Recently, I heard the Paul Simon song “Ace in the Hole” for the first time. While not a new song, it was new to me, and more importantly, its lyrics spoke to me of following your passions. Those sentiments echoed in the back of my mind as I spent a golden morning at Denali Stud with a friend, a morning that launched a whole perfect day. Though the day was overcast and a bit chilly, as it had rained nearly nonstop the day before, it was still golden. Days with horses are frequently like that for me, or to borrow Paul Simon’s phrase about music, they are my “ace in the hole,” something I live for and couldn’t imagine living without.
Our excursion to Denali was to see the grand mare Serena’s Song once more. I had visited her a few years ago as part of a birthday celebration with another good friend, but she had not been too receptive to visitors that day. She has now concluded both her race career and her broodmare days, both of which have cemented her place in racing history.
The visit began, as most farm visits do, in the office. Even just standing in Denali’s office engenders a sense of awe, of history. This farm has sold Mushka, Uncle Mo, Real Quiet, Animal Kingdom… photos, plaques, Eclipse Awards, and a small cluster of Animal Kingdom’s Derby roses formed into a horseshoe and displayed in a frame all tell the story of how this farm has made its mark in the racing world so far. There is also a wall just for Serena’s Song, fittingly, with a replica of her Hall of Fame plaque and photos of her arrival at the farm when she was in transition between the racing days and the broodmare days.
Then we followed a farm employee to the barn to see her as she is today. She looks magnificent. You could say she looks magnificent for a 23-year-old mare, but she looks magnificent, period. Sure, you can see in her profile that she has carried a lot of foals, but it doesn’t diminish her looks at all. What captures my eye the most is her demeanor, her presence. They say the great ones show their greatness just in the way they hold themselves, present themselves, even the way they look at you. That was certainly true of Serena’s Song.
She still isn’t the most friendly with visitors but she tolerated me touching her more kindly than she had a few years ago. I was glad to see that, because I had wanted a non-grouchy day with her. Her coat was so soft, with her winter fuzz already coming in.
But more than that, it was just a privilege to get to photograph her. It is hard to take your eyes off of her, with all that greatness evident in her bearing, and when I am photographing horses, that is a dream subject. I love when the regard I hold for horses and all the qualities I love about them shine in my photos, and I am not necessarily saying this about my photography skills. It is more that I am pleased when there is time to observe them, when their personalities and what drew me to them specifically are fully revealed by the horse.
And when that happens, I feel the connection with them all over again, whatever it was that drew me to them initially.
For Serena’s Song of course, it was watching her stellar march through her division in the mid-1990s and even against colts. She was a tough filly and she clearly became a tough mare. She will tolerate people but you definitely get the sense she knows her worth and your place. However, none of this is meant to sound like I’m knocking her. I never would. It was incredible to be in her presence and when that connection I feel to her was reinforced once more by being in proximity to her and her class and quality being clearly evident, it was hard to take my eyes away from her but also to leave. I love these mares I watched race and there is a little part of me that feels a tug of separation when they go back to their barns and I have to leave the farm, but I just grateful to have the chance to connect at all. It is why I appreciate the farms that allow these visits so much, why I had to move here to Lexington.
Or, yes, to put it another way, it is definitely my “ace in the hole.” It keeps me going and keeps me striving to work in this industry, and keeps me pushing myself to improve my photography, to keep this blog going, and to hopefully one day find a niche as a professional journalist.
It is all thanks to the horses like Serena’s Song, who capture my imagination, thrill me with their racing talent and victories, and have a special place in my heart.
Our visit with her was in the waning days of September, and we stopped by the office once more to look at Denali’s impressive history. For the people who live and breathe racing, that is just slightly less awe-inspiring than being in the presence of a horse like Serena’s Song, but clearly awe-inspiring just the same.
As I write this now, the calendar page has turned to October, and one of my favorite times of year. Keeneland beckons, like my second home, as it has for over ten years now. The visit at Denali ushered in this wonderful time of year. My excitement for it never diminishes, and I look forward to it even more this year for two reasons. My nephews will get to see the races at Keeneland and join in the kids’ activities for the first time, and even as great as the meet is, it will culminate in some of the sport’s greatest days, as Keeneland and Lexington all prepare to showcase our first Breeders’ Cup here.
Here’s to a great October, and another great race meet!