When California trainer Kristin Mulhall made a weekly trip to her local feed store to pick up hay for her string of racehorses, she used to pass by a pen of 27 baby turkeys. She grew accustomed to seeing one bird standing out from the rest, looking for attention. Each Saturday, she'd stop and play with the turkey until one weekend, the friendly turkey was the only one left in the pen. Mulhall hated the idea her little feed store friend would soon become someone's dinner, so she named the bird Hercules and loaded it up in her truck.
And that is how one ends up with a ‘barn turkey' at Santa Anita Park.
Seven months later, Mulhall discovered Hercules was, in fact, female when the bird laid a large brown speckled egg in the shedrow. (There are no immediate plans to change the bird's epic name to ‘Herculeah' or similar.)
Other than that initial miscommunication, Hercules and Mulhall seem to understand each other just fine. Hercules has adapted well to life as a barn turkey, rising to supervise/participate in soundness jogs first thing in the morning and settling for a midday nap under horses' haynets or inside their stalls after they have cooled out.
“All the horses love her,” said Mulhall. “They don't bother her at all.”
Hercules accepts nuzzles from whichever horse she's napping next to and horses gently sniff at her with interest. On post-Breeders' Cup Sunday, her bunk buddy was Mulhall trainee Black Tie ‘n Tails. She waited for the gelding to pull several strands out of his haynet and made a comfortable nest underneath, ignoring stems he continued to drop on her head as she dozed.
The resident barn cat and barn goat have welcomed Hercules to the string with no animosity, although a rooster from a neighboring barn was decidedly less pleased to see her. He occasionally came by to instigate feather-plucking arguments with Hercules and chased Mulhall out of the barn aisle with his spurs one day when she tried to shoo him home. Luckily, he eventually found a new home at a nearby farm with one of Mulhall's exercise riders.
As part of her duties as a barn turkey, Hercules seems to understand she has a responsibility to stay in the barn area. She made the journey to Del Mar this summer in a cat carrier (she was much smaller then) and adjusted to life in the new shedrow quickly. Now she's bigger, Mulhall said Hercules often waits for the racehorses to go down for their afternoon naps and settles in the stalls with them.
“Half the time we can't find her in the afternoon,” said Mulhall, who often discovers the bird in a stall. “It scares the crap out of me, because I'm always afraid she's going to get stepped on when they get up.”
So far, so good. Hercules doesn't seem to have a favorite horse, but there is one horse in the barn who is a big fan of hers. Mulhall had gotten one of her fillies a goat to settle her nerves in the stall, but the plan backfired when the horse attacked the goat instead. (The goat, she said, was rescued before any serious damage was done and is none the worse for wear.) Hercules strutted in one day before anyone could stop her, and the filly took to the bird instantly.
“She's kind of spoiled,” said Mulhall. “She loves little kids. If she sees a little kid, she'll get up and follow them all around. She goes right to their feet and just stand there, like she thinks she's protecting them.
“They say turkeys make really good watch birds, like guard dogs, almost. They get to know everybody in the barn, and then they chase everybody else out.”
Whether Hercules takes on the security guard role for the barn remains to be seen, but for now she's pulling her weight as a calming influence. And, Mulhall added, those eggs are pretty good, too.
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