We’re staying at one of the two nice old hotels in Oklahoma City, near the Bricktown shopping district. By the door to the restaurant, between wine racks and brass door handle, the rule “No Weapons” is emblazoned on the glass. At our late and leisurely breakfast, the waitress tells us they’re about to start filming down there in the lounge, by the fireplace: Real Housewives of Oklahoma. We eat fluffy, syrupy pancakes (Philip’s) and veggie omelet (mine) and drink hot tea. The filming is slow to get going. We don’t glimpse even a single Housewife.
Before we leave for the horse show, I walk down the wind-tunnel-ish street to the pharmacy recommended by Guest Services. I round the corner toward the iPhone’s pinned location and find a desolate wall of concrete, two people smoking in an unmarked doorway. They direct me around the building and through revolving doors, into a formerly majestic space now occupied by sad little poorly lit shops. The drugstore is no bigger than a hotel room and doesn’t carry plain old Colgate.
On the way back, I glance through plate glass into a sort of waiting room and see an old-timey guy staring down into an ashtray, motionless. He looks vaguely waxy: a mannequin? Such an odd posture, either way. I make the snap decision not to gawk long enough to figure it out.
While Philip takes a conference call, I drive us five blocks into Bricktown to check out Native Roots Market, the natural foods store I found online. (My State Fair Arena survival plan includes stashing healthy snacks in the McCutcheon fridge.) There’s an empty parking spot right out front, and inside it’s another world: organic produce, house-made hummus, kombucha drinks, gourmet chocolate, fresh pistachios and pecans. I stock up and hit the road in high spirits.
We drive in glittering sunlight toward the horse show. Philip spots Ebenezer’s Used Tires and plasters himself to the car window, begging me to stop so we can “check out some of those chromies.” Ebenezer’s array of XXL chrome wheels leans on the chain-link fence. I cruise by, while Philip salivates at the receding display.
“Baby, that’s a blog entry waiting to happen!” he informs me. Meaning his blog, Turtle Garage, about all things car- and motorcycle-related, a topic on which he has savant-level knowledge and kid-in-candy-store enthusiasm.
* * *
When we enter the barns, he takes a breath and says, “I love the smell of horses so much.” We’re the same in this way: being around horses never gets old. All through the stabling aisles, people groom and saddle, polish silver, wrap legs, pick manure. Spurs jingle on boots. Horses snort and nicker, slosh water buckets, tear hay from hanging nets. Some doze on their feet or lie curled in the shavings; this horse show’s the hardest they’ve probably ever worked.
I take Philip to Corey’s stall and we fuss over the horse, rubbing his neck and forehead. He seems peaceful and totally himself, fresh enough for another good run. Along with his dreamy-palomino looks, he’s just generally pleasant to be around. He nuzzles our hands politely—that peach-fuzzed, muscular upper lip and warm breath—then goes back to his hay. He’s a stallion but not pushy or arrogant the way stallions can be; only sign of his hormones is how his attention moves, with a just a little extra concern, toward other horses going by.
(His all-around good-mindedness came into major play this week, for qualifying round one; just as he and Tom headed to the in-gate, the coliseum lights flickered out. Warming up a reining horse is an hour-plus-long, carefully timed process: tune up the fast circles and slowdowns, then sliding stops, then spins, but with lots of walking/settling/airing-up in between. Tom had Corey just right, then had to wait 45 minutes for the lights to come back on. He couldn’t redo the whole pre-show routine, and so had to keep the horse semi-warm and hope he’d fire on the maneuvers. And he did, maybe not his absolute best, but enough to easily make round two.)
We set up camp in the lounge area in front of the McCutcheon stalls—both of us with laptops, grinding out work. The couches are the kind with big cushy flaps, à la Barcalounger. (There’s an actual Barcalounger in the snacks/nap room behind the black curtain.) Lots of people mill around the barns. The Intermediate Non Pro finals are running in the main arena, which we can watch on the jumbo McCutcheon TV, right here from the couch. The guys across the aisle from us are watching this TV, too, from their bar tables, and making bets with each other about the scores.
Philip has to leave for a meeting just before the big Non Pro finals begin. I remind him not to do too many burnouts in the rented Chevy, especially since he’s not even on the contract to drive it.
In the coliseum, I find a seat near Tom’s father and brother, so I can alternate between chatting and freaking out. My first time seeing our stallion’s offspring in live horse-show action. Five of them about to compete: feels like a test we need to pass, and plus the Non Pro winner gets major press. I’m way more nervous watching than showing. No control, nothing to do but wait.
The announcer runs through pregame fanfare. The overhead brace on the entry gate is wrapped in schmaltzy gold fabric. The judges sit in super-high chairs, lifeguard-style—five judges spaced at intervals, each with a scribe. Sponsors’ banners line the arena walls: Cinch Jeans, Bob’s Custom Saddles, Lucas Oil, Quarter Horse News, Dodge Ram, John Deere. The seats in this upper section are the old-school wooden kind, and all around us people have left debris from their Indian tacos and curly fries.
I keep the jitters under control until the first Gunners Special Nite cues up. These run-in patterns makes for dramatic entrances. The mare gallops in—a nimble little sorrel, white face like her daddy’s—and nails the slide, spraying a wake of dirt. The audience whistles and cheers. She backs to center ring, yielding to the reins. Her rider sits calmly, legs relaxed. Pause: catch her breath. Spins next: four to the right; four and a quarter to the left. She steps around fast and clean, hits the shutoffs just right. Clamoring and catcalls from the stands. Going well, now don’t screw up. Gallop circles on a loose rein, slow down smoothly at center. The spectators love it. Three slides to go.
Turn, straighten up, build speed: from a gallop, she hits the dirt and slides, crouched low. The crowd whoops and hollers. Roll back to change direction, lope off—and her hind feet trot a step. The crowd groans. Tiny mistake, goes by in a flash, just a touch too relaxed. But a trot penalty’s two points per judge, you don’t come back from it. I’m muttering curses under my breath. Tom’s brother commiserates. Such a nice little horse, we both say. Her rider dismounts and walks the mare out, fringe chaps dragging. The score is announced. Without the trot, they’d have taken the lead.
So goes the afternoon. Mandy’s first GSN mare zings her spins and hits gritty, stylish slides. But galloping circles, her hind feet slip and she cross-canters (meaning, i.e., that for a few strides her front and hind legs aren’t synchronized). Another one down. Good horse; bad luck. Sitting there watching, pumped on adrenaline but powerless, obvs, to do anything, I get this very intense mixed feeling: relief and excitement because our stallion’s kids look so legitimately top-caliber in the show arena; plus also a sinking trepidation at these missed chances; you don’t get that many chances at this horse show.
Soon Tish Fappani, wife of superstar Italian-turned-American trainer Andrea Fappani, grabs the lead with a slick performance. (Tish, one of the Non Pro queens, favors uber-glittery show jackets and wears her long, dark hair in a ponytail that streams behind her.) She’s laid it down, a tough score to beat. Maybe it’s someone else’s day.
Mandy’s last GSN mare, the one I watched her practice on yesterday, is green. She missed a bunch of training time, and so just making the finals at all is a sign of her talent and good brain. But a high-pressure finals is the nemesis of green horses. I hold out some hope, though, because Mandy’s got wonder-woman-level horse-showing skills. Plus also, I notice, she’s changed her shirt for better luck: aqua with crystal-studded cream roses. The mare’s a deep golden palomino with blonde mane, splashy white face, white polo wraps. Mandy’s saddle gleams with custom silver engraved with her past championships.
They make it all the way through the pattern in big-league form; then on the last sliding stop, the mare loses her balance just enough to ding her score. She winds up fourth. Out in the schooling area, while the mare catches her breath, Mandy’s dad has to help her pry loose her cowboy hat, which almost flew off during her previous run and is therefore now hair-sprayed on tight enough to withstand a gale-force wind. For most Non Pros, fourth at the Futurity is a major accomplishment. For Mandy, it’s nothing momentous. But the general talk among Mandy’s schooling-area posse is that’s a good mare—should be a contender in next year’s derbies.
Still and all, the Gunners Special Nites bring home more than $40,000 in prize money. On post-adrenaline letdown, I remind myself how obviously non-shabby this is. We’re okay, Tom tells me. People saw how nice the horses are.
The crowd drifts through the stables and tack shops, toward the sale barn. Tonight’s the Futurity Prospect Sale, auction of two-year-old horses. Philip gets back in time to join me for a show-off-the-Open-Finalists moment: we’re called to the auction’s backstage area, behind a towering satin curtain, with Tom and all the other Finalist owners and riders; and each little team is made to walk through a puff of smoke into spotlights. Corey’s name is announced—Sunglasses At Nite and Tom McCutcheon for owner Turnabout Farm!—we shake some hands, shuffle offstage.
Tish and her horse are back here, too, about to go on; she’s achieved the unlikely feat of buying a horse from this sale, then winning the Futurity, and for that, she gets a fat $50,000 bonus. (Nothing like the dream of winning cash to stimulate shopping.)
Tish’s winning run:
Tom still has to work Corey, one last session before tomorrow’s finals. The main arena’s closed while the auction’s on, which means Tom can’t even start riding until well after midnight. He decides to make a break for it—escape the stagnant coliseum air. We all go to dinner at Trappers, which serves things like fried alligator and blackened fish and dirty rice, and then Philip and I head for the hotel.
We sleep in, go to the gym, order room service. As we’re getting dressed, I play Corey’s namesake 80’s song through my iPhone’s pinched little speakers: synthesizer, drum machine, howling guitar—just for luck, to start the day with a dose of horse-person superstition. When you name a foal Sunglasses At Nite, there has to be in the back of your mind this dream-image of the horse grown up and galloping in for the Futurity finals while the song plays. You might dream of that, but the chances aren’t super-high that your foal, out of the 2,500-ish registered each year with the National Reining Horse Association, will actually make it to the top thirty of the Open Futurity.
Well, it’s happening. And here I am, getting teary at the sound of an 80’s rock song. (When I mention this thought to Mandy a few hours later, she gets teary for a second, too.)
The main horse-show parking lot is full. People already crowding in for the Open. We wedge the Chevy between a rusted flatbed trailer and a hulking dually pickup. Inside, the barn aisles buzz with show prep and horse shopping. We sit by the stalls with Tom, who’s running on not much sleep. Plus he’s got this cough that’s going around. He’s in horse-selling mode, taking calls from clients, relaying an offer on a mare of ours, asking me for prices on our yearlings. The reining business has a year-end frenzy of transactions, revolving around this horse show.
Philip and I kill time by wandering through the shops and visiting American Pharoah’s pony horse, “Smokey,” a former reiner, dun with glossy dapples, black mane, kind eyes. In his stall by the warm-up, he’s drawn so many admirers/gawkers he’s had to be taken away periodically to some quieter location. We pick up a draw sheet with our stallion ad on the back. Along with order of go, the sheet shows riders’ and horses’ earnings stats and horses’ bloodlines. The Intermediate Open finals run first, all through the afternoon. I keep half an eye on the live-stream TV’s, but I’m saving my energy for later.
In the break before the big finals start, Mandy and Philip and I make a liquor-store run. She’s left her car in the sale barn’s back entrance—non-legally parked, with her MCUTCH license plate. (By this point in the show, a sense of delirious abandon sets in.) We pull into the line of traffic clogging the barn area. Mandy eyes the pedestrian walkway toward the back gate.
“Think we can fit through there?” she says. It’s a fifty-foot-long concrete path across a median.
“Definitely,” I say. Beauty of an SUV: curbs aren’t real obstacles anyway.
We cruise across, with that mildly giddy feeling of outfoxing the rules, only to find the gate locked.
“It’s all the thefts,” she says. “People were stealing stuff from the barns.”
The liquor store plaza affirms why the horse show might want to be on semi-lockdown. (Mandy’d mentioned something about it being better to come here as a group.) Guys loiter by shabby storefronts and watch us with slow-moving eyes. Traveling as a pack, we choose vodka and rum and beer. They don’t have cold beer, though, or any mixers. Mandy splits off for the Dollar Store next door, in search of soda, while Philip and I wait for the cashier to pack our stuff. A man with bloodshot eyes comes in and buys a half-pint of cheap whiskey in a paper bag.
Out in the parking lot, we wait by the car with our box of booze. Two guys screw around with those mini BMX bikes over by the Food Emporium. Two others climb into a ratty, window-tinted car beside us, gazing at us a few extra beats.
“Yeah, we only come here in daylight,” Mandy says on our drive back.
* * *
Phase two of this big test for our stallion, and I’m getting headachy with stress. I decide to go Zen and just check out from any attachment to the outcome. At least that’s what I tell myself. All this intense caring is just so tiring. We don’t have cups, so I pour a shot of vodka into a can of orange Pellegrino from that health food store in Bricktown. Philip cracks open a beer. We head for the coliseum, where the boozefest is well underway.
The first Gunners Special Nite is about to go—“Scooter,” raised at Tom and Mandy’s ranch; I’ve known him since he was a foal. Two-million-dollar rider Duane Latimer has the ride. Mandy’s at the gate, ready to perform her famous ear-splitting whistle. Philip and I steal two box seats near the front. My heart knocks around in my chest. Duane and Scooter gallop down centerline at thundering speed and hit the first slide. From there on out, I holler myself hoarse, clench the armrests, claw at Philip’s knee. A good, clean run. Score comes in: near the top of the pack.
After that, I start to breathe. Tom’s goal tonight for our stallion is to get two of his offspring into the top ten. And it looks like Duane’s just given us one. We rush down to the warm-up area, where Tom and Mandy and Duane and the rest of the crew are standing around. Two people have already asked to buy Scooter.
Philip and I break down and order gargantuan burritos at the concession stand. In front of Shorty’s Caboy hattery, a woman whose name I’ll omit wheels around with her red cup, meets a desk chair, staggers a few steps clutching it (canted precariously, almost cartoon-style), and hits the floor with a broken-bone-type crack. It’s a bad scene, people crowding in to help, calling an ambulance. A little while later she’s up but looking majorly distressed.
In the arena, horses continue to run, and Philip and I wolf our burritos in a daze. Finally, after an interminable-seeming amount of time, it’s Tom and Corey’s turn. With all my adrenaline spent, I’m actually almost in Zen mode. They run in—Tom’s black cowboy hat, Corey’s blonde mane streaming—and hit a monster first slide, as good as any I’ve seen all night. I watch and cheer in a suspended state, partway numb, beyond any version of thinking. I vaguely notice the song playing. They’re right in the thick of things, then something odd on that final slide. No disaster, just off-kilter, front legs missing a beat. But they match Duane’s score, and Tom, when we run out to talk with him, is thrilled with the horse.
And so Tom’s goal turns out to have been essentially prophetic: we’re the only sire with two offspring in the top ten of the 2015 NRHA Open Futurity Finals.
* * *
Philip and I opt out of the traditional midnight post-finals IHOP excursion, hoping for a little rest before our way-early flight to New York. En route back to our hotel, two final, vivid snapshots of Oklahoma City. First, a decrepit Model A parked under a streetlamp by an empty lot, a sign propped on its trunk for Ken Boyer Bail Bonds. Then two blocks up, an open-air ice rink garlanded with Christmas lights and teeming with skaters in bright parkas and beanies—a little pocket of festive life tucked between these dark streets.
On the plane, I wake from profound, underwater-type sleep to find Philip chatting with the man seated behind us. He’s wearing a stallion-logo cap. Turns out he’s the father of a trainer I’m friends with—he and I the lone Red Sox fans on the reining circuit, plus he helped me when I test-rode my first reining horse, many years ago. We talk a while—he’s been working with his son all week, does this every year, though he’s not in the business himself—and what comes through in the most touching way is how earnestly proud he is of his son, who made his way from humble beginnings to the top level of the sport. And it just so happens that, along with our herd of Gunners Special Nite babies, I have two of their stallion’s weanling colts in the pasture.
Return to Part One.