Friday, July 26, 2013

fly away Kentucky babe, fly away to rest...

The workshop I am attending is not a play event. We start very early and run almost without pause until evening.

But once again, I have a two hour window. Updates for Kentucky, for instance, are of little interest to me. Lunch, too, I can ignore. So, where to spend two free hours, smack in the middle of the morning?

Oh, I have no doubt about what I want to do. Visit Old Friends. (Disclosure: much of the info in this post comes from people who work with old and broken thoroughbreds.)

Because I wonder if you know this about thoroughbred racing: after the horse is past his (usually his, but sometimes her) winning years (those years pass very early -- for instance, the Kentucky Derby is a race for three year olds), after he provides stud services and sires the next generation of winners for great sums of money -- what do you think happens to those champions?

The answer is -- typically, nothing good. The owner or trainer does not want the horse. They want the next batch to work with. The value of a horse may drop from several million to zero. And so oftentimes they are sold to countries that love horse meat (I'm told Mexico, Canada and Japan are big buyers), or they're auctioned off on kill trucks.

So you ask -- why not give them an afterlife of pleasure riding? The answer is -- because they're ill suited for it. They're temperamental, brassy, dangerous and hard to work with. I'm told -- a stallion will turn you around if you try to ride him. They are bred to run, worked by experts. (In the US they are bred to sprint and run fast, in England they're bred to run tough tracks over long distances.)

Here's a description of Old Friends: (from the website) Founded in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen, Old Friends now cares for more than 130 horses across three states, most of them stallions whose racing and breeding careers came to an end. Most of these horses are here, in Lexington. And you can visit them. And these are the horses I want to see up close and personal. Forget the tours of the hallowed halls were the million dollar babies spend their time. I want to see the hasbeens.

Old Friends is a horse rescue, though it doesn't call itself that, because some of the horses here are sponsored (say by a wealthy person who feels compassion to an animal they've watched in the races). But most are not. And so when you visit, they virtually beg for donations. It costs close to $9000 a year to feed an animal here.

The visitor's center is no great mansion behind closed gates. It's a tiny yellow house at the side of the road.

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A small group gathers for a morning walk through the fields. One or two racing enthusiasts who know the racing history inside out and a handful of novices like me, who want to feed a carrot to an animal who was rescued off a kill truck.

Give them some time now, Ocean, readers -- the horses of the past:

Here's Sarava (he wears a fly mask -- some reject these, but most are grateful for them) -- the 2002 Belmont Stakes winner.

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Afternoon Deelites was a California racer, once valued $1.2 million. And now he's here, at Old Friends, because no one wants him anymore.

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Clever Allemont is the oldest, blindest one here (31 years). Once a winner of the Southwest Rebel Stakes, soon abandoned on a kill truck at an auction in Kansas, rescued and brought here.

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Ogygian, the most famous son of Damascus, once earned $40 million for his farm, but this is irrelevant now. He was sent to Japan, where he performed stud services. When he ceased to sire, someone found him and sponsored his return here, to Old Friends. He's missing his left eye now, but he's thriving.

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I am told that there are good farms and bad farms, good owners and bad owners. When Arson Squad was injured in a training accident, his owners paid for surgeries that put 2 rods and 28 pins into him so that he could live. He has now been adopted by a branch of the Lexington Fire department so his future here is secure.

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Here's a horse with a bad attitude -- Dan the Blue Grass Man. But Dan loved his carrots. So he got a lot out of us. (FYI, Secretariat is his grandfather.)

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I'm told Creator is the most aggressive stallion here (and BTW, the mares are kept many paddocks away from the guys). He was born in England and he was one winning horse in Paris. When we learn that he was once owned by a Sheikh, the question comes up -- why doesn't the Sheikh contribute to his upkeep here? The same answer --  many owners are heavily invested in other horses. The hasbeens are, to them, irrelevant. And so, after stud duty in Asia, Creator was without a home. He was the first to be brought back across an ocean to retire here.

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There is a cemetery at Old Friends for horses that die on the premises. Most are cremated, though that in itself is expensive. When I ask what the alternative is, the Old Friends worker shrugs his shoulders.

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We walk over to say hello to the tattoo horse. That's not his real name. I don't know what his real name is. But he likes company, he likes carrots and he knows that if he shows off his teeth, which apparently have a mark that looks like a tattoo, he'll produce a reaction.

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I'll leave you with the most popular horse here (he has the most sponsors): Sunshine Forever. Once valued at some $20 million, he's valued now for just being himself here, at Old Friends.

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I have a little time left after this visit. I need a change of pace. There is a chocolate shop just south of Lexington and I'm ready for something sweet and gentle. Like Kentucky bourbon truffles. From Old Kentucky Chocolates.

The shop is not much of a looker -- in a strip mall and, too, the chocolate shop sells junk over and beyond the candy. But the bourbon truffles are fresh and delicious and the sweet old ladies selling them encourage you to try pretty much anything and everything and so it is a trip worth making.

Though even here, you're not far from the world of horses. Stamped onto chocolates. Or, standing in its chocolate covered glory at the back of the shop.

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After, I meander on the back roads to the hotel for the afternoon sessions of my workshop. The lanes are narrow and they pass by some of the more famous stables in Lexington. Lane's End for example. The one visited by Queen Elizabeth and President George Bush (the owner of the farm was, in fact, appointed Ambassador to Great Britain by President Bush)...

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I do one more horse pause along this road.  I'm drawn to these guys because they stand close to the fence, as if paying attention to the occasional car that goes by.  I get out and approach tentatively. To pat a champ, a still-in-his prime champ? Why not. I go up to the horse who is most insistent and clamoring for my attention. A hog, that's for sure. But a splendid, beautiful animal, so I oblige.

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The halter tells me his name. Thoroughbreds sport their names for the world to see.

Well now, isn't that rather incredible? My good-bye horse: "Well Traveled."

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I google him later. He's She's a filly, actually. Four year old. Sired by Perfect Soul (Stakes winner of $1.5 million, he then sired a total of 392 foals), with Classic Slew as her dam (who, in turn, has Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew as her dam). On the sire's side, I note that Secretariat is in the bloodline. Though you have to remember that a dam producing winners would be more impressive, since she can only, at most, give us one foal per year; Secretariat, by comparison, sired 453 foals). How about Well Traveled's racing career? Came in second last year (out of four starts, with two of the races ending in a third). So not a huge money maker. I know how that goes: great potential, barely realized. May you retire happy, Well Traveled. I intend to, I hope you do too...

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In the evening I drive down to Lexington for supper.

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There is a gastro pub downtown (perhaps more than one, but I only know of one) called the Village Idiot and if ever a name appealed to me -- this one has it. And, too, gastro pubs across America promise a contemporary twist on food. So if you crave vegetables, as I do today, a gastro pub may be the answer for you.

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And it has the good salad and its take on (Kentucky?) fried chicken is more like chicken that is breaded and sauteed. All good.

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Though I offer this advice to the restauranteurs of this new Lexington eatery: consider cutting the portions. Just consider it. Think about the implications. Because I'm feeling too guilty from leaving behind good food and so I eat it, then walk away unhappy (for having eaten it all).

They took it under advisement.

sky of blue, sea of green

Well, the eating has plummeted for me here, in Lexington Kentucky. Hotel conference food is the same in all parts of the country so perhaps I shouldn't blame Lexington Kentucky, but, instead, the Marriot. So let me rephrase that: it is remarkable how unhealthy Marriot hotel conference food is. Breakfast at least had bits of melon adorning the platefuls of sweet cinnamon rolls. Lunch is a white bread salami sandwich, with macaroni salad, potato chips and cookies. And because you're sedentary all day, of course, your hunger disproportionately soars. As if you swam the English Channel. You deserve it! Entitled to eat by virtue of sitting in a conference chair without interruption. Bring it on! Any snacks between sessions? Yes? Pretzels you say? Let's see how many I can eat while pounding out a page of notes on my computer!

Between 11:30 and 1, there is a pause for me. The material is beyond the scope of what I could possibly find useful, and it's followed by a general break.

So, horse time, no?

A few phone calls reveal the bleak truth: no public tours are offered until the afternoon -- that's no good for me. The sessions are packed with important stuff then. And here's the other obstacle: the farms are far for a person who has to rely on her feet or on cabs. The lovely tourist office staff does some calculations for me and comes up with a shocking total were I to cab my way to horses.

So I call back Enterprise and have a "what if" conversation with them: if you can let me have a car for $35 tomorrow, and you have cars available today, what if we pretend that tomorrow is today? And since you're not too far, why not pick me up at the hotel? And then drop me off at the airport on Saturday? True, it's lousy to negotiate when, in fact, you want something that they have and they know it, but for some reason the manager relents and so I find myself at noon, zipping around in a little Chevy, pausing here and there to take in the beauty of the green blue grass countryside.

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I can't quite get beyond the big gates that lead to the farms -- you need an afternoon (and an appointment) for that. But at least I get a feel for life here, among the thoroughbreds.

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I have to say, it feels odd to be in a place that focuses so much attention on only one animal. It's as if we could not stop pushing the cow back in Wisconsin. Cow everything. Famous cow hoof prints on plaques for conference presenters. Paintings of cows in every hotel room, cows in the hallway, cows in the elevators. Cow shaped cookies, cow monuments, cow mailboxes. Cows, everywhere cows. Like that, only substitute a spotted Bessy with a thoroughbred filly.

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But it's all oddly beautiful, too. True, these horses are not what you'd find at the animal pound. Royalty travels to Lexington to walk among these majestic animals in their beautiful stalls. The gates to the horse farms are works of art. And acre upon acre of land, devoted to paddock.  Remarkable.

Even as it is all rather inaccessible. Gates, fences -- to keep horses in and a curious public out (though most places welcome prearranged visits). It's not as if you can hike through the Kentucky horse farms. This land is not my land.

But it is gorgeous stuff to drive through. For an hour or so, I stop and get out of the car often enough to frustrate most anyone driving behind me.

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And then I'm back at the conference and the day stumbles along and I can't resist the potato chips and the free chocolates lying around at all the tables of financial services sales reps who always show up at these kinds of workshops (they don't so much bother with academic conferences; no one buys anything at academic conferences).

In the evening, now that I have the car, I decide to keep the theme of the the horses in place. Rather than go downtown for dinner, I head out deeper into the countryside. There's a place called the Windy Corner Market that claims a great commitment to Kentucky foods.

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In the early evening, you put in your order at the counter and with great speed and alacrity your food is delivered to your table. What food? Well, Kentucky food, I guess. I order their Kentucky Po'boy (we are not that far from the Gulf states), which is stuffed with pulled pork, fried pickles, bourbon barrel cheese, red onion and a "special sauce." I know, I know: where have all my beloved summer vegetables disappeared to? I do get a side of lettuce and another side of corn and beans, but that hardly counts!

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The place is crowded and the food is really good, even if I haven't eaten pork in maybe ten years and I feel today has been one huge nutritional calamity.

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And here is my other troubling reality:  I want to walk into this land around me, but that's not an easy here among the blue grass hills of eastern Kentucky. So that an after dinner trek (I MUST move, I MUST!) has to be along a road. I pick a fairly narrow, quiet lane, but I cannot escape the occasional roar of the truck. Or the BMW convertible. Really.

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...Because there is a lot of wealth in the horses here. This is no small time operation.

Horses on signposts, horses on license plates, horses horses...

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And again, the flip side is that it's a beautiful countryside, this land of the blue grasses, neatly trimmed for the bay toned slender mares and stallions grazing there.

In a lesser paddock (you can tell), I watch a horse off to the side. Let me call her Loner -- she is in fact without a companion. I have this habit here of humming Kentucky Babe everywhere I walk and she hears me.

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She moves tentatively. I know better than to reach out to these hot-blooded animals. Every horse farm that permits tour visits warns not to go near the animals. But Loner looks like she's a passed over horse. Somehow left to her own devices. Maybe her days were glorious once. Maybe her history is less noble.

She has a sharp gaze though and as she comes to the fence, her eyes follow my every move.

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She allows herself to be nuzzled, then she changes her mind, then she comes back for more.


This continues for a while and as I stand and wait, humming all the while, I think -- someone really does love these horses. For the money they bring, yes, sure, but also for their splendidness.


I walk away as Loner watches still, not bothered by my coming or going.

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I get in my little white Chevy and head back to the conference hotel where I pop open a Kentucky Ale and sit down to write.