The best teachers are those whose lessons not only stick, they last a lifetime. They have wisdom to share and they convey it in a way that's easy to receive, often simplifying what might otherwise be complicated or overwhelming.
For former polo player and current CEO of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Eric Hamelback, some of his greatest lessons on both polo and life came from a little bay gelding named Remington.
It was while in high school that Hamelback, a former football player, picked up a polo mallet for the first time, thanks to a cousin in his native Louisiana who was an avid player. He played off and on through college and later when he moved to Kentucky after graduation.
“It was when I was the yearling manager at Prestonwood Farm [now WinStar Farm] that I picked polo back up as a hobby, thanks to [veterinarian and polo player] Bill Baker and his friend, Hilary Boone, who were both quite active in the Lexington polo scene,” said Hamelback. “Once I got to start playing regularly, I fell in love with the sport and the competition of it. As an ex-football player, I like the contact and the speed.”
At the time, Prestonwood Farm had a training center in Texas where Michelle Dumas was resident veterinarian for the facility. It was her husband, a professional horse hauler who often shipped polo ponies to and from matches, who originally found Remington.
“Remington was playing for a professional polo player in Texas, but at 13 years old he was losing a step speed-wise. I was making trips down to Texas to take yearlings to the training center that fall and mentioned to him that I was looking to purchase a polo pony with some experience, and he connected me with Remington,” said Hamelback.
Remington knew his job as a polo pony and had much to offer as a teacher. While he was old enough to have his silliness and high-strung antics behind him, he was still keen to show all comers that he was faster to the ball, quicker to turn and all-around better than his competitors…and in their first few matches together, sometimes even his rider.
“That horse probably taught me more about the game of polo than any human ever has,” said Hamelback. “He was truly a student of the game, to the point that he understood the line and direction of the ball. He threw me more times than any yearling I've ever broke because he followed the ball, regardless of whether I was ready. If I made a back shot (hitting the ball behind you in the opposite direction), Remington immediately turned 180-degrees on a dime to follow the ball, and there were a few times I was left hanging in the air while he chased down the ball.”
The same competitive streak that made Remington a remarkable polo pony and nearly put Hamelback in the running of one of the High Hope Steeplechase races.
“The Lexington Polo Club used to volunteer as outriders for the High Hope Steeplechase. When he wasn't playing, Remington was Mr. Cool and Collected – nothing ever seemed to shake him – so I thought he'd be great for helping at the High Hope,” said Hamelback, laughing as he was about to recount what happened next.
“I'll tell you what, those horses broke at the start and you'd think Remington was in the race with them. He took off like a shot and it was all I could do to hold him. He was so into the competition of it that he wasn't about to let a horse beat him. Here I am an outrider nearly getting run off with my own horse!”
Most polo players have a string of horses to swap out from one chucker or match to another, and while other horses came and went, Hamelback always revered Remington as his prized mount, so much so that in the spirit of his first and favorite horse's name, he gave every one of his polo ponies thereafter a gun-related name, including the likes of Beretta and Shot Gun Annie.
It was in 2005, when Hamelback sustained a serious shoulder injury, that Remington's polo career came to an unscheduled end. Estimated to be approaching his 20s at the time, Remington retired to Adena Springs Farm, where Hamelback was then working as the general manager. While he was still sound and happy to be ridden, even in his twilight years he was not a horse for a beginner.
“[My wife] Debra and I would go trail riding here and there and I'd hop on Remington, but he never liked to be second to another horse,” said Hamelback. “Let's just say he wasn't the horse we had our kids learn to ride on.”
While Remington still has the remnants of a tattoo, Hamelback regrets that he doesn't know what his registered name is or what he did before playing polo.
Thanks to attentive care throughout the years, Remington is still happy and healthy at approximately 34 years of age (judging by the somewhat legible “M” at the beginning of his tattoo). He resides at the farm of neurologist and artist Regina Raab, MD at her Paris, Ky., farm, just a few minutes' drive from the Hamelbacks' home. Raab has even featured Remington in several portraits she painted and displayed in her Gallery St. George, one of which shows him in his heyday carrying Hamelback across the polo field.
“One of our friends, Jodi Findley, who used to board him for us, started him on the Purina Senior feed, which includes a fat supplement called Amplify. He thrives on that,” said Hamelback. “Remington always lets you know when it's time to eat, but at this point he doesn't have many teeth left, so Regina suggested using a feed bag on him. It fits kind of like a muzzle, and helps him to not drop most of his feed on the ground. When he's done, she takes it off and he goes back to grazing.”
As the head of the National HBPA, Hamelback spends much of his professional time attending to the needs of trainers, backside workers and horsemen. He's also active and vocal about issues related to Thoroughbred aftercare. While his dedication to the industry's athletes both during and after their racing careers can largely be credited to his background in both the business of Thoroughbreds and as an equestrian, he says it's also thanks to his decades-long relationship with Remington.
“Remington most definitely influences my perspective on aftercare. So often I've seen 3- and 4-year-olds coming off the track that I thought 'he'd be a beautiful dressage horse,' or 'she's built like the perfect polo pony.' When it's a gelding, it's a lot easier to steer them in that direction than when it's a well-bred mare, but it's long been important to me to help in that way when I can,” said Hamelback. “The most famous horse that I'm listed as the breeder of was an Alphabet Soup filly. She didn't pan out as a racehorse, but she became a tremendous polo pony for a 10-goal player, and I take great pride in that.
“The horse that taught me more than any other was a horse I never met until he was 13 and well into his second career. He was far past his racing days, but still had so much to offer. His story is far from unique in that respect. These horses have so much to offer when their racing careers are done.”
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. She is the go-to food source for a dog, 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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