Among the pantheon of crazy old horsewomen I’ve met in my life is a wildly erratic, stormy-eyed widow I’ll call Doris. I met her when I was about 16, a time when I should’ve been fawning over the adolescent boys on the varsity football team. Instead I was purely enamored with Thoroughbred horses. And Doris just happened to own an entire herd of the lovely animals, including her own finely bred stallion and countless youngsters that were scattered around the California racetracks.
One day, without much fanfare or forewarning, she gave me a gift. It was a three-year-old bay filly named Fidelity. Built like a fragile fawn, Fidelity lacked any talent for racing and Doris figured I could train her to do something else. Eventually I did. I even showed Fidelity in hunter classes with some success, thanks to some much needed help from a local trainer. But that’s not important to this story.
What is important is that during an afternoon in July, Doris planned a day at the racetrack for the two of us. Though I was comfortable with Doris at the barn, and forever grateful for Fidelity, I hesitated. Maybe it was because her cotton dresses never looked quite clean or the way her glasses sat askew on her face, tipped to one side and held together with an unbent paper clip, which made me reluctant to spend an entire day with her. Yet Doris was insistent, so I finally agreed, but not until I’d coerced my mother into joining us.
The day of the trip Doris met my mom and me at the boarding stable. As usual she was driving her dusty old boat, but I noticed an unexpected companion was on board. A huge black and tan Doberman, complete with a spiked collar and cropped ears, sat like a fang-toothed gargoyle in the compartment behind the backseat. His wet nose had created triangular smudges all over the rear windows. My mom and I exchanged worried looks. Doris dismissed them. “That’s Blitzen,” she said, and motioned for us to climb into the car.
I took the front seat, leaving my mother to slide into the backseat. Immediately the brawny canine loomed over her shoulder and growled. “Oh, he’s fine,” Doris said, putting the car in gear, “he’ll get to like you in a few minutes.”
My mother’s eyes were enormous.
We drove down the gravel road that led to the freeway, Doris’ head barely peeking above the steering wheel. As we passed one of the last rows of barns, one of the trainers surveyed our traveling party and shook his head. He called out to my mom, “Well, Evelyn, you’ll either come back a fan of the racetrack or pretty well chewed up.”
To be honest, I can’t remember much of anything about going behind the scenes at the Del Mar racetrack. I know Doris’ racing colors were mostly dark green and her prized stallion, who was about to run in a major stakes race, was big and red with a long jagged blaze. He was sweet enough that I was allowed to pet him, and I remember stroking his long silken forelock.
The drive home was much more memorable.
By late in the afternoon we were all tired. That began to affect Doris’ driving, which wasn’t particularly safe to begin with. Now, rather than merely drifting back and forth across the double yellow line, we’d occasionally merge upstream into oncoming traffic, especially when Blitzen would make a move to advance forward in the car. Each time the dog would try to sneak over the backseat, Doris would grab the handle of her huge leather pocketbook and wield it over her shoulder, slapping at the dog’s muzzle. “Blitzen, get back!” she’d yell, simultaneously spinning the steering wheel in the wrong direction.
After several near misses my mother finally exclaimed, “No, Doris, it’s fine! Blitzen’s fine right where he is. We’re all fine.”
For the next 20 miles my mom had to ride with a Doberman panting in her ear, his foamy drool cascading off his tongue and onto her shoulder. What else could she do? It was either pretend she was perfectly comfortable or face the possible consequences of Doris taking another shot at Blitzen with her pocketbook.
Fortunately, we got a break when Doris decided Blitzen needed a drink and we needed lunch. We stopped at a café just off the highway. It was built like a quaint wooden barn, complete with Dutch doors and a hitching post. Local horsemen on their way to and from the track were the designated clientele, and I noticed the benches were filled with what looked like grooms and exercise riders. They were intently munching their French fries and sandwiches, and we weren’t about to force them to squeeze us in. Surmising the situation, my mom waited for Doris to traipse off with Blitzen and then rose from the backseat and ordered food for the two of us.
Armed with snacks and sandwiches, we decided to sit in the car with the doors open. Between mouthfuls of her BLT my mom tried to sponge the dog slobber off her blouse with damp napkins. When she ran out of napkins she said, “Look in the glove compartment to see if Doris has any in there.”
Doesn’t it seem like paper napkins would be among the likely contents of a glove box? But when I popped open the door I found a stack of old maps, a half-set of false teeth and an unsettling assortment of personal hygiene products. I turned and looked at my mom.
She stopped mid-chew and waved her hand excitedly. “Just shut it!”
We would’ve discussed the findings further except we were suddenly disturbed by Doris’ high-pitched voice. She was having some kind of verbal altercation with the lady at the order window. All we could hear was Doris trying to order a sandwich with some kind of special substitution and the lady at the counter refusing to comply. Ultimately it ended with the café owner stepping outside and stating loudly to Doris, “Every time you come here you cause trouble. You always have a problem. I told you before not to come back and now I mean it!”
And with that Doris was sent back to the car, minus a sandwich. But at least Blitzen had his thirst quenched.
Despite the dog drool, the death-defying driving and the disturbing contents of the glove compartment, my mom and ending up feeling a great amount of sympathy for Doris. She had enough money to support the fanciest of racehorses in lavish style, yet lacked the basic social skills to deal with the everyday challenges of co-existing harmoniously with the rest of humanity. No wonder she lived a solitary life, except for her animals. She found peace there. Her horses and dogs loved her despite her funky clothes, her disheveled hairstyle and even the stuff she kept wadded up in her car’s cubbyholes.
So many years have passed that I cannot recall what ever became of Doris. Yet like so many of the people I’ve met during my life with horses, Doris taught me something. As a teenager, I learned that sometimes you have to take the time to look beyond the eccentricities of some people to discover their true character.
Sure, Doris was a bit of an oddball, but she had a good heart. And who knows? Someday I could be someone else’s “Doris.” I’ll be another crazy old horsewoman, navigating her way through the remainder of life, with just a couple of toothy dogs and creaky horses as cabin mates.
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