Lord Avie, the oldest living Eclipse Award champion, laid down in his field and died peacefully at Blue Ridge Farm in Upperville, Va., on Friday, Dec. 28, at the age of 34. His longtime caretaker, Patricia Ramey, knew the time had come. Lord Avie's stakes-winning son Boyce stood by an adjacent fence, and with reverence watched. Then all became still and an era passed.
Lord Avie quietly lived as a pensioner over the past 10 years at Blue Ridge Farm. Other famous Thoroughbreds have lived there too; including a contemporary rival named Pleasant Colony. The two probably ran the fence together simulating what might have been if Lord Avie had run in the 1981 Kentucky Derby (G1), a race won by Pleasant Colony.
The story of Lord Avie has many twists. Unlike Buckland Farms, which bred and raced Pleasant Colony, the Lord Avie crew had a different flavor. The group of New Jersey-ite owners along with a trainer who wears plaid snap-button shirts collaborated and parlayed a $37,000 investment into $10 million in less than one year.
Trainer Danny Perlsweig, now 86 years young, recalls how it all began. “I trained a nice horse for the SKS stable named Mardevar. Unfortunately the horse died of pleurisy in January 1980. He was insured for $25,000. The SKS people told me to spend up to $25,000 at the upcoming 2-year-old sale at Hialeah.”
Perlsweig, a Navy veteran with a penchant for detail, drove to Payson Park prior to the Hialeah sale to visit the Clay Camp consignment. “We were racing a stakes winner named Georgeandthedragon who was by Lord Gaylord. I knew Clay Camp had a Lord Gaylord colt so I went to see him” recalls Perlsweig. When the juvenile was fetched for Perlsweig to inspect, he said, “I immediately fell in love with him. He was the best horse I'd ever seen. I couldn't fault his conformation. He was going to be a good horse.”
During the visit Danny met one of Clay Camps employees, Carolyn Owens. Little did the savvy conditioner know that she would one day become his daughter-in-law. As Danny told me this story, he would pause, clear his voice, and continue. The sincerity and clarity of the experience is remarkable.
At the sale Lord Avie quickly passed the $25,000 limit imposed by the SKS stable. However, Danny kept bidding. SKS owners David Simon and Michael Kay looked at each other in disbelief. When the horse was hammered down at $37,000 Danny signed the ticket. “I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for him. But I had to have that horse.” After a short time SKS agreed to buy Lord Avie. I asked Danny how he learned to see a good horse.
“Just instinct,” he replied.
The next morning Danny and exercise rider Bobby Sage drove to the sale barn. They tacked up Lord Avie and Bobby rode him across the Hialeah stable area and back to Danny's training barn. There, Lord Avie was introduced to groom Charlie Butler, who nurtured the horse throughout his racing career. Often the tractable Lord Avie would lay down for an afternoon nap. Charlie would go into the stall and lay down too putting his head on Lord Avie's belly. “He's the smartest horse I've ever been around” recalls Charlie in a 1981 interview. “If you bring a mud bucket in the stall he lifts his leg because he knows what that's for. When you take away the hay he knows it's time to run. Then you have to tie him up short so he won't bite you.”
As a 2-year-old, Lord Avie started 10 times. In his first start at Monmouth Park on June 17, 1980, Lord Avie was dismissed at odds of 18-1. “I knew he had talent but probably wanted to go farther than five furlongs,” says Perlsweig. The normally laid-back horse got excited and dumped jockey Jerry Bailey behind the starting gate prior to the race. Nonetheless, Lord Avie “came again” to finish third. Eight days later at Monmouth Park the future champion laid close to the pace and won “driving” at even money in ::58 1/5. Then, two weeks after that, he earned his first stakes victory in the $53,000 Juvenile Stakes at Belmont Park. Lord Avie continued to race every two or three weeks during his 2-year-old campaign.
As the year intensified something interesting happened. Lord Avie changed his running style. No longer did he stalk the pace but he would virtually drop out of it. His consecutive wins in the Cowdin (G2) and Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park and Young America (G1) at Meadowlands exemplified this new dimension. Lord Avie wrapped up the 1980 2-year old male Eclipse Award having raced 10 times with 5 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds and earnings of $439,240. Seven of these starts were in graded stakes.
Today many horse people believe closers are devoid of speed. Lord Avie proves otherwise. At Monmouth Park one morning he worked three furlongs in 33 seconds. “I think he got away from Bobby Sage,” says Danny. Modern convention suggests fast works tend to excite horses yet Lord Avie continued to be laid back and come from off the pace.
I asked Dan why the horse ran so often – at least by today's standards. Says Perlsweig: “Run'em when they're right because when they're bad they're bad for a long time. Lord Avie was sound but his shins could bother him. We iced and hosed them and it helped.” Another meticulous trait in the Perlsweig stable is that the horse cooled out with cold water bandages. “Little things make a difference.”
That winter Lord Avie was shipped to Florida. “I laid him up for 30 days and rode him around the shed row myself,” he recalls. Lord Avie started his 3-year old season with an off-the-pace win in the $56,000 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Twelve days later he ran a game third in the Fountain of Youth (G3), beaten a head for second by future Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony. Lord Avie then rebounded by closing 16 lengths and winning the Florida Derby (G1) under jockey Chris McCarron. In the process he beat Pleasant Colony and reasserted himself as the 1981 Kentucky Derby favorite.
“Regular rider Jorge Velasquez broke his collarbone a few days before the Florida Derby. So I called Chris McCarron and he willingly came to substitute,” says the former jockey Perlsweig. At the time the purse of $226,750 was the richest in Florida history.
Perlsweig explains that Lord Avie was syndicated for $10 million in January of his 3-year-old season. Twenty shares at $250,000 each with the SKS stable retaining another 20 shares for themselves. There was escalation clause in the contract where Lord Avie's value could reach $20,000,000 by the end of 1981 – but it was not to be.
Grasping his left pinky near the cuticle, the conditioner says Lord Avie developed “a little suspensory.” The ligament would bulge slightly above the horse's left front ankle in the channel between the flexor tendons and cannon bone. “We iced it and it went away.” However, after the Florida Derby the company that insured Lord Avie sent two veterinarians to examine the horse. They decided he needed to be stopped. “It was crazy,” he says. “They barely looked at him. Veterinarians Pete Hall, William O. Reed, and M. B. Teigland all said to run the horse in the Kentucky Derby. But the insurance people wouldn't let us.”
Perlsweig is a man who lives without regret. But you can tell that hurt. A group of regular guys from New Jersey and a horse by a Maryland sire (Lord Gaylord) had a chance. I asked if he felt pressure training a $10-million horse. “No. I felt very happy every day. No pressure. Just happy. He was the best horse I ever had. He was the horse of a lifetime. He gave me a lot of pleasure and opened doors for me and my family.”
It seems that Lord Avie, like Perlsweig, never got the recognition they deserve. Symbolic of this is the final start of Lord Avie's career, the mile and a quarter Travers Stakes, where Lord Avie didn't get a single call until the three-eighths pole. His running style must have tested the peripheral vision of announcer Marshall Cassidy. Lord Avie was behind 26 lengths at one point but closed on the sloppy track to finish third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. That would be his last start as his left ankle acted up again.
“Jorge Velasquez lost both irons coming out of the gate. He wasn't able to get his feet back in the stirrups until the horse hit the backstretch. It was an amazing effort.”
In total Lord Avie raced 16 times and was never out of the money. He won 8 races with four seconds and four thirds and earned $705,977. His graded victories came in the Cowdin (G2), Champagne (G1), Young America (G1) and Florida Derby (G1). Lord Avie did not race on furosemide (which wasn't a common medication at the time) but occasionally raced on Bute; which was legal then.
Lord Avie was a foal of 1978 during a golden decade of Thoroughbred racehorses. That era saw three Triple Crown champions in Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978), plus the sensational gray foal of 1976, Spectacular Bid. Lord Avie's initial stud fee was $50,000 at Spendthrift Farm. Later the stallion moved to Lane's End where his fee eventually dipped to $10,000. William Farish Jr. of Lane's End Farm complimented Lord Avie by saying “he was a very, very useful sire.”
Lord Avie babies were solid and many had his distinctive look in their dark, intelligent eyes. He sired several top fillies, including the French champion Ode, Magical Maiden, Fly for Avie, Feasibility Study and Avie's Fancy to name a few. The latter was a multiple stakes winning turf specialist trained by Perlsweig's son Mark for Gunsmith Stables. She was later sold as a broodmare for $800,000. Mark also proposed to a broodmare of his own in the former Carolyn Owens – the gal who helped prep Lord Avie for the 1980 Hialeah 2-year-old sale.
He also sired the notable colts Cloudy's Knight, Lord of the Night and Avies Copy – who finished third in the 1987 Kentucky Derby.
That dynamic stallion era saw other syndications too. Mr. Prospector for $20 million, Devils Bag $36 million, Conquistador Cielo $36.4 million, Storm Bird $30 million, Assert $25 million, Chiefs Crown $20 million, Spectacular Bid $22 million, and Secreto $20 million. However, Lord Avie was one of the first syndications in the mega-million dollar stallion frenzy.
But with Perlsweig it wasn't about the money. “Horse racing is about friends and having fun,” he says.
Lane's End Farm, which stood Lord Avie until 2002, made sure the horse was taken care of after his stallion career ended. In a gesture of loyalty and honor, Lord Avie was cremated and will be interred at Lane's End in Versailles, Ky.
Over the past two decades Danny visited Lord Avie at Blue Ridge Farm each spring and autumn. Perlsweig says “I would untwist the cellophane wrapper on a peppermint and Lord Avie gave me his undivided attention.” This past spring, Danny said Lord Avie had lost all his teeth. But he patiently held the peppermint between the horse's gums until it softened and Lord Avie could eat it. Each time the loyal friends met they enjoyed each other's company – remembering the past and not knowing what the future held.
W.C. Fields once quipped, “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” However, in the case of Lord Avie and Perlsweig, they bet on each other. And won.
Steve Montemarano is a lifelong Thoroughbred enthusiast who moonlighted with Dan Perlsweig for 20 years.
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