I felt the knot in my stomach tighten and my confidence evaporate when I walked through the line of horse-drawn sulkies on my way to the barns. The horses at Yonkers looked much more ferocious than Carrot Man had. But this was no time to turn into a yellow journalist. I had a deadline to meet. "It's natural to be nervous," said Moiseyev. "Just don't go out there scared."
The words echoed in my head as I greeted Nicko's Brother. The horse's regular driver and trainer, John Taddeo, eased my worries by telling me that in 20 starts this year Nicko's Brother had only won $9,180. "A little lazy" is the way Taddeo described him. "You gotta wake him up sometimes," he said. Nicko's Brother sounded like the perfect chauffeur for my first solo drive. And to make sure that he and I understood each other, I repeated to him the suggestion I had made to Carrot Man before we ventured out together. Then I took a deep breath and hopped aboard. But the feeling of imminent peril returned as soon as we reached the track and I saw how bustling things were on the half-mile oval. I couldn't remember Uncle Charley facing anything like this. At least 20 other horses must have been out there, whizzing by us. I felt as if we were entering the Speedway in the middle of the Indy 500.
During practice runs, slow-moving horses travel in the outside lanes, while the fast crowd hugs the rail. Every chance he got, Nicko's Brother tried to veer to the inside. My refusal to let him kept us out of harm's way, temporarily. Suddenly the driver beside us clucked his tongue and snapped a whip across his horse's back. I don't know whether Nicko's Brother thought a race had begun or whether I had had a change of heart, but soon he was pacing at full speed. As we headed into a turn, I yanked the reins as hard as I could and yelled, "Whoa, Nicko, whoa!" I might as well have been screaming into a wind tunnel. My commands were drowned out by the thunderous sound of hooves pounding the ground.
"Is he fighting you?" Taddeo asked when he and his colt caught up to us. Afraid to take my eyes off the track, I ignored the question and pretended the situation was under control. There was nothing to do but hang on until Nicko's Brother ran out of gas. As we hit the last turn on the third lap, he started expelling some of that gas right into my face. Then, down the stretch, he began to poop. One lap later, his fight—along with everything in his intestines—was gone, and I steered him off the track. "I guess he wanted to give you a little thrill," said trainer John Brennan, who was standing nearby. I couldn't respond right away, because I was still spitting.
Later, after giving Nicko's Brother a bath and turning him over to Taddeo, I asked Brennan why the horse had turned on me. He shared with me some wisdom I wished I had had before undertaking this assignment. "When these racehorses want to go," he said, "there's no way someone like you, with no experience, can stop them. They're bred to race. When they get out on that track, they don't know it's just for fun. They think it's time to go racing."
O.K. So I'm no Jack Moiseyev. But not even another Uncle Charley? Hadn't I shown some flashes of competence? "Well," Brennan said, when I pressed him for a critique. "Maybe you could pick it up if you kept at it. But it would take a long time—years, probably."
Years of being stepped on and pooped at? Forget it, I muttered to myself, as I headed off in search of a shower and a bottle of mouthwash.