Horse (People) Heaven

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association sent me an email last month about an educational seminar event at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington Kentucky.  The line up of speakers and the topics sounded really interesting.  I played with the idea of going and even shared the forum agenda our vet.

Our vet pointed out that some of the speakers on the agenda were some of the brightest minds in their fields. We both mused about how nice it would be to go and be with people who are really smart and really engaged in making life better for equine athletes.  Both of us knew how hard it is to go away from our horses, our clients and all the work that needs doing after leaving town for a few days. Not to mention the expense.  It seemed a self-indulgent notion.

But then I got thinking.  I knew that several funders of Thoroughbred related charities would be in attendance and I knew that a couple of days away from the ranch is where I do my best thinking and organizing of efforts, priorities and energies.  In the meantime, I shot a text message out to Colleen Hartford, who I knew was  running at least one and possibly two horses in the Breeder’s Cup races at Churchill Downs on Oct. 31 and November 1.

“I’m at Keeneland with both horses running in stakes this weekend.  You would love it here.  It’s beautiful.”

Co-incidence?  I dunno.  So I called her and asked if I could share her hotel room and get a ride from the airport.

“The airport is literally across the street from the track and of course you can stay with me.  Get your butt out here!”

The seminar would cost Square Pegs just the cost of the plane ticket and a couple of cheap meals.  It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

I flew in barely making my connection in Minneapolis to find the Blue Grass Airport freshly decorated for the World Equestrian Games that ended the week before.  Everything, and I do mean everything was about horses.  Sculpture, the pictures on the walls, the patterns on the employees ties, the ads – I mean everything was horse-related.  I walked outside, eager to touch my boots on the legendary Blue Grass that I’d only heard of and never seen.

The sun was beginning to set and my feet just kept moving.  I dragged my little suitcase down the road (where are the sidewalks in this town?) to take in the miles of perfect four-board fencing that surround Keeneland Race Course and her next door neighbor, Calumet Farm. Really, THE Calumet Farm.  I felt like I was in a dream.  Miles of rolling grass hills dotted with silky broodmares and immaculate barns. I kept walking up Gate 1 of Keeneland and was offered rides twice by passers-by who crooned in sweet Southern drawl “You want a ride ma’am?”

“No thanks, I’m just walking and then meeting someone.”  I continued to drag my little suitcase down the streets breathing the air that has fueled the lungs of so many running champions. Colleen found me walking on the street and picked me up laughing and pointing out that there were no other pedestrians in sight.  We drove to the stake barn and I greeted both Sweet August Moon and California Flag with carrots and pats.  Both horses looked happy and strong.

For dinner, we found a sports bar and asked our server if we could tune the TV to the baseball playoff game.  Colleen pointed out that we were in a sports oriented college town that was a lot closer to Philadelphia than to San Francisco.  True to form, especially after imbibing in the local bourbon, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. Luckily, I received indulgent smiles from the locals.  Thank goodness for Southern gentility.


Exercising at Keeneland main track

The following day had me up before the dawn to watch both horses work on the main track.  Again the locals were friendly and the exercise riders were first class.  There’s a dignity to racing there that is something I’ve never experienced in California and it felt good to be a part of it.  I got so carried away watching the horses track that I ran out of time to change clothes for the seminar.  I didn’t figure it was any big deal.  Clean jeans and a sweater is about as dressed up as a bunch of horsemen would be expected to be – right?  Not in Kentucky it seems. Tweed jackets and ties for the fellas and matched sweater sets and pearls for the gals – some things never go out of fashion I guess. I stuck out like a grubby northern California thumb.The Keeneland Sales Pavillion,  was as lovely as I had expected from seeing photos and videos of the famous sales.  I could see how multi million dollar babies had been purchased on that stage. A nice man escorted me to a clubhouse room set up for the seminar portion I’d signed up for, the “aftercare” session.  I settled myself (and my dirty boots) in the back of the packed room.

The morning  speakers, primarily veterinarians, discussed various aspects of health care for rescued and retired race horses.  My note taking pen, normally a very quiet instrument in my hand, was flying across the notebook.  Mid note taking flurry, I looked up to see an old friend walk into the room.  Mike Ziegler and I started out in racing in parallel jobs.  He was the special events manager for Bay Meadows while I held the same position at Golden Gate Fields.  Mike is now the Executive Director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance for the NTRA and I muck stalls and teach kids.  We hugged and promised to check in with each other later. I think we both spent some time musing at the fact that, almost 20 years later, we meet in Kentucky, he wearing a lovely suit and me, still tracking dirt across clean floors.  Ah life!

Back to the seminar. I learned that:

  • The best way to put weight on underweight horses is pretty simple; alfalfa hay and corn oil.  This is significant coming from one of the head vets at Purina Mills.  I leaned that you need to know the DE (digestible energy) per Mcal/lb of your feed.
  • Strangles can live in a water bucket for 30 days!  And that dipping the end of the hose into the infected water bucket and then into another water bucket can effectively spread the disease via the hose nozzle. Who knew? If you want to prevent infectious disease at your farm or event – do not allow common water tub sources!  The speaker was the vet that managed the infectious disease aspect of the World Equestrian Games.  I’m so curious how that worked out in the endurance phase.  Does anyone know?
  • If you tell someone from Kentucky that you pay $18 per bale for decent hay, they will (quite politely) choke on their sandwich.  I didn’t learn what they paid for a bale of hay as most of them have enough acreage that they grown their own special blend that their grandfather developed.
  • West Nile Virus is here to stay.  Vaccinate for it.
  • “Operation Gelding” hosted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition and funded by the AAEP will donate $50 per horse towards the costs of hosting a “gelding clinic” in your area. It’s not currently opened up for funding to individuals, you need to host a clinic.
  • Some rescues are branding their horses and notifying the local auctions to get in touch with them if any horses of their brand show up at auction.
  • All rescues should have a database on their website so that ANYONE can look up a horse by his registered name and tattoo number in the case that the horse ends up at an auction or racing or at a breeding farm – if your organization has a published “no breeding” clause (we do).

And so much more.  Stuff that will make us a better organization, better equipped to help horses more effectively and to set an example for other organizations that will keep our horses safer and healthier.  The experience was rejuvenating.

That evening, Colleen thought it would be cute to see the movie Secretariat while we were both in Lexington, the great horse’s birthplace.  With the magic (not) of the iPhone maps, we got a grand tour of some Lexington neighborhoods while looking for the movie theater.  The brick houses are adorable and the lawns and hedges are beautifully maintained.  We finally found that the movie theater was only half a mile from our hotel.  Oh well, the tour of Lexington was not only cute, but typical of the kind of wild goose chases that Colleen and I have been on in the 20 years of our friendship.  We laughed a lot.

really, it's Cigar
Cigar at home in the Kentucky Horse Park

My last day in Lexington we spent traipsing out to the Kentucky Horse Park.  We just wanted to see what it was all about.  Of course, the Games had just ended and the flurry of activity was in putting away all the temporary barns and grandstands and signs erected  specifically  for the games.  Nobody could direct us and so we found ourselves driving down private drives (very pretty) and wandering into barns.  In one small barn we found some staff shoeing an older foundered horse.  We stepped out of the shoer’s way to find ourselves bumping up against a stall gate containing a brown horse.  That brown horse was the legendary Cigar.  We asked the staff if we might just “hang out with him for a bit” and they said we could.  He is lovely and healthy and curious.  We tried to take pictures but his stall gate made the photos look strange and didn’t do tribute to the amazing champion that lived behind it.  I’ve met some celebrities in my life and I’m always just a bit disappointed when and icon takes a real human shape.  Not so with Cigar, his presence was awesome.

A long plane ride home with delays for weather along the way gave me lots of time to digest the experience and to think about how I might apply my new understandings to a better quality of life for our horses.  When the band strikes up that first Saturday in May under the twin spires of Churchill Downs with “My Old Kentucky Home” I’ll know just a bit more of what that means to so many.

One Reply to “Horse (People) Heaven”

  1. Great story – as usual Joell has a way with words. she should send this to several horse magazines and get it printed!
    Knowing Joell, I can just see her going into the seminar "at home" in jeans. I would have too, so we would have made a pair!


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