...And Meeting a Few New Ones, June 2020
It was a lovely summer day as I drove towards Old Friends, which just recently was able to start welcoming visitors again, providing all health precautions were followed and no visitors had high fevers, checked by thermometer upon arrival. I looked at some scattered gray clouds overhead, but they did not seem numerous enough to bring rain during the tour, which they did not, so they had the perfect effect of tempering the sun’s heat a bit.
I had wanted to go to Old Friends once winter loosened its hold even slightly and to also attend the welcome party for new arrivals Stormy Liberal and Patch, which had been scheduled for April but had to be scuttled like many gatherings this year. As a fairly frequent visitor to Old Friends, to not visit until June was unusual, but naturally this is not a typical year for just about anything.
So it was that as I and the tour guide Tom wandered from pasture to pasture feeding carrots to the retirees and patting those that welcomed it, the visit and seeing these horses’ familiar faces brought a sense of contentment. Old Friends truly is the most fitting name for this farm, but I realized even more how fitting that day, for seeing these horses again (those who had all been there during my last visit) truly was like a reunion with dear friends.
We started with Nicanor. I had only interacted with him perhaps one other time (the visits somewhat blur together when you’ve had a lot) and as I was the only visitor on that tour once he decided to come over for carrots I was sure to get his attention. Naturally, being face-to-face with a full sibling and seeing the similarities in their facial structure and definition, a refinement I realized a while back had come from their dam, I began reminiscing a little about Barbaro. But only for a moment, for this was Nicanor, his own being, and I wanted to savor the time back here with each horse in front of me after the hiatus between visits. But since I never saw Barbaro himself besides on TV, it was special to be in the presence of a sibling with a similar appearance and also reflect on a day I read about him winning a turf race by an incredible fifteen lengths (I think it was the week I was on the way to Maryland for Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness). He seems to have a laid-back temperament and I do enjoy that look he has that their dam passed on to each of them. It gives him a spark of his own, a measure of the spark Barbaro had.
Moving on to Sun King, he took a little more caution than Nicanor. Nicanor is still fairly young, and I didn’t follow Sun King’s sire career, but he may have been a sire longer than Nicanor was and still had those studdish tendencies. Or, he was just a tough horse in general, but either way, I was a little more careful about hand placement while feeding him. Still, since it was just me on the tour, I had more time to reflect out loud about these horses and reminiscing flowed as we stopped by each pasture. I remembered well a day I saw Sun King run at Keeneland years ago and win the Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup, for two reasons. One was that as the most accomplished runner his sire produced, a sire who captivated me through his Triple Crown attempt, I naturally rooted for his best son. And two was a little fun I had with his appearance in the paddock, tied to family memories growing up with my mom listening to her favorite band the Beatles, who have the song Here Comes the Sun King and I thought of that as he walked by me that day, and still did when he came to the fence line to get his carrots. Ide had been right across from him, also a regional sire but one who made more of a mark if I remember correctly. Not that any of that matters when they come to Old Friends, for they are here to live out their lives and get spoiled by carrots and attention and time to be horses and roam paddocks, but as one who has a strong interest in pedigree and progeny and lineages, the thought did crop up from time to time. Plus for the ones who were sires that is part of their life stories. It is remarkable, though, that while many were breeding stallions and merit some level of caution for being territorial about their space and interactions with them having to be on their terms, many of the ones who were sires are remarkably mellow but tour guides always point out which ones to be careful of and of course to anyone who knows horses there is an awareness to never assume they may not nip.
Ide was one pasture over from where he had been when I last visited, an incredibly handsome chestnut stallion who always catches my eye, and across from him was Smooth Air, who I had not seen before. I had to laugh a bit at Smooth Air’s throaty nickers as he drew closer to the fence and then popped his head over, almost like he was insisting he never gets treats and was playing a sympathy card with what seemed like a bit of a pleading tone with the low rumble mostly in his throat instead of a full blown whinny. Hard to resist feeding a horse who tries to play the sympathy card even if he is merely revealing he is somewhat of a glutton for carrots! But no matter. Regardless of what their stations in life were before they arrived, it is nice to spoil the horses at Old Friends a little and connect with them, for even in giving them treats you get to learn a bit about their characters.
Touch Gold used to be somewhat near Special Ring and Popcorn Deelites’ paddock but before reaching that one we stopped to see Stormy Liberal. He was easily the most photogenic of the new horses that had arrived since my last visit, and he knew how to pose! A photographer’s dream.
Other new arrival Patch occupied the paddock that Touch Gold once had and we gave him a few carrots before moving on to Popcorn Deelites and Special Ring, who absolutely does flip his lip if you hold a carrot but don’t yet give it to him. It is amusing and endearing to see this little trick he has. While we stood there, perhaps sparked by seeing what Special Ring does for a carrot, which all the tour guides love to show visitors, Tom launched into a story about a young lady in her late teens by his estimate who showed up to a tour wearing a tank top and when they came to Popcorn Deelites, he may have felt he wasn’t getting carrots fast enough for he grabbed the strap of the young lady’s tank top and pulled it right up. Tom hastened to assure her he didn’t teach the horse that and all I could think (and said) was how embarrassing! And he said she turned bright red. I could imagine.
We moved on to Silver Charm. I had missed him the most, and as the years continue to progress, it means more to see him for not knowing how much longer he may have. That is when the visit began to feel almost like time slowed down, and was timeless. The beautiful day, the way he moved slowly with dignity through his field to the fence, and being in the moment, appreciating the here and now and forgetting all the uncertainty and unusual times in the world fled. There was just this horse, an elder statesman of racing, one who had settled beautifully into a role of racing ambassador, moving through the lush June grasses to be near and take the smaller pieces of carrot dental surgery made it necessary to give him. As we waited for him to make his way to the fence line, I turned to look at Tom as he said something, and noticed a long strand of silvery hair, probably from Silver Charm’s tail, stuck in one of the fence posts and caught in a breeze. I know it sounds like a simple thing, but with all that can be overwhelming in life, it was a moment of being centered to see a strand of horse hair float in the breeze, two elements of nature and evidence of the cycle of life away from technology and endless news cycles is waiting for us and will help us find that calm. I had a brief thought of wanting to have it for my own, remembering a day I groomed Silver Charm but then the horse himself arrived at the fence and the focus shifted to him and I did not remember the strand of hair until later. But it did not matter I didn’t have it. It mattered that I had the time to be there again to see the horse himself.
Even though Silver Charm was the horse I had missed the most, I think we stayed at his pasture the shortest time (Tom let me decide when I was ready to move on as the only person on the tour). I couldn’t resist looking back once we left as he ambled across the pasture, back to where he had been, where perhaps the choicest grass was at that time, wanting to fill my eyes with another glimpse and maybe then I thought it had not been long enough. But it also was perfect and it didn’t have to be long to be perfect. I was struck anew by how gentlemanly a demeanor Silver Charm has, as he has a great dignity about him and a gentle way of taking carrots, never grabbing or giving cause for concern that he may get overeager or nip. He is particular about being touched on his face, but he is practically gracious in all interactions, including declining face pats. It was a moment of communion without words, to give him those carrots and feel him take them so gently from my palm and in that feel his calm nature radiate outward. Quiet moments like those touch the soul, make you feel grateful to be in the presence of the horse and to get to know them, much as it had last week when Devine Actress came to the fence with her foal close behind and was willing to let me lean against her neck, and I found I drew strength from that, a strength beyond what is within I knew I had been seeking and that horses can help with, with their uncomplicated natures, but unless they are willing you never know what source it will come from.
As we walked through the cemetery across from Silver Charm’s pasture and near Michael Blowen’s house, mostly in silent homage to the horses interred, I saw Blowen in his yard from a distance. I remembered other times visiting and how he loved to come over if he was about when tours were going on and interact with visitors and especially if he happened to see them interacting with Silver Charm, a horse incredibly significant to him. I sensed he wanted to this time, but supposed with current regulations he decided it best to leave the visit to me and Tom, and minimize the number of people interacting. I could imagine he was glad, especially if it remained safe to do so, that visitors were able to return, however. Besides it helping with fundraising, a necessity for a non-profit, he always envisioned the farm as a showcase for the retirees and wanted to share them with fans.
Moving past Silver Charm, after that one look back (he was the only horse I was compelled to look back at), we walked past Alphabet Soup in the barn, with his head peeking out of the cutout in the stall door. I know he wanted carrots but current health regulations in the face of the pandemic prohibit visitors from going in barns. (It certainly makes sense not to go into barns at this time, to keep contact with farm staff minimal, especially in enclosed spaces, but I had thought it was more than farm regulations that dictated this until another farm did allow access to a stallion barn).
Afternoon Deelites had a stall that gave him a view outwards, though, so we did get to pause by him and do more than look from a distance. Wrapping up the tour, we stopped by Einstein, in the large paddock near the barn, separated by the small quarantine pen, which held a horse that had raced the previous week, still wearing racing plates and a halter with what was probably his trainer’s name engraved on it. I don’t recall the horse’s name and Tom had not known who he was.
As we looked at Einstein, another volunteer, John, could not help stopping his golf cart, saying that he had to when he saw people admiring the near-black horse. I have realized over the years while the Old Friends horses all get their moment in the sun on any tour the guides lead, many of them are likely to have specific horses that resonate with them more than any other. Naturally, for the same happens with people we meet. For John, that horse was clearly Einstein and he did come over to try to help with Einstein getting his ears forward for the photos I wanted to get. It was the first time I had seen Einstein out of the barn.
Touch Gold now occupies the paddock War Emblem called home for years, and having been familiar with him being one of the toughest horses they had and how he required a double fence (the only horse on the property that did), and only tour guides and Blowen went in between the two fences to give him carrots and draw him over for photos, it felt odd to see the gate swung open and go between the two fences even knowing a different horse resided there now. As we walked along the fence down to the far corner to meet Touch Gold, my eye roamed over the next pasture, where pale blue skies and fluffy white clouds nestled over a group of geldings enjoying the grass. Such an idyllic scene, just as seeing the pond near the entrance ringed by trees had been upon arrival. I was grateful to be back, first and foremost, which I felt strongly when I saw that pond and then began interacting with the horses, and to have these moments to breathe easy and feel attuned to the land as the horses are when they seek the best spots to roll and graze.
We wrapped the tour up at the cemetery near the visitors’ center. I had not been in it before, but had a friend request a photo of Noor’s gravesite, moved there from a training center. The beautifully landscaped site also had Springsteel (a horse of yesteryear), Skip Away, and Old Friends residents Hidden Lake and Charismatic interred within. I paused by each gravestone, reflecting on those horses. Since I had never gone into that cemetery before, I did not realize Springsteel had his photo on his gravestone in an oval. I had never seen that on any horse’s gravestone before, and it was a nice touch to honor him. I did ask Tom before we left what the distinction was between this cemetery and the one near Blowen’s house that contained most of the remains of the Old Friends residents. He said that, while the other one had champions, this one was considered a champions’ graveyard.
I thought, though I hope he has many good days ahead of him still, that this is probably going to be Silver Charm’s spot when the time comes, But it was not time to think of that yet, and I let the thought float away on the lovely day. I am not sure if I will return this summer. Even though I was the only one on the tour that time, it was still interaction with people I don’t normally cross paths with, and there is the possibility from work I could have picked up the virus and not know it yet, and I don’t want to pass it on to others much as I don’t want to contract it myself. But in general, in this unprecedented time, given that they are outdoors and distancing is easier and groups are smaller, I feel that horse farm visits are one of the safer recreational activities that can be done currently.