Catherine Ford loved racing and owned two OTTBs but had somehow never been to Kentucky. She finally went with her husband Chris this summer and chronicled their adventures on her Horses of Seven Hearts blog, republished here with permission.
My first trip to Kentucky began before dawn. Neither of us knew that the Mustang we had loaned to us had cutouts under the side mirrors. When Chris unlocked the car in the early morning dark, the side lights came on, shining the Mustang pony logo down on the ground below. It was a fitting start!
The Kentucky Horse Park is a mini Disneyland for horse lovers. After coming through front gate, I said “wow” about 10 times before reaching the visitors center. At the end of that first day, checking in to our horse art-filled hotel room, my face was literally sore from grinning so much. Horses are absolutely everywhere on the beautiful grounds, with statues that will take your breath away. Tidbits of history posted everywhere stirred up the little girl in me that poured over every horse book (non-fiction or otherwise) I could get my hands on.
I thought the Horses of the World show might be a bit cheesy for someone watching who “knew horses” but it wasn’t. Arabians cantering around in full costume are hardly dull. Seeing breeds in person I had never seen before, like the Icelandic and the Lusitano, the Gypsy Vanner and the Marwari, put in flesh what I had only ever seen in pictures.
On to the Hall of Champions, the best part of the day, to meet some racing greats. I told Chris it would be the equivalent of him taking a trip to Auburn and while he was there, meeting Bo Jackson. It’s truly awesome.
Funny Cide was the first to catch my eye.
Funny Cide, much like California Chrome, won both the Derby (the first gelding to win since 1929) and the Preakness in 2003, then finished the Belmont that year in third place on a deep mud track.
Next we met Cigar and Da Hoss. These horses couldn’t have been more opposite. Da Hoss fought injury after injury, some that most consider career-ending, to come back and win the Breeder’s Cup Mile — twice. The most memorable in 1998 when he hadn’t been raced in two years due to injuries and came back to win. The announcer couldn’t believe it as he said the quotable, “This is the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” Da Hoss won over 1.9 million in his career even with his long recovery breaks.
On the other extreme is Cigar. The horse that stayed sound through some of racing’s most grueling meets to win 16 consecutive races and was called by many not just a horse of the year, but horse of the decade. His winning races read off like a checklist of the best races there are. He won the Dubai World Cup. For those who don’t know, Dubai is the best of the best in the entire world, put together on one track for a $5 million purse. Cigar won over $9.9 million in his career. Unfortunately once he began a breeding program he proved sterile, his fertility insurance policy was cashed in by his owners, and the insurance company gave him to the Horse Park. He is something to behold in person, a radiant boy in every way. (Editor’s note: Cigar, age 24, sadly passed away last week following complications from osteoarthritis surgery — RIP Cigar.)
We spent a little time watching the national Arabian show going on in the show arena, then off to the International Museum of the Horse. I have to say that after being used to Thoroughbred heads, the faces of Egyptian Arabians in halter classes looked a little strange to us. The vendors were beautiful though!
Inside the museum, our tour concluded at the trophy cases, an entire wall of Derby, Preakness and Belmont trophies. Horse of the Years. Eclipse Awards. The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, had his trophy from each race and the Triple Crown itself in a case in the middle of it all.
Around the corner was a case just for Secretariat including Ron’s boots and a lock of Big Red’s mane.
Dreams loaded on to the backs of horses whose name etching was worn from years passing, bearing the weight of greatness.
We ended our day reliving the glory that was Man O War. Beaten only once by a horse named Upset, he is generally agreed to be in the top two racehorses of all time. He would have been a triple crown winner himself had Mr. Riddle not been a bit odd, deciding not to run the Derby.
Man O War is known for more than just racing. He had a great heart and died shortly after the groom, who loved him dearly, had passed. The stride markers on the pavement leading to his memorial impressed Chris — he was certainly a supernatural horse.
The next day we pointed the car to Louisville. First stop: the training track that my horse Bandon’s last racing owners were stabled at.
I was as eager to meet Jack Frost and Wendy Milligan of Flying Frost Stables in person as I was to see behind the scenes of track life. Sitting here now I can’t even find the words to tell you what arrival there was like. You know in movies when older men tell stories about the first time they went to a baseball game and saw the field in color instead of on a black and white small screen… the sounds, sights, and smells that brought it all alive and in full vision? That was my experience. Like walking into a room and someone suddenly turns on a loud stereo. Boom. It was in front of me.
Horses rule here. Horses have right of way. It is 100% human responsibility at all times to get out of the way of horses at all times — horses aren’t led around anything or asked to stop for sake of a pedestrian. Chris and I learned which side to get to as horses being hotwalked came around corners counter clockwise through the shed row every few minutes.
The horses were delightful. Gorgeous faces poked at us for apple cookies. Soft-natured horses wanted to be touched and known….
…while others were such hard workers, on the muscle and more aggressive, they didn’t want to be distracted from watching the track.
I was surprised by the overall feel of it. Of course the horses were immaculate, manes tidy and cleaner than most horses heading into a show ring, but what surprised me was that the horses were such babies! So much youth in their eyes and the way they moved. I knew that racehorses were young, but most horses in barns and at shows you see in any large number together are in their teens. It’s very uncommon to see so many horses, all of them very young, in one place. Their youth put a playfulness in the air of an otherwise hardworking place.
The exercise riders shared stories with us. My favorite listened while I mentioned how in awe I was of Funny Cide the day before, then proceeded to tell us what a **censored** jerk he was back when he was riding him. The reason he was the first gelding to win in so many years was that he was impossible as a colt. As a gelding, he wasn’t a hell of a lot better apparently.
They told me the story of Bandon coming to them, having been raced off a trailer his early years, so messed up that no one could get near him. They told me how no vet would go in his stall. That they would have him contained in every way possible and he would still be striking out.
Once they fixed his painful teeth, gave him some time and patience, he quickly became Wendy’s favorite, his fleece-crowned racing bridle hanging up next to her while she was talking.
I asked a million and one questions that Jack and Wendy patiently answered for me. One of them was how they got the horses to urinate when drug screenings were done. As a cadence of whistles broke out from the grooms all through the stables, Jack grinned and pointed. They whistle each time they urinate in the beginning and very soon, they will all go on whistle command.
Another thing I learned was how often horses were claimed. I knew that owners often entered claiming races to ease up the competition on a horse. Being bettered is hard on a horse’s mentality, and these races could be a buffer after a horse broke its maiden. I had no idea, though, that the horses actually being claimed (purchased before the claiming race by a new owner) happened frequently. I had been given the impression that it was few and far between, but it isn’t at all. Horses are claimed daily, a lot of owners acquiring their horses in this way.
Exercise riders up, we headed to the clocker’s stand for the morning’s timed runs.
Watching the horses run was surreal following a day all about the past greats. The smell of horses, the thunder their feet made, and the youth in them made you feel like anything was possible.
One horse in particular caught my eye. Of course, a gray — I might just have to keep tabs on this guy and how his racing career goes. Maybe when he’s done…
I watched the skill of the exercise riders navigating their charges who were inexperienced. One horse reared to a point of almost losing his balance straight up; at his peak height the rider bailed, landing from easily 12 feet up in the air, still holding the reins. He climbed back aboard and sent the young horse forward again with an unflappable calm that is common in professionals around these horses.
From the training track we went over to Churchill Downs backside. With our connections there we were able to get an Owner/Trainer Pass and travel anywhere we wanted to. First stop was Red Dog Racing. This is the trainer who sent us our horse Lake Pleasant a year and a half ago. After the tragedy that was his short time here, I’ve always felt unresolved and I hoped that I could remedy some of that today. Sam, the person who cared for Lake and talked at length with me on the phone before he was sent to me, was there and was as nice as a person could be. He warmly welcomed me to see their horses, including the recent La Troienne Stakes winner, On Fire Baby.
After touring more of the backside, Chris and I went on to the main gate to get ready for a day of live racing.
Our pass let us in the paddock with the horses being saddled to race. We walked behind the horses heading out to the track to the rail to watch the race itself.
Sheer joy and awe at being so near these athletes heading out, we stood back quietly and out of the way to watch each horse with a sea of people looking in on us in the paddock. It was hard to believe Czech and Bandon lived this, raced here, saw the masses of eyes on them and heard the din noise from this perspective.
Other owners stood around with their backs to the horses. Talking and laughing, drinks in hand, not noticing anything around them. It made me a little angry to see that the people capable of owning such horses as those entered in the Early Times Mint Julep (won that day by Honey Hues, a long shot) didn’t seem to even really care about the horses in front of them. I’m not saying they aren’t compassionate towards their own horse or anything, just that while I couldn’t take my eyes off the horses as they got ready to race, a few feet in front of me, to them it wasn’t anything all that important.
I bet a few races, totally unsuccessfully. New to betting, I wagered the horses who had a sire I liked, not a strategy I’d recommend. Chris laughed, asking if I was actually covering up the odds when I picked or if I just didn’t notice them as ‘my horse’ trailed yet another race.
The next morning we headed back out to the Horse Park to begin touring farms. We loaded up with our guide who, to my glee, began a round of racing trivia questions aimed at the group we were with. I was that irritating kid in class yelling out each answer as fast as I could in the best test I could have been given until we arrived at Hurricane Hill to love on some yearling fillies.
Next up, Calumet. If you know anything about horse racing, you know Calumet. Though over the years it has changed hands, its history still stands. The monuments for their three Triple Crown winners stand in the burial garden with all the Derby winners on one side of the path, and their dams buried on the other side.
We paused for a long time at Alydar’s tombstone. Alydar is most famous for being the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. Affirmed won the Derby over him by a length, the Preakness by a head, and the Belmont by a nose. He was extraordinary in the breeding shed. He sired Easy Goer, Alysheba and Strike the Gold among many notable others.
Alydar’s ending is almost as famous as his life. He lived in the stallion barn of Calumet across the aisle from the only horse to better him (Affirmed).
He was found in the stall in 1990 with a shattered leg. It was later revealed that the son-in-law of the Calumet farm inheritance let the farm get to a point of financial ruin and shattered the horse’s leg to collect the insurance money. He went to prison. Alydar’s stall was never used again in the famous barn that housed three Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway, Citation and Affirmed).
The heaviness of the loss of standing in the place Alydar was so cruelly crippled was lifted moments later running into Point Given on his way out to paddock.The groom said I could come over and touch him and I tried not to let my hand shake in my excitement. The stallion was covered in brilliance.
Point Given won the 2001 Preakness, Travers Stakes and Belmont and is an American Hall of Fame Champion. He earned $3.9 million and only finished out of the money one time, coming in 5th in the Derby. He began at stud at Three Chimneys for $125k a breeding and has since been syndicated for $10k a breeding.
Calumet was equal parts awe-inspiring and sad — the highest of highs in horse racing coupled in a place with lowest of lows in their relationship with the people who are entrusted them.
Arriving to the babies at Katierich Farms, we had come full circle in Thoroughbred history back to where to babies and hopes of tomorrow are beginning. Storm Cat was the predominant blood in this field of beauties.
Before calling it a night, Chris and I headed over to Keeneland on the recommendation of our guide (who loved the fact that we had a Fappiano grandson, Czech, at home — that was one of his favorite horses). Many of my friends had previously recommended Keeneland and though there is no live racing in June there (no two Kentucky tracks can have live racing at the same time) we could walk around the grounds. Bandon raced here. In fact, Bandon began his career here being sold at Keeneland’s September yearling sale for 200k.
The most beautiful track I have ever seen for sure.
The last day we made it over to the New Vocations Kentucky facility to see the newest wave of adoptable OTTBs. Getting ready for the Back on Track documentary filming that morning, Melissa still made time for us and we heard more stories of Bandon’s journey to get to us.
From the babies of Katierich, the youngsters out on the training track, Churchill Downs stakes race, the breeding shed, the graveyards and the memorials, it was clear how important New Vocations truly is. After four years on the track, the 15 plus more years a racehorse has left in their life is so questionable. Good owners like those at Red Dog Racing and Flying Frost make all the difference coming together with good organizations like New Vocations to make sure these horses who give their all are given our all in return. The good owners make my racing passion feel great.
Going to Kentucky for me was equal to finding a pool of something you love and getting to dive in, swimming around in it until you were so completely saturated there was no higher level of happy to reach.
Special thanks to my husband for agreeing to Kentucky for our belated honeymoon trip.
Also thanks to Kristin for taking care of my kids and giving them a great weekend too.
And lastly, thanks to Wendy and Jack for sharing their work day with me, making my track experience unique and memorable, and giving my Bandon boy his chance.
Coming home to my horses, Bandon and Czech smothered me and followed me all through the pasture. There is truly nothing like the heart of a Thoroughbred.
About Catherine: I rode 3-day when I was younger until a bad fall broke my back and I gave up riding for 15 years. As an adult I came back into horses with my five very young children (including a set of triplets) in tow and immediately fell in love with the Off Track Thoroughbred. Our small family farm is home to two OTTBs that I do hunter jumpers with and two ponies (a POA and a Welsh) that my children are learning to ride.
Read more of Catherine’s writing at horsesofsevenhearts.blogspot.com.