Sunday evening newscasts and Monday’s papers. A nice, feel-good racing related story for the off-season. Her fame would last a few short days for now, and would wane until she was a two-year-old in training. At that point their interest would once again peak, critically, waiting to see if she would live up to her heritage.

For now the filly ran on spindly legs, bathed by the dropping afternoon sun, totally unaware of the weight she so unsuspectingly carried on her slight shoulders. A year from this coming December, when she was a yearling rising two, Lise would make Queen’s Plate nominations for the filly and the other young hopefuls designated as prospects that might carry the Triple Stripe colours in the prestigious classic. Through her ancestors, the first-born daughter of champions Just Lucky and Sotisse had inherited a destiny that pointed her to that race in three and a half years, the last weekend in June, on Woodbine’s main track.

Whether or not the filly made it that far was anyone’s guess. This dark foal would always be vulnerable to the same innate rules that governed the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Any number of evils could obstruct her intended path — it would be na├»ve to think otherwise, no matter how special she was. But she had made it this far, overcoming her first hurdle to be running around beside Sotisse with that gawky way of going unique to a newborn Thoroughbred. Right now, she was all hope.

Lise had been around to watch the filly’s sire and dam compete in the coveted event, but those two had been her father’s vision. This filly was hers. She was determined that, together, she and this little filly would pick up where their parents left off.

It was all about patience and time. It would be twenty months before the filly would be backed for the first time, in September of her yearling year. She would not race until the following season, and then only sparingly — enough to give her the experience that would set her up for the important sophomore campaign. The months that preceded breaking, though seeming long and uneventful, were a vital period of development. A careful feeding and blacksmith program were necessary to maintain strong, straight limbs and ensure proper growth and health.
It was all about foundation….breed the best to the best — that was only the beginning. Solid genetics, balanced nutrition, compassionate handling, progressive loading under saddle, careful monitoring of every step. For too many in this industry, it was all about the dollar, a quick return on investment more important than the well being of the animal. Bringing it all together to reach the ultimate goal took balancing and perseverance.

She had heard it said that the Kentucky Derby was the toughest race in America to win. Likewise, Lise felt the Queen’s Plate was the most elusive contest in Canada. Having the best horse a week before Plate Day didn’t mean a single thing — it came right down to the day itself. Next December, somewhere between three and four hundred yearlings would be nominated for the classic. As many as twenty might go to the post on race day, though more likely, twelve to fourteen. And only one would get their picture taken in the winner’s circle, under a royal purple and yellow blanket of flowers. Only one winning team would be on the podium accepting the fifty gold sovereigns and gold trophy from the Queen’s representative. Many are called, few are chosen…and only one comes home first. Lise looked out at the tiny girl poking her dark face out from behind Sotisse. At this stage of the game, it was a pretty lofty expectation of one so small.

Lise slid off the fence and into the paddock, calling Sotisse. It took time before both mare and foal came in her direction. The filly was already showing an amazing degree of independence, preferring to dodge snowflakes and dance away from her mother rather than follow. Sotisse nickered at her baby anxiously. The mare was easily caught and led to the gate, and finally the filly galloped urgently to her dam’s side. Lise snapped a second light rope onto the filly’s tiny slip and took hold of the active little body, popping and squirming to a chorus of her mother’s worried chatter before jauntily allowing herself to be guided back into the barn.

“Cheeky little girl, aren’t you?” Lise said as she turned the pair loose once they were safe in their stall. “Well, just hang onto that attitude, all right? I’ve got plans for you, miss.”

Hopes. Dreams. Nothing less than greatness.

Chapter One, Part Three

Lise kept an eye on her watch, and felt Pete looking at her again. She didn’t know how much he knew about foaling — he had to be reading the concern on her face — but she was beginning to think Sotisse’s agitation excessive. She told herself to wait until the water broke before getting any more paranoid.

“Finally,” she muttered as the placental sac appeared and soon released its contents, drenching the mare’s hocks. Lise was already discarding her coat and slipping off her sweatshirt, nervously adjusting her long hair in the elastic again and pushing up the arm of a long-sleeved t-shirt. “Okay,” she said, turning to Pete as she pulled on a long sterile glove. “Hold her for me?”

Lise ducked Pete’s questioning eyes as she slowly withdrew her arm and turned away, assuming she looked as pale as she felt. She removed the glove in the aisle and pushed back the dark fringe of bangs from her forehead. The uncomfortable warmth she had felt earlier was quickly replaced by a chill unrelated to the winter temperature.

“It’s breech.”

And a true breech. All Lise had found were hocks, the hind legs tucked all too neatly underneath the foal’s body, preventing delivery. No wonder Sotisse had spent so much time trying to shift this baby. The presentation was all wrong. It wasn’t going anywhere, the way things stood.

She was going to need all her strength for the job ahead. Lise had to work against the mare’s contractions as she pushed the foal’s haunches back and searched, struggling to get ahold of a limb and bring it into the birth canal. She wrestled the left hind free of the pelvic rim and felt a rush of relief as it joined her arms in the passage.

Resting was out of the question. The right hock was more easily found, but the force of the contractions was painful. Somehow she found the energy needed to grasp it, still fighting against the intermittent pressure exerted by Sotisse. Lise slid her hand down from the hock along the long cannon bone, through the wetness to the soft, strange covering on the tiny hoof. She took hold, and took a breath, telling her screaming muscles not to let her down now. The contractions miraculously cooperated and abated long enough to let her bring the appendage up to join its mate.

“Okay, Pete, just turn her loose.” Lise leaned back against the wall out of the way, trying to take advantage of the momentary break but ready to influence the mare if Sotisse picked a bad spot to deliver. Pete stood beside her as they waited once again. Lise closed her eyes briefly and refused to acknowledge the ache in her shoulders . They needed to get the foal out quickly.

Sotisse turned once around the stall as she looked for a spot to settle in the deep bed, sweat and straw matting her thick coat. At last the chestnut went down, then flattened herself, groaning.

“C’mon, you’d better help.”

Lise nodded to Pete, both moving in to take a now clearly exposed little hind foot, soles strangely facing upwards.

The struggle was obviously telling on the mare, and Lise fought her own fatigue as she and Pete worked steadily with each contraction. There was no time to think of the danger still involved. For all she knew the foal could already be dead, if the blood supply through the umbilicus had at any point been compromised…and if suffocation hadn’t yet occured, the possibility remained. They would know nothing until they got the foal out.

The long hind limbs of the foal lay stretched behind Sotisse, her baby now half expelled — caught precariously between the life she had known in her mother’s uterus and the potential of a new one which waited to welcome her. The mare’s sides heaved with her deep breaths, but Lise noticed anxiously that the contractions were no longer coming. “How is she, Pete? C’mon, ’Tisse…”

The shoulders, yet to come, were the largest part of the body. In a normal foaling, the head was out and clear by then. The comfort the filly had known inside her dam for ten months would now be suffocating her.

It was completely normal for the mare to rest partway through delivery, but in this situation, the seconds ticking could prove to be deadly. “C’mon, big mare, you’re almost there…”

They were both prepared when the next contraction finally came. The mare was striving with renewed strength, pushing the shoulders clear, and they quickly drew the foal out onto the straw bed. Lise was pulling away the amniotic sac before the forelegs were even free, cleaning the nostrils and anxiously looking for signs of life.

Pete reappeared at her side and started rubbing the fragile, dark body vigorously with dry towels. In her exhaustion Lise didn’t even protest when he gently pushed her out of the way to start respiration. He paused from his breaths to glance at the foal’s slight ribcage, waiting…they both saw the faint flutter.

“You got her,” Lise said, relief and suddenly considerable gratitude for Pete’s valuable presence washing over her. She sat back on her heels in the mess of straw, feeling her heartbeat slowly begin to return to a normal rhythm. Neither she nor Pete moved, staring at the tiny filly as each breath came more strongly that the last. Sotisse lifted her head slightly, murmuring at her new foal.