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The Old Horse's Glory-Day `Vacation'

AN ancient proverb says, ``It is well known that one horse can run faster than another.'' That saying has been around so long that I presumed everybody knows it, so I was baffled to find my television set profuse with hoss trottin' on a recent afternoon. I switched channels quickly and found a lady on public television showing me how to make paper rosebuds. After an hour or so she ran out of pink paper, so I turned back to the race track. The race had just started, and it took about a minute and a half. Although I speak as a former owner of a racehorse, any affectation of superior culture on that account can be denied or explained, and I think it will be more fun for everybody if I explain it.

Bill had indeed been a racehorse, but he was only four years old at the time. He was now 33 and white all over, so I could follow him back to the barn after dark if I lingered too long in the wood lot. I bought him from Wesley Hooper when he was well into his dotage for $10, but Wesley said he was sorry and gave me $3 change. I had Bill about three years and retired him when I bought a Fordson. Bill raced only once on a track.

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When Bill had been a colt, the big event in our husbandmen's year was the annual exhibition at Topshaw Fair by the Sagadahoc County Agricultural, Horticultural, and Pomological Society. Of all the attractions, none was more popular than the farmer's free-for-all, when family readers with their Sunday-go-to-meetin' buggies competed in wild confusion for the only prize - a bushel of oats.

There were 138 starters the year that Bill ran his only track race (two half-mile laps). Sim Coombs said that from where he sat he counted six winners - one of them Bill. (Bill's racing name, for the moment, was Farragut's Fury.) Now the buggy was washed, the harness oiled, the buckles shined, and a red ribbon was tied to the check-rein snap. (Village gear had check-reins, but farm harnesses didn't.) It took Bill over three minutes to win his oats, just a bit under his usual time on a row of tomatoes.

This success had a lifelong influence on the old fool, and even after I came to have him, Bill would occasionally get to thinking about his moment of glory at Topsham Track and have a fantasy throwback all by himself. He'd forget he was engaged in work-a-day chores and imagine he was a colt again, longing for the plaudits of the grandstand. He'd lapse back to Tosham Fair.

The first time he pulled this on me was the year I grew an acre of popcorn on the back field. That turned out to be a profitable venture. It did well there, and we sold it on the cob so customers could experience the old country pleasure of rubbing two cobs together to get a popper load.

But I ran out of popcorn seed, so I put two outside rows into rutabagas. Long after the popcorn was harvested and we'd had a sharp frost (frost sweetens them), I took Bill and the wagon and went to the far field to pull the turnips. I was pulling turnips and heaving them, leaves and all, into the wagon. As was my wont on such routine occasions, I was improving myself with philosophic ruminations, and Bill was doing the same.

I had the wagon about half full when Bill erupted a joyous snort and in utter fantasy took off across the field, wagon and all, in a replay of his coltish triumph. I entreated him with whoas, but the taste of victory was more persuasive, and Bill halted not. It was almost a mile to the house.

When I got to the house, noticing some castoff turnips along the way, the wife said Bill had passed and, after scattering the dooryard hens into the apple trees, had continued up the road on a due-westerly course, so that by now he was probably just coming into Chicago.

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I tracked Bill by the turnip trail, and just beyond the Waschalowski sawmill I found him in the placid composure of a resting hero after the fact, back to normal and needing only to be shown the road home. It took a time. Bill would lift a foot, try to think about what to do with it, and then select another. I had to get off the wagon seat now and then to pick up a turnip. The next day, Bill and I returned to the field to get the rest of the turnips, and I got almost half as many again as I'd expected.

All of which I offer in detail to show that owning a racehorse is not necessarily glamorous and aristocratic. Television might do better to ignore the Preakness and give us something like ol' Bill.

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