Sometime early in Kentucky Derby week, Keith Desormeaux assistant and longtime partner Julie Clark acquired a very persistent fan.
A friendly brown tabby showed up in the barn where My Boy Jack and several other Desormeaux shippers have been stabled, toward the Longfield Ave side of the barn complex. The cat (Clark wasn't sure if it was male or female) began following her everywhere as she saddled and hot-walked horses, and even jumped into her car one morning when she left during a training break to grab some Starbucks. She took the cat with her and dropped it back off in the shedrow, much to its delight.
“I have to admit, I'm not really a cat person,” she said. “My grandmother had a mean one, and every time you pet one, they bite you or scratch you. This one, I don't know, it's really endearing.”
Clark wanted to know the name of her little shadow, so on the first day it arrived she took a look at the leather collar around the cat's neck. The only identifying information was a name plate with the name of Churchill trainer Ian Wilkes and a phone number. Of course, the purpose of the collar was to let people know which barn the cat belonged in, but it made Clark giggle. She began calling the creature “Ian Wilkes.”
“Then it got to be a joke because I'd text [Daily Racing Form photographer Barbara Livingston] and say, ‘Come see my cat!' because she's such a cat person,” Clark said. “She'd come over here, and it would disappear. She'd leave and he'd be right back. So every time she'd walk away I'd take a little video and say, ‘Ian Wilkes is here!' It got to be a big joke.
“It has a ton of personality. It's hysterical. It loves to hunt, and it loves attention, but it will claw its way up your leg to see you. One guy was coming around the wall [around the shedrow] and says, ‘I think I have something that belongs to you.' I'm wondering what he's talking about, and he comes around with the cat totally wrapped around his leg from the knee down.”
Over at the Wilkes barn, across the path and two buildings down, exercise rider Karen Salisbury said she had no idea one of the barn's two resident mousers had become so popular.
“I know he hangs out at Neil Howard's barn,” she said. “They'll go over there and catch five mice a day.”
Salisbury suspects the cat visiting Clark is Rikki, who is nearly identical to sister Lucy, but much more prone to wandering. Lucy confines her mousing activity to the area immediately around the Wilkes barn, but Rikki is more adventurous and social. Rikki is the lover, and Lucy is the princess of the pair.
It's Salisbury's number on the cats' collars, as she is the recognized cat wrangler for the stable. She has coordinated the feeding, care, and transport of Lucy and Rikki from one track to another for several years now.
“As soon as I get here in the morning, they're right here. I write the board [showing training sets] and it's like I can't move or do anything until I feed them because they're right under my feet. Which I love,” she said.
Rikki had to stop his expeditions to visit Clark Wednesday when Salisbury said she discovered he had an injured paw. As training wrapped up, she was making plans to bring him to a nearby clinic for examination, but did not expect the injury was life-threatening. Most likely, she thinks, he got stepped on by a horse – a common hazard for barn cats, and one they often recover from with the proper care.
“He'll be fine,” she said. “I don't think he feels too bad because he's eating, using the litterbox and everything. I'm just trying to keep him in the tack room.”
Other than a hitch in his stride, Rikki seemed completely unbothered by his injury, making a beeline for me, purring and licking the voice recorder I use for interviews. Lucy was so enthralled by the attention of two reporters outside the barn she flung herself on the ground and flopped joyfully onto a cinder block, too delighted to be uncomfortable.
It's challenging to get good photos of cats as friendly as Lucy and Rikki, who always want to move closer to the person holding the camera. That doesn't stop Salisbury from trying, as evident from her smartphone.
“It's kind of funny,” Salisbury said. “I have all these pictures in my phone of all different animals and my kids and my husband's like, ‘You have one picture in your whole gallery of me.'”
Many of us who have favorite barn buddies can say the same.
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