Scheinman: An Everlasting Bond That Ties Horses And Humans Together

by | 06.19.2019 | 5:52pm
Gala Spinaway, left, with Better Talk Now at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland

When I worked at the long-gone Montgomery Journal newspaper in Rockville, Md., having switched over to the copy desk from sports, an old horse trainer named Bernie Bond died in 1993. I had the picture cut out of his obituary in the Daily Racing Form taped to a drawer underneath my desk, and there it stayed for years.

Bond looked like a cross between Jimmy Durante and W.C. Fields, with a bulbous proboscis and a wardrobe straight out of the 1930s. He trained for more than 50 years and worked them hard. His 2-year-olds were always ready and fast. I loved holding on to that picture long after it turned yellow.

I'd been falling down the rabbit hole of horse racing for maybe five years, and certain people, and even more so certain horses, grabbed me and never let go. Because when you're learning to truly watch races and learning to differentiate styles and habits and personalities of horses, these animals will do things that make you sit up and grin and say, “Wow,” and you never forget them. Like with baseball, the players who awed you when you were growing up and learning to understand the sport remain your private benchmark of excellence, and you carry their names with you through life.

I have some Bernie Bond horses seared into me: Rollicking, Baldski's Choice, Sham Say, Gala Goldilocks and Gala Spinaway, his last great horse, who died June 15 at age 31.

I loved this horse Gala Spinaway as soon as I saw him in the program, then loved to watch him compete. I've never known another horse by his sire, Star Choice, and he was out of a mare named Spinnaker Sal, a daughter of a horse named Fast Hilarious. Fast Hilarious!

What's not to love?

If you followed racing in Maryland in the 1980s and early 1990s, when you saw in the racing program the name of breeder Nancy Leonard and owners Skip and Gertrude Leviton next to a horse trained by Bernie Bond, you'd have to have some guts to bet your way around it.

Every year Gala Spinaway raced he was good. He was one Bond horse who stood up to his hard work and lasted. In 41 career starts, the longest he went without winning was three races. Eleven of his 15 wins came in stakes races. Bond's health went downhill in 1993, and he died around two weeks after retiring.

Instead of moving their horses that were with Bond to a big-name trainer, the Levitons stayed faithful to the team and gave them, including Gala Spinaway, to Bond's young assistant, Graham Motion.

Graham grew up on a boarding farm in Newmarket, England, and had learned about horses in the jump world, assisting Jonathan Pease at Chantilly and Jonathan Sheppard when he came to the United States. That's a far cry from hardscrabble Baltimore.

A story in the Baltimore Sun in 1992 said Graham was the only guy on the Pimlico backstretch who could speak fluent French. Somehow, though, he and Bond worked.

When Gala Spinaway died all these years later, Graham went on Twitter and posted this in a screen shot:

“Today we had to put Gala Spinaway to sleep. He was 31 and has been with us for most of those years. He was our first Graded Stakes winner in 1993. He was the horse that got me going and without him I may not be where I am now. My wife was particularly close to him, she would drive several hours a week to go and “leg him up” at Glade Valley Farm to prepare him for his return to the racetrack when we first started training together. He was a bad boy as a colt and was also the reason I got the job with BP Bond as he “had a go” at Bernie's assistant who then left, opening a position for me. Bernie was very good to me as were Spinaways owners the Levitons who paid several months of training fees in advance to help us get our business off the ground. They are all gone now and Spinaway will join the racetrack in the sky with his old buddy Better Talk Now, they were both as cantankerous as each other but perhaps that's what made them so great. Anita and I will miss him no end and can only hope that he enjoyed living out his years at Fair Hill, we loved having him with us. Thanks to all my staff who took such good care of him in his aging years, to a lot of my team he was known as the Pony, if only they knew.
Rip old boy XX”

When Graham's magnificent turf star Better Talk Now – winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf, the Manhattan, Man o' War, Dixie and United Nations – retired in 2009, he began to share a paddock with Gala Spinaway at the Fair Hill Training Center. Anyone who saw them together knew this was a rare relationship. They were inseparable friends, their joy in each other's company unmistakable. I didn't spend much time with them, but the times I visited Graham, I couldn't help but stop and watch. Their love appeared spiritual.

Better Talk Now, known as “Blackie,” died following colic surgery in June 2017.

When I saw Gala Spinaway had passed and read Graham's post, it was one of those moments you know a piece of you is going away, for Graham much more than me, but for me as well. Differently, but I loved that horse too.

We ran into each other the day after Gala Spinaway's death, at the paddock at Laurel Park when Graham arrived to saddle Just Howard for the Prince George's County Stakes. Always gracious, he asked me how I was doing before I could get started. I deflected and told him I'd been planning to call him. When I said because of Gala Spinaway, he turned his head away and then turned back and said, “He really helped give me my start.”

Graham Motion is one of the most successful and respected trainers in the country. In the few minutes we had before it was time to saddle, Graham expressed his fear for the future of racing in the face of too many horse deaths at the magnificent Santa Anita Park in California, relentless assaults by PETA and a media that smells blood and clicks.

“I don't think we're doing enough,” he said, and he wasn't just talking about good PR.

My fears for the future aren't limited to racing, but, yes, racing, too. My friend Elaine Kucharski took the wonderful picture of the besotted pals at Fair Hill shown at the top of this article. Who wouldn't want to be just like them?

John Scheinman is a two-time Eclipse Award-winning writer based in Baltimore.

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