“Ralph, put your horse on the phone.”
It was a soft but insistent voice coming over the speaker phone in the Heartland Downs Racetrack office of veteran trainer Ralph Tenuta. He quickly answered “okay” and leapt to his feet and started for the door. “I’ll be right there. I’ll have my cell phone.” Jack Doyle leaned forward from his seat on the battered leather couch in Tenuta’s office. “Did I hear what I just heard, Ralph? ‘Put your horse on the phone’? Who said that? What horse? A phone?”
“Jack, I’ll explain later,” Tenuta said over his shoulder.
The screen door slammed behind the trainer. Doyle, one- time amateur boxer and former advertising account executive, now deep in the world of horse racing, sat back on the couch. Tuxedo, the black and white resident cat, gave him a typically baleful look. On Tenuta’s desk an ancient electric fan swiveled, so weak Doyle estimated that it wouldn’t blow out a match. The glistening new speaker phone, a recent gift from one of the trainer’s grateful clients, formed an anomaly in this otherwise outmoded enclave.
Doyle picked up his copy of Racing Daily, the newspaper often referred to as the bible of thoroughbred horse racing. Once again, he went over the three races his new, and first, and only jockey client would ride in that afternoon.
After being “right-sized” by his ad agency, Doyle began what he recognized as a most unlikely, but necessary, career on the racetrack. First, fixing a horse race. A caper he’d never stop regretting, especially since his profits from it had been stolen. Then being co-opted by the FBI to catch two sets of criminals while working as a groom. Then stints as a publicity director and a stable agent, leading to his current job as a jockey’s agent. “Present a moving target” had come to define Doyle’s vocational philosophy.
Doyle tossed the newspaper onto Tenuta’s desk. “’Put your horse on the phone,’” he repeated. “I’ve got to see what the hell this is all about.” He headed out the office door.
# # #
He found Tenuta in the fifth stall on the west side of the large barn. The trainer was holding his cell phone up next to the twitching left ear of a nervous gray filly named Madame Golden, a “real nut case,” according to Tenuta.
“There’s something wrong with Madame Golden and I can’t figure what the hell it is. That’s why I called the vet, Ingrid McGuire. She’s over on the other side of the backstretch and can’t come here now. That’s why we’re doing this phone business,” Tenuta said.
As the soft voice poured out of the phone into Madame Golden’s ear, the filly relaxed, stopped anxiously swishing her tail, got a pensive look on her long brown face.
After a couple of minutes, the voice on the phone told Tenuta to move away from the filly. Tenuta patted Madame Golden on her neck as he listened to Ingrid McGuire say, “Ralph, check this horse’s left rear foot. She says there’s a twisted nail in the shoe that’s killing her. That’s why she was so out of sorts the past couple of mornings when you sent her to the track to jog.” Tenuta said, “Thanks, Ingrid.” He handed the phone to Doyle and examined the foot in question. “I’ll be damned,” the trainer said. Madame Golden whinnied as Tenuta held her foot.
He said. “Jack, call Travis Hawkins. You got his cell?”
The powerfully built African American blacksmith was in the cab of his white Ford pickup, eating a breakfast burrito from the Heartland Downs track kitchen and going over his written schedule for the day.
“Travis, it’s Jack. Can you come over to the Tenuta barn?
Ralph has a little job for you. Won’t take long.”
Hawkins said, “What’s a ‘little job’?” Doyle described Madame Golden’s problem.
“Who noticed that?” “The horse told them.” “What?”
“This will all become clear once you get over here,” Doyle said. “I think.”
# # #
Twenty-five minutes later, after Hawkins had carefully removed the offending nail and put a new shoe on the appreciative Madame Golden, the three men drank coffee in Tenuta’s office. The blacksmith said, “Are you going to explain?”
Tenuta said, “I met this young woman, Ingrid McGuire, a few months ago. She’s a veterinarian. Used to work with another vet, Eric Allgauer, that I used for quite awhile.”
Tenuta refilled his coffee cup and sat down again behind his desk. “Here’s the deal. Ingrid is what they call a horse communicator. She used to do mainly straight veterinary work when she was with Allgauer, but now she pretty much concentrates on this other practice. Communicating. A lot of guys back here didn’t take her or her ideas seriously when she started. Me included. But I’ve seen the good results Ingrid gets. I’m a believer.”
Hawkins leaned forward. A man who had been around horses most of his adult life, he was obviously intrigued. “Ralph, what does she do? I don’t understand.”
“Now,” Tenuta said, “don’t laugh, but what Ingrid does is like that ESP stuff I’ve seen on TV. Extrasensory perception I think it’s called. She closes her eyes and concentrates and lets the horse come into her mind. The horse tells her things. Horses can’t talk, but somehow Ingrid can pick up what they are thinking—if they want her to know what they’re thinking. Some don’t. Or can’t. This doesn’t work with all horses, she tells me. I know it sounds crazy. But it isn’t.
“Ingrid said she got started with this method after she read a book by a veterinarian in England, a guy named Henry Blake. The book convinced her that this kind of horse communication was possible. So, she went ahead with it. And it worked. And it left her former partner and boyfriend, Eric Allgauer, behind.”
Doyle and Hawkins exchanged eyebrow-raised looks. Tenuta said, “Here, I want to show you this. Ingrid gave me Blake’s book.” He thumbed through the book to a dog-eared page. “Henry Blake talks about ‘the transfer of an emotional state from horse to horse or horse to human.’ He says the ‘telepathy involved is the transfer of specific mental pictures.’ Ingrid says that’s exactly what goes on when conditions are right.” He put the book down and removed his reading glasses.
“Ingrid has got several clients here now,” Tenuta continued. “She says her methods of dealing with horses vary. After she’s first met them, some of them send messages to her when she’s not with them. Others need her to be with them there in person. Others, I guess like Madame Golden, can be prompted by hearing her voice on the phone. ESP.”
Tenuta became slightly agitated by the looks on the faces of his listeners, especially Doyle’s.
He said, “Skeptical bastard that you are, Jack, I’m sure you think this is some kind of hustle. Well, hear this. The first time I used Ingrid I had her deal with an old gelding, Frank’s Fantasy. He’d all of a sudden soured on me. He wouldn’t break from the gate, and he loped around to finish dead last in three straight races. With his head cocked so he could look over the fence at the crowd. Like he was mocking me.
“I changed his feed. His exercise schedule Tried three different jocks on him. None of them could do anything with Frank’s Fantasy except get hot and dirty at the back of the pack. The horse just wouldn’t try. I had his regular vet, Allgaur, go over him from head to tail. Nothing physically wrong with Frank’s Fantasy, so Allgauer said.
“A few days later, Ingrid McGuire came by the barn one morning and asked if I would let her work with Frank’s Fantasy. I’d seen her assist Allgauer before and been impressed with her. Real nice young woman. Her mother’s Swedish, her dad’s a Mick. Hey, I thought, “Why not? I’m not getting anywhere with this animal. You guys want more coffee?”
Doyle said, “Go on with it, Ralph.”
“Ingrid made a couple of visits to Frank’s Fantasy’s stall. Ingrid said Frank’s Fantasy told her he was sad. Depressed. Because a buddy of his, another old gelding named Mister Twaggs, who’d been in the stall next to him for about two years, was gone. Mister Twaggs got claimed away from me.
“Ingrid asked Frank’s Fantasy what could be done to make him not feel resentful, get him to try in his races? He told her he needed a new friend.”
Tenuta heard Doyle’s snort of disbelief. He glared at Jack. “Ingrid said Frank’s Fantasy was very ‘adamant’ or something, whatever that means.
“I figure, ‘What have I got to lose?’ So I move this new two-year-old colt I just got from the farm into Mister Twaggs’ old stall next to Frank’s Fantasy. Colt named Plotkin. Pretty ugly name. But a very promising colt.
“These two horses get along great, old Frank and the kid. Frank’s Fantasy picks up his head. He’s acting better. I call Ingrid to see how it’s coming. She tells me, ‘Great, Ralph. Frank says he’s very happy with his new pal next door.’
“I enter Frank in a race the next week. He goes to the gate prancing, like his old self, not hanging his head like he’d been doing. The son of a gun came out of the gate like a quarter horse. Won by a pole. He was bouncing around the winner’s circle like he wanted to go around the track again.”
Tenuta leaned back in his creaky chair, spreading his arms. “Ingrid came by the barn that evening. Had a communication with Frank’s Fantasy. She said he told her, ‘I am a happy horse’. And that’s how he has been acting, and running. What can I tell you? I believe in Ingrid.”
Ingrid McGuire put in her four miles of running every other day, regardless of the Champaign-Urbana weather, which ranged from blistering summer heat to winter mornings when sweat threatened to freeze on her forehead.
She had begun this regimen two years earlier shortly after enrolling in the University of Illinois and its famous veterinary school.
Moving smoothly south from University Avenue over the long blocks on Lincoln Street, past the Ag buildings and the herds of penned-up cows whose odor permeated the air no matter what the time of year, she almost always gained a sense of exhilaration, solid well-being. The release of energy somehow transferred into stamina when she attacked her studies later in the day.
This April morning, as she ran past a blooming lilac tree, she stopped and reversed herself in order to pluck a sprig. Lilac scent had always been one of her favorite things in spring. Then she heard a voice from behind her. “Is that legal?”
The speaker was a tall good-looking man astride an expensive bicycle. She could see he was kidding from the smile on his handsome face. Cut-off shorts revealed his muscular legs. He removed his riding helmet, smoothed his blond hair, and smiled at her. “Do you know me?” he said. “Eric Allgauer. We’re in Professor Ronstead’s lecture class Tuesday mornings. You sit down front where you can raise a questioning hand.”
He paused to drink from a water bottle. “I lurk up high in one of the rear rows. These will be my final credits before graduation. I can afford to coast.” He stopped to erase the sheen of sweat on his broad forehead. “I’ve started riding this route every day. Ever since I happened to see you running last week when we were going in opposite directions. I stopped riding to watch you run. I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“Oh,” he smiled, “you have a lovely way of moving. A tall, fair girl with great legs and buns and a long pony tail waving is a tonic for the heart.” They both laughed.
Ingrid said, “Fifth year, eh? Congrats. You’re almost out of here. I’ve got another year to go.” She squinted at him through the morning sun. “I’m surprised I haven’t run into you before. It’s a big vet school. But not that big.”
Eric put his helmet back on. “Go on with your run. But, if you like, maybe we could have coffee, or lunch, after next Tuesday’s class?”
Ingrid backed away a few steps and turned to resume running. Looking back over her shoulder, she said, “That might work.”
He watched admiringly as her long strides carried her on her way.
That’s where it all began for them. Two months later, Eric informed his angry father that he had decided to “take a year of graduate work.”
“You can pay for that yourself,” Dr. Herman Allgauer shouted over the phone.
“I plan to.” Eric slammed down his phone. Ingrid and Eric moved in together the next week.
# # #
The following year, Ingrid thought, went by in kind of a blur. She studied long and hard and made the dean’s list again. Eric sashayed through his grad school courses. After registering at the start of that fall semester, Eric told her, “I’ve signed up for a creative writing course. This will drive my old man nuts.” They were sitting on the small balcony outside their third floor grad school apartment. A late September breeze rustled through the leaves of the aged elm trees lining the yard in front of them.
“Why do you want to do that, Eric?”
Allgauer reached for the shaker of martinis on the small table between them. In recent weeks, he had begun preparing the drinks before each of their evening dinners.
“My old man wanted me to follow him into veterinary medicine. Fine with me, because I like it. He also wanted me to graduate from this vet school, which he had come out of forty years ago, and join him in his practice back in Naperville. The idea was that I would eventually take it over. No way.”
“Why is that?” Ingrid said.
“Because I can’t stand the man. Neither can my brother Rudy. The famous vet Dr. Herman Allgauer is an egomaniac with a mean streak two yards wide. And he is what I’ve learned is called a ‘high-functioning alcoholic.’”
“It means he drinks a lot, but can still operate his practice. Fixing damaged animals. Charming their grateful owners. Then going home at night and going from Dr. Allgauer to Mister Hyde and hide the wife and children when he’s on another tear. “When my old man went to school here, the vet school was about ninety-five percent men. Today, as I’m sure you know, it’s split about fifty-fifty between women and men. For which I am very grateful. But this irritates the hell out of Dr. Herman, a misogynist
of the first order.” He laughed as he pulled Ingrid close to him.
Ingrid shifted on the couch. She’d never heard Eric so serious about anything, much less his family. He got up abruptly. “I want to show you something I wrote about Dr. Herman. It’s a poem I wrote. I did it for freshman English. Got me an ‘A’ and some inquiring looks from the prof.”
Eric reached into the bottom drawer of their desk. He took out a tattered manila folder and found what he wanted. He handed it to Ingrid. She read:
MY OLD MAN
A pre-noon nip to Get the morning running?
Or a slosh at dusk to Lay out evening’s path? He faced such vital Choices, drinker of The wee tot now and Then, the vat then Again. The measure Of a person’s not
Their measure, he Maintained. No, The key’s just in the timing, Of that he was convinced. Until He and his bottle hit full throttle.
Ingrid read the poem once, then again. She said, “That’s a pretty sorry picture of a man. You must have given a lot of thought to this. Your father has caused you a lot of pain.” She leaned over and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked straight ahead as he answered.
“Yes, he did. That’s why I’d never consider going into practice with him. I’m going up to Chicago, get my track vet’s license, and set up a practice at Heartland Downs. That’s my plan.”
He turned and smiled at her. “And I hope you’ll come with me.” He refilled his martini glass. Ingrid waved off his offer to freshen up her drink. She noticed, not for the first time, how Eric at about 6:30 each evening began to slightly slur his words. She wondered how many “martoonies,” as he called them, he had downed before she arrived. However many there were, they seemed to make him more caring and affectionate, especially in bed. She was in love and loving it.