It was a biting cold February night in 1989. I had just taken the bar exam for the second time, and I was sitting in front of the fireplace with my mother, some of her friends and my uncle and aunt. We were drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages to warm our bodies as we huddled in front of a huge but inefficient fireplace in a very cold cinder block ranch house, in the middle of vineyards in the eastern hills of Napa Valley. This was the family ranch, named RustRidge by the previous owners Dr. Del Weaver and Nancy Wood. My family had owned this property since December of 1972. It had been a thoroughbred race horse breeding facility and black Angus cattle ranch at that time. Dr. Weaver was a San Francisco dentist who commuted to San Francisco to her practice in her early years of ownership. Later she moved her practice to St. Helena. When my family bought the ranch in December of 1972, Rustridge Ranch was a well known thoroughbred horse ranch. It appeared that Dr. Weaver was the dentist to most of the St. Helena residents. Her partner, Nancy Wood was a horsewoman almost from birth. She and her three sisters all rode together in special events in their home town of Woodside. Nancy and Dr. Weaver had met in Woodside when Del had taken her children to her for riding lessons. Nancy was an icon in the thoroughbred racing industry and she was very involved in the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. My parents had bought the property to plant vineyards. Later my brothers decided to build a winery. We eventually brought the racehorses back to promote the wines.
While we were huddled around the fire, a car pulled up to the front of the ranch house. A man in a heavy overcoat walked in through the kitchen door and he was ushered in as though expected. I was introduced to Jim Fresquez and as I shook his hand I felt the strong and calloused hands of a man whose life was far removed from mine. I then learned that he was my mother’s current race horse trainer. I had met several of her former trainers, but Jim was clearly different. Jim joined our group by the fire, holding the glass of scotch that my uncle had served him. We resumed our conversations, however, at some point during that evening I felt his eyes focused on me and it made me feel awkward and unable to turn my head. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I said to him, “why are you staring at me?” He responded, “because you are so fine.” My mother’s young gay friend piped in, “when someone looks at you closely, it forces you to look at yourself.” So much for subtleties the rest of the evening is a blur. We all bunked down in the large ranch house that night but Jim left very early the next morning to take care of my mother’s horses stabled at the race track in Albany. He had come to the ranch on the previous night to monitor the mares in foal and to be available should they foal.
The next night I stayed on at the ranch to recuperate from the months of studying for the bar exam and the psychological trauma of having taking the bar for the second time. When you fail the bar the first time you become a second class citizen in the eyes of the legal community. Each of us in that position worries that we will become one of those horror stories of law school graduates who take the bar multiple times and still can not pass it. Jim arrived in the evening as he had the night before. My mother’s Union Street hairdresser John, who had been on hand the night before, was the only other person who remained. He was planning to sleep in the hay barn so he could witness the birth of a foal. Sometime during that night John rushed into the house to wake Jim and me up because the mare was in labor. Within moments Jim and I emerged from our bedrooms and found our way in the darkness to the corral where the mare was laying on her side in very stressed labor. After a brief observation Jim knew that there was something seriously wrong with the situation. We called our veterinarian, Dr. Latham, who arrived about 45 minutes later. He reached into the mare’s uterus and discovered that she had live twins tangled up inside her. Rarely do thoroughbred mares bring twins to full term. He told us he would have to use chains to pull them out. He had me get towels from the house, he positioned John to hold the mare while he and Jim worked to free the twins from her body. It was a grueling several hour ordeal but eventually they pulled the now two dead foals out of her. The afterbirth didn’t follow as it would in a normal birth, it just hung out of her vagina. Dr. Latham tied it in a knot to give it some weight to help her expel it and gave her medication as well. Jim and I got a few hours sleep, then we buried the two perfect foals.
The events of that night brought Jim and me together. I got to know him in a profound way, we had worked together in a very stressful, depressing situation and had learned about each other. Unbeknownst to us, this sad experience would be the first of many, yet we already knew that we could work together and endure the challenges that were yet to come.
I left the ranch later that day, Jim had left right after the burial. Three days later the mare died. If there was way to put a positive spin on this tragedy it was that I would be embarking on a new direction in my life. I began making more frequent trips to the ranch. I encountered Jim there on several occasions. I found him to be magical with horses. I had seen previous trainers. They had been rough with my mother’s horses. Jim was different, he loved the horses, he demanded respect from them and he treated them with respect. But Jim was employed by my mother and I knew better than to get too friendly with her employees. I knew Jim would be fired if he and I got involved. I tried to keep him at arms length. We had a lot of laughs, we flirted and talked for hours but I didn’t let it go any further. I wanted him to stick around.
In May, I invited Jim to my birthday party which I held at the ranch with my close friends. On the following Memorial weekend, I got my bar results and I had passed. My friends Laurie and Elaine and I had made a pact prior to knowing our results, to meet at a Sausalito Restaurant to celebrate on the day the results were announced. All three of us showed up, we had all passed.
Shortly thereafter I called Jim and asked him to come see me at my San Francisco apartment. We were no longer just friends, but we kept it a secret for quite some time. We dated for about nine months while I lived in the City and he lived at Golden Gate Fields. During that time I was working on a personal lawsuit and was looking for a job in one of the Bay Area Public Defender’s offices. Jim was busy training my Mother’s many horses both at the track and at the ranch. It was a wonderful time and it was during this period I could see the possibility of living at the ranch and running it.