With an abundance of dapples adorning Cherry Wine's gray coat, further complemented by his flowy mane and forelock, the Dale Romans-trained colt was a big hit with fans and photographers during his four-year racing campaign.
So it wasn't surprising 15 months after Cherry Wine ran his final race, there was considerable reaction on Twitter when Romans Racing tweeted photographs of the now-gelded 6-year-old looking a picture of health in retirement.
Serendipitous events led to the adoption of Cherry Wine — runner-up in the Grade 1 2016 Preakness Stakes — by a Long Island, N.Y. woman who had yet to meet her “heart horse.”
Katie Nathan and her husband, Daniel, were guests at the Romans barn at Saratoga Race Course in the summer of 2018, not long after Cherry Wine finished fifth in a $50,000 claiming race, which ultimately would be the final time he competed on the racetrack. Daniel Nathan is a salesman of high-end kitchen appliances and one of the brands he sells is Sub-Zero Wolf. He was invited with other salespeople to an annual weekend getaway in Saratoga Springs hosted by Jim Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero Wolf and also an owner of racehorses trained by Romans.
Katie Nathan, who has ridden show horses since her childhood and works at the Babylon Riding Center on the South Shore of Long Island, left the group to wander the Romans shedrow, in search of some muzzles to scratch. She spied a handsome gray, poking his head out of his stall, and made a beeline for him.
“Not everyone that goes on the Sub-Zero Wolf trip goes to Dale's barn in the mornings to see the horses, but I always have on those trips,” Nathan, 30, said on a recent morning at the Babylon Riding Center. “Dale usually brings a quiet filly out so people can pet the horse. Last year, I was the one who walked into the barn and diverted immediately to greet the gray, his head held high. Dale came over and noticed that I was comfortable around Cherry Wine and we started chatting. I told him that at the [Babylon Riding Center] we do a lot of training and rehoming of Thoroughbreds. Dale took Cherry Wine out of the stall for me. He was stunning . . . my mouth fell to the floor because he was so beautiful and so well-behaved.
“At the time I was really looking for a project for myself, and I told Dale if he ever had any horses looking for a home to let me know. Dale said, 'Well, what about this one? If you want him, he's yours.'”
It was an ideal outcome for Romans, as well. Cherry Wine held real estate in his heart, owing to the fact he also trained the horse's sire, Paddy O'Prado, and dam, C. S. Royce, and granddam, Sweeping Story. A winner of two races and $574,271 for his owners and breeders, William Pacella, Frank L Jones Jr., and Frank Shoop, Cherry Wine's second to Exaggerator in the Preakness was the highlight of his 21-race career.
“[Cherry Wine's] family was good to me and he was too,” Romans said. “His skill started to diminish a little and it was time to find something else for him to do. It was fate. It was just a few days before Katie came to the barn that the owners and I had decided to retire him, but we didn't know where to. At first, Katie didn't even believe me when I said she could have him.
“And I'll tell you, Katie sure has made the most of Cherry Wine. It doesn't surprise me, though, he was easy to deal with around the barn, liked people, and being ridden.”
Romans was spot-on with his comment about Nathan taking advantage of Cherry Wine's enthusiasm for work. Just a month after Cherry Wine had been in training with Nathan, she brought him to a Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P.) horse show in Long Island. The Jockey Club's T.I.P. events offer awards for off-track Thoroughbreds competing in many disciplines. Nathan brought Cherry Wine to the show with the intent of getting him accustomed to the show grounds, not to actually show him. As it turned out, he reacted to the surroundings with such poise, she decided to enter him in the beginner hunter division and they finished first in their flat class.
Not long after, Nathan brought him to a drag hunt — where hounds track a scent, not a fox, and horse and rider give chase to the hounds through open fields. It can be an intimidating experience for a horse who is unfamiliar with the organized chaos of a hunt, but Nathan started Cherry Wine off slowly, in the hilltopper group, where horse and rider go at a slower pace and don't jump. But before the hunt was over, Nathan and Cherry Wine had kicked it up a notch.
“He was such a gentleman in the hilltop group, we moved up and began jumping logs and all sorts of cool things,” Nathan said. “For Cherry, it was probably a throwback to his racing days, because he was in a field with 60 other horses. He was in his glory and thought it was just fabulous.”
There were, however, some bumps in the road in the transition from racehorse to riding horse, for both Cherry Wine and Nathan, who was a mother of two young children at the time she adopted him.
“I found out I was pregnant with my third child not long after I got him,” she said. “I had planned on gelding when he first came off the racetrack, but I decided to keep him intact because I didn't want to change his personality. As I got more and more pregnant and he wasn't being ridden, he was becoming a little bit of a handful for other people, so we gelded him in February.”
After having her baby in April, Nathan started riding Cherry Wine again in June. Two months later, they went to their second show together, another T.I.P. event. They competed in one flat class and three jump classes, again in the beginner hunter division, and were reserve champion.
Despite Cherry Wine's versatility under saddle, Nathan discovered early on that he lacked speed, which is essential for stadium jumping, where horses are timed as they jump a course.
“I've always been of the mindset that every horse has a job that they are good at and that they enjoy. And it's your job as a trainer to figure out what it is,” she said. “And maybe it isn't always what you want them to do.
“With Cherry Wine, I really thought he was going to be my jumper,” Nathan continued. “I thought he was going to be fast because he ran in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. But he's really the laziest plunker you've ever sat on. He's just inclined to be lazy and that is his happy place. We had to switch gears for what I was intending to do with him, versus what he was good at. Hunter paces, fox hunting, and hunter classes are going to be his niche. But I like to do a lot of cross-training. I trail ride him, which he absolutely loves.”
And Nathan happened upon something else that tickles Cherry Wine's fancy. When the Babylon Riding Center held a barrel racing clinic this fall, Nathan gamely took part with Cherry Wine. The trainer who taught the clinic told her that Cherry Wine, if trained correctly, would excel in barrel racing. As a result of that comment, Nathan is now in possession of a western headstall and breastplate.
“I heard a lot of people talking about their 'heart horse', but I never really got it,” Nathan said as she hugged Cherry Wine's neck as he burrowed his head into her chest. “I've always had young Thoroughbreds, retrained them, and rehomed them or resold them for the job they were meant to do. That won't happen with Cherry. He's my heart horse.”
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