Songbird, with seven Grade 1 wins to her credit, is definitely a fan favorite. Thousands watched in person and millions watched via television on Halloween in 2015 as Songbird was escorted to the post by a flashy, workmanlike chestnut gelding before she obliterated the field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Every horse has a story. While Songbird's has played out over the past two years with the eyes of the horse racing world keenly set on her every move, her Breeders' Cup pony that day has an equally interesting, yet vastly different story to tell.
A former racehorse himself, Milord was no Songbird. In his two lifetime starts for owner Aikendale Farm (best-known as a Thoroughbred aftercare organization but also a working breeding and racing operation), the first under trainer Nick Zito and the second under Kathleen Ferron, he beat exactly one horse.
Milord was retired to Aikendale to find a career for which he was better suited. That's how owner and rider Heather Stark found him, but the two were actually meeting for the second time.
“I was an assistant for Nick Zito at Belmont Park in 2014 and had worked for him several years earlier also [as an exercise rider]. We needed a stable pony, so I looked up Aikendale Farm,” said Stark. “She told me she had a horse Nick used to train who had already stated learning to be a pony horse, and go figure, I had ridden this horse she was talking about when he was two and three years old.”
While Stark recalled thoroughly enjoying the horse when she galloped him each morning as a racehorse, it was in their second go-round together as a pony horse that she fell head-over-heels in love with him.
A lifelong rider, Stark learned to ride soon after she learned to walk, picking the hobby and interest in racing up from her father, who had galloped racehorses before being drafted into the military.
“I was the proper horse girl geek growing up, but I am so grateful to my parents for keeping horses in my life, and such wonderful ones at that. Before working on the track for the past 16 years as a rider and/or assistant trainer, I barrel raced and showed in other speed events. In five years I won 12 saddles, thanks to my horse, my dad, who taught me to ride, and our intuition.”
Through their days of work together put in at Belmont Park, Stark and Milord developed a strong bond. When it came time for Stark to move away from New York and leave her job with Zito, she couldn't imagine leaving Milord behind.
“When my fiancé and I planned to leave Mr. Zito to start our journey together in Lexington, I asked Nick if he would allow me to keep Milord, and he of course said yes since he could see our bond.”
Since their arrival in Lexington last year, Stark and Milord have wasted no time getting involved with not only the horse racing community, but the equestrian community as well. Stark landed a job with WinStar Farm as a rider, starting yearlings and galloping racehorses at their training division. Along with Milord, she also ponies at Keeneland during the race meets, which is how the two ended up taking Songbird to the post last year.
While many would want to do something other than ride for fun after riding for work all day every day, Stark thrives on it. Outside of their “day job,” Stark and Milord trail ride regularly, play a bit of polo locally, have competed up to 3' in the jumper divisions, have completed combined training events, have tried their hand at barrels and recently even attempted cattle work.
“I've always wanted to do sorting or team penning, so Milord and I went to a cattle clinic to sort cows,” said Stark. “I could see the worry in everyone's eyes when he freaked out seeing cows for the first time, but then he surprised every cowboy and little Quarter Horse out there with how agile and intelligent he really was.”
Stark and Milord plan to stay busy together in the coming year. Outside of using Milord at WinStar to help start yearlings and ponying seven or more races a day during the Keeneland spring and fall race meets, Stark would like to take him camping at some of the state parks around the region, move up to Novice or Training level in eventing and keep trying their hand at anything new that comes their way.
“It's so amazing to know how your horse thinks or reacts to certain things, and for him to trust me to get him through things,” said Stark. “To have a horse know the sound of your voice, to look for you when you come into the barn, to come galloping up to you in the field, that look he gives when you crinkle a peppermint wrapper – it's a bond we have together and that I love.”
Born: April 29, 2006
State Bred: NY
Dam: Lady d'Accord, by D'Accord
Sale History: none
Race Record: 2-0-0-0
Race Earnings: $255
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 equine, 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. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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