“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
– From A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
As I walked down the shed row in trainer Vicky Oliver's barn at Keeneland Racecourse this morning I remembered why I fell in love with horses. Shiny, healthy, well-muscled horses were hanging their heads out of their stalls, happily munching on hay and taking in the sights and sounds of the track.
Then I stopped. The horse in front of me looked different from the rest. A chestnut with tinges of gray around his face, the plumpness of youth gone from his forehead and cheeks, and eyes that were a bit sunken into their sockets. He was good-natured, but as I gave him a little rub on his muzzle I noticed he was missing a tooth or two and didn't quite have the same thick muscling through his neck, shoulders and rump that the horses to either side of him did.
“You're who I came here to see. I've heard so much about you,” I whispered, loudly enough for his old ears to hear me, but quietly enough so nobody would think I was a crazy person talking to a horse and expecting him to understand.
Loch Bering was not your typical racehorse, which makes it fitting that he's not by your typical off-tracker either.
At the ripe old age of 23, Loch Bering has globe-trotted, or rather globe-galloped. Things have a funny way of coming full circle, though, and while this Kentucky-bred's career took him to England, France, Sweden, Germany, throughout the U. S. and elsewhere, he has made his way back to Lexington where his story began and will someday, after many more trips around the Keeneland oval, come to an end.
Sold at Keeneland as a yearling for the bargain price of just $6,000, he was sent to England and re-sold later that year for $15,514 with hopes that his European-style pedigree would make him well-suited for a career on the turf.
His lineage did just that, and he found his way to the winner's circle eleven times, in both stakes and handicap events. Brought to America as an eight year old and placed with trainer Phil Oliver with hopes that being competitive on the turf in Europe would make him a dominant turf star in America, he ran in the $350,000 Grade 1 United Nations Handicap in 2000, and finished fifth.
He would stay in Phil's barn for two more years, going to the track each day with Phil's wife and fellow trainer Vicky Oliver in the irons, and race several times a season as a nine and ten year old.
There was even a time when another rider who was from Norway recognized the horse and asked Phil what his name was. When Phil answered “Loch Bering,” the rider excitedly explained that she'd galloped him in Europe! Then, after a pause, she also recalled, somewhat less fondly, how he would drag her around the track, pulling on her as hard as he could.
“He was a tough horse to gallop and would really test his rider,” said Vicky. “He went best in draw reins, but an older horse knows his job and he would get really strong with you. Even though he wasn't a gelding, he wasn't studish on the track or in the barn. He was just nice to be around.”
So, when it came time for Loch Bering to be retired, the Olivers were happy to keep him around. They sent him to a farm to give him time to rest and recuperate from a nagging suspensory issue, but that slower pace of life did not suit him one bit.
“He wouldn't eat and he's so thin-skinned that the flies just killed him. He didn't enjoy being turned out one bit,” said Vicky. “He has a pretty significant heart murmur and was still intact when he came from England, and we were hesitant to geld him due to the possible complications associated with those factors, but it's hard to find a boarding facility that will take a stallion.”
So, back to the track he went. He wasn't the type you could pony off of, but he could keep young horses company when they needed a buddy to gallop with. Vicky rode him daily and Loch Bering traveled with the stable wherever they went.
“He loves being at the track. He thrives on the routine and the atmosphere,” said Vicky.
At 23-years-old, Loch Bering still goes to the track daily with Vicky as his pilot. While some of the pull and edge he had in his youth is gone, as I watched them start to jog off today, Loch Bering started shaking his head and whinnying like you'd expect a three-year-old colt to do.
“Is that the old man?” asked a groom standing alongside the rail waiting for one of his charges to finish a gallop so he could escort him home.
“Yup, this is him,” Vicky replied, smiling.
“He's actually gotten more studdish in his old age,” Vicky said with a laugh as we walked back to her barn after his gallop. “He goes out there hollering to let everyone know he's there. Everyone knows him by name at the track.”
Walking back to the barn, you could see the love Phil and Vicky have for the old chestnut horse, and the way he looks at them, somehow you can tell it is both understood and reciprocated.
“He's the smartest horse I've ever met. He's like a pet,” said Phil. He then corrected himself. “He is a pet. He's an expensive pet.”
The Olivers do right by their “pet,” Loch Bering. He is on regular medication for his heart murmur and he gets the best of everything – best care, best feed. He is a horse that wants for nothing.
“I don't think he'd have made it if we'd retired him,” said Vicky. “He likes being in the barn, eats like a pig and loves to train. He goes out there with his ears pricked and takes it all in. He's just such a cool horse.”
Name: LOCH BERING
Born: April 22, 1992
Sire: Bering (GB)
Sale History: Sold in 1993 at KEESEP for $6,000; sold at TATDEC in 1993 for $15,514
Race Record: 58-11-6-10
Race Earnings: $274,935
If you have or know of a retired Thoroughbred with an interesting story to tell, we'd love to hear about it! Just email Jen Roytz ([email protected]) with the horse's Jockey Club name, background story, and a few photos.
Jen Roytz is a freelance writer and marketing and public relations consultant for various entities, both equine and non-equine. She can also still be found on the back of an OTTB most days.
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