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Posted Sunday, September 8, 2019

It had been awhile since I last saw my 2-year-old filly, Miss Jacqueline. Can’t remember exactly the date. But I do remember that I saw her breeze for the first time. Had to be back in July, when the sun was hot; the air was stagnant; and the coffee steam seemed like air conditioning compared to the heat coming up off the ground.

So when I wheeled into the open parking slot next to the barn at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington last Friday, and I was able to escape the nonsensical ramblings of sports talk radio, I was truly amazed when I took a gander into Stall No. 1.

Gone was the slender, little teenager with the gangly legs and the starry eyes, who looked undersized for the stall and overwhelmed by the surroundings.

Now, here stood a dappled bay filly with rounding rump and sturdy hip, who looked right at home and looked like she had filled both out and up.

Gone was the shy, tender and nervous girl who seemed to spook at the mention of her name.

Now, here stood a steady young lady, firm from withers to the ground, who cast an eye toward the racetrack with a glimmer of hope and anticipation.

Gone was the baby that I had left in the care of my friend and trainer Stephen Lyster, wrapped in leg bandages and a horse blanket that served as her swaddling clothes.

Now, here — standing just inches in front of me — was a racehorse. Developing still, to be sure. But developing, for sure.

In the blink of an eye, and a single notch of the stopwatch, right before my eyes it seems, Miss Jacqueline looked as if she started this life’s breeze with a burp and a diaper change and finished it with a snort and a snout.

In other words?

My little girl is growing up. My little girl is growing into a racehorse.

(Miss J getting tacked up / Photo by Gene McLean)

For a second or three, the two of us stood at stall’s door and just looked at each other. No words spoken. None needed. Eye to eye. Our only introduction on this morning was no introduction at all.

I took her in. She checked me out.

I dug out a peppermint. She sucked it in her mouth and swished it around like a jigger of mouthwash.

I gently grabbed her halter and inched her towards me. She gently grabbed my sear-sucker Orvis shirt in-between cheek and gum and nibbled as if it was pouch of Copenhagen dip.

Finally, I uttered a few words to her.

“It that you, little girl?” I seemed to ask, already knowing the answer and not expecting an acknowledgment. “Man, have you grown up. Man, you have grown up. Man, you really have grown up. 

“You miss me?”

Without so much a nicker, she seemed to understand every word and hang on every sentence. She dropped her head over into my chest and gave me a horse hug — as warm and tender as a bear’s hug, without the arms, mind you. And, then she slowly moved back. A step back. And, then another.

Then, Miss Jacqueline stopped and posed for a camera shot, as if to say:

“What do you think of me now?”

(Halter adjustment / Photo by Gene McLean)

Have to admit, I laughed a bit. Out loud, too.

She looked so good. She looked so strong. She looked like a different horse altogether.

The filly that I had left in Stephen’s care was a little under 15 hands. Weedy and wirey. A bit too small. A bit too light. A bit too shy. A bit too sly. And, a far cry from being something that would catch your eye when she walked out of a stall.

The filly that I had now was 15.2 or 15.3 hands tall, with all the appearances of making it to 16 some day.

Her back hip was starting to muscle up, and take shape. Her rump — her engine — was tuning up. Bigger than before. Stronger than ever.

Her withers now catching up to the back end.

The shoulder catching up to the front end.

The neck, pretty and lean, equally balanced with the tunnel scope of her body.

Her cannon bones and pasterns strong and tight.

Balance. She had symmetrical balance on her feet and in her body.

Eye. She had the eye of a competitor, and the look of a willing winner.

Bone. Structure and foundation.

She looked so darn good.

And, you know what?

Strange as it may sound or read?

Miss Jacqueline seemed to know it.

(Ready for action / Photo by Gene McLean)

When Miss Jacqueline was saddled up in the stall, she kept one eye on me the entire time. When she exited the stall, she bowed her head and pranced a little dance. When Miss Jacqueline left the barn and headed to the track, she was on her toes — if horses had them. When Miss Jacqueline reached the sandy surface, she was fully on her game.

Miss Jacqueline was ready for her first four-furlong breeze that was coming up. But more than that, she was ready to show me what she could do now on the racetrack, too.

So, we both got a thrill this Friday morning.

(Ready to go / Photo by Gene McLean)

Miss Jacqueline, with the rider on her back, jogged over to the front side and gazed once at both Stephen and I before turning on a dime, and header off in the right direction. The jog turned into a slow gallop. The slow gallop turned into a stronger one. At the half-mile pole, the rider asked her to pick it up. She delivered.

First quarter went in 12 & change.

Second quarter in nearly 12 flat.

Third quarter in 12 & change.

The final quarter in 13 & change.

First time going a half mile, she got a little winded. A little tired.

But she did it easy enough to impress both me and her trainer.

“That is a good work,” said Stephen. “I’m very happy with it. If she comes out of it good, we will do it again next week with company. I’m happy.”

With that, I smiled a racehorse owner’s smile.

See, in this sport, you take your victories whenever you can get them. And Friday marked a victory. I took it and, ran.

All the way back to the barn to catch Miss Jacqueline cool out, get her bath, and her daily reward of hay and fescue. She did so good today that she even got to graze awhile outside while I took her picture. Over. And. Over.

Before I left, I went to her stall one last time to say goodbye. I had one more peppermint to share.

Miss Jacqueline looked up from her pile of hay — that she spread all over the stall floor, just like a messy teenager dropping her clothes in all directions and leaving them their for someone else to pick up. She ambled over and took her candy surprise.

“I’ll be back soon,” I told her, as I gave her a smooch on the forehead.

I swear I think she said, “I know.”

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Meet Gene McLean

The Pressbox is your source for news, handicapping and interviews with the industry's biggest stars. Gene McLean is the Founder of The Pressbox and The Louisville Thoroughbred Society. No one in this industry has more talent in reviewing, forecasting and handicapping.

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