Weetweetweetweetweet. Terry Brown is standing in the stall's shavings, waiting and whistling. Terry is standing in the middle, like a circus ringmaster, and all around her is endlessly circling 3-year-old Copper Ripple, winner of the Fair Grounds' last race and a prisoner in this tiny stall till further notice.
There is a price fixed for parole of the restless colt, and it is single and constant: a liter or so of urine and a plastic bottle to hold it
Weetweetweetweet. Copper Ripple's groom is a mustached Latin, and he is in the stall and whistling, too. The groom is very happy that Copper Ripple has won his race, but he won't fully show it till he gets back to his home barn. Before that happens, the bay colt will have to go, and Terry Brown will have to catch it in a long-handled pot. It's common belief that human whistling can help the process. Weetweetweet. "Come on, baby. Be one of the good children," coos Terry.
When a horse finds relief, there is gravitas and force about it, but no grace at all. A male will often unsheathe and hang down while propping his hind legs. Fillies and mares will arch their backs even more and hold their tails far away from their bodies. Then, release with ankle-splattering velocity.
This sort of thing goes on every afternoon that thoroughbreds race at the Fair Grounds. After each race, the winner is escorted to the Test Barn, where samples of urine and blood are taken before the horse is released. Additionally, there are a number of "specials" tested, usually non-winners whose performance, for good or ill, may be suspicious.
The Test Barn looks sleepy on the outside, but inside things are humming. There's the "horse guard," in this case a slender South African blonde named Sarah Cillie, who gallops horses in the morning. In the afternoon, she makes the brisk walk between Test Barn and winner's circle and back, an easy half-mile 10 times a day.
In the Barn, they are met by any of four catchers. There's Terry Brown, homegrown, black and funny. Nick Guareni Jr. is left-handed and tattooed. He grew up on Fortin Street, has a father and brothers who worked in the Test Barn, and has been there himself for more than three decades. Jeanie Hefner is from Pittsburg, Texas, and she married onto the racetrack. She has a graying ponytail and is getting better with Cajun names.
The other catcher is a Hoosier named Kim McCalister. She is a groom at a barn in the mornings and, because of that, is walking around with a new cracked tooth. "One of the horses shouldered me, just raised his head suddenly," she says with resignation. "You work around them, you're gonna get busted up."
Nick knows all about working around 1,200 pounds on the hoof. He's holding the reins of a horse who is being walked around the dirt ring inside the Test Barn by a hotwalker and has paused to take the bandages off the horse's ankles. The horse bolts: the whirling kick, the memory-jolt of primeval predator at the throat, the skittishness that calls the breed home. "Bit, kicked, stepped on, it's the tough part of the job," he says.
Then there's Louis, who secures the blood and urine samples and makes certain they get to the state laboratory, where they'll be analyzed for illegal substances. And Robert Odoms, the security guard who does a bit of everything, including keeping the water buckets full for the horses as they cool out. "When they stop drinking water, it usually means they're ready for the catchers," he laughs.
On top of all this is Dr. Mark Barry, who's the state vet who runs the Test Barn. He's from Grand Coteau, wears a green scrub shirt on top of dungarees and coffee-colored cowboy boots. He mowed lawns to buy his first pony and loves his job.
"Did that filly finally go? OK, rest your whistle for a while," he says to a catcher. He closes the magazine, where he's been reading about a new drug named EPO, and makes ready for a random test for a "milk shake," a concoction of electrolytes, baking soda and powdered sugar.
A few yards away, Kim McCalister is dealing with a smallish chestnut filly named Deuce's Girl. "We got stalls with shavings and we've got 'em with straw because some horses get the urge on one or the other surfaces," she says. "I've already tried this one in three different stalls, and I've had her in 'wall time, lights out.' Sometimes they like no lights and being tied to the wall. This little one has never been in a Test Barn before."
Kim clucks and whistles some more. Then she cradles the filly's head in her arm and whispers sweet nothings in her long ears. After many minutes, Deuce's Girl finally performed.
Performance is beautiful.
Outside, Sarah Cillie is beginning the half-circle stride back to the winner's circle, where hands have been shaken and photographs taken and now the next wait is beginning.