Our Filly Was A 'Night-Mare'

James Osborne

© Copyright 2022 by James Osborne

Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash
Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash

Some men cherish time in their workshops on weekends. It began just like that for me one Saturday afternoon but ended as a reluctant co-owner of a racehorse.

Around lunch time the door to my workshop opened.

Honey,” my wife Judi said. “Elsabeth’s on the phone. Her and Keith are at a horse show. They want us to meet them there and go see the horses, and maybe have lunch. What do you think?”

Her question was not an invitation. I was not overjoyed. Growing up on a farm I’d experienced enough smelly horses and cold barns to last a lifetime.

We arrived to find a half empty parking lot. A surge of hope! Maybe the horse show was over. Wishful thinking. Moments later we came upon Keith and Elsabeth, their enthusiasm in high gear. We toured the barns, dodging horse ‘exhaust’ to view the winners of the standard bred show.

The size of these animals was barely a shadow of their four-legged cousins from my past ... a pair of huge workhorses my father used on the farm to harvest hay from an often-soggy meadow.

Come on!” Keith said excitedly, our barn tour apparently over. “The auction’ll be starting soon!”

What? I thought in alarm. Oh no! Surely not!

Squatting on a hard wood bench in a drafty barn didn’t seem like the best way to spend a winter afternoon compared with making sawdust in the inviting warmth of my workshop. No matter: Judi’s bright hazel eyes lit up with excitement. There was no mistaking what she had in mind. She loved razzle-dazzle. The rah-rah of an auction ring in high gear would be irresistible.

Damn, I thought. I’m hooped!

My three companions went charging off toward the auction arena, full of excited anticipation. I sauntered along – ‘underwhelmed’ would be an exaggeration – struggling to show a pretense of exuberance.

After finding a seat high up in the auction arena, Elsabeth and Keith agreed on how they should go about bidding. That’s when it became clear our friends were determined to buy a few horses. They decided they needed to be low key about it. Keith knew standardbred horses and was well known in these circles. Other buyers would notice if he bid. It would inflate the prices for them and other buyers.

Our friends sat near but in different parts of the sales arena, visible to each other. He would make occasional distracting bids. She would make serious bids on his signal.

The bidding went on and on, from horse to horse. A few times, Keith and Elsabeth came close to buying one. Each time they lost out as the bidding went higher and higher.

Then along came a horse named Shilo Fantasy. Keith was excited. It was obvious he wanted her. In retrospect, other bidders most likely sensed his excitement right away. Keith went at the bidding subtly at first using the agreed system, and then with more exuberance as bidding intensified. Soon, their system was forgotten. Keith was bidding openly. Up went the bids ... up and up and up. I had to admit, it was fun to watch.

Hey, this could be a spectator sport, I mused. It’s entertaining to watch other people spend thousands of dollars buying horses at auction.

Then it was over. Keith had won the bidding! There was lots of excitement to go around. Keith and Elsabeth ended up paying one of the higher prices that day. No matter. Keith kept saying the horse was well worth it. Judi and I had no idea.

Once the excitement subsided, Keith turned to Elsabeth:

I forgot my check book,” he said. Elsabeth shrugged. She said she didn’t have hers either. Keith turned to me.

You wouldn’t happen to have a check on you by any chance, would you?” he asked. “I’ll get you the money on Monday. Okay?”

It was not often our checking account could manage a hit of that magnitude, even temporarily.

Sure,” I said, feeling beads of sweat pop up along my hairline. “No problem.”

Hey,” Judi said, gazing squarely at me. “Why don’t we buy half of the horse?”

She turned to Keith.

You’ll only have to return half the money,” she said. “You okay with that?”

What?” I tried to interject, dumbfounded. But she was talking to Keith now ... so much for spousal consultation, I thought.

Good Lord!” I said. “What in the world do we want with a racehorse?”

But events were in motion, irreversibly as it turned out.

Keith turned to Elsabeth. They exchanged nods, and then smiled.

Sure,” Elsabeth said excitedly to her close friend Judi. “Then we can go to the races together! Won’t that be fun?”

Hey, partner,” Keith said turning to me, his hand outstretched and a look of mischievous delight on his face.

Oh shit! I thought, and then added a few more silent admonitions.

The deed was done.

Our first few months as co-owners of Shilo Fantasy were a pleasant surprise. She was a beautiful horse and with a spirited personality. She ran splendidly at home and in a few other cities. Keith’s experience helped us find a good driver and an experienced trainer.

Shilo Fantasy made it clear she liked being out front. The pretty young mare would shake her dappled grey head as she fast trotted up through the pack to the front, her nostrils flaring. And she’d stay in front. We loved it, and so did she.

Later, when Shilo Fantasy went to the winner’s circle for pictures, she would prance around and leave no doubt that she was mighty proud of herself. The grey and black filly won more than her share of races through the heart of that season and came second or third in even more races. Her future and ours as owners looked promising.

Then everything changed. By early fall, she’d begun to lose momentum for some unknown reason. We convinced ourselves a rest over winter would return her winning ways come spring.

First time out in the spring, Shilo Fantasy surged immediately to the front of the pack. We were ecstatic. The four of us, plus our collective offspring and a scattering of friends formed a loud and exuberant cheering section. She was back!

The Shilo Fantasy we knew and loved was in fine form. That first race she was in the lead three quarters of the way around the track when suddenly her pace fell back to a fast walk, then a walk, and then a slow walk. We couldn’t believe our eyes.

What’s this all about? We wondered. Was she hurt?

Weeks turned into months of veterinary bills. Nothing could be found to explain her ‘flaming out’ at the three-quarter turn. Shilo Fantasy raced again, and again. She’d come out strong as always, often leading the pack, and then fizzled somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way around the track ... every single time. The vet bills kept mounting, as did barn rent, feed bills and training fees with little income from wins, shows or places to offset them.

We finally had to accept that any hope of glory for Shilo Fantasy had become an elusive fantasy. She’d been aptly named.

Before that second season ended, we made a gift to a retired farmer Keith knew. The grandfatherly gent promised Shilo Fantasy would live out her life providing sulky rides to the many grandchildren and their friends who visited his farm.

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