The Breeders' Cup at Keeneland was full of exciting moments and unique stories, but some of the best were the ones that never made the headlines.
I was in Lexington for Breeders' Cup week and spent the majority of my waking hours at Keeneland. On Sunday morning after the two-day championships had concluded, an endless stream of vans pulled up to the barns, loaded their precious four-legged cargo, and left for various farms, tracks, sales, and airports. As the barns were emptying of both horses and people, I spent the day with a friend who was looking after a pony that couldn't be shipped back to his home track until later in the week. He happened to be in the “big” barn just around the corner from American Pharoah, so there was a constant buzz of excitement and activity in the background at all times. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather have been that day.
A few stalls down from our pony was a colt who ran in the Juvenile, and in between the two was Pamela Ziebarth's mare, My Sweet Addiction, trained by the third-generation horseman, Marty Jones. They were the only horses left on our row that afternoon, as everyone else had already shipped out.
Most of the connections of these horses had gone home as well: trainers, owners and jockeys had already caught flights or headed to Fasig-Tipton for the sale that evening. Just about the only ones remaining were the grooms and a few other barn personnel who stuck around to see to the horses until it was their turn to load onto the van. These really are some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated people I've ever met in any discipline.
As my friends and I stood talking to some of the remaining guys about the weekend's races, I noticed My Sweet Addiction's groom talking softly to her as he wrapped her legs. He was an older gentleman with a quiet voice, and she stood as still as a statue for him with her eyes half closed. It looked as if they'd gone through this routine a thousand times. When he finished, he began packing up equipment and putting it away neatly into his trunk. My Spanish is terrible, but I'd heard him say a few things in English, so I thought I'd ask him how his mare was doing after the Distaff.
His name was Jose “Vinny” Castaneda, and he absolutely lit up at the chance to talk about My Sweet Addiction. She nuzzled his cheek, and as he patted her neck, he told me she was just as sweet as her name. He also reminded me that she was a Grade 1 winner in California earlier this year and that she had run second to Beholder before heading to Kentucky. He said that this would be his last day with her because she was going off to make babies, though they hadn't picked out a stallion just yet. He looked really sad at the thought, so I took a few pictures of the two of them together and tried to get him to smile.
We talked for a while about other things, about how excited he was that American Pharoah had gone out on such a high note the night before and how he thought he'd never see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime. Almost on cue, we had to move out of the aisle as Bob Baffert walked by with the Classic winner himself – probably trying to give the champ a breather from the press and fans on the other side of the shedrow. Later in the afternoon, we both watched as American Pharoah had his final racing plates pulled and was shod for the farm. I'll never forget that experience, and I'm glad that Vinny got to see it too. Maybe it helped take a little of the sting out of his final few hours with My Sweet Addiction.
I found out later that Vinny has been with Marty Jones since he started training in 1996 and has worked for the Jones family since the 1960s: first for Marty's grandfather, Farrell Jones, then for his father, Hall of Famer Gary Jones. Vinny's son, Martel, also used to work for Gary and now works for Marty. It's hard to imagine the horses they've seen pass through their barn – Quiet American, Turkoman, Lakeway, Kostrama and so many others. Martel himself was Best Pal's groom, so it's quite the family affair.
Owner Pamela Ziebarth and some others have taken a great interest in Vinny, as he really is part of their racing family, and he now only takes care of her horses in the Jones barn. He worked with My Sweet Addiction from the time she was sent to the track at two until she retired at age five, so it's no wonder that he clearly loves this mare. Ziebarth told me, “I can't wait for Vinny to have her babies to care for.”
After meeting him and seeing the care and tenderness he had for her, I can't wait, either.
Vinny is just one of the many who make the racing world go 'round, just one of the many behind-the-scenes people you'll rarely hear about in the headlines but who dedicate their lives to these horses. You won't see their names in the charts or past performances, but they're incredibly important to the well-being of these animals and to the sport as a whole. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon such a great example of this, which was just the icing on an already delicious Breeders' Cup week at Keeneland.
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