Vagneur: Following the trail past the gate out back |

Vagneur: Following the trail past the gate out back

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Every summer, a certain gate attracts my attention as I drive my tractor by while working a large hay field. It holds intrigue for me because, until the other day, I had never been through that gate, never crossed through to the other side, although that was my unrealized intention exactly 45 years ago.

With a small bit of excitement and with tentative fingers, I undid the chain holding the metal gate tight against the wooden post and made the commitment to examine a past life through what could best be described as “the back door” to what we always called “out back.”

The small creek that looked so alluring from the hayfield immediately posed a problem of some import. It ran wide and deep, the crystal-clear water appearing green from the moss that lined the bottom, and the water very strangely and silently moved with unrelenting swiftness toward its confluence with the main river several miles downstream. A small culvert offered a way across, and making sure my boot soles were dry, I began the march, a distance of 20 feet or so. A slip would have meant a fall into the brook 10 feet or so below. My dog swam across.

A horse nickered in the distance, his body partially visible behind trees and bushes, and he came our way, curious to see such a pair in his domain. Other horses could be heard to neigh with concern farther off in the distance, hidden from our view, wondering what “our” horse was talking about.

“What’s that over there, that large enclosed space near the open, green glade?” I didn’t remember that being there, and as I peeked inside, my guess was correct — an old collectible car, maybe a ’58, parked inside behind the thick, protective, water-impervious sides of the building.

As I sat on a lonely chair, the plastic sides began to billow in the breeze, their composition suddenly black and white silk and in the corner of the hall sat an orchestra of indeterminate origin playing dance music. Men in Victorian suits, their hands firmly pressed against the backs of their graceful partners, steered women of unqualified beauty, perfumed and elegant, around the hardwood dance floor.

Looking down at my feet, the plywood floor greeted my eyes and the waving, silky sides returned to stiff composite plastic. Replacing the orchestra in the corner was a car engine sitting on a bench, and the daydream was over.

Outside, I recognized the clearing from a party of another sort I attended 20 some years ago. At that time, standing in front of a waiting crowd of people, it became abundantly clear I was too drunk to play my accordion. Later, my friend Geoffrey Morris remarked, “I didn’t think that was possible.”

Like sentinels guarding a woodland hideaway, more horses could be seen, grazing throughout and partially behind the various bushes that accompanied the forest of decades-old cottonwoods, stately kings of the river bottom. Glancing at us, the gaze of the gallant steeds quickly turned to the area we had just left, calling out to their one companion we had first seen. Comfortable that things were in order, they let us pass without interference and went back to their afternoon chow-down.

Through the low-hanging willows and serviceberry bushes, I saw it; the race track, or training track, if you prefer. Cut ingeniously through the tangle of the river bottom, it was built on solid, but soft ground with long straight stretches and gentle corners, an excellent place to work young thoroughbreds, getting them ready for the big tracks in Denver or California.

Take a man from England, a drummer of the first regard, put him in a world-famous international traveling band that had its last engagement in Aspen, and wonder what the allure was to one so foreign to the country lifestyle, but appreciate every minute he spent over the next several years, living and learning about ranching and the race horse program, training and working those 2-year-olds on the very track I was standing on. A good man, gone to another universe, too young and so long ago. The memories ran deeper than the dirt beneath the track.

There was more, a lot more; reminisces of a friendship of almost 50 years with the owner, of adventures and heartbreak along the way and somewhere in all of it, there was the feeling of lives well-lived, of a future that will create its own memories for upcoming generations. And there isn’t much more than that to any of it, not in my humble estimation. As I left, I closed the gate gently behind me.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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