Originally posted in mid April:
The Kentucky Derby is a few weeks away and I'm starting to get a little sappy (sniff), as usual. I'm a big fan of the history and traditions of thoroughbred horse racing - especially as it pertains to the Derby.
Based on a true story.
It was Jill. “Hey doll boy…how you feeling, today?”
“Listen, I've got great news - we’ve been invited, this Saturday, to take a tour of Newland Farm. Wanna go?”
I'd heard of Newland Farm, and knew it to be one of the most prestigious horse farms in the famed bluegrass region of Kentucky - just a few miles outside of town.
"Jill, uh... how did we get invited?"
" Oh? How so?".
"She's Ashford's mistress".
“Uhhh...Trudy is someone’s mistress?”
She was also my boss.
"He owns it."
"Newland. It's going to be private. Just the three of us".
" Umm, just wondering…where's this guy's wife going to be?"
Laughing, Jill said “Be ready at 2:00. You can ask mom all about it then... betcha don't! (giggling)… we’ll pick you up. Loveyoubye.”
Horse country in Kentucky is a wonder.
Miles of manicured, gently rolling hills carpeted in bluegrass – enormous pastures, framed by brilliantly painted white or black plank fences, stretch along the lesser highways and disappear in all directions into the low horizon.
Occasionally, a driveway will break the fence line – some adorned by brick or weathered stone columns – architectural signs proclaiming the names of legendary farms and also of those not so known, while others display simple, painted wooden images – or none at all.
There doesn’t seem to be any competition for the prettiest gate, the fanciest barns, the bluest grass – there’s no need – competition is reserved for the horses and the talk about them. Thoroughbred racing is a wealthy, gentleman’s sport born of a simple mindset…”I bet my horse can beat your horse, son…wanna go?”
At the end of the driveway, well out of sight from the road, we came to a fork - on the left stood a magnificent two story ante bellum styled farmhouse nestled in an oak grove. To the right, a group of old long, narrow buildings bunched together encircling a wide graveled area.
Trudy honked the horn – in a moment, a tall middle aged man in a sports coat exited one of the buildings, waving as he approached.
“That's Ashford” Jill said.
Oh...I recognized him from years of television appearances and newspaper accounts. If it had to do with horse racing, Ashton usually had a sought-after statement or opinion about it.
Smiling broadly, he welcomed us warmly to his “Old Kentucky Home”. As we traded pleasantries, I was suddenly caught up in the moment.
…the first ten years of my life was spent up “nawth” – NYC, Milwaukee, and Chicago…finally landed in Louisville where I learned three important lessons in my young life – (1) Mayonnaise (which I hate) goes on anything wrapped in bread (don’t fight it – you’ll be met with rolling eyes from the server and glares from the cook as he peers through the pass thru window – AND it will take a very long time to finally get your hot dog), (2) if everybody would just learn to play basketball (which I like)…”what a wonderful world it would be”, and (3) there’s a horse race called the Kentucky Derby right here in my new hometown, that is unlike anything else in the world - dubbed the “fastest two minutes in sports”.
Each year at the end of March, Kentuckians eagerly cast off the winter doldrums and prepare for the Derby. Before the first Saturday in May, “Thunder Over Louisville”, a spectacular fireworks display will draw hundreds of thousands of people to the banks of the Ohio River early in the day for a gut wrenching, flag waving, air show demonstrating the ferocious power of the US Air Force. (And yes…the sheer force of these machines, as they fire the afterburners, can cause you to lose your balance…no matter how many beers you’ve had.)
Following this, a “great” steamboat race (Our “Belle of Louisville” – in an annual Derby event has been accused of cheating in the past – largely by an unfriendly competitor from Cincinnati who is famous for its unnatural affection of sour grapes. The reality is that we innocently make use of our considerable, God-given, natural resources. In this case that would be defined as one of the many hidden river coves – just large enough to conceal powerful tugboats that can dart out and quickly spin our lady around, sending her downstream with a gentle nudge towards the finish line before the larger, more powerful boat from the Queen City can reverse its huge, passenger-laden mega-butt in the opposite direction- bite us, Cincinnati), parades, hot air balloon races and glows, chow wagons, and literally “billions and billions” of other Derby related events will take place in the weeks leading up to the race.
It was once predicted that by the year 2000, the Kentucky Derby celebration would rival Mardis Gras in scope. Don’t think that’s quite happened yet – we still manage to keep our clothes on – at least in public and keep a close eye on those college girls – in case they decide to go “wild”.
And while we don’t actually throw money from floats, we toss it away, like confetti at the chow wagons.
BBQ (includes fries and slaaaaw)…$60.00
Burgoo (what’s that?)……………………………………………….$40.00
When I’m the King, and immediately after I outlaw the consumption of mayonnaise (medicinal purposes excluded, of course), all women will be required to wear Derby style hats.
*This does not include the common, baseball style cap – however, you MUST be playing baseball, a similar sport (shopping is excluded), or at least pulling a transmission. (For a complete list of exceptions, please visit “Hats On.com”.)
And at last, unhappily, NBC’s Bob Costas and friends will appear to perform their usual, preppy, over- starched, and very average coverage of the historical race. (grrrr…)
Whatever happened to ABC? Where’s Jim McKay? Where’s the Dan Fogelberg “Run For The Roses” video – the one that is impossible to watch without emotion – the one that captures the spirit of the sport – not the spirit of the sponsors?
A peaceful, dimly lit world of rich, savory fragrances and aromas - old wood, polished brass, straw, and horses met us as we entered the barn. Overhead security cameras monitored each horse twenty four hours a day and there were enough sprinklers, according to Ashton, that in the event of a fire the horses would more likely drown than succumb to flames (now there’s a comforting thought).
Down the center aisle, I was startled at how many familiar names, etched on brass plates at each stall – had passed through this place over the years.
The doors to one famous name were closed.
“Grumpy in his old age – doesn't like visitors”.
Nearby, an empty stall – too clean, too undisturbed caught my attention.
Turning to Ashford I asked “He died, didn't he, not long ago?”
“He did”, Ashford nodded. “We keep this one unoccupied in his honor.”
Out the door, into another building we entered a brightly lit, large concrete block room with tile floors and a few odd stainless steel contraptions scattered about - and not much else.
This is where the main business of the farm was carried out - stud services. A young horse’s time to win big money races is short – and the costs are high. (Yearly maintenance is generally estimated at $35,000 plus, per horse, per year). Those that are successful, however, can continue earning for many years without ever stepping foot on a track.
A sturdy young woman greeted us and began to graphically describe the process.
No flowers and candlelight going on here. It's extremely dangerous work, not only for the employees, who place themselves between several thousand pounds of highly agitated horseflesh, but for the horses as well. Huge and powerful, they are at the same time, very fragile. A broken leg or hip can mean the end of a life, a career, and a fortune.
The act is rough, tough, and violent. Hormones rage, testosterone explodes, and all hell breaks loose. That's the reason for the slick floors – no traction – but they can still bite, kick, and fall – while everything’s filmed. And in the middle are the men and women who have to make sure that all parts go where they're supposed to – conjuring up a very disturbing image as I tried to envision the definition of success.
What a great job!
You're at a cocktail party – an attractive woman walks up.
"Hello there, I'm Ann. I'm an artist, who are you?"
"Hi, Ann. I'm Michael".
"Hi Michael, nice to meet you. What do you do?"
"Well, I’m an artist, too – sort of… uh, I...er...ummm...let's see...uh...I take his...well...and... put it...her...uh..."
"Fascinating, Michael - good luck with that.”
Outside, I separated a bit from the others as we watched alongside a dirt path in thrilled silence as more horses filed past us on their way back to the barns – captivated by the beauty, grace, and power.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed as Jill quickly broke away from Trudy and rushed over. “Michael!” she squealed...”Seattle Slew is here! They're bringing him out!"
I was stunned.
Do you mean Seattle Slew, a virtual unknown, purchased for only 17,000 dollars at auction that was never expected to accomplish very much who exploded on to the racing scene and became THE ONLY UNDEFEATED TRIPLE CROWN WINNER in history, and then went on to beat Affirmed, the following year's triple crown winner at Belmont and completely stunned thousands of people to an eerie, astonished, silence because he wasn't supposed to be able to do that - Slew, the elder statesman, the legend, could have lost with his reputation still intact because the drama and the battle was between Affirmed and Alydar, the 2 “super horses” of the year, only Alydar didn't show up, and by the way, had never beaten Affirmed, which, it turns out, was a good thing because then Slew would have probably beaten BOTH of them which everyone there figured out in a nanosecond and could do nothing more than stare as they quickly computed just how great a racing horse this Seattle Slew really was...
....and he was coming over to say "hi?"
In 1977, everything in thoroughbred racing was Seattle Slew.
Not pretty by thoroughbred standards, the sports writers overlooked him at first, however the public caught on quickly - because of his unusual name and because he kept winning. Before each race, we learned to watch for his signature 'war dance'. Slew pranced, strutted, and shook his head in the paddock...a clear signal that he was ready to run. And when he danced, the money went down.
“Michael… come here and meet Slew.”
A groom dropped the lead and backed off a few steps.
Seattle Slew stood calmly as I approached.
“Do you know who you are?” I whispered.
“…What you accomplished?”
Stroking his neck... I told him all about the Derby and the Triple Crown, and his place in racing history. I tried to explain what a legend was.
“What did you think when you came through the tunnel on that first Saturday in May and 100,000 people suddenly stood up and roared?
Did you know it was for you?
You were so good that it was hardly worth betting, so we came just to watch you make history and… help us feel like winners, too.
How come you're so good, huh? How come?
What was in it for you?
All horses can run, but many don’t do it all the time. Why were you ready – every…single…race, huh?”
Could it be carrots, I wonder?
Whoa, now there's a thought. Could it be that one of the greatest race horses in history ran better than all the others - because he got extra carrots every time he won?
"Don't answer that."
Maybe it's not so complex after all. Maybe it's not horse machismo, or a heroic competitive will to win...
Except, I don't believe it...I've seen his eyes.
I wish I could have been a fly on the gate in Long Island, as Seattle Slew, who for the first time in his storied career was not the favorite - stood ready as cheers from the crowd grew in anticipation at the first-ever matchup between two Triple Crown winners…and set those eyes on the new young gun.
“Wanna go, son?”
Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002. His remains are at Hill'n'Dale Farms near Lexington, KY.
Welcome, B.! Thanks for posting.
WOW--That's a wonderful recounting of a very special memory! I particularly like your "conversation" with Seattle Slew. I, too, have wondered what makes some horses run with such heart. Is it a competitive spirit? Sense of freedom? Desire to please? Or, yeah (hahaha), extra carrots for a job well done?
To run for the joy of running is one thing, but to run so hard, so fast, that they literally blow a blood vessel or burst their heart...what drives them?
Too bad Slew didn't whisper back.
What an amazing being he was. Thank you for the clear image of him and of the world he inhabited.
Although I posted this already in the "Equine Poetry" discussion, it just feels right to post it here again, as I think about Seattle Slew and all the others who have made the transition from fame and the hubbub of the winners circle to being "at grass."
Here's the poem by Philip Larkin of that name:
Thank you for your kind words.
Yes, Slew was very special - in a time when thoroughbred racing gave us a number of superstars, including the likes of Secretariat, Affirmed, Alydar, and more.
And thanks for re-posting Larkin’s “At Grass” – it’s a great piece.