Michael Nikolic, Gathering the Wind

I never gave much thought to routine.

Every morning I wake up to a face full of dogs and an hours trudge around the neighborhood. It's nice and quiet and the few desperate souls out at that unholy hour are as numb as I am, so the cowlicks and pajamas are ignored by all.

Once I get a cup of coffee in me and the family is off into the world, I usually make my way out to Arlington to watch the morning workouts. I bring a set of binoculars but they are more of an affectation because I have no idea what I am looking at; it's just a lot closer.

I see Louie Roussell every morning and he nods at me in a friendly manner, the hint of a question in his eyes-I'm nobody of consequence and yet here I am every morning. I would like to go up to him and strike up a conversation but I don't. He doesn't need me bothering him and so we go on our own way, he is gone by 08:30-quiet and efficient.

I have my bench, apparently everyone has their spot. I sit on the third bench down from the grandstand, next to the wall by the winner's circle; I'm the one with that lost look in his eye. I don't know the names that go with the faces but I know where they like to sit and watch their charges. Michael Reavis, one of the few I know, sits on the last bench closest to the clubhouse turn, his cowboy hat perched jauntily on the back of his head a cigar usually clamped in his teeth. Frank Kirby pulls up just behind me in his golf cart and watches from there.

I find it funny that the track is unguarded this early. I guess I could walk just about anywhere without being confronted but I don't. I usually just go to my bench and sit there. I light a cigar, finish off my coffee and soak up the scene.

There is an understood reverence blanketing the track. Even the laughter and tom foolery are muted; quick and sharp as if nobody wants to shatter the mood. The only time the day is disturbed is when the loose horse siren goes off and then it is as if everyone stopped breathing at the same time. All eyes straining to find the rogue and silently imploring that he is in fact loose and running and not down on the track. The other day the horse ambulance darkened the track with its presence, inexorably rolling to the hapless victim. The horse walked on to the van but what became of it I do not know. I didn't stay long after that, the sun in the cloudless sky seemed a bit dimmer and the day a little cooler.

The workouts are usually done before 10:00 and with a few exceptions, the trainers have repaired to the backstretch leaving me alone at the stands. Getting to the end of my cigar I usually burn my fingers trying to extract that last ember of peace, that farewell caress and it is the saddest part of my day. I make my way out through the paddock because the gates I came through are closed by now and I am passed by the workout stragglers. Those lucky souls who weren't out jogging at 'oh dark thirty'. The rider nods or flicks his whip at me in greeting and we go our separate ways at the empty guard shack.

Life...she is not so bad.

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