Mothers know their children – the good, the bad, and the awful – so Fern Augusti knew the call would come one day. Brian, the oldest of her five children, had been resuscitated once before after overdosing on heroin only to plunge again into those depths of despair.
When the call came in July 2009 that there was no reviving Brian this time, Augusti accepted the news as well as any mother could. And she knew where she could find solace. Even as an autopsy was performed and funeral arrangements were made, she reported to work every day as a groom employed by Maryland-based trainer King Leatherbury.
“Why are you here?” co-workers on the backside would ask.
“This is what keeps me going,” she would reply.
Augusti's pain did not end with the loss of Brian at age 28. Her father, John, died in 2010. Her mother, Lucile Stokes, passed the following year.
Augusti, 55, admitted there was a time when she would have sought to escape her harsh reality by using heroin herself, a drug she said she was introduced to by her former husband. She has been sober for the last 17 years.
“If it hadn't been for my horses, I don't know,” she said. “I'd still be here because I love my babies as far as my kids, but it was rough.”
Augusti has four remaining children: Christopher, 33; Daniel, 27; Elissa, 20; and Nikolas, 19. There was a time when the late Ben's Cat, a great black gelding, also would have been granted family status.
“I kind of felt like I was his Momma,” Augusti said.
Nikolas has no doubt that Ben's Cat could feel his mother's sorrow and sensed the need to comfort her. He recalled a time a few months after Brian's death when his mother broke down in tears while she was working in the horse's stall.
“She just started hugging on Ben,” Nikolas said, “and he just nudged his head up against her and started rubbing her and being real gentle with her. I guess it was just one of those days when she couldn't hold it in.”
Augusti tended to Ben's Cat from the time she led the Leatherbury homebred off the van as a 2-year-old in 2008. Many things frightened the youngster, including the clicking of cameras. She helped him to deal with those fears as he matured while she maintained a grip on sobriety amid tremendous heartbreak.
As a winner of 32 of 63 starts with more than $2.6 million in earnings, Ben's Cat became so familiar with cameras during a racing career that stretched from May 2010 through June 2017 that he would stop and pose for photographers.
According to Leatherbury, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 2015, Augusti played a key role in the success of Ben's Cat. “All of that goes into keeping a horse happy and feeling good,” he said.
Grooms tend to have their favorites. The connection between Augusti and the four-time Maryland-bred Horse of the Year extended far beyond that.
“He was my Black Beauty. He had kind eyes and he turned out to be a very kind horse,” Augusti said. “He was the easiest horse I ever worked with. I'd go in to do him up and he started picking his feet up or he'd come to the front of the stall. I never had to tie him up the way I do other horses.”
Augusti grew so nervous on race days that she became nauseous. She could not bear to watch once the starting gate opened. She would instead listen for a roar of approval at the finish, a sure sign the extremely popular gelding had won. Then she led him into the winner's circle like a proud momma.
“He had his head up and his ears up like, 'Yup, that's right. I did it,' “ she recalled.
Augusti lost Ben's Cat, too. He died on July 18, 2017, from complications related to colic surgery. He is buried at Laurel Park.
“She cried her eyes out when he died,” Leatherbury said of Augusti.
Augusti speaks as if he she is someone who has weathered so many storms, made stronger by adversity. She has come to terms with Brian's death.
“He was just very unhappy from a 12-year-old on. The peace I find in it is he's hopefully happy now,” she said. “He's not living that tormented life in his own head.”
Augusti laughs often and enjoys strong relationships with her children. She said she will soon heed their call for her to retire as a groom following major shoulder and knee injuries. She worked for a year after a filly took off on her in 2012, yanking her shoulder out of its socket. She only agreed to surgery after the pain became unbearable. Her knee also required an extensive operation.
“My kids are on me because they've seen me hurt, they've seen me struggling to get out of bed every morning with my stiff body, and they don't want to see me get hurt again,” she said.
Her children are grateful for the hard work she did as a single mother to keep their family together when so many circumstances threatened to rip them apart.
“I'm very proud and respectful of what she's done and what she's committed to,” Nikolas said, “because it's not an easy job and it's definitely not the safest.”
Whenever she rubs her last horse, Augusti will carry herself as Ben's Cat once did. With head held high.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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