Note: With wrapping up a semester and preparing for graduation, this post is a bit late, but still is one I wanted to share. It was written before the Derby.
I attended my first Thoroughbred Owners’ and Breeders’ Association [TOBA] seminar, one specifically covering ownership, on April 18th and 19th. I had joined TOBA recently as well. I knew of the organization just from years of reading the Blood Horse, one of many resources TOBA has a hand in producing. But until Carrie Vaught, the marketing director for TOBA, was invited to speak to the Horse Racing club at the University of Kentucky, I never knew you didn’t have to be an owner or breeder to join, or what the benefits of joining are. It helped that there is a student membership fee, and that they try to put their seminars within financial reach of students too. Once I looked at the benefits and learning and networking opportunities they provide, it made perfect sense to join. I have spent a lot of my time at the University of Kentucky pursuing job leads, contacts, and anything I can to fit in more horse knowledge in general or racing industry knowledge, specifically. A lot of this has been practical hands-on work at several different farms, while other pursuits have been more about learning from people speaking of their work and knowledge they have gained in the course of that work.
A lot of the opportunities to learn from industry professionals, outside of class, came about because of my membership in the racing club at school. Professionals speak at our meetings, and usually once a month there are trips to farms to learn from them in their working environment.
My absolute favorite trip we took, for its educational aspect, was when we were invited to Ken McPeek’s Magdalena Farm, early in the days of my enrollment at UK. He took a lot of time to show us around his farm, tell us about his training methods in general, show us horses at the farm that were there either to have a bit of R&R or rehab, or to be prepared for the track if they were young and unraced. It even coincidentally came up that he had a fluency in Portuguese, while we were in the farm office and noticed the sales catalogs in Portuguese on the shelves. It was a fascinating glimpse into his training methods, and before that visit, I didn’t even know he had his own farm. That seems like a great step for a trainer, if they can take it, to have their own place to rehab their horses and give them space to be turned out and have a little breather from the track now and then.
Tying this in to TOBA and their seminar that I just attended, what drew me in was similar opportunities to get a look at another farm’s operation and training regimen for their horses, and really glean a lot of insight into what goes into getting horses ready for the track. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a racehorse; yet I do have to admit that there is a part of me that wants to someday at some point. If I don’t, I will still feel professional and personal fulfillment just by being part of the racing industry with my career. But the part of me that has seen from several people in this industry that you never know where being involved in racing may ultimately lead knows that I can’t say it’s impossible that I will own a horse. For now, that’s one of those goals that is more in the “wish” column and not nearly as pressing as what I’m trying to achieve now, meaning that it really isn’t on my radar that often. So if I do ever own a horse, it will have been valuable to me to attend this seminar. And even if I never own a racehorse, I am just so interested in soaking up everything I can learn from everyone that there is an opportunity to learn from, and made me feel that I needed to attend this seminar.
In a week that had seen rain almost every day, when the seminar began on a Friday that had also called for rain, the day couldn’t have been more perfect. It was April 18th, and we set out for Winstar Farm under bright blue skies and perfect temperatures. The sunny skies and unexpectedly picture-perfect day made it feel like an auspicious day to be around horses for several hours. I later realized another reason the date felt so significant. It would have been the incredible Cigar’s 25th birthday, and was the first anniversary of his birth since he died a little over six months ago.
I had always reflected on him on that date and what he meant to me, still the best and most accomplished Thoroughbred I watched race, but it seemed in the flurry of getting ready for the seminar it had momentarily slipped my mind. I no longer felt sad he was gone, as sad as I had when he left. The saddest thing about his loss was just how sudden it was, how there’d been little time to prepare for it. Apparently he had been monitored for health concerns for some time, but I hadn’t realized how serious it had been until he was gone. But he had a full life, exemplary care, and the loving admiration of many visitors to the Horse Park, year in and year out.
He was a king of that domain. It was clear to anyone who saw him in his pasture that he knew it, and it showed when he was presented during his turn in the ring in Hall of Champion shows. The click of a camera shutter and the days of acclaim on the track definitely showed they lingered in his mind when he was presented to the audiences at the Park. So the sadness did not come from feeling his life had ended prematurely – even though it’s hard to imagine you can ever be ready to see a horse you followed for nearly two decades be gone – or that it had not been a good one.
Paul Simon has a song with the lyric, “the course of a lifetime runs over and over again.” I used to interpret this as meaning some things we may experience multiple times, such as the beginning of a new romantic relationship, or grief, or even the way I find myself at every Keeneland meet, spring to fall and back again.
The day this seminar started I came to see it another way. It was still about things occasionally coming full circle, but was also more about being led back to our true selves. I’m sure everyone can stray from who they really are and what they really love from time to time, whether it’s because of work obligations or any number of things. A day like today, having several hours to spend among nature and farmland as far as the eye can see, with the only noise being the breathing of horses and quiet commentary now and then about which horses we were seeing, and information about their training and how it prepares them for the track, did feel like one that brought me back to how much I love being at the farms. It is through these times of coming back to our true selves that we can even sometimes get new perspective. We really can almost be multiple people in a lifetime, not in the sense of having split personalities, but just due to growth and change, to being altered by experiences. Sometimes it can feel like we’ve lived many lives in one lifetime. Who I felt I was the day Cigar died is not who I feel I am now, on the 25th anniversary of his birth.
I’d say some of the other people who attended the seminar may have visited Lexington before, since it is such an epicenter of Thoroughbred racing and breeding and most of them were owners or potential owners. But several of them exclaimed over the landscape we passed on the way to Winstar, and once we arrived on how pastoral it is and how holistic some of the treatments their horses receive are. Seeing Lexington and the horse farms through their eyes reminded me of how I felt it was paradise when first visited, just like seeing racing through my nephew’s eyes at his first visit to the track gave me a new lens to see it. It was the kind of day to fully remind you why you love racing; not that I forgot that or why I love the horse side of this community but sometimes fresh glimpses are great. Spending the day with like-minded racing enthusiasts in a haven for us and the horses alike was just what I needed.
As far as the educational aspect of the visit, we first visited their outdoor swimming pool developed outdoors that looks a lot like a pond, though it is set up with its own filtration system and stocked with carp to keep it clean. It is useful for developing yearlings for the sales, and for providing rehab to racehorses. We then watched workouts on Winstar’s own training track, a synthetic surface that allows them to train year-round, and also have more flexibility for when their horses can train than they would if they were training at a track. Subsequently, they do employ a farm trainer and exercise riders. That alone makes them unique among horse farms in this area. The track also has a separate component that leads off from the polytrack surface, and it provides an uphill, European-style turf course.
We had been joined by farm owner Elliott Walden when we were being told about the pool, and he walked down to the training track with us. This is an exciting time for Winstar. It’s not surprising, considering the depth of their stallion roster and all the work they put training homebreds and purchased horses that they have two serious and legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders with farm ties this year. Naturally, though that would still be incredible for any farm. Primarily West Coast-based American Pharoah is by their stallion Pioneer Ofthe Nile, and they own Carpe Diem in partnership with Stonestreet Farms. Carpe Diem has already made a large mark on the current Keeneland meet, winning the Blue Grass Stakes on opening weekend, and being accorded near rock-star status the morning we visited the farm. Keeneland harrowed the track and closed it to all horses but Carpe Diem that morning for him to train at 10:15, when he zipped through four furlongs in 48 seconds flat, a work watched by trainer Todd Pletcher, Elliott Walden, and quite a few spectators who applauded his entrance to the track to work. I would have liked to go over and see his work, but my friend saw him and got photos.
So back to the training at Winstar that morning: we saw quite a few promising two-year-olds, as pointed out by the farm trainer. Our guide at the farm, assistant trainer Sean Tugel, explained a lot about what results they plan to get and what they are looking for with the training, especially for the two-year-olds. He had a wealth of knowledge and the farm trainer elaborated upon horse names and pedigrees of the horses we were seeing, in between giving instructions to the riders and watching the works. Tugel told us the Keeneland gate crew comes over once a week for the horses to have gate training and that affords them time to get the horses well-versed in gate “manners” and etiquette. He said that all of their horses are well-mannered in the gate, and they work with them to stand quietly and take a cue for when to begin a work as well, instead of just taking off as soon as they get to the track.
In between sets of horses training, we went into one of two training/rehab barns and watched the flow of equine traffic while Tugel and Reed Ringler of Fasig Tipton, our seminar moderator, explained more about what you look for in a young horse at a sale, what you want to see in a horse coming off a breeze, a work, or just a routine gallop – they are offered water at each cooling-out lap of the barn but the less water they take, the more fit they are.
The barn, as I knew from several equine classes I had taken, was ideal for horses. It was very well-ventilated, with a unique roof structure set well above the stalls instead of snugly on top of them, and the stalls were all composed of a metal grid structure, both of these being features that allowed a lot of air flow. I could tell the air flow, even without the large fans going that were in the barn, was excellent. There wasn’t any discernible dust or hay particles and the air just felt incredibly fresh and refreshing. For athletes who need good lung capacity, that type of design can’t be underestimated.
We also got to see Daredevil and Khozan, related to stellar racemare Royal Delta, while in the barn. Then it was back to the track for the next sets to train, including horses that were described as their most promising two-year-olds. Who knows, they may be the Daredevil and Khozan, or the American Pharoah and the Carpe Diem, of their Winstar crop. A lot can change for a young horse from the farm to the track, and even those with lots of promise don’t always get the hang of racing right away. I’ve heard it said many times, the lightbulb has to come on and for those that get it, when that light switch does flick on, they can be a horse to be reckoned with. Hearing their praise for these horses, though, and seeing for myself their raw potential, I will definitely keep an eye on them in the future, especially the Tapit colt Creator.
Leaving Winstar and returning to the hotel where the first day of the seminar talks conducted by industry professionals were held, one of the most enlightening things to me was all the free services and wealth of information about racehorses that can be gleaned from Equineline. The option to build a horse portfolio most intrigued me.
I then attempted to get to Keeneland for the first race prior to going to work. Samantha Nicole, Rachel Alexandra’s full sister, was entered. I hadn’t seen her since she sold as a yearling at Keeneland a few years ago, and I was struck then by how similar to Rachel she looked. Her race career had been brief to date, and this would be only her fourth start.
Turned out, there just wasn’t enough time to get from the seminar to the track at the time I left, but I was pleased to hear she won, breaking her maiden that day. Whether she will go on to bigger things now remains to be seen but for this day it was a bright spot that she won at a great track. I went home pleased with the seminar experience, the news of Samantha Nicole’s win, and that there was a check from Coady Photography waiting in the mail. It was so much more generous than the pay I normally receive, from my “unskilled” labor jobs. One day I’ll find my permanent place in the racing world, and I am eager to step into a position at Coady when one arises. So far I’ve only done the Keeneland meets for them, but with graduation so close at hand and a greater flexibility to leave Lexington and to have time freed up from homework and studying, it is a possibility.
The seminar continued on a Sunday morning. It rained practically non-stop throughout the morning, a stark contrast to the brilliant sunny day spent at Winstar. Of course, given how rainy it had been this month that weather did seem more the norm.
We began the day with breakfast and a visit to trainer Ian Wilkes’ shedrow. For those who don’t know, he is Australian and apprenticed under Carl Nafzger, famously known for training Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense. Wilkes told us a little about a horse he had training that morning, one who apparently was lazy in the mornings but stellar in races. That naturally led me to wonder if a horse will give any inclination he is talented at racing even if he shows little in the mornings? Wilkes said not really, that you just have to get them in a race and let them show you. He said you really do just have to get them in a race sometimes to see what kind of talent they are working with. He also said it can take five races before you really know what kind of horse you have, talent-wise, and that there can also be a learning curve, a few races needed just for the “lightbulb” to come on. I told him I’ve heard that before about the light bulb, that horses really do need it just to all come together and click in their minds sometimes, and when it does hopefully you realize you’ve got a good one on your hands. Wilkes was so gracious and really took the time to answer our questions.
Those were some of my favorite things about this seminar. It was incredibly informative, and everyone from Carrie Vaught at TOBA, to Keeneland, to all the speakers and people we visited like Wilkes and everyone at Winstar, were so gracious and welcoming. Because of the seminar, I got to have my first meal ever in the Phoenix Room, an occasion that called for dressy clothes. Stepping into this fourth-floor dining room was like stepping into another world. Don’t get me wrong, I love being at the rail and the paddock and in the midst of all the action, but it was wonderful to experience a world of privilege I rarely get to be a part of. Uniformed attendants were present at each door, from the ones in the hallway leading from the elevator, to the ones providing entrance to the Phoenix Room. It’s hard not to feel like you’re somebody when people are standing by just to open doors for you. Absolutely, Keeneland service from the grandstand to the top floor is better than most racetracks provide. But the level of service up there was on another level. And to be perfectly honest, it was a relief to be away from the hordes of frat boys and people so drunk they have trouble locating bathrooms. It was a place for gentility and civilized behavior, and it fit with the serenity I love to experience at Keeneland. It also was interesting to see the track from new perspectives. It was second only to the view on the roof outside the media box in terms of favorite vantage points at Keeneland.
As I left after watching the day’s racing, the spring blossoms were starting to fall to earth and give way to light green leaves on the trees, reflecting the ephemeral nature not only of spring but of the Keeneland meets. They are wonderful but fleeting, and it came to me that we really were zooming to the end of the meet. It always happens so much more quickly than you’d think it would, even knowing the meets are brief. Yet it also almost seems like so long ago Bravo was speaking in the jockey Q&A and Carpe Diem found his success and Derby path in the Blue Grass.
Speaking of Carpe Diem, I passed by to see him when I left, but he was not in the mood for visitors. It was day’s end after all.
I left with the smoothness of bread pudding on my tongue; that is bliss too, just as being at the track and finding a space of stillness in watching the horses is. There was happy solitude underneath the pink flowering trees, and I turned away, hoping to return for one more day of racing before the horses disperse to other tracks and the Derby hopefuls converge upon Churchill Downs. I have a few more horses I hope to see, a few more golden hours at this track before picking up the threads of my usual work life. It’s been a sweet interlude, as always.