Of Love and the Pursuit of Soundness: A Story of (and for) Juice, Part I

In part one of this three-part series, Aubrey Graham tells the origin story of Juice — or at least her origin story with Juice, the lanky redheaded Thoroughbred who stole her heart.

I committed to buying the lanky redhead between the time the plane touched down and domestic baggage claim. His name nearly ended up being Delta, or Pilot… but, for the horse registered with the Jockey Club as “Pulpituity,” neither of those cheesy monikers stuck.

I didn’t need another red horse. In fact, I didn’t need another horse at all. At this point in November 2018, I was a semi-broke post-doc and part time trainer. The “semi” is important. “Semi” left me feeling like since I wasn’t “fully” broke after the first year with first redheaded Thoroughbred (“Forrest” – JC Don’t Noc It) and the bay (“Otter” – JC Hope At Last) who I had recently sold, why not gamble with the notion of “fully” broke and try a second again?

Forrest in a common first-year form: slowly breaking my bank account. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

So, when the wheels skidded onto the Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson tarmac, I grabbed my phone and switched to my social media feed. I wasn’t looking for anything particular — just a distraction, just something more uplifting than the floundering relationship I was coming home to.

The anthropology conference I was flying back from was the highlight of a semester for many of my colleagues. Each year, my enthusiasm waned. I loved my research. I loved teaching. I loved getting to catch up with my far-flung friends. But instead of publishing plans and interviews, I would rather talk about that night in Lisbon with so and so, those crazy workout classes that Professor X runs or plans for this year’s Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. I was a good anthropologist. I was a terrible academic.

Yep, I actually got this in a fortune cookie at the airport on the way home from that trip. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

I was coming home to a 3k vet bill – Forrest (2018 RRP Grad in Eventing and Show Jumping) decided that getting kicked in the hock was a grand plan for the weekend I had to fly to California. Forrest spent the weekend with my vet. I spent a portion of the conference on the phone with said vet… the other portion found me alternating between hunting for service to make sure I didn’t miss the calls and checking my bank account to see if some long-lost, forgotten money suddenly materialized. Spoiler alert, it didn’t.

Thanks, Forrest. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

So, as a collective hundred bodies lurched in their seats, we all reached for our phones, for our people, for our futures. I followed convention and texted my then-not-yet ex one word, “Landed.” My fingers hovered; I didn’t have more to write. And then on Facebook, there was this thin, gawky redheaded Thoroughbred. His second photo showed him awkwardly jumping a toppled-over standard. At the bottom of the sale post it noted, “For professional restart only.”

I remember wondering what exactly that meant. Instead of asking about him, I found myself asking them about me — Was I good enough? Was I actually a professional?

Pulpituity’s rehoming images from November 2018. Photos by Kelly Lupton and Turning for Home.

I mean, for the last decade and a half I had technically been training professionally. I had been a working student and backed Warmbloods for a hunter barn, trained rank horses on trails, competed through Prelim, hacked out, fixed and had sat the bucks on anything I was asked to get on.

The only thing I had given up on was, comically, a small Chincoteague pony who nearly dislocated my shoulder after bolting upon walking over a pole. Usually, when a horse flat foot-jumps a four foot arena fence, they land on their feet and simultaneously annoy and impress their owners. This one covered all the annoying bases but failed to impress, as it gave zero shits that it landed clear on its head. Again.

Nope, I was out. Professional “skills” be damned, that one you literally could not pay me to ride.

Taking CU Zip to Dixie (“Phoenix” owned by Sarah Edwards) Prelim at Chatt Hills back in 2017 Photo by Liz Crawley Photography.

Lurching through the imposter-syndrome of being a self-proclaimed part-time horse trainer, I hesitated on the redhead with the big blaze… well… hesitated for approximately 30 long seconds. Then texting his rehoming connections, I pushed forward. By baggage claim, I had a price negotiated and a pre-purchase exam set up. I’d give “professional-enough” a shot and get this guy home to the barn where I both lived and boarded. How tough could he be?

One more shot from before he came down to me. Photo by Kelly Lupton and Turning for Home.

When the New Jersey-based vet looked him over (and after lunging him in the blisteringly cold wind of that pre-Thanksgiving day), she called to say that she liked him – noting his serious height and “sexy” walk. She also flagged up that he had a “stabby” trot and that one hind ankle was “more turgid” than the other. Trying to be smart, I had radiographs done. To me then (what did I know?), the bones looked ok enough with some minor modifications in density and arthritic changes around his hind left medial sesamoid.

Medial shot of Pulpituity’s hind left ankle from November 2018. Radiograph courtesy of Atlantic Equine Clinic.

I didn’t ultrasound.

I didn’t ultrasound because I didn’t know. I didn’t ultrasound because I didn’t want the big red three year old to fail the vetting. Because I wasn’t the me that I am now – the me who now runs my own 16-stall Thoroughbred retraining center; the me who has spent years hovering over my vet’s shoulder as he worked on every horse in my barn.

Then, I wasn’t yet the person who took out multiple credit cards to cover stem cell treatment and shock wave and gambled on 10 months of stall rest for this exact same redheaded beast… Because I didn’t know that sesamoid remodeling often indicates suspensory branch issues. Truth be told, if you had told me that then, I probably would have thought that it was still all worth it and would have nonetheless plowed forward.

I did.

And it was.

While I waited for Pulpituity to ship to just south of Atlanta from New Jersey, I spent Thanksgiving distracting myself with dreams of this horse’s future and my future with him. My now-ex and his family were lovely, but sitting at their kitchen counter in Nashville, I was surprised at how few words I possessed. I wanted a real cup of coffee. I wanted a glass of wine. I wanted this horse to get home. Hell, I wanted to get home.

Instead, I settled into another cup of “half caf” and paid Equibase for access and watched his one and only race. The red horse charged forward on lanky stick legs – making it up to fourth before dropping to the very back of the pack.

Pulpituity slows in his one race at Parx Racing and quickly loses ground. Screenshot from an Equibase video.

Did he just tire, or was his sudden slow down another tell that I missed? Lord knows there were enough of those… Considering the couple month break in his record of workouts following that race, that might have been when it happened — when the tall, red, three year old damaged his suspensory branch and his chance at a second career.

I didn’t know it then, but that damned suspensory and my stupid heart were never quite going to be the same. Scar tissue, apparently, only stretches so far.

Damn I love this horse. Photo by Kassie Colson.

To be continued…

Part II will be published tomorrow.