Briefing #1: On the Road With The People's Horse
This is Part One of a series of exclusive reports prepared for members of True Stables, Home of The People’s Horse, the first-ever campaign to crowdsource a racehorse.
Racehorses, we’ve learned, come in different colors and sizes—some with famous fathers and mothers, others with large spleens and hearts—along with a diverse and dizzying range of other criteria like the fraction ratios of left ventricles and the size of their spleens.
One quality they all share though is a kind of Great Unknown. Unlike modern pastimes that have their own predictors and guarantees, horses are our oldest athletes, and they do not come with their own clear, singular path towards success at the racetrack.
Feld picks out horses for a living, and has done so for the last several decades. He’s a talent scout for horses—what insiders call a pinhooker or bloodstocking agent. He’s picked and purchased thousands of horses over the years, followed their careers, and wound up with the pizza analogy.
“If I ask you what you like about pizza, you don’t say the cheese,” he said. “It’s a combination of everything. The cheese, the crust, the sauce…”
The Great Unknown is the racehorse owner’s dilemma—and the very crux of the racehorse owner’s addiction.
There are no easy answers or predictable paths. It is possible to follow the traditional and more costly route of buying into the bloodlines and pedigrees of horses that have performed well. Yet remember the hard lessons for many of Green Monkey, the most expensive ever horse ever sold at $16 million. This two-year old had the best of both bloodlines (Northern Dancer and Secretariat), and with every disappointing step, he showed that the pedigree of a horse is not that great a predictor (some of our sources claim even a poor predictor) of performance.
Consider the criteria. Pedigree. Conformation like bone structure, muscle tone, look in the eyes, size of the heart, strength of the heart, size of the trachea, nasal passages, gallop type. Despite these variables that can be recorded and analyzed, there is not any way nor is it likely that there will be any way to predict the desire of a horse to win. This crucial ingredient, the experts told us, will remain nature’s secret.
On a deeper level, horses are like gates we try and unlock, channeling their mysterious powers.
“It’s like I’m driving a Mack truck with the speed of a Porsche and the brain of a rocket scientist,” Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey, said after a winning the Breeders’ Cup on top of a horse named Beholder.
Beholder was Bob Feld’s horse. Long before that race, after inspecting her conformation, pedigree and demeanor at a yearling auction, Feld advised one of his clients to make a bid on Beholder. The competition was not fierce, and the horse sold for $180,000, a modest sum considering yearlings can fetch higher prices. Beholder turned out to be a fierce competitor with nearly $5 million in career winnings—a pizza that had all the right ingredients.
We had arrived in Saratoga Springs just like many racehorses themselves, strained from an arduous Triple Crown season.
Once you’ve made the trek, it’s clear why so many experts consider the Triple Crown the hardest achievement in sports. Even with our plastic mascot, our horse totem scrawled with the horse names of so many of our members and the symbol of our campaign, the logistics of travel, road time, and countless factors beyond our control—wind, rain, sickness, sore muscles, sore hoofs—factor into the epic grind for horses and their trainers, grooms, and the owners that follow them through the circuit.
We started our journey with many of you down at the True Racing Lounge, our original HQ in downtown Manhattan where we launched the campaign and hosted several bacchanalian parties. Then we left for Sugar Maple Farm, a picturesque estate that contains a serious foaling and breeding operation sprinkled throughout its 460-acres of rolling pastures, white picket fences and mansion (complete with natatorium and indoor basketball court.)
Sugar Maple has become a friendly farm to us, thanks to Dan Hayden, head of operations and early member of our stable. Hayden has spent his life around horses, first riding them in his native Ireland as a jockey and later entering the foaling and breeding business here in the States. He studied under John Nerud, one the most famous horse racing trainers over the past century. Last year, Nerud died at age 102.
The story of horses and their trainers, we’ve learned, is also a tale about our relationship with our oldest companions and a hidden part of American history.
Nerud was such a legend in the horse business he started out as a rodeo clown. Growing up in the Dust Bowl in Minatare, a town in rural Nebraska so small less than a thousand people live there today, Nerud followed horses around the world, working as a groom and doing odd jobs at barns. The toil paid off, and Nerud soon had his own barn. Early on, one talent he trained was Gallant Man, an Irish horse that challenged some of the century’s best horses in the late 1950’s like Bold Ruler and Round Table. Perhaps Gallant Man’s most famous race was the 1957 Kentucky Derby, when legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line, stood up in his irons early to celebrate, and let another horse steal the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Nerud never liked Churchill Downs. After the boondoggle he never entered a horse in the Kentucky Derby again.
“Too early in the season,” he said. “You kill more horses going to the Derby than any race in America.”
In the horse world, all roads lead to Churchill Downs, the legendary racetrack and home of the Kentucky Derby, America’s greatest race.
The horses are transported from farms all across the country and descend on Louisville, some by plane but most by Pullman trailers that are specifically built and retrofitted to ship horses.
After joining other horse industry veterans and becoming a member of our People’s Horse campaign, Dan Hayden introduced us to Marcy Roberts, who coordinates horse transport around the world for Morrissey Horse Pullmans in Pawling, New York, and close to Sugar Maple.
“The People’s Horse?” she asked at first. After hearing our plans to build the first-ever collective racing stable, and our struggles to get to Kentucky, she offered us a complimentary berth on her next truck from New York to Lexington. In Lexington, our plastic mascot would be transferred onto another Pullman bound for Louisville.
“We’ll have to cover his head,” she said. “Maybe we can put a bag over it.”
Horses are notoriously temperamental, and Marci worried about the other live horses in the Pullman getting spooked by our mascot, who’d be making the trip as silent as a statue. Without making eye contact, she felt, the other horses would feel safe. So we said farewell—you can see the video below—and left for Louisville, learning the right way to pronounce the horse mecca in the process: Loo-A-Vul.
We discovered that the history of the nation’s racetracks and the eccentric dreamers that built them is a tale of grit and hucksterism in equal parts.
The Spa in Saratoga, for instance, was the brainchild of John Morrisey, the bare knuckle boxing champion from upstate New York (chronicled here).
Pimlico Racetrack, home of the Preakness in Baltimore, is said to have been built after a dinner party conversation in Saratoga and run by a playboy Vanderbilt at age 20. Churchill Downs was the work of Lutie, the nickname given to Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark, the former governor of Missouri and explorer who along with Captain Meriwether Lewis was famously commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to explore the West.
Like the bloodlines of horses go back to colonial England and farther, the history of racetracks and racing families also has its own pedigree. In the 1870’s, as the nation was embroiled in Civil War, Lutie Clark had traveled to England and France. Impressed by the horse races there and the spectacle of the tracks like the recently opened Longchamp, Clark and backers from Louisville’s elite set out with a plan to build Churchill Downs and hold the Kentucky Derby, a seminal race to match the best horses from local breeders and around the country against each other.
The grandeur of those old top hat days at Church Hill Downs has faded.
The track and its twin spires are still iconic, but they’re currently surrounded by a mix of parking lots, freeway traffic and decayed strip malls.
We set off to reclaim our own plastic horse and symbol of our campaign from the pullman. While many racehorses are housed in the barns of trainers, the Derby was the most popular racing weekend of the year, with over 200,000 fans en route, and all the stalls in all the barns were full. We called around, desperate to find a friendly trainer with an open (and complimentary) barn.
“Let me see what I can do,” said Steve Margolis, a leading trainer from New York who migrated to Kentucky.
When we arrived on the backstretch, flashing our press credentials to the security guard who waved us through, our mascot had already been dropped off. There he stood in front of Margolis’s barn like an orphaned child, passed by the stakes horses clopping their way around the big names this year like Nyquist and Exaggerator.
With close cropped hair and quilted vest, Margolis arrived, surveying the grounds for a solution. There was no room: all barns and supply closets were full. Inside his office, next to his filing cabinets and in front of a television monitor linked up to the track, we racked our brains. We then discovered the office itself was large enough to keep the horse. We angled our guy in through the doorway and left to ask the backstretch manager about a better home.
The backstretch office was a trailer with noisy air conditioners.
“Can I see your credential?” the manager said, his arm outstretched.
I removed the badge from across my neck.
“Thank you,” he said, snatching it and asking us to leave the grounds.
It only took twenty minutes for us to get kicked out of the Kentucky Derby.
“What the hell are you thinking bringing a plastic horse on to the backstretch of Churchill Downs?” the press director fumed.
The horse was symbolic, we said, for The People’s Horse campaign.
“What’s the People’s Horse?” he said.
After we explained the project, he rocked back in his chair, reached into his desk and returned our credentials.
“Let me know earlier next time and we’ll set you and that horse up in the infield,” he said.
The summer was like that, transporting our mascot horse to the leading tracks in the country, making new friends, learning more about racehorses, and signing up fresh recruits.
After his stay in Steve Margolis’s office, The People’s Horse spent the night in a store next to Wagner’s Pharmacy, the legendary greasy spoon and depot for horse medications. After the Derby, he boarded another Pullman and spent the night at Newtown Station, a horse motel or “equine layover facility.” The following day, he boarded another Pullman back to New York, and was dropped off at the home of Marcy Brennen, another of our allies and owner of Clover Hill Farm upstate, who returned the mascot down to the Racing Lounge in her personal trailer.
A transition period followed: two weeks inside a Lower East Side apartment complex; four days inside a facility closet at the Preakness; ten days inside a wine store in Long Island City; two nights in a hospitality tent in the backyard at the Belmont; and then onto The Horseshoe Inn back in Saratoga, lording over the historic bar from the balcony.
Now, he’s taken up new residence at Man on Kent, the British-style tavern and pub in upstate New York that has been voted among the best bars in America. Here we are around midnight in the photo below, as the fog crept in under the clouds with some new friends.
“There’s no feeling in the world like having a horse you know run in a race,” Jonathan Bombard, the owner of Man on Kent and horse owner, told us. “The People’s Horse is welcome here because this way, everyone can have a part and get a chance to have that feeling.”
Now, the next phase of our campaign begins in earnest. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll be reporting live from the heart of horse country in Lexington, Kentucky.