"How do you handle it?" said the elder Gaver. "Why, you feed him!"
Oh, don't you worry 'bout dat," Pickles the groom was telling a friend. "There'll be another classic hoss comin' along any day now, might be out in one of those stalls right now. Anything else is just markin' time. We're always look-in' for another Tom Fool, a Shut Out, a Devil Diver, a hoss like Capot. Capot was one of our hoss of the years. He was at the same time as Olympia—that's a sprinter that could outrun a quarter hoss at a quarter of a mile, and he did it once, too. Well, Capot used to love to get right on Olympia"—Pickles held his long, bony hands straight out, parallel and almost touching to show how close Capot would stay to Olympia—"and not only Olympia but all those other speed hosses, and Capot he'd stay there till he broke their hearts. He did that twice with Coal-town, beat 'im twice in one year by stay-in' right with 'im, and he did it to another fast hoss named Noble Impulse. He'd lay right on 'im and stay there till sump-in' went bust. Typical Greentree hoss.
"This Greentree, it has its faults like any other place. But after a few years you get used to it. One minute you're important around here and you got to do ever'thing, everything. The next minute you can't even lead a hoss, you're too stupid to lead a hoss without a million dollars' worth of supervision. You're goin' from a drive to a pull all the time. One minute there's nothin' to do, the next minute you ain't got enough hands to do it.
"But I'll tell you one thing 'bout this place. You better not be around here if you don't like hosses. Our man, he talks sweeter to hosses 'n he does to people. He has more patience and understanding toward hosses—and cats and dogs and owls, for that matter—then a old-lady schoolteacher. He believes in Thoroughbreds, in top stock. He'd be the first person to admit that hosses as a class is dumb." A smile shone from the depths of Pickles' eyes. "But dumb or not, hosses are nice and hosses are interestin', and they can surprise you once in a while. They're so finely bred. Mighty few people are bred like a hoss."
"Kings, maybe?" he was asked.
"I doubt if even kings are. What king could you trace both top and bottom lines as close as you can the cheapest racehoss? And comin' out of that long breedin' is instinct, sumpin' deeper than thought, bred right into them. Like you see a hoss break his leg and keep right on runnin', with the leg danglin', still tryin' to win that race. Why? Because that's what he's bred to do.
"Yes, sir, you got to admire them, stupid or not, ornery or not. You got to like 'em. People asks me do I like bein' around hosses all the time. So I tell 'em that the ugliest job here is shakin' out stalls in the mornin'. Men don't like it, shovelin' all the manure out and cleanin' up. Why, I actually like that.' "
In the afternoon it snowed lightly in Aiken, and when the grooms fed the horses at 4, they pulled the stall doors shut to ward off the cold. Just before nightfall the final flake fell and the sun popped out for the last few minutes of the day, enabling Top Cat to resume his vigil at the mole hole. John Gaver and his son and a few others finished their afternoon huddle in the office and wandered off, and Pickles came scuttling around the end of the shed row, looking at the sky and executing a little therapeutic dance step. "This is the place to be," he said in his raspy baritone as he made a beeline for the now empty office and the undersized wooden chair in the corner. "And I believe in this place. I know I'm resented around the racetrack a whole lot because I believe in my owners and I believe in our man. If anybody says anything wrong about him it ought to be me. If anybody else says anything about him I get mad. I don't allow 'em to do it. Our man is the same about us. He don't let anybody talk about us. That's Greentree." Pickles turned the stove up a bit and resumed his attack on the chair. "Success is a funny thing," he intoned. "Now, both my parents were schoolteachers and they made me go through high school, and they wanted me to go to college. But you know where I'd be if I went to college? I'd be sittin' right here. I'd be—arraw, arraw—a hoss rubbah with a B.A." Pickles the groom leaned far back, his long legs spilling over the sides of the chair, and almost fell off with contentment.