THE BLACKLISTING OF SWEET KISS
He feels Frank’s leg go slack in the stirrup.
If Sweet Kiss had possessed the power of human language, he would have told anyone who would listen earlier that morning that Frank Hayes had no business holding the reins. Not that he harbored anything but affection for the man, but Frank was suited for the stable not the saddle.
He was a hot walker, the lowest low at the track, but he was Sweet Kiss’s favorite. He looked forward to that half hour after a hard run when Frank walked in front of him and ambled around the shed row, stopping for a few swallows of water every few minutes, until his skin cooled and his sweat dried. Frank would tell him about plans to marry his girl, Elyse, and how she was worried about him losing so much weight and training so hard to convince Mrs. So-and-So that he could ride in the next race at Belmont. Sweet Kiss was doubtful—Frank was a sloppy rider. Still, he must have been convincing, said just the right thing to win his chance.
Frank, of course, did not call him Sweet Kiss. That name was for the papers, the betting slips, the sharks. Frank called him “Buddy.” He would sing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” or, if his spirits were high, “Horsey Keep Your Tail Up” while he brushed the nits and burrs from his mane. He had kind hands that held his mouth softly while he checked his teeth or fed him an apple.
“If I get the chance, I’ll ride like those South American riders. They ride the shoulders instead of the back. We can’t lose, Buddy,” he said, nuzzled him and gave his snout a beery kiss.
Now, the race is nearly over, and the reins are loose in the air. Frank’s chest falls against Sweet Kiss’s neck, and his limp arms flop at his side. This has never happened before with any other rider. There is no snap of the crop, no dig of the heel into his side. For a moment, Sweet Kiss wonders if he should just stop, but some thought of Frank’s daily confessions, his dreams, his fears, his loves and grudges and small triumphs make Sweet Kiss punish the dirt with his hooves. He can feel the heat from the bodies of the other horses as he passes them, the dust kicked up into his mane.
When Sweet Kiss crosses the finish line first and finally slows the thundering machine of his legs, he comes to a stop and Frank falls to his side, each foot still stuck in the stirrups.
Sweet Kiss does not yet know in this brief moment of victory, that after today, he will never race again. There will be no wreath of roses in the winner’s circle, only confusion, commotion. When a group of men rush toward him, they pull Frank’s feet free and lower him to the ground. Another man presses his fingers to his throat, looks up, and shakes his head.
Sweet Kiss hears one of the reporters ask, “What’s the name again?” and when someone in the crowd answers, one of the sharks says, “Sweet Kiss o’ Death more like,” and the phrase catches in the reporter’s ear like a firefly in a jar.
His mouth is dusty, but no one arrives with a bucket and sweat prickles his skin. Someone finally pulls him away, but he does not sing any songs or nuzzle his ear. Sweet Kiss’s heart beats as if nothing will slow it down, but he waits with his head up, waits for someone to pat his side and whisper, “Shhh. You rest now, Buddy, you rest awhile now.”