Many people can pinpoint a single event, person or experience that changed their life forever. For Kate Hunter, a horse named Silver Charm changed the trajectory of her life and took her on a journey around the world to follow her dream.
Growing up in Nashville, Tenn., Kate had always loved animals. Along with the rest of the country, she watched as Silver Charm crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was heartbroken when he lost the Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length in the Belmont.
Barely a teenager at the time, Kate followed the steel gray freight train of a Thoroughbred throughout his career — celebrating when he won and feeling the sting of defeat when he lost. When Silver Charm retired to Three Chimneys, she planned to one day make the trip north to Kentucky to see him, but little did she know the opportunity would not last.
“When it was announced that he was being relocated overseas, my reaction was 'I guess it's time to learn about Japanese horse racing,'” said Kate.
Kate had developed interest in Japanese culture before Silver Charm set foot on their soil. While babysitting as a child, she had seen episodes of a cartoon called Sailor Moon, a Japanese anime series broadcast in America. The series only lasted a few seasons in U. S. but was much more popular in its native country, and through enough research, Kate eventually found someone who sold the full series on laserdisc in Japanese with English subtitles. Her father was kind enough to purchase it for her.
“I loved hearing the language and it made me want to learn more and more about the country and its culture. Japanese wasn't offered at my high school, so I self-taught myself until my senior year, when I took three months of private lessons and went onto major in Japanese in college,” said Kate.
Silver Charm's move to Japan only intensified her interest in the country.
A budding writer, photographer and horse racing buff, Kate moved to Japan in 2008 and worked as a freelance photographer and writer, covering Japanese horse racing for American outlets. Soon after relocating oversees, she made time to visit the horse who started it all for her.
“I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him. Between the cartoon Sailor Moon and Silver Charm, I guess I've pretty much based my life around what I was interested in in middle school,” she said with a laugh. “It's worked out pretty well for me, though.”
Over the years, Kate has earned a reputation as the go-to writer and photographer for American media covering Japanese horse racing including the Paulick Report, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Daily News and California Thoroughbred Magazine. In 2013, she was hired as communications manager at Paca Paca Farm, one of Japan's leading racing stables.
Though her role in the Japanese Thoroughbred industry has evolved since her arrival in the country, her love and loyalty to Silver Charm has never waned. More than just her favorite racehorse, he was one of her strongest touchstones of familiarity to America in a country foreign to them both.
“I would take a few days off every year to see him in Hokkaido. It was an hour train ride, an hour and a half flight, and another two hour train ride to get there from my house, but it was worth it,” said Kate. “They gave me incredible access to him and allowed me to spend a lot of time with him and document his days. I'd post photos and updates on my blog and share them with Three Chimneys so they could communicate them to his fans. I got to know the staff and grooms at the JBBA that cared for him and his stablemates. They are great people and absolutely loved him.”
When it was announced in 2014 that Silver Charm would be returning to America, Kate was conflicted. Having communicated with so many of his American fans for so long, she knew what his homecoming would mean for so many, not to mention the good will it would create among American racing fans whose first impressions of the Japanese Thoroughbred industry were heartbreaking stories of Ferdinand's demise.
During Silver Charm's time in Japan, Kate became the unofficial spokesperson for not only the horse, but Thoroughbred care at the racetracks, breeding farms and aftercare. With fluency in Japanese and connections in both country's racing and breeding industries, she answered questions, shared stories, and wove her words together with her pictures to offer an insider's view of Japan's horse industry, helping to dispel rumors, correct information and educate racing fans in America and around the world about the care Thoroughbreds receive in Japan.
“Thoroughbreds are loved in Japan just as much as they are anywhere else in the world,” said Kate. “Owners and trainers try hard to find second homes for their horses. As in America, it is hard to guarantee a happy ending, but they try just as hard [in Japan] as they do in the U.S.”
She was heartbroken, however, that a horse who had become not only her hero but a friend would be leaving her forever.
“During my time in Japan, my yearly visits were so important,” said Kate. “After the death of my father, Silver Charm was who I wanted to see. I felt closer to my father sitting next to him. You can say anything to an animal and they will listen without judgment. Charm knows more about me than any other living being on this planet. I'm pretty sure my secrets are safe though!”
The team at the JBBA invited Kate to visit Silver Charm one last time before his departure. She told the horse how much he meant to her, how much he had changed her life, and how important and special he was to so many. She also promised him that they would meet again someday.
Nearly one year to the day, the two met again. Kate, who was visiting family and friends in her native country for the first time in four years and attending the Breeders' Cup and November breeding stock sales in Lexington, made the drive to Georgetown to visit Old Friends.
Greeted by Old Friends President Michael Blowen with hugs and the gift of a bracelet for all she'd done for the horse, Kate was given a bucket of carrots and whisked down to Silver Charm's paddock for their long-awaited reunion. Just like he used to, when he realized who was standing at the fence, he came running.
“It was amazing to see him today. He looked so healthy and happy. Obviously Kentucky agrees with him,” said Kate. “Every time I see him feels like the first time. I am in awe. He is the love of my life, plain and simple.”
The two spent time catching up, with Kate remembering all of the spots he liked having scratched, and Silver Charm recalling how much he enjoys getting the attention from Kate. Even Blowen commented that the horse acted differently toward Kate than he'd seen him act with anyone else. It was like watching two friends catch up.
“It is so good to see how he is going to live for the rest of his life. He looks so good and has so many fans. Hearing Michael talk about Silver Charm's daily life made me so happy,” said Kate.
“I'll be back to see him again. I need to not go so long between visits to the States to see my family and friends, and now to see Silver Charm too,” said Kate. “I feel so grateful that I am not the only one that feels the way I do about him and that he can live out the rest of his life surrounded by people who love him.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of Thoroughbred racing, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others, and she is the go-to food source for two dogs and one off-track Thoroughbred.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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