American Pharoah spent his formative months in my backyard.
My boyfriend and I live on the property where he was raised from a young foal to a weanling, although now the farm is under new ownership. A good friend of mine was the photographer who snapped the foal picture that everyone has shared on Facebook. And another good friend owns the advertising company that does all of the work for WinStar Farm, the farm that stands his sire, the Zayat family who owns him, as well as his trainer, Bob Baffert. I have worked the sales for the man who foaled him – Tom VanMeter, and my boyfriend was an intern for the farm that prepped him for the yearling sales.
While the Thoroughbred industry may be widespread throughout the world, in the little bubble where I live in Lexington, Ky., the connections to and fondness for American Pharoah run rampant. All of us hold him quite dear to our hearts. He encompasses so much to us, but most importantly he validates the reason we wake up in the morning: to raise strong, solid, well-mannered horses with the utmost care, respect, nutrition and therapy that human and science has to offer. In the Belmont Stakes, it was evident that this was accomplished.
The public calls this the Sport of Kings, but for so many of us “mere minions” in Lexington, Ocala, or other horse hubs around the world, watching American Pharoah charge down the homestretch meant so much. Our lives are these horses, our days are spent caring for them, raising them, researching them, nurturing them, treating them, and overseeing their every move.
These are not the jobs that the public sees, these are not the usual people that get to be in the winner's circle. We do not fly private jets, we do not travel to exotic places, but the one thing we all have in common is that we love horses. And not just any horses – we love the Thoroughbred.
The rush that one gets in seeing the most well-bred, athletic and brave creature stretch their legs over ground at a speed that seems to break the laws of science, whether it be on a racetrack or simply in a massive field with their fellow pasture mates, is all that we crave. A breeding farm might move a bit slower than a racetrack, but in Central Kentucky, it is what we know, what we do, who we are. It's a lot of soothing tones, pats on big bellies and hands on legs. It is a lot of tractor repair, stall mucking, bandaging, and weed whacking. It is a thankless job – if the praise that you seek is from the voice of a human.
Our thanks comes in the guttural whinny of a mare when the grain bin rolls down the aisle, the kick of heels as a yearling is turned out into his paddock, and the naive ballsiness of a foal who approaches the fence just to nuzzle your arm before a nip. It is 18+ hour days, 7 days a week, no holidays, no snow days, 365 days a year back-breaking work.
But for those of us here, in the Horse Capital of the World, the June 6 Belmont Stakes made it worthwhile.
I was screaming at the TV with tears streaming down my face. In a room full of other members of this industry, I looked around to see tears in all eyes – from the toughest of men down to the friends of friends who knew so little about the amount of time, effort, heartbreak, and perseverance that goes into getting one of these horses to the track.
We were not among the 90,000 at Belmont Park because we were on the farm. The Triple Crown runs during the busiest time of the year for so many in the industry. Holding a Bud Lite instead of Dom Perignon, in a ball cap that read “Medaglia D'Oro” instead of a frilly fascinator, and having to leave the party early just to get to the barn for an evening treatment of antibiotics and a night check on a colicky foal … this is our lives. There might be wealth, jewels, and crowns in The Sport of Kings, but in my little world, it is more like Muck Boots and Carhartt's. We are the people that encompass 98 percent of this sport of so-called Kings. But on that Saturday evening, we were all crowned.
Many have said, during the last six weeks, that money and greed are what run the racing industry. This may be true for a very select few, but I have never met someone who will say they got rich off of a racehorse. The rest of us get rich from the high that comes with seeing a horse that you are personally attached to, no matter how insignificantly, gallop out with ease across the finish line. It comes from seeing a mare you have raised since her own delivery as she welcomes her own first foal. It comes from seeing a yearling that you treated through an illness or injury finally break his maiden.
We acknowledge, just as in any sport, that there is always room for improvement, advancement, and change. So many of us are accepting of this. And it is coming, I hope. Advancements are being made in regulations of race-day medications, transparency into the farms that breed these greats, and well as in simple honesty from the race industry out to the public. The rehoming and rehabilitation of these racehorses into second careers has become a priority, one that the farms stand behind and from which sport horse disciplines are prospering. We know that this sport can become even greater, but until then, I will take a brief rest on the laurels of finally seeing a true champion.
For what the sport of horse racing does, is that it opens the arms of the royal family to mere commoners. It unites us altogether and extends an olive branch to those around us. So thank you, American Pharoah, for so much. For letting me witness greatness. For bringing horse racing back into the living rooms of America. And most importantly, for letting everyone who had even the slightest attachment to you feel like a king, even if it was only for a day.
Pennsylvania native Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center who has worked in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. The article originally appeared on her blog, A Yankee in Paris, and was republished at HorseCollaborative.com.
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