Since we’d left the bonfire, we’d been watching the Puerto Rican men race their horses on the strip of road next to the parking lot. Luna, Taryn, Brian, and I had come to the car for the rum, and when we’d arrived Brian decided to roll a joint. The keg sat in a small hand-dug pit at the edge of the sand under a bundle of palms forty feet from the Caribbean and was running low. We’d left the bonfire, and the others, with the sole intention of retrieving the rum, but the thunderclap of hooves against the long, straight road next to the parking lot was distraction enough to delay our return. Streetlights as tall as the palms that lined the road’s edge emitted their sparse orange glow onto the otherwise dark stretch of asphalt. I’d counted five streetlights spanning the half-mile of road. The men raced their horses. When the horses ran, their shoes sparked against the road leaving trails of light in their wake with the same brilliance of popping embers that rose from the heart of the fire, briefly, and then died and went dark before ever hitting the ground.
There were maybe thirty men in all. Some of them older, some were younger. The youngest might have been twelve or thirteen. They were thin, small kids, and they rode ponies – galloping along the side of the drag – adjacent to the real action. The older riders looked well into their twenties or early thirties, and they rode the real muscle. There wasn’t a cowboy hat, boot, or spur in sight. The men were all sporting clean Nike’s (multicolored dunks, white Air Force Ones, or classic Jordan’s). There were a lot of basketball jerseys – Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, LA, Boston, etc. And aside from one guy in a smooth pair of relaxed khaki colored chinos, they all rocked baggy jeans, or jean-shorts. It looked like a hip-hop show could’ve broken out at any minute (aside from the horses).
Luna and I sat on the trunk of the silver Toyota. Brian and Taryn were in the car, listening to music and rolling up. I passed Luna the bottle of rum, and as she took a sip two men barreled past us on horseback. They were in a jockey’s crouch, and their white Nike’s were dug deep into the saddle’s stirrups. One of the men was kicking the black horse with the heel of his sneaker while snapping a horsewhip against its chest it. As they passed the streetlight to our left, the men pulled back on the reigns, and the horses scrambled to find their footing. They slid and then ran, and then slid and then ran. All the while sparking. All the while slowing. When they’d finally come to a stop about fifty or seventy feet past the streetlight, they were shrouded in darkness. The man on the black horse had won.
Each man guided their horse from the middle of the road to its edges as they turned around, and then they slowly cantered back to what Luna and I had decided was the starting line. As they trotted back, two more racers sped down the middle of the road. The sides of the road were lined with racers waiting their turn for the main drag, and kids on ponies in slower, sidebar races.
Look at this guy, I said to Luna, and I pointed to a man in the parking lot sitting on a large brown stallion. The man was riding bareback, and his hands held onto hefty clumps of the stallion’s mane, which he yanked on mercilessly. The stallion bucked to the left, and the man silently pulled the horse’s head downward, to the right. The horse spun, and the man pulled back on the mane with both hands. The horse walked calmly across the parking lot for four steps and then began bucking and turning again, resisting.
Luna asked what the man was doing, and I said that he was trying to break the horse. I told her that I’d seen my father do it many times over the years on the family’s farm. Sometimes it took him many hours. I told her that some were easier than others, and some could be stubborn. Very stubborn, I said.
Brian and Taryn joined us on the trunk of the car. The Misfits were playing on the car’s stereo, and we sat on the trunk of the car smoking and passing the bottle of rum between us.
I hate watching this shit, Brian said. You know these motherfuckers don’t even own the horses? Those aren’t their horses. They fucking rent them. Can you believe that? They rent these horses and then they race them on the fucking streets. It’s horrible, Brian said. Taryn asked Brian why they didn’t race them on the beach, instead, and he said that he didn’t know but that it was probably because they were all coked up and didn’t give a fuck about what happened to the animals.
Who do they rent them from? I asked. They get them from the farmers, Brian said, or from the people that rent them to tourists for beach rides.
The man in the parking lot who had been trying to control the brown stallion whistled down to someone sitting on a bench watching the racers. All the while the horse kept spinning in tight circles, and the man kept tugging at the horse’s mane. The man from the bench walked over to his friend and they spoke, and then the man walked away, and the caballero kept tugging, and the horse stopped spinning to the right before bucking and then spinning to his left.
Two local girls and a guy that we’d been drinking with at the bonfire made their way from the tree line that separated the beach from the parking lot and joined us at the trunk of the car. Luna passed the bottle of rum to one of the girls. The three locals stood with their backs to the races as if nothing worthy of intrigue was happening – business as usual.
Brian and Peter, the local, started talking about the waves that had been breaking earlier that day at sandy beach. The waves at sandy traveled from unknown distances and depths, eventually jutting up against a sandbar, materializing in the warm and shallow waters of early February. That day there’d been seven footers, and both Brian and Peter had taken full advantage of the four hours of lipped perfection that had broken in the late afternoon and into the early evening.
The small man who’d been sitting on a bench before being summoned by his friend on the brown stallion emerged from a car about thirty feet to our right and walked over to his friend, the caballero. The caballero was still spinning and jerking around on the stallion, and his friend stood out of harms way and held out a bottle of liquor. The caballero kept turning his head as he spoke, keeping his eyes on his friend and the bottle of liquor. Each time the brown stallion turned his rear end towards the man holding the bottle; the man took a step back to avoid being kicked. On the next rotation, the caballero reached down and snatched the bottle of liquor. The caballero’s friend walked back down to his bench at the edge of the drag strip. Men were racing recklessly, pushing their rented animals to their limits with punches to the neck and heels to the side.
The caballero opened the bottle of liquor and took a tentative swig – he looked like someone wearing roller skates trying to drink from a flower vase during an earthquake. He tipped the bottle high, and when he was done drinking the caballero squeezed the bottle in the pit of his left arm and screwed on the cap. The horse continued to buck and sway and turn, and the caballero raised the bottle, again, but this time he brought it down, swiftly, and with a controlled malice. The bottle shattered on the brown stallion’s forehead, just above and between the eyes. The horse made a noise that I’d never before heard an animal make. Like a scream; it screamed.
The four of us were stunned. We couldn’t believe what the caballero had just done. And the caballero yanked on the brown stallion’s mane, hard. And then he yelled, and the stallion resisted, and then he yelled and yanked again, and the stallion shook its head, and then it acquiesced. The caballero pulled the stallion to the right, and the stallion went right. The caballero pulled the animal to the left, and it went left. Then they slowly trotted down, to the right, to the far end of the parking lot.
That makes me sick, Luna said, and she shook her head and looked away. What’s the big deal? Peter said, ripping the joint. It’s an animal, and it needs to do what you tell it to do. It’s just an animal, he said. Puffing again, laughing. You have to train it to listen to you. It’s cruel, Brian said, everything about this, this whole thing, he waved his hand over the racetrack in front of us, everything about this is fucked up. You just think that because you’re not Puerto Rican, Peter said, this is normal, they’re always out here on the weekends running the horses.
Two men finished their race at the streetlight to our left and continued a slow gallop past the light and well into the darkness down the road lined with palm trees. I could see them when they reached the next light a quarter-mile down the road, and they turned and stopped. They waited, talking to each other. After a minute the horses burst from the glow of the dim streetlight that was far down the road and went back into the darkness at full speed, heading towards us.
To our right, we heard the clap of hooves like the brr-app of an old Thompson machine gun, and when I looked over I saw two men racing, pushing their horses, slapping, hitting, kicking, willing the animals to go faster. As they approached that night’s agreed upon finish line, the streetlight to our left, the men racing in the darkness reappeared. The man going left pulled back on his reigns and the horse’s shoes skidded and sparked on the road. The horse turned it’s head at the last second, and then the two horses collided at what must have been a combined speed of eighty or ninety miles-per-hour. Their heavy, muscled bodies collided and then flailed into the night and onto the asphalt with a dense thud that made me think of what it looks like when two children are on a playground running around and aren’t paying attention to where they’re going, and then they run face first into one other. Smack, but with more weight.
Holy shit, I said. Oh my god, Luna said. And we watched the man on the horse who’d tried to pull back on the reigns fly into the air and then land at the base of the streetlight that was as tall as a palm tree. Two horses lay sprawled in the middle of the road. One was trying to get up, and the other lay motionless. The man that had pulled up on the reigns was dragging himself to the base of the streetlight; his right leg was bent out at a ninety-degree angle from just under the hip. Neither man had made a sound.
A pack of fellow racers had dismounted and were running past us to the scene of the crash. There were five of them. Nikes, jerseys, fitted ball caps, and they were holding up the waists of their pants and shorts as they ran. When the group arrived at the man with the shattered leg who lay underneath the streetlight, one of the men poked his head up from the pack and yelled, Ambulancia!
One of the horses got up, and one of the horses didn’t. The other man involved in the crash, the nocturnal salmon, limped over to the crowd that had gathered around the man with the broken leg.
I hope the horse isn’t dead, Luna said. Those guys deserve it, Brian said. I can’t believe that just happened, I said. I hope everyone’s okay, Taryn said. The horse that had yet to move began stirring, and with the help of a couple of riders made it back upright. It began walking, but it kept its rear left leg off the ground. They’re going to have to kill it, I said. If it can’t walk they’re going to kill it, I said. Animals, Brian said. We waited for forty more minutes, finishing the rum and watching the scene unfold in complete disbelief as to what we’d just witnessed. The Ambulancia was nowhere to be seen or heard.
When we’d finally left, walking back down the beach towards the apartment, I thought of two things. This split second before the crash, when the man with the soon-to-be-broken leg pulled back on the reigns and his horse turned its head to avoid certain death, its shoes sparking on the road like a metal grinder, I saw both surprise and fear in the horse’s eye. And I thought about the caballero, and how on a night in Puerto Rico I’d watched a man, who wore a Chicago basketball jersey and a pair of shoes that were made in China from a company that originated in Oregon, break a horse with a method used by Cossacks.