June 2020

Setting out for Mill Ridge recently, one of the farms that is a member of Horse Country and recently reopened to visitors with new protocols in place, I was struck anew by how lovely these drives are through farm country. Just as these horse farms have had restrictions in place like many businesses, so have many individuals seen a different landscape in a figurative sense in their daily lives. I had been one of those, mostly staying close to home except for work, grocery store runs and time outside. Finally expanding beyond that horizon made the drive to Mill Ridge and the scenery along the way resonate even more. There was one other aspect that struck me, too, as I passed Keeneland shortly before arrival at the farm. Naturally, in a typical year by June I would have been at Keeneland a multitude of times, soaking in their spring race meet and all the top horses it attracts. I had pushed it out of my mind, when April came and went without the meet, but driving by for the first time in months, pushed it to the forefront again. It was a fresh realization of how odd it felt not to have been on the grounds since January, and that was only incredibly briefly, as I had been dealing with another pressing issue at the time that precluded time to look at standout horses in the sale as I usually would.

However, that thought only lasted a moment. While this pandemic is by no means behind us, with a little bit of normality returning (even though I am not willing to spend time in places like restaurants or movie theaters yet), what was an option to visit lay before me and that was my focus, for I love to visit the local farms and interact with their horses. Horse time is a boon to the soul, as is time outside.

Passing the airport and turning down a rural road, the trees formed a lush green canopy overhead. I love that about these rural roads in this area, and have since my first visit here. It has never left me how serene such a drive is, like going through a natural cathedral and all the serenity that evokes, and for not having seen these sights in so long, it felt like the first time experiencing this.

Arriving at Mill Ridge, I was given a bag of carrots to feed the horses along the drive through the farm. Social distancing and masks for the duration of the tour were the order of the day, as in many places. I have become a little used to the dance that is social distancing for it being mandated and strictly enforced in my workplace, and it is definitely easier to do in an outdoor setting than in a workplace indoors. The only other nod there to current events was that going into barns was not allowed, but fields were full of mares and foals, so there were plenty of horses to visit.

The first stop was to a field with two mares and foals, one pair being Devine Actress and her foal of this year, a full brother to Oscar Performance. Both foals were sprawled out in the grass, sleeping. Though the grass was pretty short, neither foal was visible until I stood on a rung of the fence and just saw a bit of each foal barely discernible until the tour guide, Hannah, woke Devine Actress’ foal up and led the mare to the fence for carrots and attention, with her foal close behind. Just as with seeing the canopy the trees formed overhead on my drive resonating deeper for longer away from such things than usual, so did the time in the presence of a horse and getting to pat her and breathe in that rich horsey scent that most horse aficionados understand is one of the best scents in the world and entirely unique. Not to dwell on this, but for reasons that included but also went beyond the uncertainty of navigating life in pandemic times and concerns about that, it had not been an easy year. As Devine Actress came to the fence line, after I fed her a few carrots and then began to pat her neck, I leaned into her solid bulk for just a moment, savoring the time in a horse’s presence again. Being near her, having that interaction, even breathing in her scent, did feel therapeutic for what it represented of how life still goes on in the midst of uncertainty, and the natural rhythm of life is ongoing.

At Mill Ridge, the foals were born, the mares grazed, Oscar Performance rested in his stall, the buttercups bloomed in the pastures, nestled among the grass…. The seasons unfurled as they always did, both with blossoming of flowers and lushness of other growth, and with the usual cadence of life at a breeding farm, with summer being a time for new foals to continue to grow, for nurturance of the foals to be born next year… and that was good to see. Even though masks were the order of the day, here with the focus on horses, it is easier than at work to escape thoughts of the pandemic. Feels like it is usually at the forefront of thought at work, given the strict emphasis on new protocols and monitoring to ensure enforcement.

After Devine Actress, we visited a field with a lovely American Pharoah filly, still so young she was a little shy about human interaction, but she peeked sweetly at me through the fence, a face of innocence. That same day I saw her, thousands of miles away, her sire came so tantalizingly close to having a Royal Ascot winner from his first crop, now three-year-olds. In fact, Monarch of Egypt (who ended up having to settle for second place in the Jersey Stakes that day), had been not only American Pharoah’s first runner but also was his first winner, both occuring in the same race last year. Looking him up to confirm that he had in fact been American Pharoah’s first runner and winner, I discovered an article written shortly after the colt’s first win that mentioned he was already being considered for Royal Ascot at the right time. That was interesting to discover in light of his near-triumph as he did indeed run at Royal Ascot. Even though that attempt was not victorious, it truly was one where his talent still shone. Monarch of Egypt ended up just being narrowly run down by a fast-closing opponent in the final strides, and it was clear he was still giving his all. Even though not a victory, that is still a plus in American Pharoah’s column as a sire, particularly as he is such a young sire, giving him time to still have a Royal Ascot winner should any future connections of his runners take that path. And it would be intriguing to see Monarch of Egypt attempt a Royal Ascot victory again next year, should he keep training well, and see if he can capture that which just eluded him this time.

Given my interest in pedigrees, and American Pharoah’s sire line tracing back to Unbridled (the first Derby winner I remember), I had been following his progeny since they were foaled in his first crop, and photographing those I could at farms and sales, to keep track of in case they became well-known runners. Naturally, that meant I had to photograph this filly at Mill Ridge. Even if she doesn’t become a top runner (but given her sire’s track record, she likely has a better than average chance), it will stay with me seeing her endearing face peek through the fence and getting to spend a little time with her.

After that, we visited the largest field of mares and foals. I had nearly run out of carrots by then, indulging in a lot of spoiling of the mares, so I made my way to one gray mare and her foal standing in the shade of a tree. Those foals were the oldest of the current year’s crop, so they were not shy about interactions like the younger ones in other pastures had been. The gray mare was perfectly content just to be scratched behind her ear and along her neck, not minding that I didn’t have carrots. (There had been an earlier tour that day, so they still had a chance at getting carrots that day, anyway). There is a simple yet meaningful pleasure in connecting with a horse by finding a spot where they enjoy being scratched. It is beautiful to get away from the overly digitally connected world and away from screens, and have connection that does not involve either. And know how the horse appreciates that, and it feels like a small moment of service. Altruism.

The tour wrapped in front of Oscar Performance’s stall. He stays in overnight. I love the unique layout of the Mill Ridge stallion barns, each their own individual units, which made Oscar Performance seem strongly like a king of his domain. He practically is, being the only breeding stallion at the farm, but the layout of the stallion barns contributes to that impression.

He came to the front of the stall for a little interaction, but was in dozing mood and shortly afterwards wandered off to the center of the spacious stall to relax further. Hannah spoke about the books of mares he had covered so far, and how well-received he has been to this point.

Returning to the breeding shed, which has a gift shop beside it, Hannah mentioned that the farm teaser is named Option. That was a bit comical to both of us, and a fitting name for a teaser, given that he does help assess if a breeding will go forward or not.

Driving outside of the farm, I went slowly as protocol dictates on every farm, but also to savor the views of the rolling fields as far as the eye could see. Savoring the moment, once more, of having the opportunity to return to more of what I love to experience.

It is hard not to miss attending live racing, but for now I will soak in farm visits, realizing they are less of an infection risk than even being at work is, both for being held outdoors but also for not involving mass gatherings. I did still have to sign a waiver releasing Mill Ridge and Horse Country from liability if I conracted Covid-19 from the visit (as I did when visiting my dentist recently for a checkup), but as my grandmother has said recently, there is no way to eliminate all risk. I am not going to live my life this year with no regard for being a potential contagion point or others being some, and I have been quite cautious about social interactions to the point of not having any for months in person, but I don’t want to isolate from everything that makes life beautiful this year, and horse farm visits seem like one of the safest options beyond visiting parks and soaking in nature that way to experience that.

Faith and hope in Begum was also reflective of what this visit meant, how you can find them in unusual or trying circumstances. Hannah said 99% of people would have put Begum down when she was born and they discovered her eyes never developed, and no one was sure how a horse without eyes would manage life. But Alice Chandler was determined that Begum get her chance to live, as she was healthy in every way even though she had 100% developed as expected. When Begum was a foal, they put a bell on her dam and left the grass taller in the pasture everywhere but around the perimeter, so Begum always knew where the fence was, and Chandler’s willingness to give Begum a chance to live her life was rewarded when she became the ancestress of an illustrious line. And I can’t help but think, knowing what I have heard and read of Chandler and how she grew up with the Thoroughbred industry ingrained in her from generations of her family raising Thoroughbreds and learning from her father about it as his near-shadow on the farm, that any horsewoman would have seen the value (beyond even money, but perhaps in contributions to the breed) in a horse and giving her the chance to live out her life and inherent potential. It also is reflective in a sense of how Chandler’s father left her a portion of Beaumont Farm farthest away from sites of future development, knowing raising horses would be her aim, and the distinction of how she approached this more with an eye to the future as her relatives had done, than with an eye to breeding for sales. Mill Ridge still gives the feel of being that type of place, through successive generations that helm it since Chandler, as her son and grandson have taken the roles of stewards of that legacy and adding their own pages to its storied history, with the addition of Oscar Performance as a stallion being the newest chapter.