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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hobnobbing With The Bigwigs

Believe it or not, I actually have not finished writing about my trip to KY. I told you I packed a whole lot into two-and-a-half days! And there was that bit I mentioned about covering things A-Z...

While I was at Old Friends, I met that nice lady named Melissa, who hailed from upstate New York. As we were wrapping up the tour by perusing the offerings in the farm gift shop, I heard her ask her friend about what time they were supposed to be visiting India. I must admit to being a bit confused, given that we were standing in the middle of Kentucky. Silly me... of course they were talking about a horse! Specifically, a retired race mare, now a broodmare, a horse who Melissa had frequently visited in the shedrow at Saratoga and was very anxious to see again. She was living now back at Summer Wind farm right across the street from Old Friends. To my surprise, the ladies asked me if I would like to go with them to see the horse.

While I was in the midst of contemplating this kind offer (I didn't leap at it because I wasn't sure about wading into the middle of a happy reunion), another lady walked in. She knew the secretary at Old Friends and immediately told her about what a great time she'd just had visiting WinStar Farm, which was having an Open House in honor of Breeder's Cup weekend. WinStar Farm? Open House? REALLY? This certainly made me prick up my ears. Normally one has to make a reservation in advance to tour any of the big-time Bluegrass establishments, much less one which owns a Derby-winning stallion. That would be Super Saver, who came in first in 2010 under Calvin Borel (and I really do need to find that photo of me with Calvin to show you guys!). I asked the lady how long the Open House lasted and how far away the farm was. She said she expected they'd be open at least until 2:00 (it was about 12:45) and the farm was 20 minutes away. That did it - I hastily said goodbye to Melissa and friend and was in my car like a shot. I was most anxious to check out a premier breeding facility like the ones I'd been driving by, having only ever been to one in the past (Claiborne).

The only drawback to this instant plan was that it was lunch time and I was very, very hungry (Tinners Way was a long ways uphill at OF and we walked quite a distance to begin with). Fortunately I had some trail mix in the car, so in between stuffing a few handfuls of that in my mouth, phoning my husband to tell him my incredible luck in finding out about the Open House, and constantly checking the GPS (remember, this area is chock-full of back roads and winding lanes) I made it to WinStar in good time. I decided I would simply not worry about the fact that I was not dressed in anything remotely resembling "rich TB mare owner/breeder/trainer attire" and besides, pulling up in my eight-year-old Toyota minivan would probably give anyone scouting the parking lot a clue that I was not there to potentially blow a hundred thou on a stud fee. An Open House was an Open House, dammit, and hopefully they wouldn't care if the hoi polloi dropped in to get an eyeful of equine eye candy.

A nice young man directed me to a parking spot and I hopped out, determined to put on a brave exterior and act like I belonged (hah). The stallion barn at WinStar did NOTdisappoint, folks. You can go here to see a slideshow of the place, but here are my shots of the exterior:

And here's what I saw upon entering:
Most of the visitors were gathered in the central viewing area, where a magnificent specimen was already on display, headed by a stud groom. I gave him a wide berth (I could just see the headlines: "Deadly Spook Prompted By Visitor Kills Million-Dollar Stallion, WinStar Suing") and contented myself with taking a few (bad, as usual) photos.
This handsome fellow is Tiznow, who can be your mare's beau for a mere $75,000!
But what was that I smelled, and what were people holding? It looked a lot like sandwiches... hmmm. The siren call of my empty stomach led me around the corner into the office/lounge part of the building, where lo and behold, a caterer was ladling out hot soup and croissant sandwiches to hungry bystanders. I could hardly believe it. Not only was I going to see fabulous stallions in a gorgeous facility, they were going to feed me, too! I perched on the edge of a fancy leather chair while bolting a bowl of extremely hot and extremely good tomato soup and inhaling a sandwich. I really was cracking up internally at my good fortune. The things I've fallen into...
While I ate, I was able to watch a video loop on that screen above the door of the Breeder's Cup Classic, which had just been run the day before. The winner, Drosselmeyer, is by Distorted Humor - Winstar's top stallion, and will now be taking up stud duty there himself (for an introductory fee of $17,500).
Once I had dispensed with the growling tummy, I was able to check out the rest of the horses and the building. This is their premier sire Distorted Humor, in all his glory:
2008 Sire of the Year:
The stud fee? A cool $100,000. However, his tear sheet from the farm notes that one of his offspring was the highest-priced US 2yo in 2010, selling for $2.3 million, so if your mare is of sufficient quality (and I'm sure they all are!), you do stand a pretty good chance of earning your money back.

Tiznow and Distorted Humor themselves are responsible for millions and millions of dollar of earnings on the racetrack, and their progeny are following suit. I saw several other stallions brought out as well. Still, I was a little disappointed that Super Saver was not present, but away breeding in the southern hemisphere. It's okay - the last Derby winner I ran across I got to actually pet (Monarchos, at Claiborne).

This is the actual breeding area at WinStar, with padded walls all the way around. It's linked by a covered walkway to the stallion barn.
And here are the tags the grooms clip on the mares' halters to make extra, super, TRIPLY sure that they are being bred by the right guy:
Outside of the barn in the horseshoe-shaped arrangement of bushes, I found this plaque in the ground:
The fantastic stallion is buried there, according to his Wikipedia article. I'll admit I really didn't know much about him but I certainly recognize a lot of the horses in his pedigree (he shares Princequillo as a grandsire with Big Red), and he is Zenyatta's grandpap (Vertigineux's sire)!  I'm glad he is properly honored at WinStar.

Needless to say, it was all extremely impressive. If I was a TB breeder I would certainly be most interested in bringing a mare to this particular court. Incidentally, I was not the only 'tire kicker' visiting the farm that day. There were families with small children, there to show the kids the "pretty horsies," and other just plain enthusiasts, so I need not have worried about being an interloper. And guess who else showed up? Melissa and her friend, from my Old Friends visit. It turned out their appointment to see the now-retired mare at Summer Wind wasn't until 2:30, so they had time to come over to WinStar. Which is how I also found myself re-invited to join them at Summer Wind, and why you will next be reading about that, my last big adventure in KY this time around!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chestnut Mare, Beware

This is kind of funny... once again, I'm not posting what I had planned to put up next, but that's okay! I just finished writing a rather lengthy comment over on another blog, and decided it was worthy of continuing over here. I had intended to write about this horse someday anyway. She truly was one of the most interesting equines I have ever run across.

I don't have any photos of the real Polly, so this isn't her, but it looks very much like her:
Same bright and gleaming chestnut coat, rounded butt, nice straight legs, close-coupled body and star on the forehead. She was a beautifully-conformed full TB out of the barn owner's lovely and well-mannered OTTB stallion, who after winning almost $200K on the track had excelled as a jumper in his younger days. She belonged to the BO; he usually bred for one or two foals of his own every year. I think when I met her she was about four years old. I never saw her mother as she didn't live there.

Polly was part of the lesson string at the time and I was given her to ride only my second time at the barn, after the trainer found out I wasn't a beginner rider (just a re-rider). I truly thought I was going to die that day. The darn horse simply did Not. Want. To. Go. I had little stamina and my legs were still hurting from my first lesson six days prior. The only way to get anything more than a slow trot out of the mare was leg, leg and more leg. She acted like HER legs were encased in lead! So much for the "hot TB" stereotype... (since she'd never been at the track I know it doesn't really apply).

I rode Polly a few more times after that and quickly learned that if she finally got rolling, the horse could jump, and well. She took me over the "high side" of a U-shaped gate one day and nearly launched me into outer space. I was not in any shape to be negotiating 3' instead of 2'6," believe me! Unfortunately, I also found out in a hurry that she was a total b*tch when it came to grooming. God forbid you touched her heavenly body with anything other than a jelly curry or an extremely soft brush. It's a good thing she was one of those horses that naturally maintained a super-slick and shiny coat pretty much by herself, because normal grooming caused snaps, strikes and cow kicks. I shudder to think of what would have happened if she'd rolled in mud! (Lest you wonder, I didn't feel I could discipline her much since I was just a humble lesson student.)

Two days in particular that I spent with Polly in the lesson program will never be forgotten. The first was when I was already mounted, and the trainer asked for us to begin trotting. Nope. Not happening. No trot today, thankyouverymuch. I mean, NOTHING. Kicking? No. Squeezing? No. Verbal commands? No. Smack on the butt? No. I was dead in the water in the middle of the arena, ready to cry in frustration and embarrassment. I had not experienced anything like this since I was about six years old at Tricorne Farm riding some ancient pony. As luck would have it, the BO happened upon this little scene and told me to get down... and, well, you probably know what happened next. He beat that mare into next week and made her go. I did cry then, partly from mortification and partly because it was becoming more and more clear to me that this horse was a square peg being forced into a round hole.

On the other day that's engraved in my memory, I never even got on Polly's back. I arrived at the barn for my lesson and found her name next to mine. Believe it or not, I didn't mind. She had earned my respect and I was truly interested in trying to figure out what made this horse tick. Futhermore, I had the feeling that Polly actually kind of liked me, as much as she was going to like anyone. I grabbed her halter, went in her stall... and was greeted thusly:
Seriously, if ever a horse gave someone the finger, she did. I'm no animal psychic, but I'm telling you, I could read her mind quite easily! I beat a hasty retreat and went to find my trainer. She said something along the lines of, quit being a baby/being ridiculous, snatched the halter and marched in the stall. Ten seconds later she emerged and said, "You know what, why don't you ride someone else today..."  :-)

About a year and a half after I started taking lessons, Polly was moved to another barn aisle and I found out she'd been sold to one of the boarders. I thought this was quite interesting and hoped that maybe having just one rider fairly skilled rider would lead to attitude improvement on her part. Yes and no: she did okay, but she still drew the line some days and caused no little angst for her owner and the trainer. I would stop and say hello to her, Ms. Ears-Pinned-All-The-Time Snarly Face, just because I wished her well and hoped that somehow, eventually she'd be happy.

Imagine my surprise when out of the blue, Polly's owner asked me if I'd be interested in exercising her once a week. Are you kidding? OF COURSE. I mean, yeah, it was Polly, complete with sulkiness/balkiness/quirks/downright meanness at times, but I still jumped at the chance to get in extra riding time. I was pleased her owner recognized that I cared about her and that we got along pretty well. What followed was truly a blissful period in my riding career. I'd take a lesson one day a week, and then get to go back to the barn to ride again. We just did W/T/C in the arena, or went out on the trails (she seemed to like that a lot), but it's literally the only time in my life so far that I could pretend, just for a couple hours or so, that I had my own horse. *le sigh*

Very sadly for everyone, IMHO, the BO shut down this arrangement after only five or six weeks. Apparently he was irritated or worried from a legal standpoint that no lease had been signed and it was strictly a verbal thing (and that I wasn't spending any money). I guess I understand, but at the time it caused a whole lot of tears on my part. Frankly, I was devastated. I was just starting to feel like I was building a better connection with the chestnut mare and wham, it was all over. (For the record, I never experienced another completely "eff you" day from her, either.)

Polly's owner soldiered on with her for at least another year and a half. She was shown in some local unrated shows and earned a few decent ribbons, but you could still just tell her heart was never in being a hunter. I believe the final straw came when she simply refused to learn flying changes; I'm sure she had the ability to do them, but absolutely no willingness. This obviously was going to limit her as a hunter show horse. One day she was gone, and I was told that her owner had sold her to a mother/daughter pair in Arkansas who were going to use her strictly as a trail horse. I thought this very good news, indeed.

Having been a lesson student my whole riding career, I'm afraid I hadn't ever really considered whether or not the horses I was on enjoyed their work. Polly was quite the wake-up call. Since she was in my life I have learned and thought a whole lot about horses and the jobs we ask them to do. Despite her practically-perfect conformation and hunter/jumper lineage, Polly most definitely did not want to be one. What would have happened if she'd been allowed time off, say, six months of nothing but hanging out in a pasture, and then been re-started in a totally different way, with someone listening to what she had to say about where her true talents lay? I really have to wonder. The best ride I ever had on her was the day someone was ponying a baby in the arena the same time we were in there. She was absolutely fascinated and whizzed around trying to get a better look, trotting so fast I was out of breath trying to keep up. This from a horse who normally would wear out my legs just getting her to trot! Her ears were up, her legs were churning, her brain was engaged and voila, it was like riding a totally different horse. I've mulled this over many times since.

Dear Pretty Polly, I truly hope this is the view in front of you these days, and that someone is cherishing you. You taught me a lot and I will never forget the times we spent together. Happy trails!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Warning Label Needed!

I'm in the middle of writing another post (still two to go on my KY visit, if you can believe it), but I had to share this video with you (courtesy of Dressage Mom - thanks for promoting it first):

Wowie! I do think, though, that this ought to come with a very large warning bannered across the beginning: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Can't you just see Little Johnny on board his long-suffering Shetland, standing up in the saddle and waving around Mommy's butcher knife? Yikes. I can't imagine how much time these extremely skilled riders and beautiful, patient horses spend practicing all of this. I don't know what breed of horse these are, either. It would take a very special mount to be part of this troupe!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

THAT Horse/War Movie

Greetings in 2012!

Hope you had a lovely holiday season and made some good New Year's Resolutions. One of mine, predictably, is to get my out-of-shape butt onto a horse as often as possible. Twice-monthly lessons are a distinct possibility. Yeah, I know, I will continue to be out of shape with that kind of schedule but that's about all I can manage right now. We'll see!
One of the activities I participated in during my break was going to see War Horse. I went with my husband, my mom and my 16-year-old son. He was especially keen to see the movie since he'd just finished studying WWI in History class. My husband was pretty "meh" about it, but he knew I would need moral support so he consented to go. How did he know? Watching me burst instantly into tears during the trailer we saw before another movie probably did the trick... My mother needed only a little convincing, being a big horse-liker herself. She normally avoids all dog and horse movies or books because they invariably have sad-to-extremely-sad parts (she has never seen/read Marley and Me, for example), but I said this theatrical experience was a must. The tenderhearted teenage daughter flatly refused to have anything to do with it. Weepy period dramas and rom-coms are more her speed, and a movie with shooting and animals in the middle of it sounded way too horrifying.

I actually had been thinking I would not write a post about War Horse because it seems like everyone else is doing so, but I can't help it. This story and movie have made a huge impact on me. I venture to say the same is true for many other horse people. It's not too often that we get a quality movie (arguably) "for us." We did get Secretariat just a couple years ago, of course, so Hollywood is really on a roll! (I have to say "quality movie" because there is always plenty of dreck being put out, like the most recent version of Flicka, or some dumb piece of crap featuring the latest teen heartthrob pretending to know how to ride, usually on a ranch. Disgusting!)

My first exposure to War Horse was when I saw something in the media a couple years ago about the play in London. Puppet horses, that people actually can ride? Huh? I was immediately intrigued. Why didn't someone think of this when I was a kid? I would have killed for a fake horse like that! The article explained that the script for the show was taken directly from a Young Adult book written by someone named Michael Morpurgo. Boom, I was on the library website reserving it. In the meantime I Googled War Horse and among other things, watched a fascinating video about how the play came into being.
The book arrived at my library branch a few days later and I immediately dove in. About two dozen Kleenex later, I was done for. My heart belonged completely to Joey and Albert and I was absolutely champing at the bit - pardon the pun - to see the play. DRAT! Why were plane tickets to England so expensive? The best I could hope for was for the show to be such a hit it would make its way across the pond to Broadway. The opportunity to see it in NYC was not out of the question, since I usually make it home to NJ for a week during the summer.

I don't remember when I found out that War Horse was going to be a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, no less. Of course I was thrilled. At first I wasn't sure if it would be a film adaptation of the play, or a regular live-action movie but either way, thank goodness someone in Hollywood had the smarts to bring this wonderful and unique tale to the silver screen. I'm sure SS's clout there had more than a little something to do with it. I think he was persuaded to make the movie by his equestrian wife and daughter?

Then came the absolutely amazing coincidences and revelations from my friend Wendy Wooley over at From Racehorse to Showhorse. I was just agog at her her guy Jaguar Hope's connection to Ali Bannister, which resulted in Ali being hired as the Equine Consultant for the movie and an image of Jag appearing on the film crew's hats. How cool was that? I enjoyed telling people about the saga and was delighted that Wendy was wearing her hat when I first met her at the National Horse Show.
The last piece of the puzzle came together when I learned that yes, War Horse was coming to Broadway. Of course I was desperate to see it this past summer, but as it turned out I didn't make it home at all, and the play sold out almost immediately until October. I was stuck waiting for the movie just like everyone else. In the meantime I suffered as several friends back East went to see the play and raved about it. Videos like this only whetted my appetite. Can you believe the level of realism? Even watching that closely it took me a couple minutes to figure out how the horse's head, neck and ears were being manipulated. I still would really like to try riding one of those puppets, too, although I don't get how the "shoulder guy" can bear the weight of the apparatus and the rider. Can't you just see the ad in Variety? "WANTED: Actors who can ride and weigh less than 150 lbs. wanted for puppet show." :-)

As I have mentioned, the War Horse trailer immediately plunged me into a fine state of hysteria. After one viewing I vowed to get up and leave if they showed it before another movie, and I seriously entertained thoughts of not going to see the actual War Horse movie at all. But I decided it simply had to be done, and so off I went on Dec. 26 with various family members in tow.

What did I think? Well, fortunately there was a lot of movie wrapped around the parts that caused the most emotional turmoil, so I didn't run through every tissue I'd packed. And I stayed pretty busy mentally critiquing all the horse action, tack and riding. There was some juxtaposition of the two things as well.* In summary, I have to say that I loved War Horse. My favorite aspect was the way the camera captured the horse's expressions so beautifully. The horse actor who mainly plays Joey, Finder's Key, is a Hollywood veteran, and BOY, is he ever good. I say Finder for the Oscar! Of course it's extra-cool that he is an American OTTB. I have now read many comments about how he must be a WB of some description due to his lovely bone structure, but no, he did race right here in the US. Don't you just wish all our TBs were built so nicely?

The human acting was pretty good as well; I especially enjoyed Emily Watson as Albert's mother. The poor woman, she had the patience of a saint. Today's equivalent of the move her husband pulled would be sending your spouse out to buy a new minivan to haul your three kids and assorted clobber around, and having him come home with a Miata convertible instead because "some rich guy wanted it, too." Argh!

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the French girl hides Joey and Topthorn. I don't remember if this takes place in the book or not, so I wasn't sure what had happened when the horses conveniently disappeared. But I urgently whispered to my mom, "I bet she pulled a Tempe Wick!" As it turned out, I was absolutely correct. Growing up in NJ, we had significant Revolutionary War locations and homes and battlefields on practically every corner (my home town was founded in the 1600s), and I think I visited most of them. The Tempe Wick story was obviously a huge hit with this horse-crazy youngster and I still remember the day we went to see her house. Click on link at your own risk, if you haven't yet seen the movie, since you will find out what the kid did with the horses!

Yes, a lot of the horse action is just plain silly, but I urge you to suspend your disbelief and simply watch the movie. For me, War Horse is going to be like Secretariat, in that while I did truly enjoy it, I'm sure I will be able to relax and appreciate it for what it is a lot more the second time around. Then I won't be internally (and sometimes externally, I'm sure Hubby got tired of me hissing at him) complaining about all the unrealistic mistakes. I used to think I was the only person watching movies with horses in them who fussed about every detail, but years of blog reading have taught me that there are many others doing the same thing!

Thank you, Michael Morpurgo for a really terrific book that opened my eyes to a horse event about which I knew nothing, namely, their treatment in WWI. And thank YOU, Steven Spielberg, for making this sad, but important story into a beautiful movie.

* WARNING: Spoiler Alert! Stop reading if you haven't seen it yet!
[For example, while I was busy bawling, cringing and shrieking in horror at Joey running through several barbed-wire fences, part of my mind was going, "This is ridiculous. He'd long since be dead - I've seen what one strand of wire can do to a horse, much less multiple fence lines." Also, absolutely impossible that Joey could become entangled to the point of immobilization, stand still for hours without perishing from blood loss, and emerge with only a scratch on his leg. Which the idiot doctor then pronounced as a “fatal wound!” Hah. That looked like it was worth slapping on some Corona and calling it good – no stitches even needed!]