Sunday, September 25, 2011

To See a Champion

All photos by Terri Cage

To see a champion racehorse is like no other experience. Even if you don’t see one race, it is amazing to catch a glimpse of one in a paddock or barn during retirement. Going to the races on any given day is wonderful in and of itself, but to see a very accomplished horse on the track or at the farm is an experience I highly recommend.
To me, a champion isn’t necessarily an Eclipse Award winner. To me, a champion is any horse that has accomplished great things. A champion can come in many forms and fashions, but these champions are champions that are known for their triumphs and have touched my heart.
I have compiled a list of my top eleven encounters with champions. It was not easy ranking these wonderful horses and there were definitely horses I did not want to leave off, which explains why it’s a top eleven list instead of a top ten list. Most of the top eleven horses I met while they were in retirement, but four of them I witnessed on the track. I didn't rank them by order of how big a fan I was of them, but rather by how great the experience of seeing them in person was. I can remember each encounter quite clearly, especially number one.

11. John Henry
I didn’t really know who he was at the time, but I knew that my mom was making a big deal about seeing him. All I knew about him was what the guide at the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park told me: that he was a thirty-two-year-old champion, had won many prestigious races, including the Arlington Million, and that he was extremely ornery and knew he was boss.
When I first saw him was just seven months before the great horse passed away. Since then, I have learned a lot more about him. I now greatly admire John Henry and not just because he won 6.5 million dollars. John Henry never gave up and though he may not have been a sweetheart, he was a hero.

10. Funny Cide

Though I do not remember watching Funny Cide’s bid for the Triple Crown, I know I did watch it. However, I do recall cheering for him in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup over the television. Even though I don’t clearly remember watching him race, I’ve always been a big fan of the “Gutsy Gelding.”
The second time I visited the Kentucky Horse Park, I was extremely excited for one main thing: I would get to meet Funny Cide. Apparently, Funny was excited to meet me as well. He decided to lick my hand for several minutes as I stood outside of his stall. When I walked out of the barn to see Da Hoss in the paddock, I turned to see Funny sticking his head out of his stall’s window, staring at me. Needless to say, Funny Cide had quite the personality.

9. Cigar
The first champion I ever saw was Cigar. It was a drizzly, chilly day in the Bluegrass and it was the first time I ever visited the Kentucky Horse Park. I first saw him in his stall and was amazed by the stature of the horse. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how much Cigar had contributed to racing, but I did know he was one of the greats.
When a worker pulled him out of his stall, I was blown away. I still to this day consider him one of the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen. I’m blessed to have met Cigar twice and will visit him again later this year. He’s just the type of horse that takes your breath away.

8. Uncle Mo

I knew of all the hype surrounding the son of Indian Charlie, but I had not watched either his Saratoga maiden win or his scintillating Champagne Stakes (GI) victory.  However, I knew he was extremely talented. Yet, being the huge Smarty Jones fan I am, I was cheering for Rogue Romance in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). Nevertheless, from my seats under the Twin Spires, I knew Uncle Mo had the win as the horses came around the far turn.
I watched as the bay colt in the blue and orange Repole silks drew away from the field, digging his hoofs into the dirt and galloping towards the wire powerfully. Uncle Mo left a big impression on me in that race. He’s something special and you can definitely sense that when you’re in his presence.

7. Curlin
My heart had been broken the day before I met Curlin. The previous evening, I had watched as Zenyatta fell just half a head short in an incredible, but heart-wrenching performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Seeing the magnificent chestnut stallion consoled me.
The physique of Curlin is extraordinary. He is built like a tall Quarter Horse, exhibiting round, quality muscling. He has a very kind eye that matches his personality. You could say touching the chestnut champion that I had been such a big fan of while he was racing soothed my sadness. It was incredible to meet one of my favorite racehorses of all time and be able to touch him.

6. Blind Luck

Let me just say I love this hard-knocking filly to pieces.  I’ve only seen her in person once (so far), but I’ve been a big fan of hers since she was a two-year-old. I’ve watched every race of hers since she finished second in Darley Debutante Stakes (GI) and absolutely fell in love with her when she won the Oak Leaf Stakes (GI). She’s definitely one of my favorite fillies ever.

I made signs for two horses at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup and Blind Luck was one of those horses. I watched the little chestnut filly during the post parade and cheered for her as the horses came down the stretch. Though she couldn’t catch Unrivaled Belle that night, Blind Luck took my breath away with her electrifying closing kick. I can still remember that little chestnut blur in pink flying past me.

5. Pepper’s Pride

There are two ladies of nineteen: Zenyatta and Pepper’s Pride. Obviously, Pepper’s Pride isn’t as famous as the great Zenyatta, but she is a champion. I watched several of the New Mexico filly’s races and was a big fan of hers.
When I visited Taylor Made Farm before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, my mom immediately asked about Pepper’s Pride, as we knew she resides at Taylor Made. I thought they would just give us an update on her, but instead I was astonished as we drove down to the broodmare paddocks. After strolling through the barn, we walked out to a paddock holding three mares: a light chestnut with a blaze, a liver chestnut, and a bay. I immediately knew which one was Pepper’s Pride. The bay mare approached the fence where we stood and allowed us to stroke her as she snuffled at our hands. It was wonderful to meet the undefeated filly in person and I still to this day can recall her warm breath against my hand.

4. Goldikova
The evening sun was casting its glow over Churchill Downs as the horses for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI) came onto the track. As the name of Goldkiva was announced, a cheer went up from the crowd. As the field loaded into the gate, I fixed my eyes on the gate of the mare who had won the race the past two years and was going for a three-peat.
I knew who Goldikova was. The past two years, I had watched her win the Mile in dazzling fashion on television. This time, I saw her in person. Right before my eyes, I saw the dainty bay mare lower her head and lengthen her stride as she swept past the males. From my seat, it was very difficult to see the finish line, but I stood on the tip of my toes on top of the bleachers to see the great mare cross the wire in front. I had just witnessed history and the moment is still engraved in my mind.
3. A.P. Indy

Seattle Slew is one of my dad’s all-time favorite racehorses. Slew’s son, A.P. Indy, is my all-time favorite stallion. Though enthralled by what he accomplished on the racetrack, I have always greatly admired him as a sire.
The day I met Curlin was the same day I met A.P. Indy. Though in a down mood, I was extremely excited to get to meet Indy. I practically dragged my family over to his stall multiple times. Though getting up there in age, A.P. Indy was stunning. Despite acting docile, you could tell he knew he was king of Lane’s End. I waited not-so-patiently in line to touch him. He stood still as I set my hand on his soft, dark coat. Though I was gloomy from the evening before, A.P. Indy brought light to my eyes.

2. Smarty Jones

Smarty Jones started it all for me. While watching pre-race coverage for the Kentucky Derby, I heard the commentators talk about a horse who had almost died as a result of a head injury that had occurred in a starting gate incident. The horse’s name was Smarty Jones. I had found my horse to cheer for when the gates opened. I watched with my eyes glued to the television as Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby in the slop by nearly three lengths. Racing has enthralled me ever since.

The first time I saw Smarty Jones was on a tour of Three Chimneys Farm. The lovable chestnut stallion was in his paddock and walked eagerly up to the fence, gazing at his fans. Let’s just say I was frozen in place for a while. He was my favorite racehorse ever and he was just a few feet away from me, gazing at me with friendly, bright eyes.
The Wednesday before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, we visited Three Chimneys Farm for their open house. The first horse I saw when we walked into the stallion barn was none other than Smarty Jones. I knew this visit to Three Chimneys would be the last time I would see the beloved chestnut stallion, as he would be leaving for Pennsylvania soon. We looked at every stallion and took a stroll around, but I made sure I stayed near Smarty’s stall most of the time. My experience with Smarty Jones is one I’ll never forget.

1. Zenyatta
This could be several pages in and of itself, but I’ll try to shorten its length. In 2008, I discovered Zenyatta. I’d heard about her, but the first time I ever watched a race of hers was when she first won the Vanity Handicap (GI). When she stepped onto the track and the camera focused on her, I thought she was absolutely beautiful. She impressed me with her win that day, but when I really fell in love with her was when she won the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (GI) like “poetry in motion.” Zenyatta had cast her magical spell on me. I immediately became a huge Zenyatta fan.

She thrilled me with each and every win. Smarty Jones had always been my favorite racehorse, but Zenyatta easily passed him, though Smarty still resides as my second favorite. I remember very clearly watching Queen Z winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). At the beginning of the race, I was in a chair. By the end of the race, my face was just inches from the television screen while I was on the floor, my voice hoarse and my eyes full of tears of joy.
I followed (and still continue to follow) Zenyatta avidly. I’m fascinated by her.  My room is decorated with all things Zenyatta.
Considering it was the best day of my life, I will most definitely never forget the first time I ever saw her. I think all of us that have seen her in person can agree that it was a magical experience.
It was after nine in the morning on the Friday of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. Even if I didn’t see Zenyatta that day, it would be one of the greatest days of my life. I had just led a filly that Mr. and Mrs. Moss had bred onto the track at Churchill Downs. Then that filly’s trainer allowed my family and I to go wait for Zenyatta to come to the track.
We stood by a viewing stand near one of the gaps and I fixed my eyes on the barn I knew Zenyatta was in. There were hundreds of people around, most of them with cameras. All of a sudden, I saw something dark and imposing. I immediately knew it was her.
Then she stepped into my view. With Steve Willard aboard, Zenyatta marched towards me. I’m almost certain I was barely breathing. She grew closer and closer to me, each step of hers regal. Her expressive ears, filled with cotton, were pricked and her majestic eyes connected with mine. I suddenly knew what everyone meant when they said it felt magical if Zenyatta looked into your eyes. Before I knew it, Zenyatta was just a foot from me. I could have easily reached out and touched her, but I knew better.
We made our way up the steps into the viewing stand, my eyes remaining locked on her. The clicking of cameras was just background music as I watched Zenyatta in awe. As the great mare moved to the other side of the track, others chatted amongst themselves while she was out of view. I, however, followed the tan jacket Steve Willard was wearing. I can still picture watching the huge, magnificent mare rounding the clubhouse turn at an easy gallop.
Of course, I saw Zenyatta again the next evening. I held a sign for her and the crowd cheered wildly for her as she warmed up. As I waited for the starting gate to open, I felt more nervous than I ever have before. I can clearly remember screaming at the very top of my lungs as the horses came down the stretch. The ground was literally shaking. It was a heartbreaking evening for me, but I’m blessed to have witnessed her. I will never forget Zenyatta and the times I saw her in person.
To see a champion is to witness magic. A champion is no ordinary being. A champion is a hero. A champion is worth going through troubles to see. A champion will light up your eyes and bring a smile to your face.
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  1. Wowwwwwww, you've nailed it with this one.

  2. What a wonderful post!! Thank you for sharing your list of favorites with us. You have been very fortunate to have seen so many of them in person. Wow.