The barn, renovated in the mid-1980s, contains 56 stalls. One of the two men who share the space is Don Combs, who trained 1970 Derby champion Dust Commander. NARA has 18 horses, a used-car lot of geldings, mares and fillies — all of them leased or donated. One won an allowance race at Belmont Park; another hit the wire first a couple of times at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville, Ill. In the future, the goal is to start stabling young horses on a commercial basis, to help cover barn costs — about $40 a day per horse. Horses would stay for 90-day stints, and students would work the developing Thoroughbreds, preparing those horses for their future racing careers.
The eight jockey students come from all over. Chad Lindsay, 18, is a former bull rider from Weatherford, Texas. Vanessa Ryall is from Norway, where her father breeds horses. She’ll celebrate her 21st birthday on Saturday. Dylan Davis, also 18, is the youngest of six siblings and the son of retired jockey Robbie Davis. His sister, Jacqueline Davis, was in NARA’s inaugural graduating class and is riding professionally (2,180 mounts, 230 wins) on New York racetracks such as Aqueduct.
The students (five of whom are females) are supposed to be here by 7 a.m. five days a week, and all but one — a woman is absent because she needs to fix her car’s brakes — show up at least 30 minutes early. (They do barn work on weekends, too.) There are also three women here from the school’s “horseman’s path,” aspiring to work in the horse-racing industry as, say, trainers or grooms. Right now, each person is cleaning a stall's overnight mess. Remi Bellocq, NARA’s executive director since October, says to me, “The first thing you’ve gotta do is learn to muck out a stall.” I sign a waiver in case a horse kills me and follow him toward Montana’s prison-cell-sized quarters. Barn manager Francois Parisel, who trained Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Nownownow, asks in a thick French accent, “You want to muck a stall? Why do you want to muck a stall?”
Bellocq spent 10 years as CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. His father, Peb, was the Daily Racing Form’s cartoonist for decades. Right now, Bellocq’s teaching me to shovel horse manure. The key, he says, is to save all of the good straw. (Hay, I learn, is what the horses snack on.) His rake and pitchfork scrape the concrete floor again and again, and he dumps unsalvageable mounds into a wheelbarrow. I’m uneasy in the stall’s entrance because, frankly, horses terrify me. You know, hooves crushing faces. What compounds this fear is, every time I’m around horses while working on a story, everybody is constantly encouraging me to relax, explaining that horses can sense my anxiety. “Come on. He won’t kick you,” says Bellocq, handing me the rake. “But he might bite you if you get too close.”
I’m taking forever, interrupting the routine and wasting lots of good straw, and Bellocq keeps snatching the tools out of my hands. Clumps of horse excrement cling to my boots. I’ve already bumped into one of Montana’s water buckets, and my jeans are soaked. Bellocq, who teaches a racing-industry course, ends up doing most of the work — he says he’s rusty, but it takes him no time at all — and lets me empty the wheelbarrow outside the barn. Back inside, I drive the pitchfork into a leaf of straw and shake my arms. The brick of straw explodes, new bedding raining down onto the ground. Bellocq mentions how horses breathe through their noses and some have allergies. My polluted airways are convinced, and I sneak two puffs from my asthma inhaler. The plastic tack caddie carries soft and hard brushes, a mane comb, hoof grease. There’s a spot, a dark circle that looks like a birthmark, on Montana’s back left leg that Bellocq asks me to scrub. “Wait, where do you want me to get?” I ask, wondering how to rub out a birthmark. McCarron pops his head into the stall, snaps an iPhone photo. “The spot of shit right there,” McCarron says.
When I return from retrieving Montana a fresh bucket of water, Bellocq says, “You walked out and he took a big pee. You scared the piss out of him.”
Montana’s stall shined for four seconds. I am Sisyphus.