I hurried into the coffee shop, quickly glancing at customers in the booths to my left and right. Spotting a young man flipping through the condition book at the counter, I headed in that direction. "Tim?" I asked, sitting down beside him. "I’m Karen Elliot, sorry to keep you waiting."

"No problem doc, I just got here myself. Coffee?" he asked.

"Please," I said, and he signaled the waitress.

Tim Wheeler was just starting to make a name for himself on the backstretch. He was putting together his own string after having left his job as an assistant trainer six months ago.

Tim passed me the cream and sugar and said, "So, you’ve got a gelding you want to get back into training."

"Yup, he was retired last fall, but I think he’s a different horse now after some R&R." I went on to describe Togwotee’s lackluster history as a racehorse and what had transpired since.

"What makes you think things are going to be different this time around?" asked Tim. "Maybe he’s not made out to be a racehorse."

"No! I mean, I don’t think so." I stopped to collect my thoughts. "He was burned out, but he’s had a chance to take a break and rediscover what he loves to do. I think he also realizes that I’m going to stick with him no matter what. You understand that I’m not interested in entering him in any claiming races, right?"

"Yeah," Tim drawled. "That’ll sure make things more difficult, but I think I could make it work. You know, I actually remember seeing Togwotee run. I thought at the time that if he could just get his head on straight he might actually amount to something."

"So, you’re interested?" I asked.

"I’m up for the challenge if you are," Tim answered with a smile.

Togwotee’s first race as a six-year-old arrived after three months back in training. He had handled the transition well, getting into shape quickly and seeming to have left most of his antics in the past. I visited him at least once a week. He was always happy to see me, but had developed a strong attachment to Tim and his groom as well.

I arrived at the track just before the fifth race, and Joanne showed up a few minutes later. Togwotee was entered in the seventh, so we had some time before I needed to head for the paddock.

"Let’s put some money on the old guy," said Joanne, and we made our way to the windows. As I was placing my bet, I caught the eye of one of Tim’s stable hands walking away and sliding a ticket into his pocket. He smiled at me and winked. I grinned and nodded back.

After the sixth race, I joined Togwotee and his trainer, groom, and jockey in the saddling enclosure. "I’m a wreck. How’s he doing?" I asked.

"Great," replied Tim. "He definitely knows its race day, but he seems excited, not nervous."

I reached over to stroke Togwotee’s neck. He responded by nudging my shoulder with his nose. Tim quickly got him saddled and gave his jockey a leg up and a few last-minute instructions. We waited for the post parade and watched Togwotee circle the paddock.

"He seems to have a little swagger to his stride, if I’m not mistaken," I commented.

"Yeah," laughed Tim. "Did you see the way he stared down that number four horse when he went by?" Togwotee passed by us one last time before heading out onto the track. We climbed the stairs into the stands to join the rest of his cheering section.

I watched the field make its way towards the start muttering "be safe, be safe" under my breath.

"Doing OK, Karen?" asked Tim, giving my arm a squeeze.

I nodded but couldn’t quite stop my hands from shaking.

"Nothing like a fresh start," Joanne remarked.

I flashed a quick smile and took a deep breath.

The last horse entered the gate.

Togwotee stared intently down the track.

The bell rang — "And They’re Off!"

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Mark Atkins / via Shutterstock