Joey Meyer awoke Monday at 4 a.m., as he has for the past 40 years, ever since he first began working with horses. Meyer, dressed coveralls, a grey hooded sweatshirt, scuffed leather boots and a plaid driving cap, had been at the Middleburg training track mucking stalls since the snow began falling.
“I’m up at 4 o’clock every morning, since I was 10,” said Meyer, 55. “Old habit, I guess.”
Meyer owns and trains thoroughbreds, including Desert Notion, a dark bay 3-year-old filly he saddled for a morning workout.
“My grandma had horses,” Meyer said in a twang that indicated his roots in the Texas panhandle. “I used to go to the racetrack every weekend and watch them run. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
The barn smelled sweet with molasses. A coffee pot brewed in the aisleway next to 50 pound bags of oats and water buckets steaming from electric heaters. A black barn cat was resting in the straw bales stacked in the loft above the stalls. Cobwebs hung down from the eaves, dripping like icicles toward the shed row below.
Meyer owns 13 horses and Desert Notion is one who has shown early promise. She finished third in her debut race last May as a 2-year-old at Pimlico in Baltimore. But the filly has been hobbled for the past six weeks by an injury incurred at the racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va.
“She had a mishap in the gate so they scratched her,” said Meyer. “She reared and slipped in the mud. She scraped herself up a bit, knocked the bark off her legs.”
Meyer cinches the girth to the flat saddle on Desert Notion’s back and turns her around.
“Come on mama. Comin’ out,” Meyer yelled into the barn, his voice echoing above the Christian radio coming from the stereo as he led the horse out of the stall.
“Where’s my rider?” Meyer asks. “Went to go switch his boots? Let’s go another turn here.”
A second later, Chance Abern emerged, now wearing boots more appropriate for the narrow stirrups of the flat saddle used for thoroughbred racing. With Abern walking Desert Notion around the oval track inside the barn, Meyer took a quick break. Beside him is an anvil, a rasp and clamps, the tools of his trade as a blacksmith. Meyer learned to shoe horses in 1978 and works as a blacksmith on the side. But calls for those services are rare these days.
“This winter has been murder,” Meyer said. “I shoe for a couple outfits around here. But this winter has been hard on everybody so they can’t pay.”
Meyer’s breath fogged in the cold air. He slipped a Salem from a pack and lit the cigarette. In 2010, he spent a year in Iraq working seven days a week in the oil fields as a civilian contractor for ExxonMobil and Haliburton. But life as a thoroughbred trainer is harder, he said.
“It never ends here,” Meyer said. “I don’t own them. They own me. I can’t let ‘em have any days off. They’ve got to earn their oats.”