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This little ditty comes to you, dear reader, at the close of 2016 with my best wishes for a New Year filled with an abundance of lovely surprises, new adventures and discoveries, radiant health and many occasions for laughter. This narrative aspires to set a mood of joy and hope as we ring in 2017! Love, Abigail

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Dedicated to the family and descendants of W.J. Gray, and especially his granddaughter, without whom this article would have been so much less than it became.

 

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, captured in the lens of W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As many of you know, I am wholly addicted to photography and especially vintage photographs. One of my favourite haunts, even when I’m not looking to buy anything, is Ebay — a superb place to just enjoy old photographs of all kinds.

Over the years, my collecting of rare old photographs of thoroughbreds and standardbreds has netted a handful of surprise discoveries and chance encounters with people from all around the world. One was with a descendant of Colonel Phil Chinn of Kentucky, and another took place when I bought a photograph of Safely Kept beating Dayjur in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the now famous “shadow incident” (below). As it turned out, the seller was the then owner of the UK’s Pacemaker magazine (now Owner Breeder), who was in the midst of selling off his magazine’s photo archives. So it was that I was gifted with some rare and wonderful photographs of Nijinsky, Danzig, Danehill and Sadler’s Wells from the Pacemaker archives. As a thank you, I sent this gentleman a copy of Secretariat from the Thoroughbred Legends series, as he was a huge fan and this was one book he didn’t have in his collection.

But one of the most fascinating of my discoveries began on an ordinary day, when I was trawling Ebay for no particular reason. I was scrolling through a search I routinely do of vintage horse photos when I stumbled upon a relatively rare Phar Lap, at a ridiculous price. I bought it and then returned to the seller’s listing, to see what else s/he had on offer. What came up was the kind of “find” that makes a collector dizzy: photos of the beloved Exterminator, the great Discovery (BM sire of Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Bed O’ Roses and Hasty Road), of Blue Larkspur (outstanding in every way, the son of Black Toney is credited as being one of the X -chromosome, large heart sires), Pavot (US Champion Two year-old and grandson of Man O’ War), beloved Stymie, “The People’s Champion,” and a couple of more obscure thoroughbreds. These were large and possibly authentic photographs of the day. I bought the Exterminator and a few others. And then I sent a note off to the seller, asking about the provenance of the photographs. S/he duly responded to say that they were purchased at a garage sale in Los Angeles, where s/he had found them “stuffed into a cardboard box” on the front lawn, surrounded by vast arrays of household goods.

 

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. His signature is just under the colt’s hind leg. (This was one I was too late to buy, unfortunately.) Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

I waited for the arrival of my bounty, feeling that this might well be my personal “Antiques Roadshow moment.” You know the reference: the moment where the little lady from some tiny town that no-one has ever heard of is told that her photograph is worth a small fortune. Or not: many purchases turn out to be not quite what they appear to be in the Ebay listing, mostly due to sellers who know little or nothing about the difference between original and newly-minted photographs.

In the interim, I went back to the seller’s Ebay profile to check on other photographs that s/he might have sold. There I discovered images of a handful of thoroughbred champions who had been scooped up by other buyers: Calumet Farm’s Coaltown, who had the misfortune to race in the same years as Citation; the champions Alsab, Challendon and Gallorette, together with Reigh Count, the sire of Count Fleet; and Rosemont, he who famously beat Seabiscuit and Omaha and sired the champion filly, Bed O’ Roses.

Anyone who collects thoroughbred photos of the past will know that getting an authentic, original photo of Coaltown, Exterminator, Reigh Count, Phar Lap, Discovery or Gallorette is a definite coup because, for whatever reason, images of them are scarce. But what was equally fascinating in this seller’s lot was that the majority of the images were ones that I had never seen anywhere before. And this, of course, peaked my curiosity. I hoped that my own photos would yield some clue as to the photographer’s identity and/or the source (i.e. studio or printer’s mark, date of production, etc.)

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

My anticipation was rewarded shortly thereafter when a large, padded envelope arrived. As one photograph after another emerged, I was beyond delighted. Each one was 13.5 X 11 ” with very little border, printed on thick,nicely aged paper presumably used by printing studios/photographers of the day. The images themselves were crisp and compelling. With the exception of the Exterminator and the Phar Lap, each one bore either the signature (within the print itself) of a “W.J. Gray ” or an oval stamp that read “W.J. Gray, Photos, 411 So. Main Street, Los Angeles.”  

The Exterminator bore an encircled C in one corner that I can attribute to the great equine master, C.C. Cook, as well as recognizing his distinctive hand in inscribing the horse’s name, the jockey (A. Johnson) and a few other details on the print itself. Affixed to the photo, on fading newsprint, were typed details of Exterminator’s race record.

 

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Photo and copyright: C. C. Cook.

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Note the paper note affixed, listing his race record. Photo and copyright: Keeneland-Cook.

The Phar Lap only carried a typed newsprint square of the date and locale of his death, together with his career earnings. Had it been taken at either Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente? I knew that, after his celebrated arrival in California and at the request of the American press corps, the champion was kitted up to pose for photos — the last that exist of Phar Lap before his untimely death.

There were no other identification marks on the print, although the image was superb and I knew that this was an exceedingly rare image of Australia’s beloved “Red Terror.” (At this writing, I have only managed to locate one copy of this photo online, but the site is in a foreign language so I was unable to read it. If any of you have any information about it — including recognizing the track where it was taken — please contact me here below, in the section reserved for COMMENTS. Thank you. AA)

 

The PHAR LAP photo.

The PHAR LAP photo. I am fairly certain that this is Billy Elliott in the irons and Tommy Woodcock in the background, in coat and hat. (Phar Lap’s Australian jockey, Jim Pike, had very noticeable cheekbones and a sharper nose. But at a distance, his official trainer, Harry Telford and Woodcock look somewhat similar. However, it was Woodcock and not Telford who accompanied Phar Lap to America, making it important to know who that figure in the background is, as it would date the photo.) Taken either at Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente, Mexico, or else taken in Australia at some point in his career.

Once I had fully savoured my treasures, and framed the photos of Old Bones (aka Exterminator) and Bobby (aka Phar Lap), I began a search for the mysterious Mr. W. J. Gray.  But “Gray” is a common surname and searches kept giving me any instance of “W.J.” separately from “Gray.” After several dead ends, I finally hit upon a lead.

As it turned out, W. J. Gray was a photographer of some of Hollywood’s most iconic stars:

 

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray, also carrying his signature on the right. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter's signature visible under Sinatra's. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter’s signature visible under Sinatra’s. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Too, I found one image of an iconic historical figure in American – World War II history that Gray had captured in understated dignity …

 

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

…as well as numerous aircraft, and one snowy scene of Los Angeles in the winter of 1944:

 

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This was enough to tell me that Mr. Gray was, indeed, a very fine photographer, one whose reputation for exceptional work was acknowledged. After all, not just anyone was called upon to photograph Ingrid Bergman or General Macarthur. As well, many of the airplanes he photographed were produced by the industry giant Lockheed, with whom Gray likely had a contract.

From the scanty information I was able to retrieve, it appeared that much of Gray’s extant work was done in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Gray’s characteristic signature sits to the left, below Wilde’s. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

But nowhere –nowhere — was there any indication of the photographer’s perhaps secret passion for the great thoroughbreds of his day. Whereas the Hollywood and possibly the Lockheed photos could well have been taken in California, several of the horses I had discovered never raced in California, indicating that Gray may have travelled around the country to record their exploits. Did he, I wondered, also work for (a)newspaper(s), capturing images of great thoroughbreds for their pages?

 

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O' Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O’ Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Copies of this shot can be found on Ebay by those unscrupulous dealers who copy and sell other people’s work. Photo, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Another thorny question: why a stamp and not a signature? Could the stamp indicate that the photograph was developed by Gray at his studio, whereas the signature, as seen in the Hollywood photos and on some of the thoroughbred shots, indicated that Gray himself was the photographer? This explanation seemed most likely, and is reinforced by the handwriting on the Discovery shot (above) that looks very much like C.C. Cook’s hand and carries only the Gray stamp. I hasten to add that, unlike today where so many unscrupulous types download someone else’s work from the internet and sell it on places like Ebay, if Gray did indeed sell others’ work in his store, it would have been through an agreement reached with the photographer, who likely made a commission on the sale of his work.

However, Gray — like C.C. Cook and other photographers of the day — was also given to writing on some of his negatives, as is the case with the photo of Alsab (above) that carries both writing and his signature (while minus the Gray stamp). If signature vs. stamp weren’t intended to discriminate the photographs Gray handled,  it’s equally possible that he just switched from signing his photographs to stamping them, making all those bearing either identification mark attributable to him. A tough call, and one impossible to resolve without the knowledge of someone who knew the man and something about his career.

So, on went the winding trail of the narrative of these stunning images and their creator, until I came across a blog that held a new Gray photograph. Although not of a thoroughbred, in the Comments section below it there was a reply from W.J. Gray’s great grandson, who confirmed that his great grandfather had owned a photography shop in Hollywood/Los Angeles. I duly obtained Mr. Gray’s great grandson’s coordinates from the blogger and shot off a hasty email. Could he tell me something more about his ancestor and about Gray’s thoroughbred photos?

CHALLENDON. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

CHALLENDON, in what appears to be a press photo. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Within a few days, I received a very cordial note from Mr. Gray’s great grandson, who told me that he was researching his great grandfather, knew he had taken photos of Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and commercial aircraft, but had absolutely no idea that he had an interest in thoroughbreds. I duly sent him copies of some of the thoroughbred photographs that had been listed on Ebay. Again I received a reply and a promise that he would forward the photos, as well as my letter, to other Gray family members. This was in 2014.

As the photos I had found were outstanding and reflected not only Gray’s skill but his knowledge about some of the most important thoroughbreds of his time, it was hard to forget about him.

Then, a day after I began writing this piece, I saw that there were many comments on The Vault that I had had no time to answer, given the Christmas holidays…and first among them was a message from W.J. Gray’s granddaughter. In fact, in a context where truth is stranger than fiction, she had written to me the day before I decided to try to pull something together about her grandfather for my first post of 2017.

Happy coincidence? Certainly.

I had been thinking about the mysterious Mr. Gray as a great subject for a new year post, because I believe that discovery is one of the great spices in life, even if its story is incomplete, which Gray’s clearly was until the moment I read his granddaughter’s note to me.

Sometimes the Universe is indeed inexplicable — and on December 26, 2016, it was presenting me with a gem.

 

Some horses don't wear well down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray's granddaughter.

Some horses don’t “wear well” down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

W.J. (Billy) Gray’s granddaughter’s initial message to me was followed by a flurry of emails and an actual “phone date.”

As it turned out, she had been born two weeks after her grandfather died, in January 1958, but had grown up hearing many stories about him. Her mother, Billy’s daughter-in-law, had only wonderful memories of him: “…She adored him and his gentle spirit, {he} was the absolute kindest person she ever knew! …My grandfather was a self-made man who lived his life with dignity, integrity and kindness.” (Private correspondence)

As she went on to say:

“…When you contacted my second cousin, his dad sent me copies of the photos you found (where did you find them?)

That began my search for horse racing photos…I couldn’t find any, except one that had been hand painted and was sold at an estate auction a few years prior. I searched for months! Many many months with no success.

Then one night I was watching the movie “Seabiscuit.” I was crying at the appropriate moment😊 and then put the movie on hold and asked out loud (no one was home) ‘Grandpa, am I ever going to find your horse racing photos?’.

I began to search on the internet, again. This time I searched ‘WJ Gray Seabiscuit’. On the third page of searches I found three lines that included contact info and:
‘large, original photos of Seabiscuit and War Admiral by Wm Gray of Los Angeles for $100, Philadelphia’

I called him immediately and told him that {the photographs he was selling} was my grandfather who died 2 weeks before I was born and I was searching for his photos. The man called me back the next day and said I must have those photos and {that he had} discovered 4 more in his stash! He said his father had bought them in Philly when a bar closed and they were selling the photos off the wall! He’d tried to sell them before and thought that no-one understood what they were. But he did. He liked the ‘ponies’.” (Private correspondence) 

 

WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph. Used with permission by his granddaughter.

A very dapper WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph, possibly at Santa Anita. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Then scans of the photos she had tracked down and purchased from the man in Philadelphia arrived. Once again, I was astounded. Not only were the images crisp, but most were shots of thoroughbreds I knew well but had never seen before: War Admiral in close-up coming into the final turn of the Belmont Stakes (and victory in the Triple Crown); Phar Lap after his win at Agua Caliente; an apparent press photo (because it included a typed byline) of Seabiscuit losing the Santa Anita Handicap to Rosemont; A.C. Bostwick’s champion, Mate, winner of some important races, notably the the Preakness, Champagne and American Derby in 1931; Equipoise winning The Metropolitan (1932); and Granville, a very good son of Gallant Fox, on track in the colours of the famous Belair Stud. Each large photo carried the oval “WJ Gray Photos” stamp.

 

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the Estate of WJ Gray.

Mr. Gray’s granddaughter was also kind enough to send photos of her grandfather, as well as biographical notes.

 

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

William (Billy) J. Gray was born on Edisto Island, SC in 1883, the youngest of ten children. He was orphaned at the age of seven and while in an orphanage was taught a trade that presumably allowed him to work on the railroad, possibly as a cabin boy. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles CA. Some time before 1919, Billy had bought himself a camera and learned how to use it, because in that year he took a photograph of Woodrow Wilson that he sold to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. (A signed copy of this photograph hangs in the Ronald Reagan Library, where it was discovered by Billy’s granddaughter. She tells me that the family has the original print.)

It was the sale of the Woodrow Wilson to the LA Times that suggested to the twenty-six year old Billy Gray that his photography hobby could, in fact, be potentially lucrative. And he had the courage to follow his instincts — and his heart. As Hollywood and its stars together with various newspapers came to recognize Billy’s endowment, it was possible for the then father of five to support his family during the dark days of the Depression by taking pictures. At some point soon after the sale of the Woodrow Wilson photo, Billy opened his first place of business in Los Angeles, to be followed by a second establishment, also in Los Angeles.

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An early advertisement placed by W.J. Gray, sometime after 1921. Note the company name: FILM STARS PORTRAIT CO. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As the ad above indicates, Billy Gray was targeting Hollywood stars in the early years of his career and to say that he was successful would be an understatement. Below, a W.J. Gray photograph of Hollywood icons and, in his own hand, a note on the back:

 

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This was Charlie Chaplin’s private plane. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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Back of the photograph above, listing of the names of the Hollywood icons pictured. Used with the permission of Billy’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A cousin also supplied memories of Billy “on the job,” as in this excerpt from my private correspondence with Billy’s granddaughter:

“My cousin, as a little girl, remembers visiting our grandparents in Los Angeles and walking to our grandfather’s studio on Pico (his other studio). Grandfather was developing his own film and in those days you printed a photo, ad or sheet of stationary one-at-a-time. She remembers helping stack the sheets of naval ship stationary, one at a time. During and after the war, grandfather would go down to the docks and take a photo of the ships. He’d come back, develop the film and then print one sheet at a time on stationary. She added that they {other members of the Gray family} would help Grandpa as he printed the individual stationary paper and envelopes: she would fold them and place them into the envelopes which was how they were sold.

Then he would go back down to the docks to sell it. The sailors would buy the stationary that featured their ship to write home on.

My cousin was born near the end of the war and grandfather was still producing this stationary after the war.”

In addition, Billy’s granddaughter mentioned a photograph she had of Billy in a printing shop in Chicago, as well as evidence that he had travelled to Greenland at some point. She further told me that her grandfather’s wife hand-coloured portraits and other photographs associated with the Gray’s photography business and that she had located one, of a thoroughbred, that had sold at auction.

In our lengthy exchanges, she was also able to confirm that Billy was indeed a horse lover (as opposed to just a photographer of thoroughbreds), who had friendships with several of the jockeys at the California tracks and possibly at other racing venues. (This reported by her aunt, Billy’s 91 year-old sister.) As for the “stamp vs. signature” issue, she was unable to provide clarification. However, when I asked about the typing at the foot of some of the photographs, she told me that it was indeed her grandfather who had typed in these details himself.

 

 

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The Santa Anita Derby of 1937. Typed underneath by WJ GRAY: “Start –Santa Anita Derby. Won by “FAIRY HILL.” (M. Peters up) Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

 

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Finally, Mr. W.J. Gray was emerging out of the shadows for me and I was glad. He was an exceptionally gifted photographer and one who deserves to also be celebrated by anyone interested in thoroughbreds and the history of racing in America.

In recording facets of the world as he knew it, Billy made his mark in the world a lasting one.

He could not have known that his photographs would leave a trail for a little girl who loved him to follow. But I’m betting he’d be pleased. I know that his granddaughter is.

What a precious, precious gift Billy Gray left her: the opportunity to literally see a part of his world, through his eyes.

W. "BILLY" J. GRAY: Here's looking at you?

W. “BILLY” J. GRAY: Here’s looking at you! Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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Thanks to your support, messages and enthusiasm, THE VAULT goes into its 7th year in 2017. I can hardly believe it! This article, over two years in the making, is my special Christmas gift to each and every one of you. With it comes my warmest wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season, filled with laughter, surprises and special moments to cherish. Love, Abigail

 

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HOF jockey and trainer Johnny Longden rode winners with a capital “W” — champions like Swaps, Noor, Busher, Whirlaway, Round Table, Your Host and George Royal. But no matter how great the others were, Longden would say that “The Count” — Count Fleet — was the best of them all.

COUNT FLEET shown here with his trainer

COUNT FLEET shown here with his trainer Don Cameron and The Count’s regular exercise lad, Frank Kiniry. Photographer unknown.

Horsemen like my grandfather tend to say, “The reason so few horses ever get to the Triple Crown is because it’s a road fraught with everything but good luck.” And the story of Count Fleet and Johnny Longden is exactly that: so filled with the fickleness of Fate — good and bad — that it is absolutely remarkable they ended up together in the starting gate of the 1943 Kentucky Derby.

As regular readers of THE VAULT know, it was my grandfather who set me on the path that led to writing about thoroughbreds and standardbreds. No question I got the “horse gene,” as my late mother called it, from my Grandpa. It was his passion –a bright fire that illuminated the stories of the great thoroughbreds and standardbreds of his day — that kindled my imagination. In Grandpa’s pantheon, few were more admired than the incomparable John Longden, who had roots in Canada, and his “horse of a lifetime,”Count Fleet. I risk to say that The Count crowned my grandfather’s pantheon. He never said so, but he also never talked about any other thoroughbred, including Man O War, with the same fire in his eye. The Count had moved him in a way that none of the others he so admired, before or after him, would.

Count Fleet came into the world on March 24, 1940 at his owner, John D. Hertz’s, Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, Kentucky. The tiny son of champion and 1928 Kentucky Derby winner, Reigh Count, and the mare, Quickly — a great great granddaughter of the British wonder horse, The Tetrarch — did not impress. Hertz, the rental car magnate, was a canny businessman in all things and Quickly’s little colt foal likely went onto his “for sale” inventory within months of his birth.

 

 

REIGH COUNT

REIGH COUNT, the sire of COUNT FLEET. An outstanding looking individual who was bred in the purple, Hertz bought him from Willis Sharpe Kilmer after seeing the colt savage another horse during a race. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

 

QUICKLY, the dam of COUNT FLEET. Photographer unknown.

QUICKLY, the dam of COUNT FLEET, carried the blood of one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, THE TETRARCH, in her 4th generation. A sprinter, QUICKLY made 85 starts with a record of 32-14-13 before she was acquired by Hertz from Joseph D. Widener. Photographer unknown.

 

In 1912, almost three decades before the birth of Count Fleet, Mary Longden and her four youngest children — Lillian, Doris, five year-old John and baby Elsie — closed up their home in Wakefield, England and boarded a train for Liverpool. From there, they would board a ship that would take them to Canada, where they were to meet up with Johnny Longden’s father, Herb, and two older siblings. The family’s eventual destination would be Tabor, Alberta, where Herb had found work in the coal mines.

But the train was running behind schedule. Mary feared for the worst: that their ship would sail before they arrived at the port. And, as it turned out, she was right.

The ship they were booked on was none other than the Titanic.

As Johnny would tell it to B. K. Beckwith, author of The Longden Legend, ” …I was five years old and it didn’t mean too much to me then. I guess kids of that age aren’t overly impressed with the workings of fate or whatever you want to call it…I’ve heard since the iceberg ripped most of the bottom out of the boat. It probably would have been curtains for us. The Longden pocketbook wasn’t in any shape to afford upper deck cabins. Most likely we’d have been among the fifteen hundred that went down with her…”  

 

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The NEW YORK AMERICAN front page following the sinking of the TITANIC.

From his arrival as a little boy in Canada to his first encounter with Count Fleet, Johnny worked first as a herd boy and then as an apprentice coal miner and a clerk, all the while dreaming of becoming a jockey. He started out racing quarter horses before switching to thoroughbreds. By 1927 Johnny was working under contract for small-time thoroughbred owners in Alberta, Canada and in southwest American states just across the border. Along the way he met up with another youngster, George Woolf, and the two would remain best friends until Woolf’s tragic end in 1946, at the age of 35.

The $150,000 statue was commissioned by Cardston ranchers Jack and Ida Lowe and created by Artist Don Toney. It is being donated to the province of Alberta.

The statue of George Woolf and Seabiscuit  captured at the moment when George yelled, “So long, Charley!” to War Admiral’s jockey, pulling away to win the most famous match race in American racing history. The sculpture was commissioned by Cardston ranchers Jack and Ida Lowe and created by Artist Don Toney. Unveiled in 2010, the statue stands in Cardston, Alberta, Woolf’s birthplace.

 

In the same year that Reigh Count won the Kentucky Derby, Longden’s contract was bought up by one E.A. “Sleepy” Armstrong, a veteran horseman; when Sleepy Armstrong came into Johnny’s life, things started to change. His horizons expanded to racetracks in Cuba and Agua Caliente, where he rode a very good colt named Bahamas against the mighty Phar Lap in the Caliente Handicap of 1932.

Phar Lap won, of course. As Johnny remembered it: “I was leading the field to the three eights pole. About that point the big New Zealander went by the rest of us like we were tied to the fence…” :

 

 

By the early 1940’s, Longden was an established American jockey with a growing reputation for excellence, voted America’s leading jockey in 1938. In 1940 he was one of the founders of the (American) Jockey Guild. Now based in California, “The Pumper” — as he was nicknamed by his peers for his tendency to pump his arms as he encouraged a horse forward — had also become an American citizen. Over the testing ground of tracks from Canada to Cuba, Johnny had also learned to ride just about any horse under any conditions anywhere. Today, we would call him a “horse whisperer.” His whispers to particularly difficult mounts were communicated through voice, legs and hands. Johnny wasn’t one to hit a horse unless it really needed a reminder; instead, he relied on the language he had learned that his mounts would understand.

COUNT FLEET rendered by C.W. Anderson during a work. Based on a photograph from 1942/1943, this is a faithful representation of THE COUNT as a youngster.

COUNT FLEET during a work, beautifully rendered by C.W. Anderson and based on a photograph taken in 1942/1943.

 

By the time he was a yearling, Count Fleet already had a reputation for being tough to handle and was, accordingly, sent to auction. One of Hertz’s stable lads, Sam Ramsen, pleaded with the Stoner Creek manager on the colt’s behalf and his words were to become prophetic, “Someday he’s going to be some fine racer. When that leggy brown colt wants to run, he can just about fly.”

(This first attempt to get rid of him as a yearling remains a distinctly odd feature of The Count’s narrative, especially since Hertz had purchased his sire after seeing him savage another thoroughbred in a race, allegedly declaring, ” I love a fighter, man or horse.”)

Despite Ramsen’s plea, there were no takers at the sale. So Quickly’s baby boy was given a name, registered to owner Mrs. John D. (Fannie) Hertz and sent off to the Hertz’s trainer, Gregory Duncan “Don” Cameron.  The stage was set for one of history’s great partnerships: in 1939, Cameron had contracted Johnny Longden to ride horses owned by Fannie Hertz, as well as another owner, Vera S. Bragg.

 

The stage was set: the paths of Johnny and THE COUNT crossed in 1942. Photo and copyright: The Baltimore Sun.

The stage was set: the paths of Johnny and THE COUNT finally converged in 1942. Here they are working at Belmont. Photo and copyright: The Baltimore Sun.

 

The first time Johnny rode The Count, the colt came close to killing him. As Longden told the story, the pair were working at Belmont Park and Johnny noticed two horses coming towards them on the track. But The Count had running on his mind and Johnny couldn’t get him to either slow down or change lanes, so he somehow managed to guide him between the pair without anyone getting hurt. Telling the story to his biographer, B.K. Beckwith, Johnny still couldn’t envision how he’d pulled it off. But one thing was certain: after this incident, only Longden rode Count Fleet in race preps and actual races. Everyone else was too terrified to even contemplate it, although there are a few rare images of another young lad working the colt when he was in his 3 year-old season.

THE COUNT was a handful, but according to Longden, he was not a mean horse at all. Photographer and source unknown.

THE COUNT was a handful, but according to Longden, he was not mean — just a colt with a mind of his own. Photograph circa 1943. Photographer and source unknown.

 

Despite the Belmont episode, Johnny was adamant that there wasn’t a mean bone in Count Fleet’s body, although this fact went largely unnoticed in the press of the day. Headlines like “NASTY BUT FAST” dogged the colt throughout his brief racing career, even when he was packing fans in like sardines at Aqueduct or Churchill Downs.

In his biography, Longden explained The Count’s personality this way,” He was not, you understand, a mean horse…Just one full of the devil with a mind which was very much his own.”  As a two year-old, Johnny described Count Fleet as a somewhat sorry looking individual though, “He really didn’t have the look of a top prospect then…He was a medium size — about fifteen hands three inches — and, though he was deep in the girth and had a good shoulder, he was weedy behind…he looked more like a filly than a colt.”  In addition, Count Fleet at two weighed in at only 900 lbs., reaching 1,000 lbs. by January 1943. John Hervey (“Salvator”) was more complimentary, describing the colt as one who, though not handsome, sported a very fine head and a character both intelligent and inquisitive.

 

"...He looked more like a filly than a colt." COUNT FLEET as a two year-old. Photo from THE VAULT'S private collection.

“…he looked more like a filly than a colt.” COUNT FLEET as a two year-old. Photo and copyright: Bert Morgan, KEENELAND .

 

In 1942, before Count Fleet had made his first start as a juvenile, Johnny recalled another trainer, Sammy Smith, coming to Cameron’s barn at Belmont one morning. The Count was led out for Smith to look over and Longden understood that the colt was being offered for sale; the asking price was $4500. Now Johnny had been working for the Hertzes for almost two years at this point, and he had established a trusting relationship with John D. Hertz. When he realized The Count was up for grabs, he picked up a bicycle from the yard and pumped muscle to the nearest phone booth to call John D. Fortunately, Johnny got hold of him and begged Hertz not to sell the feisty youngster.

Hertz replied that he considered the colt dangerous and was afraid that he would kill Longden one day, to which Johnny replied, ” I’m not afraid of him.” There was a long pause. Then came the words,“All right…If you’re game enough to ride him, I’ll keep him.” 

At first, Hertz may well have regretted his decision: in his two year-old campaign, Count Fleet had a kind of seesaw year, breaking his maiden by four lengths in his third start followed by other wins as well as a few upsets. However, throughout the season the colt never finished worse than third. Said Longden of The Count’s juvenile year, ” He beat himself…He never should have lost a race, but he was a tough customer to handle, green and rough in those early starts, and you couldn’t take hold of him –you couldn’t even properly guide him. You had to let him run, and if you didn’t have racing room, he’d go to the outside or just climb over horses. If you were in close quarters with him, you were in trouble.” 

Actually, Count Fleet’s similarity to the most respected speedball of all time, The Tetrarch, was remarkable. It was just as though the “great grey” had come back in the form of a deceptively unremarkable brown colt.

 

"I'm not afraid of him." Johnny and COUNT FLEET. Photographer and source unknown.

“I’m not afraid of him.” Johnny and THE COUNT. Photographer and source unknown.

 

THE TETRARCH was selected one of the best thoroughbreds of the last century, even though he only raced for a single season. Ridiculed for his markings ("chubari spots"), THE TETRARCH would have the last laugh by becoming a prepotent sire and BM sire.

THE TETRARCH was selected one of the best thoroughbreds of the last century, even though he only raced for a single season. Ridiculed for his markings (“chubari spots”), THE TETRARCH would have the last laugh by becoming a prepotent sire and BM sire. COUNT FLEET carried his blood in the fourth generation of his pedigree.

 

But The Count wasn’t only a speed devil — he was also a lover boy.

In the Belmont Futurity, as Longden manoeuvred the two year-old toward the lead, he drew alongside the filly, Askmenow, a daughter of champion Menow. As Johnny told it, “…The Count decided he didn’t want to leave her. She was in that delicate condition that appealed to him. I couldn’t budge him. He just galloped along beside her and let Occupation steal the race.” 

It was the last race Count Fleet would ever lose.

The colt’s next start was in the historic Champagne Stakes in New York. That day, he really took a toll on Johnny’s patience, acting up behind the gate and sending the track lads scurrying. It was the only time he would feel Longden’s whip, which was applied to get his mind on the job at hand.

And The Count got the message: he led from gate to the wire, setting a world record for two year-olds in the process of 1:34 and 4/5. After this victory, Johnny felt he’d found “the key to him” — get the colt out on top and just let him run. “…It was what he loved to do more than anything else.”  In other words, Count Fleet needed to own the track from the first break. And it was exactly this that his gifted jockey would guide him to do. Not that this was always that easy to pull off: “…that horse {The Count} did horrify me on occasions,” Johnny once confided to his biographer.

COUNT FLEET wins the Champagne stakes, Longden up, and sets a new track record.

COUNT FLEET wins the Champagne Stakes, Longden up, and sets a world record for two year-olds. Photographer/source unknown.

 

In the Pimlico Futurity, The Count faced his rival, Occupation, once again. Although he broke on top, Occupation was soon overtaken by the Hertzes little whiz kid, who flew by to win by five and equal the course record. The Count’s last start of 1942 was in the Walden Stakes. If there had been any doubt as to his ability, it all ended that day: the bay who looked more like a filly than a colt won by roughly thirty lengths, carrying weight of 132 lbs. This performance, together with his other wins that season, made Count Fleet good enough to abscond with the title that, at the beginning of the racing calendar, looked to be Occupation’s — namely, U.S. Champion Two Year-Old (colt).

 

count-fleet-before-wood-memorial__57

 

The Count went into 1943 as the favourite to win the Kentucky Derby, a feat that would allow his sire, Reigh Count, entry into the elite club of Derby sires of Derby winners. Other very good three year-olds of 1943 included Blue Swords, Slide Rule and The Count’s nemesis, Occupation. Older horses who added to the spirit of the sport that year were Equipoise’s son, Shut Out, who had won the 1942 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, Belair Stud’s Apache and Marise Farms’ Market Wise, a son of Broker’s Tip who had famously defeated Whirlaway in the 1941 Jockey Gold Cup in track record time.

 

Edgemere Handicap, 1943: APACHE (blinkers) edges SHUT OUT to take the win, with MARKET WISE and Johnny Longden coming in third. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

Older horses running in 1943 did much to keep the sport an exciting one: Edgemere Handicap, 1943 — APACHE (blinkers) edges SHUT OUT to take the win, with MARKET WISE and Johnny Longden coming in third. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

After claiming an easy victory in the St. James Purse, the colt and his team were off to Aqueduct to compete in the Wood Memorial, then run at a distance of 1m, 7yards. These were, of course, the War Years and there were many restrictions on travel being enforced America-wide, all of which seriously threatened the running of the Kentucky Derby, which dilemma Colonel Matt Winn, the President of Churchill Downs, was wrestling with even as the gates swung open for the Wood Memorial.

countfleetapr_1943

Rare photo of COUNT FLEET in 1943, breaking in either the Wood Memorial or The Withers. THE COUNT is the first arrow closest to “Copywritten Image.” Photo from the private collection of THE VAULT.

The anticipation of spectators at the Wood, according to John Hervey, seemed to set Aqueduct on fire and derived from The Count’s performance — and new track record — in the slop in the St. James Purse. Both Blue Swords and Slide Rule lined up at the gate, but before The Count was loaded, he was either kicked or grabbed in his hind leg: “…It was low down, near the fetlock. We went on and won easy anyway, but it filled up pretty bad afterwards, and for a times we were afraid we might not make the Kentucky Derby. I sat up and tubbed him in ice all the way to Louisville. We went down in a boxcar. It was nip and tuck, but we made it to the race…” (Longden as quoted by Beckwith, his biographer).

But however uncomfortable the colt might have been, he took the Wood in 1:43, and made two excellent colts look more like cart horses than thoroughbreds.

A look at COUNT FLEET'S hind leg following his win in the Wood Memorial. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

A look at COUNT FLEET’S hind leg following his win in the Wood Memorial. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Matt Winn had now resolved with authorities that, although the horses would arrive by boxcar and/or on wheels for the Kentucky Derby, only local people would be in attendance at the track that day. As those who crowded Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May 1943 would remember it, the “Streetcar Derby” was worth it, even though they had to leave their cars at home.

The Count did not disappoint, rolling passed Blue Swords and Slide Rule to a victory that bespoke his class. Below, silent footage of the race:

 

 

COUNT FLEET wins the Kentucky Derby and makes his sire, REIGH COUNT, a Derby-winning sire of a Derby-winning son. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

COUNT FLEET wins the Kentucky Derby and makes his sire, REIGH COUNT, a Derby-winning sire of a Derby-winning son. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

 

Johnny and COUNT FLEET festooned with roses. Photographer/source unknown.

Johnny and COUNT FLEET festooned with roses. Photographer/source unknown.

 

And then it was on to Pimlico, where the colt scored an even more decisive victory in the Preakness, beating Blue Swords by 8 lengths. Routing Blue Swords still again brought The Count’s reputation to its next level, since the former was a beautifully-bred son of Blue Larkspur whose dam was a daughter of Man O’ War. Blue Swords was the Sham of his day, confronted with a determined athlete who tended to wear his opponents down before the race was even half over. As The Blood-Horse put it, “If Count Fleet is the spectacular comet in the racing skies of 1943, then Blue Swords is the comet’s tail.”

 

THE COUNT arrives at Pimlico with trainer,

THE COUNT arrives at Pimlico with trainer, Don Cameron. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Leading them on a merry chase, COUNT FLEET swings into the turn at Pimlico.

Leading them on a merry chase, COUNT FLEET swings into the turn at Pimlico. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Wearing the black-eyed Susans. Photographer and source unknown.

Wearing the black-eyed Susans. Photographer and source unknown.

 

Trainer Cameron decided to run him next in the Withers, just to “keep him sharp.”  And The Count might have been at least a tad to blame: after a race — any race, from the easiest to the Derby and Preakness — it was not unusual for the colt to tire out two hot walkers as he cooled down. He never once came back from a race worn out.

Again, in what was becoming an all-too-familiar story, Johnny and The Count came home ahead of the competition in the Withers, leaving Slide Rule — who had skipped The Preakness — six lengths behind. The press — keen to exaggerate anything peculiar or interesting in an otherwise dark time — had already elevated The Count to the status of Man O’ War following his Preakness romp. But when the three year-old took the Withers, they were dumbfounded. This was due also to the fact that only one other Triple Crown winner had pulled off the double, the great Sir Barton. It was “a feat so difficult that any turfman who has witnessed it once need not expect to see it again during his lifetime.”²

Streaking home in The Withers, the second-to-last race of his career.

Streaking home in The Withers, the second-to-last race of his career. Photographer and source unknown, but possibly The Baltimore Sun.

 

John and Fannie Hertz with their champion. Photo circa 1943.

John and Fannie Hertz with their champion. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Count Fleet went to the post for the very last time in the 1943 Belmont Stakes, although no-one anticipated that it would be his final start. The high rolling colts like Blue Swords and Slide Rule had stayed home, leaving The Count to face a field of two who were truly only going to win if, in Johnny’s words, “… he’d have to fall down … and even then I thought he could get up and win. He was that good.”

Those who ride will tell you that horses react to resistance like dogs — in the case of horses, they just run faster. So it was that when Fate joined the dance, Count Fleet decided to fight back.

“He fractured a bone in his left front leg. I felt him bobble in the long stretch and knew he had hurt himself…I started to pull him up but he’d have none of it. He just grabbed the bit in that bull-headed way of his and took off again.” (Longden as quoted by Beckwith, his biographer).

 

 

You'd never know that there was anything wrong with him at all: COUNT FLEET comes home in the Belmont Stakes to become America's sixth Triple Crown winner.

You’d never know that there was anything wrong with him at all: COUNT FLEET comes home in the Belmont Stakes to become America’s sixth Triple Crown winner. Photo and source unknown.

 

Count Fleet’s performance was so devastatingly good that the Hertzes were, of course, delighted to welcome their Triple Crown champion into the winner’s circle. But the next morning, the Count was so badly off that neither trainer nor groom could get him out of his stall. The injury involved a tendon and the limb was fired. The colt was then kept at Belmont until October, when he was shipped to the Hertzes Stoner Creek farm in Kentucky. The racing world waited, praying that the champion would return in 1944. But the Hertzes were owners who always put their horses first and when the risk to The Count appeared too great, it was with deep regret that the decision was made to retire him. In the Hertzes’ mind, there was never any question of risking his life on the track.

 

Johnny and THE COUNT, in living colour. Source unknown, although probably a journal or magazine of the day.

Johnny and THE COUNT, in living colour. Source unknown, although probably a journal or magazine of the day.

 

Whether it was his brief career or just the realities of war time, The Count’s story has been woefully neglected over the decades since he won the Triple Crown. In fact, researching Count Fleet’s racing career — in terms of coming up with something other than the obvious — represents the second longest project THE VAULT has ever undertaken. Insight into the character of the horse came principally from two sources: Johnny Longden’s biography and the superb record of John Hervey aka “Salvator,” as provided in “American Race Horses, 1943.” The former reference I owe to the great Steve Haskin, to whom I am deeply indebted.

Another issue pointed out by Hervey that likely had some impact on Count Fleet’s reputation was that criticism of his career was often based on “But whom did he beat?” In Hervey’s view, the Belmont aside, these doubters clearly weren’t much up on their game, since individuals like Occupation, Blue Swords and Slide Rule were extremely worthy competitors. It was more, in Hervey’s view, the fact that Count Fleet made it look too easy. Referencing the wisdom of the incomparable W.S. Vosburgh when writing about America’s latest Triple Crown winner, Hervey also had this to say: “…As racing goes, the enthusiasts have short memories. They require new gods to worship, and if, a season or two hence, these deities show feet of clay, by that time still newer ones will have displaced them.”³ 

Critics of his racing career there may have been, but Count Fleet would triumph again as a sire.

In 1951, a son, Counterpoint, won the Belmont Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was also chosen as 1951 Horse of the Year. And again in that same year, a daughter, Kiss Me Kate, was named Champion Three Year Old. But perhaps sweetest of all was Count Turf’s win in the 1951 Kentucky Derby. Then, in 1952, One Count shared Horse of the Year honors with the two year-old Native Dancer for his wins in the Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

 

 

COUNT TURF. Source unknown

COUNT TURF. Source unknown.

 

KISS ME KATE with Eddie Arcaro in the irons. Source unknown.

KISS ME KATE with Eddie Arcaro in the irons. Source unknown.

 

Nor would The Count’s legacy end here. Through his daughters, Count Fleet was BM sire to one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, Kelso, as well as to champions Lamb Chop, Quill, Prince John, and the 1965 Kentucky Derby and Santa Anita Derby winner, Lucky Debonair.

KELSO with owner, Allaire DuPont. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

KELSO with owner, Allaire DuPont. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Count Fleet lived to be thirty-three when, after foundering for three days, he was laid to rest at Stoner Creek Stud on December 3, 1973.

…… And I learned exactly why my beloved grandfather’s eyes shone so brightly when he spoke about Count Fleet and Johnny Longden: the same year that The Count departed, I watched Secretariat and Ron Turcotte win the Belmont.

 

COUNT FLEET at thirty years of age, as captured by the genius of the late Tony Leonard. Photo and copyright, the estate of Tony Leonard.

COUNT FLEET at thirty years of age, as captured by the genius of the late Tony Leonard. Photo and copyright, the estate of Tony Leonard.

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

 

A Visual Story of Count Fleet:

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny Longden’s last ride:

 

 

 

Footnotes

¹As Titanic buffs will know, the ship set sail from Southampton, not from Liverpool. But this is how Johnny told the story to his biographer and Longden had a reputation for being an honest man, unlikely to grandstand by telling a lie. One has to wonder if the “lower deck” passengers weren’t taken on in Liverpool, where the Titanic’s crew boarded the ill-fated ocean liner. Or, was the plan to get a “connecting” ship from Liverpool to Southampton, unlikely as that would seem. Or, is it possible that Mary Longden was employed to work on the Titanic, in turn for passage for herself and her children? Or, was this simply a fanciful tale that young Johnny was told and believed to be true?

² John Hervey, in American Race Horses 1943, pp. 107

³ Ibid, pp 99

Sources

Beckwith, B.K. The Longden Legend. 1973: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc.

Hervey, John. American Race Horses 1943. 1944: The Sagamore Press.

Archives of the Daily Racing Form in the University of Kentucky Digital Library.

Archives of the Milwaukee Journal.

Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall Of Fame: http://www.spiletta.com/UTHOF/countfleet.html

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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” To be great is to go on,

To go on is to be far,

To be far is to return.” (Tao Te Ching)

 

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary: abandoned movie set. Photo and copyright, THE VAULT.

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary: abandoned movie set and a herd of American mustangs. Photo and copyright, THE VAULT.

 

My earliest memories were punctuated by the belief that the essence of the horse — any horse — was their ability to sense the human heart.

The first horse I ever loved was the television star, Fury. In the series, Fury was a coal-black, wild mustang whose freedom was never up for grabs (except by the bad guys who wanted to capture him) and he had chosen to love an orphaned boy named Joey, who was adopted by rancher Jim Newton in the first episode. The stallion’s choice to love the boy set them on a hero’s journey, repeating the structure of the most ancient hero myths and sacred texts, in which the hero is always an orphan whose parents are either dead or irrevocably estranged. This necessitates the hero facing the challenges that he must resolve alone. It is through his/her solitary journey that the hero enters into a state of “oneness” with the world.

During my fierce love affair with Fury, the adults in my life looked on benignly, since to them Fury was undoubtedly a romantic version of what they understood a horse to be in the real world. But I think my grandparents understood why I loved the wild spirit in Fury, and perhaps especially my grandfather, who had loved an unruly black mare who allowed him to train her because she chose to love him right back. The Fury narrative was indeed a romantic one and that likely gave it some of its massive appeal to the young in the first decade of television. But it was the fact that a wild horse had chosen to form an abiding relationship with a child that drew me irresistibly to Fury. My grandmother’s favourite expression hinged on the word “imagine,” that featured in expressions like “Just imagine…” or “Imagine that…” And I duly spent my girlhood imagining that, one day, a mustang would find me and love me the way Fury loved his Joey.

In the real world, my relationships with horses and ponies were largely based on being in control. The mantra was: to be safe, you need to be in charge. Through it all, I couldn’t quite shake the belief that somewhere in the world there were horses as I imagined them to be, even if I couldn’t seem to find them.

Along came MAYA...

Then I saw you and your eyes spoke to me. Identified as # 9579, photographed at the BLM in Canon City, for placement in their online auction.

I don’t remember how I stumbled across her photo online at the BLM in Canon City, Colorado, but when I looked into her eyes I felt something so honest, so true, that I couldn’t look away. She was # 9579, a “plain” brown and copper American mustang: not a showy grulla or paint, the kind that get adopted in a heartbeat. But she was my horse, even though I discovered that Canadians weren’t permitted to bid in BLM online auctions.

Even if I owned a generous pasture to turn her loose, which I didn’t, this was not her destiny: wild horses need to be free. Or, as Susan Watt of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary (BHWHS) in South Dakota — who came to the aid of #9579 — puts it, ” Wild horses need three things: freedom, friendship and food.” In a series of phone calls, Susan and I planned our strategy and I wired her the funds to buy the mare, having assured her that I would sponsor #9579 for life if we got her. Commitment turned the key: Susan gets literally hundreds of calls a week from do-gooders who might be willing to pay for a wild horse, but have no intention of doing much more than that.

Enter Jim of Portland, Oregon, an online friend who, hearing that not only had we gotten #9579 but also her BFF, another bay mare of the same age, pledged to sponsor the second mare forever.

mayas-bff_tassy_

#9579’s BFF in her pen at the BLM.

 

She could see the hills that were forbidden....

MAYA LITTLEBEAR (#9579) could see the hills from behind the bars of her pen, but couldn’t return to them. Shown here slightly before she and her BFF shipped to the BHWHS.

 

Both mares had been captured by the BLM as yearlings in separate herd culls and had lived behind fences since 2011, a span of four years that must have been interminable to them. Deprived of their herd and their freedom, they were essentially in solitary confinement. But with their rescue, their story was changing: three people from two countries (who had never met in real time) had banded together to set them free. And although they arrived at the Sanctuary with their numbers hanging around their necks, the two mares now had names that we had given them — #9579 was christened Maya Littlebear, and her best friend was named Felicitas Witness, aka Tassy.

(A more detailed account of the rescue of Maya and Tassy and their connection to Secretariat’s grandson, Bear Witness, is found in an earlier VAULT article here: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/eagle-feathers-for-bear-witness/)

Despite her long and busy days, Susan sent us photos of MAYA and TASSY throughout their transition. Here they are on March 19, just a week after their arrival at BHWHS.

Despite her long and busy days, Susan sent Jim and I photos of MAYA and TASSY throughout their transition from captivity to freedom. Here they are on March 19, 2016, just a week after their arrival at BHWHS. They started out in a small paddock, where they clearly were protecting each other from unknown dangers. Photo and copyright: Susan Watt/BHWHS.

 

April 2016: Some of the wild horses in Maya and Tassy's herd.

April 2016: At the BHWHS, new arrivals who have no herd of their own are invited to choose the herd they want to join. These are some of the members of Maya and Tassy’s chosen herd. Photo and copyright: Susan Watt/BHWHS.

 

April 7, 2016: First day of freedom.

April 7, 2016: First day of freedom. Jim and I wept for joy. Photo and copyright: Susan Watt/BHWHS.

 

From paddock to freedom: MAYA and TASSY in May 2016. They still stayed close to one another, although part of a band of mares and younger geldings. Photo and copyright: Susan Watt/BHWHS

MAYA and TASSY in May 2016. They still stayed close to one another, not yet confident enough to mingle with their new herd. Photo and copyright: Susan Watt/BHWHS.

 

So it was that my friend Joan and I turned off the highway in South Dakota onto the gravel road that led to the BHWHS to see Maya and Tassy in their forever home. It would be a first meeting with “my girls” and with Susan Watt, who was going to take us out to find them. It was an immense and unexpected privilege to have Susan herself take us on a tour of part of the 11,000 acres of the Sanctuary. As the Executive Director of the BHWHS, Susan works 24-7 for the horses, doing everything from answering the phone, to taking hay out to the herds in the middle of winter, to the endless task of fundraising for the Sanctuary, which is a charity/non-profit organization.

Susan Watt releasing wild horses to freedom at the BHWHS. Photo and copyright: BHWHS

Susan Watt releasing wild horses to freedom at the BHWHS. There is no such thing as regular office hours: Susan works tirelessly for the Sanctuary and the horses, as do her small band of volunteers. Photo and copyright: BHWHS.

Both Joan and I understood that wild horses are just that. Even with “The Guide of Guides” in Susan, you still need to find the herds in the rolling hills and valleys of the Sanctuary. If they want to be found. Freedom is like that: it has agency and mustangs, like any wild creature, exercise it.

 

Standing on a bluff overlooking part of the Sanctuary. In the valley below is the Visitor Centre, the homes of volunteers and founder Dayton Hyde, as well as numbers of wild horses. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

A bluff overlooking part of the Sanctuary. In the valley below is the Visitor Centre, the homes of volunteers and the BHWHS founder, Dayton Hyde, as well as numbers of wild horses. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Another shot from the bluff overlooking the valley of the Sanctuary. The mountains in the background are also part of the Sanctuary and wild horse herds run free there. Photo and copyright:THE VAULT.

Another shot from the bluff overlooking the valley of the Sanctuary. The mountains in the background are also part of the BHWHS and wild herds run free there, far from visitors and tour vehicles. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Before Susan joined us, we were set loose around the Visitor’s Centre, where there were several corrals of wild horses, beginning with the Choctaws.

 

Visitor information about the Choctaw herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Visitor information about the Choctaw herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Choctaw fillies. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Choctaw fillies. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Choctaw fillies: I just feel in love with the white & beige filly here, in the middle. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Choctaw fillies: I just fell in love with the white & beige filly here, in the middle. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

The Choctaws carry the blood of the Spanish horses first introduced to North America in 1540 by Hernando de Soto. They were the first horses the First Nations of America had ever seen, and were to become an integral part of the culture and life of the Seminole, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw nations. But their breed’s survival came close to ending in tragedy.

From the BHWHS website:

“Gentle by nature the Spanish ponies quickly became important family members to the eastern Native Americans, who practiced plantation-based agriculture and advanced systems of government. Great companion animals, the ponies were known as ‘Squaw Ponies’ … provid [ing] transportation for the squaws to bring the wild game from the men’s hunting expeditions back to the village. The high quality of the livestock developed by the Choctaw nation, especially the horses, allowed for the development of western trade routes all the way into the Texas and Oklahoma areas.

“The colorful ponies also played a part in the tragic American history known as ‘The Trail of Tears.’ The beloved little horses were forced to carry their Native American families into forced exile from their southeastern homes to the Oklahoma Territory following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Later these ponies were ordered to be destroyed by the US Government. The motivation was simple: remove the Indian from his horse and they’d be easier to force onto the reservations. The military knew that Native warriors on their small horses comprised the finest light cavalry in the world. But this equicide wasn’t simply designed to clip the warrior’s wings: military men like Custer knew that the horse was as much a spiritual part of Native culture as the land itself. Taking away the horses was an attempt to break the people’s spirit. All across the West, Native American horses were rounded up and slaughtered –as Custer had orchestrated on the Washita River-or else their herd stallions exterminated and replaced by studs from larger breeds. The military men were blind to the fact that the ‘squaw ponies’  used by the Native American people carried some of the bloodlines of Spain’s most regal bloodlines.”

Due to the efforts of a few First Nations people, small numbers of Choctaw were hidden away during the slaughter and a trickle of the breed managed to flow into the twentieth century. The Choctaws are one of two special projects ongoing at the BHWHS in collaboration with the Institute of Range and American Mustangs (IRAM), aimed at the conservation of this very rare bloodline in order to save it from extinction. In an act of faith in the BHWHS’ mission to provide sanctuary to America’s wild horses, “…3 Choctaw Mares and their 2012 foals were donated to the BHWHS by the Sheaffer Family of Windrider Farm Choctaw Horse Conservation Program in Pennsylvania. These exquisite mares and foals were greeted in South Dakota by their new herd sire. Lakna (Sky Horse), who was donated by Neda De Mayo’s Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, California. His sire is the renowned Choctaw stud, Beechkeld Icktinicky, owned by Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg.” (BHWHS website). The Choctaw fillies pictured here descend from these individuals. (Further information about the BHWHS Choctaw Program can be found at: http://www.wildmustangs.com/sponsor-a-choctaw)

We had brought a bag of carrots with us, in the hope that we would get close enough to a wild horse to offer him/her a treat. At first, the Choctaw fillies eyed us from a distance, giving me time to take in their different coat colours, reminiscent of the hues of the stone of South Dakota: copper, cream-white, battleship grey, black and sandstone. Then, in unison, they came to us. Eyes as soft as velvet looked us over. Carrots were offered and received. Noses were stroked and faces rubbed.

Lunchtime for the Choctaws. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Lunchtime for the Choctaws. Just look at that textured mane and forelock! Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

A little further along was Lakna (“Sky Horse”), the Choctaw stallion, taking a “time out” from his herd. This is one effective birth control method used by the BHWHS to assure that the total number of wild horses don’t exceed and exhaust the available grazing land. In spite of the vastness of the Sanctuary, five hundred plus mustangs can wreak devastation if left to their own devices.

Having been around stallions, I was prepared to carefully offer Lakna a carrot or two. Spying me from the far side of his corral, over he strolled.

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Beautiful LAKNA, thinking about that carrot and letting me know it looks pretty darn yummy. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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Can you tell how gently he’s taking the carrot from me? And make no mistake: LAKNA is 100% wild, even though he is accustomed to tourists.

The photos tell the story.

As I talked to Lakna and fed him carrots, a volunteer came over to chat with us. We talked about the Choctaw breed and about Lakna’s character, in response to my confessing that I had never met such a gentle stallion. The volunteer laughed, “Yeah, he’s pretty good. But he’ll still give you a nip.”

There was a sharp nudge on the back of my leg. “Lakna wants another carrot,” I countered. “Nah,” responded the volunteer. “He’s just asking to be part of the talk. We should turn around so he’s included.” And, of course, we did.

The "Youngster Band" -- mares with foals, yearlings and some older mares -- heading our way. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

The “Youngster Band” — mares with foals, yearlings, geldings and some older mares — heading our way. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

I call these three "The White Tribe." Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

I call these three “The White Tribe,” part of the Youngster Band. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

This close. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

“The White Tribe” gets close and personal. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Off to meet up with Susan, we drove into another part of the valley where a herd of wild horses ran unfettered. These were the “Youngster Band” — mares with foals, together with young mustangs who were turned out with older mares and geldings to learn “herd manners” before they joined one of the many herds roaming the Sanctuary. As we stepped out of our vehicle, some of the horses lifted their heads. We stood quietly as they advanced, wondering how close they would actually come. But they kept coming, until they were as close to us as the last photo you see here (above).

Horses talk to you in their own language if you are able to hear them. And to do that, you need to be on the same wavelength. The mustangs were standing so close to us that their hooves were inches from the tips of our toes. In fact, they had closed the  social distance that communicates intimacy among lovers, family and friends in our culture. (Called the study of “proxemics,” the distance for different degrees of human intimacy ranges from less than 6 in. to 4 ft., approximately. The closer you are to another person indicates the level of intimacy you share, so that one might expect lovers to stand closer together than friends. This is well-documented in human behaviour and explains why strangers on a crowded bus don’t like to be touched, and why babies are delighted when you hold them face-to-face. The acceptable distances for different kinds of human interaction differs from culture to culture.)

Mustang herds practice remarkably human principles of acceptable closeness. In closing the space between us, the mustangs were accepting Joan and I into their family (herd) and offering us their friendship in a language they appeared to have learned humans would understand.

Joan in the herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Joan returns a greeting of friendship to one of the “Youngster Band.” Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

If you have ever wondered why war veterans weep when working with therapy horses, it is the breaking down of boundaries of isolation by the horse that does it. As these mustangs extended overtures of friendship and trust to us, Joan and I experienced comparable emotions that will likely resonate forever.

 

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This yearling took her time, ending up just a few feet away from us. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Part of the herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

In the family and friendship zone, ears forward. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

A cynical part of me whispered, “They’re just used to tourists. That’s why they’re coming over.”

Except that it kept happening…..

The next meet and greet was with the magnificent Don Juan, a Spanish mustang stallion. The Spanish/Sorraia Herd is another group of wild horses found at the Sanctuary, and Don Juan is the band stallion. As with the Choctaws, the BHWHS is working in unison with the Institute of Range and American Mustangs (IRAM) to preserve the ancient Spanish and Portugese bloodlines of the breed.

From the BHWHS website: “… Nearly fifty of our over five hundred mustangs at the sanctuary, in our special Spanish herds, represent primitive remnants from rare bloodlines of the Golden Age of Spain and the Old World Iberian Peninsula …The purpose of this project is to preserve, promote, and educate the public about rare Spanish and Portuguese equine bloodlines still found in today’s American mustangs.” (Further information about this preservation initiative can be found here: http://www.wildmustangs.com/sponsor-spanish)

In the photo and short video that follow, you are invited to study the sharp contrast between Don Juan out on the range, and Don Juan choosing to interact with a total stranger.  This by way of demonstrating that the wild horses we had met at this point in our tour of the Sanctuary were choosing to offer their friendship in conscious, deliberate ways.

The aptly named DON JUAN was an absolute knock-out. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

The aptly named DON JUAN is an absolute knock-out. One macho boy, as his crest suggests, he spent much time smelling me and making eye contact. (At this point, there were no more carrots, so his interaction with me was wholly based on his own right to choose.) Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

 

There were repeated hugs and warm smiles when we met up with Susan, and shortly thereafter we set out to locate Maya and Tassy. Rounding a corner, we came upon the girls’ herd grazing in clusters around and under some Ponderosa pines. Given the uncharacteristically dry, hot weather, Sanctuary volunteers had started to feed hay to the herds at the beginning of August and they’d made a trip to Maya and Tassy’s herd just prior to our arrival. The air was redolent with the scent of horses, hay and pine. Even before Susan brought the jeep to a stop, the horses were close enough that we could have reached out and touched them. Only a few lifted their heads: everyone else was focused on lunch.

We located Tassy first. Picking up her head, it only took a moment for my girl to sense that we were focused on her for some unknown reason. But she stood her ground courageously without the slightest show of fear.

Tassy’s eyes expressed a sweet nature, and we noted that she was also beginning to sprout a winter coat. Getting close to her landed us right in the middle of part of the herd. The horses moved around us quietly, taking the greatest care not to bump into us or step on us or frighten us. The only soundtrack was the susurration of horses’  breath in a lazy, mellow quiet. 

 

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TASSY and her new BFF. She clearly understood that we were there to meet her. Everything in her body language said so. Having the opportunity to stand this close to her was an absolute — and totally unexpected — gift. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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TASSY’S soft, kind eye. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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TASSY looking straight into the camera. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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TASSY shows her curiosity at our interest in her. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

We continued to move through the herd, looking for Maya. I was surprised that the girls weren’t side-by-side, but Susan explained that they had each chosen new BFF’s, while adding that this showed their confidence and comfort in their new lives. She explained that the Sanctuary had accepted mustangs that people had adopted but then found they couldn’t handle, and that these horses often took much longer to return to their freedom. Some couldn’t manage it at all.

Finally we came upon Maya, who was busy eating. Although she refused to pick up her head, she nevertheless permitted us to get very close to her. Grazing next to her new best friend, a white American mustang mare, I could see into Maya’s deep, dark eyes. The look of desperation when I had first seen her was gone. She was happy within herself.

Unlike Tassy, the feeling from Maya towards our presence was reserved, as though she was saying, “That’s close enough.” When I mentioned this to Susan, she smiled and squeezed my arm, ” But she has come a very long way since she got here. Some of them never get over losing their original herd families or what happened to them when they were caught. But Maya is coming along nicely.”

 

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MAYA and her best friend attend to the hay, freshly delivered earlier. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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MAYA and her BFF clearly share a close bond. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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MAYA’S beautiful long mane is pretty much gone, a normal occurrence when a wild horse is returned to freedom. (It gets snagged in bushes, mostly.) But MAYA still has her beautiful, coppery fringe and I was glad to see that. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

As we got back into the jeep to continue on our way, I felt no regret that neither Maya nor Tassy had come close enough to invite a human touch. It was enough to stand near them and to know that they were safe, happy and in the process of returning to themselves.

And even now, as I write this, I remain deeply moved by the gift of being accepted into my girls’ herd as though we were one of them.

 

Being welcomed into MAYA and TASSY'S herd looked like this but felt like being set down in a state of grace. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Being welcomed into MAYA and TASSY’S herd looked like this, but felt like being in a state of grace. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

This huge stone structure was just magnificent, streaked with copper and covered by petroglphs.

The Petroglyph Stone seemed to arise out of nowhere, instantly grabbing our attention. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

The Sanctuary area is punctuated by popular tourist attractions other than the horses themselves, together with the sacred ritual grounds of First Nations tribes. In the course of looking for other herds, we stopped at several of these sites.

The coppery red Petroglyph Rock came upon us suddenly, as rock formations tend to do in South Dakota. We spent time there marvelling at its prehistoric face: truly a “Rock of Ages,” evoking that which is eternal, that which endures.

This single slab of stone at the BHWHS is not only beautifully variegated, but bears petroglyphs left by our ancestors. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

This single slab of stone at the BHWHS is not only beautifully variegated, but bears petroglyphs left by our ancestors. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Petroglyphs dot the massive stone slab. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Petroglyphs dot the face of the stone. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

The wood fencing in the foreground was built by pioneers as part of a corral. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

The wood fencing in the foreground was built by pioneers as part of a corral. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Leaving Petroglyph Rock, we arrived at the site of the 2016 Sundance ceremony.

 

Chief Joe American Horse and Loretta Afraid of Bear honor ally Dayton Hyde with a naming ceremony. Wearing a blue dress in the background is Beatrice Long Visitor Afraid of Bear. Photo by Marisol Villanueva, courtesy of the Grandmothers Wisdom project.

Chief Joe American Horse and Loretta Afraid of Bear bless Dayton Hyde, founder of the BHWHS,  with a naming ceremony that honoured him as The Protector of Sacred Land a few short years ago. This event perfectly captures the close ties between First Nations and the BHWHS. Photo and copyright: Marisol Villanueva.

 

Annual celebration site, complete with sweat lodge adorned with skulls. Photo and copyright:THEVAULT.

At the BHWHS: Annual Sundance ceremonial site, complete with a sweat lodge adorned with skulls. Photo and copyright:THE VAULT.

 

Remnants of 2016's Tree of Life from the Sundance held at the BHWHS. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Remnants of 2016’s Tree of Life from the Sundance ceremony held at the BHWHS. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

When Susan located the Spanish/Sorraia/Sulphur herd, they were far up on a hill. Susan leaned on the horn, a signal the horses clearly recognized, as she turned off the road and into the field towards them.

Hearing the sound of our horn, the Spanish mustangs head towards us. Photo and copyright:THE VAULT

Hearing the sound of our horn, the Spanish/Sorraia mustangs come to say hello. Note the number of grulla coats, native to the breed. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

A few members of the herd and their distinctive coats. The Spanish mustang is slimmer than the American mustang, with a confirmation it has inherited from its Spanish and Portugese ancestors. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

More members of the herd. The Spanish mustang is not as stocky as the American, a confirmation it has inherited from its Spanish and Portugese (Sorraia) ancestors. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

A crown of burrs adorns the forelock of one of the Spanish herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

A crown of burrs adorns the forelock of one of the Spanish/Sorraia herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

It was their love for Susan that brought the mustangs down to us and they greeted her as a member of the herd, forming an arc around the jeep. Faces thrust through the windows, notably that of the irresistible Josephina. Susan knows the stories of most of the horses in the different herds, and Josephina’s was no exception: the stunning bay is often found slightly removed from the herd. She has taken it upon herself to care for her dam, Martita, as well as the other Spanish/Sorraia mare pictured below. As you can see, the bond between Susan and horses like Josephina runs deep.

 

Susan with Josephina and one of the elderly mares that she protects. The other is her dam, Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Susan with Josephina and another member of the Spanish/Sorraia herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Another shot of Susan and the beautiful Josephina. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

Another shot of Susan and the beautiful Josephina. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Here is footage of Josephina. Her dam, Martita, can be seen in most of it, together with some shots of the Spanish/Sorraia Mustang herd to which they belong.

 

 

As dusk began to hover over the Black Hills we made our return, but not before stopping to visit another herd of American mustangs as well as the Curly Mustangs. The American herd yielded up a sweet surprise.

This American mustang herd boasted some exceptional coat patterns. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

This particular American mustang herd boasted some exceptional coat patterns. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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Sweet surprise: a new foal had been born in the American herd that Susan hadn’t spotted before. Out came our cameras. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

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A member of the Curly Mustang herd at the BHWHS. It is said that Curly horses appear in Asian artwork as early as 161 AD. Charles Darwin documented curly horses in South America in the early 19th century and the early Sioux Indians regarded curly horses as sacred mounts for chiefs and medicine men. Native American artwork shows Curlies carrying warriors in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

 

Curly mustang winter coat.

Curly mustang winter coat.

 

In the comfortable quiet of old friends, we wound our way back to the Visitor Centre, passed the heavy limbs of pine and multi-coloured stone, a gathering of mule deer camouflaged in the tall grasses and the silhouettes of wild horses, like sentinels, on the ridges overlooking the road. Maya and Tassy were now real, breathing presences to me. My hands and clothing were redolent with the warm scent of wild horses. And my soul was dancing with the spirit of the Sanctuary.

It is unnatural to bring a narrative to a close when its conclusion is, in fact, a beginning.

So I will let you imagine for yourself what is left unsaid, and give the last word to the wild horses of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary:

 

 

CREDIT:

Imagine A Place photo images by Karla R. LaRive
“Winde Ya Ho” (Wind Spirit Drum / D.R.U.M. 2012)
Vocals by Windwalker

Shot on-location at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Hot Springs South Dakota USA.

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A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM ABIGAIL:

As readers of THE VAULT know, this is a non-profit project of mine. Any advertising you see here benefits WORDPRESS. If you would like to show your appreciation for my work over the last 5 years, since THE VAULT first appeared, please consider a donation to the horses of The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and to the work of the remarkable Susan Watt and her volunteers, who are preserving a part of American history for you and your children. Or, explore the shop to find a unique gift for someone in your life who loves the spirit of horses. If you’re a teacher, consider having your class sponsor a mustang. If you choose to donate, please know that no donation is too small. And please remember to mention THE VAULT when you make your donation. Thank you.

http://www.wildmustangs.com

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It is the oldest classic race in England and, arguably, the most prestigious.

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The English St Leger Stakes is the classic that marks the end of the British flat racing season and its prestige is such that a “St. Leger copy” has been woven into racing calendars in Ireland, Jamaica, Australia and the United States. This classic takes place in Doncaster, Yorkshire, a large town that was initially settled on the site of a Roman fort, Danum, in the first century B.C., maturing into a busy town by the 13th century. Near enough to larger cities to make travel there feasible by horse, Doncaster was (and remains) a market, or “mercat” town, with a thriving commerce designated, like all such towns in England, by its market cross. From about the 15th century, Doncaster was known as a prosperous area, populated by the wealthy who lived in estates like Cantley Hall and Brodsworth Hall.

The market cross, designating Doncaster as a market town where goods of all kinds and livestock were sold for centuries, stands to this day on the site of the original market.

The market cross, designating Doncaster as a market town where goods of all kinds and livestock were sold for centuries, stands to this day on the site of the original market.

 

Doncaster market in 1906.

Doncaster market in 1906.

 

Doncaster market today.

Doncaster market today.

Doncaster is one of the oldest centres for horse racing in Britain, with records of regular race meetings going back to the 16th century. In 1600 there was an attempt to put an end to the races because of the number of ruffians they attracted, but by 1614 failure to do so was acknowledged and a proper racecourse was duly marked out. The Doncaster Cup, the city’s oldest classic race, was first run on Cantley Common in 1766; by 1776, the Doncaster racecourse as we know it today was set up in its permanent home, the Town Moor.

Doncaster racecourse as it looked in the 18th century.

Doncaster racecourse as it looked in the 18th century.

 

Doncaster racecourse circa 1900...

Doncaster racecourse circa 1900…

 

...and today.

…and today.

The original St. Leger kicked off in 1776 and, with only one exception, has run annually in September ever since.

This year, the field for the 2016 St. Leger is dominated by Coolmore-Ballydoyle’s colt, Idaho, although it won’t be any cake-walk for the promising son of Galileo. Open to 3 year-old fillies and colts (and barred to geldings) the St. Leger remains a gruelling test of stamina in a sport that more and more bows to the “speed gene.” It is the third and last leg of the British Triple Crown, the first two being the 2000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby. Unlike the practice in North America, the British Triple Crown races are spaced further apart, taking place over a period of roughly 3 months. Interestingly, to sweep the British Triple for fillies, contenders must also win the St. Leger.

But there is at least one powerful reason that the incomparable Nijinsky stands as the UK’s last Triple Crown winner: the crucible of the St. Leger. Run originally at 2 miles, it is slightly shorter today at 1 mile, 6f, 132 yds, making it about 2f longer than the Belmont Stakes. It is a race for “stayers” not speedballs and, as you might well expect, has long been an indicator of prime bloodstock in the form of great sires and mares whose influence on the breed would be a lasting one.

Some rare footage of Nijinsky’s St. Leger win, showing owner Charles Englehardt and the colt’s trainer, the legendary Vincent O’Brien. O’Brien would later say that illness prior to the race, coupled with the toll on Nijinsky of the St. Leger, would cost the champion a win in the Arc a month later. (Apologies for the buzz on the tape.)

 

The brilliance of Northern Dancer’s most celebrated son, “…cruising up on the outside as smooth as silk…” provided by BCS TV and Steve Mellish, together with a look at why it took another 42 years for a thoroughbred to come along who would try to clinch the Triple again. That colt was Camelot:

But Camelot would go down to defeat, leaving Nijinsky’s 1970 triumph to stand as the outstanding achievement it quite rightly was then, and now. The rarity of any colt or filly today who is up to the Triple Crown challenge is not only a matter of breeding for speed. Many British trainers prefer to bypass the St. Leger, in favour of running in the “sexier,” because more glamorous, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or the Breeders’ Cup Turf Classic.

Although the first St. Leger was run as a nameless race — won by a nameless filly who was later christened Allabaculia, owned by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham  — it would become the crowning achievement for many great blood horses whose names we still recognize today and whose bloodlines shaped the modern thoroughbred: Touchstone, The Flying Dutchman, Voltigeur, Newminster, Stockwell, West Australian (first winner of the British Triple Crown), Ormonde, Rock Sand (10th Triple Crown winner and BM sire of Man O’ War)), La Flèche, Isinglass, Persimmon, Swinford, Tracery, Hyperion, Bahram, Tulyar and the smashing fillies Sceptre, Pretty Polly and Oh So Sharp, trained by the late Sir Henry Cecil for Sheikh Mohammed and ridden by legendary Steve Cauthen. With her win in the St. Leger, Oh So Sharp swept the British Triple Crown for fillies, having already annexed the 1000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks.

 

The mighty OH SO SHARP was a daughter of KRIS. As Steve Cauthen would say on retirement, she was the best filly he ever rode.

The mighty OH SO SHARP was a daughter of KRIS. As Steve Cauthen would say on retirement, she was the best filly he ever rode. Pictured with Cauthen aboard going down to the start of the St. Leger, which she won.

 

In 1778 the St. Leger was given its name and a change of venue. According to British historian Michael Church, “…At a dinner party held at the Red Lion Inn, Doncaster that year, the Marquis of Rockingham proposed the race be called the St Leger’s Stakes as a compliment to the popular local sportsman Lt-Gen. Anthony St Leger of Park Hill. The venue was then changed to Town Moor, Doncaster and the race run on Tuesday, 22 September 1778.”

The term St. Leger Stakes was originally understood to refer to a multiple of races, including the prestigious Doncaster Gold Cup that brought champions like Kincsem to England. Preceding the St. Leger by a decade, it was still to see the (Doncaster) Gold Cup that brought racegoers out when St. Leger Stakes day came into being.  Run over a distance of 2 miles, 2f, the (Doncaster) Gold Cup is another massive test of endurance. In 2014 when HM The Queen’s mare, Estimate, won it as a 5 year-old, there could be little doubt of her stamina. In this, we hearken back to a time when stamina was the true test of a great thoroughbred and both colts and fillies were really pushed to show it, and to show it consistently. Keep in mind that up until the late 19th century, most flat races in the British Isles were run in heats and a thoroughbred with no serious staying power wouldn’t have managed well at all. Those that did were retired to the breeding shed, thus assuring results that we see today in individuals like Galileo, Frankel, Goldikova, St. Nicholas Abbey, Ouija Board, Midday and their exceptional peers.

Since 1778, the first year it was run under this name, the St. Leger has frequently taken place in different locales. From 1915 to 1918, it was held at Newmarket, where it was known as the September Stakes. The St. Leger was cancelled only once in 230 years, in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, and this cost the brilliant Blue Peter his chance to snare the Triple Crown. It resumed the following year, but changed courses annually throughout the war years. In 1940, the race was held at Thirsk, moving to Manchester in 1941. It was then held at Newmarket for three years (1942 to 1944) before moving to York in 1945. Most recently, in 2006, the race was again held at York, since the Doncaster racecourse was undergoing renovations.

But regardless of where it was held, papers like The Tatler, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Bailey’s News and The Illustrated London News considered the winners of the St. Leger and the (Doncaster) Gold Cup a lead story. In the pre-photography days, this meant deploying at least one “on the scene” artist who could render the atmosphere at Doncaster, as well as the winners. And notable artists like John Frederick Herring Jr., as well as prominent photographers like W.A. Roach lined up to record images of the day’s winners.

PRETTY POLLY shown winning the St. Leger.

PRETTY POLLY shown winning the St. Leger.

PETRARCH, another St. Leger winner.

PETRARCH, another St. Leger winner.

The dramatic clash between LADAS and the filly makes the cover of The London Illustrated News.

The dramatic clash between LADAS and the filly THROSTLE in the 1894 St. Leger makes the cover of The London Illustrated News.The filly, a daughter of PETRARCH (shown above) won.

 

Just imagine what it must have been like on the day: ladies in their finery, horses and carriages lined up row-on-row, gentlemen gathering in the walking ring and huddling in the stands, baskets laden with food and drink, punters before their chalkboards and boys swooping through the bettors to gather money and give out chits, hundreds of pairs of binoculars raised in one deft stroke at the start, the roaring of thousands gathered on the ground as the field turned for home. St. Leger Stakes Day had to be quite the spectacle.

Today, the dowager races of the British flat season may have lost some of their glitter, but to top trainers and thoroughbred people they remain steeped in an undeniable history and tradition of greatness.

HARZAND digs deep to repel IDAHO (outside) in the Irish Derby.

HARZAND digs deep to repel IDAHO (outside) in the Irish Derby.

Saturday, September 10, Aidan O’Brien’s Idaho (Galileo) will enter the fray to vie for his chance to join the exclusive ranks of St. Leger winners. The colt won The Great Voltigeur (at York) last time out, considered the favoured prep race for the St. Leger and will likely have a rabbit in the form of the very good Housesofparliament (Galileo), whom he just beat out in the Voltigeur. (Below, article with short video of Idaho winning the Great Voltigeur from Housesofparliament.)

http://www.racinguk.com/news/article/45123/idaho-leads-home-aidan-obrien-one-two-in-great-voltigeur-stakes-at-york

The other Ballydoyle entry is Sword Fighter, completing a treble of Galileo’s for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Good as Idaho’s credentials are, it is worth noting that O’Brien’s previous 4 St. Leger winners have come from the deceased Montjeu and Sadler’s Wells. However, Camelot came very close in 2012, and Bondi Beach, another Galileo, was held to second place after an inquiry resulting from the bumping of winner Simple Verse last year. So it would appear that there’s nothing to stop a good Galileo from getting the distance — whether it be Idaho, Sword Fighter or Housesofparliament — especially in what looks like a rather ho-hum field.

Should IDAHO, HOUSESOFPARLIAMENT or SWORD FIGHTER bring home the St. Leger, it will be a first for mega-sire GALILEO

Should either IDAHO, HOUSESOFPARLIAMENT or SWORD FIGHTER bring it home, they will be the first St. Leger winner for their mega-sire GALILEO.

Handicapping a race for stayers can be tough in today’s racing world. Such an individual may well handle the distance by laying off the pace most of the way and an entry whose done poorly over a shorter distance might come up roses in a contest like the St. Leger. So Paul Hanagan’s Muntahaa (Dansili out of a Linamix mare), a big colt who will love the distance if he’s going to get into gear, should be taken seriously. Another aspect in Muntahaa’s favour is that he’s handy on good-to-soft turf: rain is currently in the forecast for Saturday. Flying under the radar at the moment is Richard Hannon’s Ventura Storm (Zoffany out of a Haafhd mare/Northern Dancer through Unfuwain), another who will cope with rain and has a very good record of 5 wins in 10 starts. Harrison is still another colt no-one is paying much attention to, but it must be said that his sire, Sixties Icon, won the St. Leger and his dam is by Invincible Spirit. In addition, Harrison ran 4th to Idaho last time out and although he hasn’t seen the winners’ circle yet this season, the St. Leger might be a much better distance for him.

The others: The Tartan Unit is lightly raced, loves soft ground and comes from the Storm Cat line through Catienus; Ormito, trained by Andrew Balding, has the benefit of a great pedigree in his BM sire Acatenango (the BM sire of Animal Kingdom); and Harbour Law doesn’t look to have the pedigree to be a strong contender.

There will be some serious competition on St. Leger Saturday from the Irish Champions’ series which is also on that day, so much so that Ballydoyle’s Ryan Moore will stay in Ireland with Seamie Heffernan getting the call to pilot Idaho at Doncaster. It’s not the first time that the St. Leger has been pinched for viewers’ attention.

But it’s impossible to imagine that this venerable race, taking place over the ground where Romans marched and where thoroughbred legends like The Tetrarch raced to victory in the 1913 Champagne Stakes, has any serious equal on September 10.

THE TETRARCH.

THE TETRARCH, a racing immortal, danced across the Doncaster turf in 1913. Through his daughters, he lives on and has brought us the likes of MAHMOUD, NEARCO, NASRULLAH, BOLD RULER, NORTHERN DANCER, FRANKEL and AMERICAN PHAROAH.

 

 

Sources

Church, Michael. The Origins of the St. Leger and the one running missed! Published on his blog, Michael Church Racing Books.

The National Racing Museum, Newmarket, UK

Racing Post: Race card for the St. Leger (Sept 10, 2016)

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As any parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian will tell you, helping a child to become a reader for life starts when they are young. But it’s not just about introducing books an adult thinks a child might like. It’s about following the child’s interests, because when a child discovers a book that speaks to them in the most intimate way, there will be no turning back. This article is dedicated to my friend, librarian J.D.

The very first Pointe Claire library, built in the late 19th century.

The very first Pointe Claire library, built in the late 19th century.

Shortly before I retired from education, my team and I travelled around the province of Quebec to offer seminars to practising teachers on a number of topics. Arguably one of our absolute favourite sessions was the one we animated on early literacy. The reason it was our favourite had a good deal to do with what happened as we began laying out our ideas for the session.

After a good deal of talking — always the beginning stage of any production process for us — we fell into a conversation about the books we had loved as children. As each of us shared our memories, we began to see that literacy is deeply embedded in an individual’s “reading landscape,” beginning with their earliest experiences with books. Anything, in fact, that an individual associates with discovering the pleasures of reading is part of an individual’s reading landscape, from best-loved books to bookmarks to places or events where books were borrowed, bought or received as gifts.

We each set out to uncover, and write about, our own reading landscapes. (The idea was to mount our stories on a blog that teachers we were meeting could access prior to the literacy seminar, which we actually did and the teachers just loved this. In fact, it sent many of them off in search of their own reading landscapes.)

Retrieving my own reading landscape was not unlike an archeological dig — there were layers and layers, going back through my life to some of my earliest memories. Which, in turn, led to the little library in Pointe Claire where I discovered C.W. Anderson for the very first time. I knew about Marguerite Henry and had read many of her books, beginning with Misty of Chincoteague. But these books had been gifts to a younger me, the one too small to ride her bicycle to our local library and choose books for herself.

Christmas was filled with horse books....

The librarian at our teeny-tiny Pointe Claire library sat me down in front of a shelf of books by C.W. Anderson.

I will always love Marguerite Henry and I own those books by her that I loved best. (Ditto for the work of Walter Farley, of Black Stallion fame, who also wrote a lovely book about Man O’ War.) But the author who set my heart on fire was C.W. Anderson. “CWA” met me where I lived — right at the corner of Horses + Art.

Cover of the CW ANDERSON portfolio of lithographs of the same name.

Cover of the CW ANDERSON portfolio of the same name.

 

FAIR PLAY, sire of MAN O' WAR by C.W. Anderson

FAIR PLAY, sire of MAN O’ WAR by C.W. Anderson.

 

In his novel, States of Emergency, author Andre Brink writes “…love forces us to go down into our own archeology.”  As I revisited the moment I had first discovered the books of Anderson, I just knew that I had to do what that little girl didn’t really have the skill to do: research everything there was to know about C.W. Anderson and get busy collecting a number of his books and portfolios of prints, using my child-memory as a guide.

An early discovery was that CWA wasn’t only an author-illustrator of books about horses and ponies. In fact, his earliest works were a bawdy set of cartoons, produced on a regular basis for the New Yorker and Ballyhoo magazines in the 1920’s and 30’s. In addition, his art appeared on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and Youth’s Companion. This period culminated in 1935 in the publication of a distinctly adult book entitled, “And So To Bed.”

 

Anderson's cover for The Saturday Evening Post (October 4, 1924)

Anderson’s cover for The Saturday Evening Post (October 4, 1924)

 

"And So To Bed' preceded Anderson's arrival on the scene as arguably one of the best equine artists of the last century.

“And So To Bed’ preceded Anderson’s arrival on the scene as one of the supreme equine artists of the last century.

 

A graduate of the prestigious Chicago School of Art, CWA lived in Greenwich Village after the close of WW1. For a few years prior to his move to New York City, Anderson taught school in Chicago. But teaching was not his primary ambition. It was from Greenwich Village that he broke into publishing with his cartoons and art, both of which showed an artist with a sharp, spicy sense of humour. Other interests included music: CWA was a very good violinist but not good enough to make it a career.

Probably late in the 1930’s, CWA moved to Mason, New Hampshire, where he lived until his death in 1970. The permanent move to Mason from New York City happened very gradually, precipitated by CWA meeting Madeleine Paltenghi in the late 1920’s during his New York days. Madeleine was a poet and an aspiring author of children’s books, and it was with her that Anderson developed the Billy and Blaze series, she doing at least some of the writing or editing, and he concerning himself with the illustrations. The books themselves make no mention of Madeleine Paltenghi, which is rather curious. But it may also have been deliberate: CWA was an established name in publishing by this time whereas Madeleine was not. The first Billy and Blaze was published in 1936, gaining instant appeal. It was CWA’s first venture into the world of horses.

BILLY AND BLAZE, 1936.

BILLY AND BLAZE, 1936.

Shortly before or after the publication of the first Billy and Blaze book, CWA was living full-time in Mason, NH, first alone in a studio he had had built just down the road from the house where Madeleine lived with her young son, Charles Emil. The two married in 1944 and their collaboration as artist and writer continued until Madeleine’s death from mitral stenosis, a condition caused by the narrowing of the mitral valve of the heart. During the last days of her life, CWA wrote her a poem each morning that he would take up to Madeleine with her breakfast. These became known as the “Orange Juice poems,” according to his stepson, Charles Emil Ruckstuhl. There are forty-one of them, the last being written on the day Madeleine died.

Another early collaboration between CWA and Madeleine Paltenghi was Honey On A Raft.

Another early collaboration between CWA and Madeleine Paltenghi was Honey On A Raft.

 

Silverpoint featured poems by Madeleine and silverpoint drawings by CWA.

Silverpoint featured poems by Madeleine and silverpoint drawings by CWA.

Madeleine was not only CWA’s partner and best friend, she also shared with her husband a love of horses. During their marriage, the couple owned a number of horses: Peter, Wise Bug, Suzie, Howdy and Bobcat. The latter, a beautiful chestnut, became the subject of one of CWA’s books, published in 1965. Two later books, A Pony For Linda and Linda and The Indians were created for his granddaughter, Linda Ruckstahl.

 

Bobcat, published in 1965, was about one of CWA's horses.

Bobcat, published in 1965, was about one of CWA’s horses. It seems clear that he and the chestnut shared a deep bond.

 

Illustration from A Pony For Linda, written for CWA's granddaughter

Illustration from A Pony For Linda, written for CWA’s granddaughter and published in 1951.

 

Although it is unclear how CWA made his transition to equine art — and it may have been as simple as the huge success of Billy and Blaze –— one thing that is clear is that he followed the stories of great thoroughbreds through the press and was particularly passionate about Man O’ War and his progeny. His accounts re-fashion news-worthy prose from any number of sources into highly readable, entertaining narratives. The accuracy in CWA’s books about thoroughbreds is an absolute boon for a researcher today, since the “inside stories” of so many great thoroughbreds are all but lost. CWA may have thought he was giving his equine subjects the kind of immortality that print endows, but he was also writing himself into an invaluable source of thoroughbred racing history and culture. Too, there were clearly no severe copyright restrictions during the time that CWA was creating his beautiful and expressive illustrations: many can be traced right back to press photographs that appeared in newspapers and magazines of the day.

An original press photo of COUNT FLEET at work. Photo and copyright The Chicago Tribune.

An original press photo of COUNT FLEET at work. Photo and copyright The Chicago Tribune.

 

CWA's lithograph of COUNT FLEET.

CWA’s lithograph of COUNT FLEET.

 

L.S. Sutcliffe's magnificent photo of EQUIPOISE

L.S. Sutcliffe’s magnificent photo of EQUIPOISE

 

The beautiful EQUIPOISE in a study by C.W. Anderson, who captures both his kind eye and steely head.

EQUIPOISE in a head study by CWA.

 

Battleship, in his menacing black hood, is in the lead and goes on to win the 1938 Grand National. An original photograph from my collection that inspired the article on Battleship published in September 2012 on THE VAULT.

Battleship, in his menacing black hood (furthest from front) is in the lead as the son of Man O’ War goes on to win the 1938 Grand National at Aintree. An original photograph that inspired the article on Battleship published in September 2012 here on THE VAULT.

 

CWA's illustration of BATTLESHIP.

CWA’s illustration of BATTLESHIP on his way to becoming the first American owned and bred horse to win the Grand National at Aintree.

 

CWA’s stories of great thoroughbreds of the past were supplemented by illustrations as magnificent as any photograph. The book illustrations were actually produced using a traditional lithograph process and it was a slow, painstaking process. The word lithograph comes from the Ancient Greek, litho meaning “stone” and graphein meaning “to write.”  The traditional process uses an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. The stone was treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the portions of the stone that were not protected by the grease-based image. When the stone was subsequently moistened, these etched areas retained water; an oil-based ink could then be applied and would be repelled by the water, sticking only to the original drawing. The ink would finally be transferred to a blank paper sheet, producing a printed page.

This traditional technique is still used in some fine art printmaking applications today, but the more popular process is to capture the original in a photograph and then use the photo-image to print. Many of the prints of the late Richard Stone Reeves were produced from photographs of his original oil paintings, as is the case with the work of the majority of contemporary equine artists. In the case of CWA, his illustrations began life as original drawings, often done in pen and ink, that were then copied by hand to become lithographs. In his portfolios of lithographs, the process is laid out in detail. The portfolios were published beginning in 1952 and the last one appeared in 1968. Each portfolio contained about 8-12 single lithographs. Today, C.W. Anderson single lithographs can be found on sites like Ebay or Etsy, but, sadly, whole portfolios are becoming increasingly scarce.

 

Portfolios by CWA look like this. Each portfolio has an illustrated booklet, as well as an identification sheet and the lithographs themselves.

Portfolios by CWA look like this. Each portfolio has an illustrated portfolio cover and contains an illustrated booklet, an identification chart and the lithographs themselves.

 

Elements of a CWA portfolio of lithographs.

Elements of a CWA portfolio of lithographs. The identification chart is in the foreground.

 

The cover of one of CWA's portfolios, All Thoroughbreds.

The cover of one of CWA’s portfolios, All Thoroughbreds depicting the head of the legendary Man O’ War.

 

CWA actually studied the anatomy of the horse (as did the great George Stubbs before him) and some of his anatomical sketches can be found in a few of his books, notably “Sketchbook” and “Thoroughbred.” The illustrations pre- and post these anatomy lessons are very different: specifically, they show a smooth transition from cartoonist to representational equine artist. During his career, CWA published over thirty-five books about horses, six or seven portfolios of equine art and also accepted an unrecorded number of private commissions. He taught school in Mason off and on and was a judge, certified by the American Horse Show Association, of hunters and jumpers. And, in at least one source consulted in the writing of this article for THE VAULT, CWA is depicted as “a beloved citizen of Mason.”

GALLANT FOX (1939) as he appears in Black, Bay and Chestnut betrays some of the cartoonist's hand....

GALLANT FOX (1939) as he appears in Black, Bay and Chestnut betrays some of the cartoonist’s hand….

 

...whereas SHUVEE with her first foal bespeaks a more experienced representational hand.

…whereas SHUVEE with her first foal bespeaks a full transition to representational art.

 

A youth theatre in Wilton, NH called “Andy’s Summer Playhouse” was founded in 1971, a year after the death of Mason’s beloved “Andy” as family and friends called him. First located in the Mason Town Hall, “Andy’s” relocated to Wilton about a decade later.

From their website (http://www.andyssummerplayhouse.org/history/) :

...Named for CW Anderson, our namesake, and the inspiration his artwork gave to our original 10 seasons at Mason Town Hall. Anderson’s framed artwork surrounded the room where kids fostered 
the initial legacy of Andy’s, which continues in 2016.

...Andy’s Summer Playhouse grew out of the dream of two teachers in the Mascenic Regional School, Margaret Sawyer and William Williams, to keep alive, during the summer of 1971, a theater 
experience that had occurred at their high school that spring. The Playhouse found its first home in Mason, New Hampshire. Here the enthusiasm of its founders drew the support of several arearesidents who offered not only financial assistance, but the generous gift of their talent. Most notable among these is Elizabeth Orton Jones, illustrator, author and playwright, whose 
contribution through the years has been of vital importance to the artistic growth of the playhouse.

“Andy” was a beloved summer resident of Mason, internationally known as C.W. Anderson., a jovial outreaching man who loved young people. He wrote and illustrated stories about horses and 
children, many of which have a Mason background with pictures of local boys and girls. In the world of art, he was known for his meticulously beautiful renderings of animals and people, and 
in the world of youth, for his untiring interest and faith in new generations.

“I know well that only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young,” said the poet Walter del a Mare. Andy believed that implicitly, and lived it too. Thus it was 
only fitting that the new venture should strive to honor his memory.

And so it does today.

CWA_ANDY'S SUMMER PLAYHOUSE_andys

 

When I want to revisit the day that I first discovered him at our local library, I take one of CWA’s books down from the bookcase in my bedroom, settle into a comfy spot, and slowly open the cover. Sometimes I read the narratives, other times I lose myself in the illustrations. A Filly For Joan, the book I received for Christmas when I was about ten and still have, as well as books I have collected that I remember bringing home from the library all those years ago, cast a kind of spell over me. It’s rather hard to explain, but it feels as though the younger me is completely present and actively reading the book to me. Things like finding a favourite illustration almost unconsciously and then being flooded with liquid sunshine all over, or hearing myself recite a sentence or a phrase before I’ve even read it, happen regularly. It’s a “back-in-time” experience unlike any other I’ve known. Perhaps, I often think, this is what Albert Einstein’s curve of time-space feels like. (Members of my team who, like me, were also digging into their reading landscapes and went on to hunt down the books of their childhood reported similar phenomena when they held a book they had cherished in their hands and opened its pages.)

A Filly For Joan was a Christmas present about the same time that I first discovered CWA. It remains a beloved text in my reading landscape.

A Filly For Joan was a Christmas present from my parents at roughly the same period as my first discovery of CWA. It holds pride of place in my own library today.

If I go to my CWA library for research, none of younger me tags along. She probably finds it too tedious. Researching isn’t really about imagining, or the delicious discovery that a book can really speak to you, even though it sparks ideas and draws connections between apparently disparate information. Research is more like a treasure hunt, in that sense. Ridiculously exciting but not the same genre of discovery as a little girl lying in bed at night and imagining herself right in a story.

However, younger me and adult me treasure this: we both know the way to the corner of Horses + Art.

 

After my mother died about 2 years ago, we needed to clear out her house. I found that she had kept many of my early drawings. This one, of a girl riding her horse, was done when I was about 10-12 years old.

My mother kept many of my early drawings, something I only discovered after her death. This one, of a girl riding her horse, was done when I was about 10-12 years old. Looking at it for the first time, I knew its “archeology” : it was most definitely inspired by “A Filly For Joan.”

 

Thank you, Mr. Anderson, for opening a world to me.

Thank you, Mr. Anderson, for opening a world to me.

 

 Sources

Ruckstuhl, Charles Emil. Andy As I Knew Him. Published by AuthorHouse: 2004. (ISBN 1-4184-2670-9)

Some Mason Biographies. http://home.earthlink.net/~georgeo/mason_biographies.htm

Andy’s Summer Playhouse website: http://www.andyssummerplayhouse.org/info

Smith Center For The Arts website: http://thesmith.org/support-us/lights-camera-auction/fair-play/

L.S. has been a faithful reader of THE VAULT since we started up, five years ago, in 2011. 

So it was that when she contacted me to say that she was planning to make her first visit to OLD FRIENDS in Kentucky, I was quick to send back my enthusiastic response. And I made a request, “If you can, please give ‘my boy’ Tinner’s Way a carrot and tell him that his friend Abigail loves him.” (I had made my first visit to OLD FRIENDS just last September, where Tinner and I established one of those connections that is impossible to forget. He actually called out to me as we were leaving and, honestly, if I could have done it, I would have stayed there with him forever.)

A few weeks back, I heard from L.S. who wanted me to know that she was back and had some photos from her visit that she wanted to share with myself and all of you.

So it is with the greatest pleasure that I ask you to welcome THE VAULT’S first Guest Editor and her beautiful narrative of a first visit to a very, very special place. 

OLD FRIENDS_45512D77C8D029CE900C2FD7F787F9EE

I’ve had an interest in horse racing dating back probably to 1972, when my aunt suggested we watch the Kentucky Derby and bet on the results with nickels. I saw Riva Ridge win, and I was hooked on horse racing from that point on. I rooted for Sham in 1973, disappointed at his inability to overcome Secretariat’s greatness, and hoped one day I could visit my favourite thoroughbred, wherever he was. I continued to follow horse racing through my teens, less later on as I raised my children and was involved in other family-related activities, but I still tried to at least watch the Triple Crown races each year.

In the spring of 2016 we were blessed with our first grandchild, a girl. I was planning a road trip to Chicago to visit with her, and while doing research for interesting attractions along the way and back I came across the Old Friends website. After reading about Old Friends, I realized that, aside from seeing my sweet baby girl in Chicago, I wanted most to visit this rescue and retirement home for thoroughbred horses in Georgetown, Kentucky. Visitors to Old Friends must register for a tour, so I emailed the organization, and was informed that there were two tours a day, at ten and three. I knew the morning tour was not possible due to our traveling schedule, so on the day of our departure, I pushed to get us on the road out of Chicago by 6:00am, so that we could make it to Georgetown in time for the 3:00pm tour!

We arrived in Georgetown, checked in at the hotel, and off I went to see the horses at Old Friends, especially Silver Charm. I made it to the farm by the time the tour was about to start, loaded down with only two cameras, one bottle of water, and sporting a large-brimmed floppy hat. A small group was gathered to the side of the main office building, waiting for the tour to start. I checked with the desk personnel and yes: my name was still on the tour list! I hurried over to join the group, which consisted of a nice mix of younger and older visitors.

Our tour guide was Tom, a soft-spoken older gentleman toting a bucket of chopped up carrots. Before we started down the slope towards the horses, he outlined some rules, including not getting too close to the horses. One young visitor asked if the horses would bite, and Tom said “all horses will bite”. Tom encouraged questions, even those from the younger children, and spoke fondly of the horses that were residents at Old Friends. I asked Tom about Abigail’s friend, Michael, and was told he was around, we might see him. My follow-up question was about seeing Tinners Way, so I could give him an extra carrot for Abigail. Tom informed me that Tinners Way was not on that day’s tour, he was in a paddock farther than we were going to go. Oh well.

And then, away we started, walking down a graveled driveway toward the barns and paddocks situated on the rolling hills behind Old Friends’ main entrance.

071116 Old Friends 02

“…walking down a graveled driveway towards the barns and paddocks…” Photo and copyright, L.S.

Our first stop was next to a paddock that held a beautiful golden chestnut, identified by a sign as Genuine Reward. His name was familiar, and just as I thought, he was the offspring of the incomparable Genuine Risk, the winner of the 1980 Kentucky Derby, and only the second filly to win in the history of the race. She had difficulties bringing any of her pregnancies to full term, and Tom informed us that this son of hers, Genuine Reward, was one of the only two offspring who survived to adulthood. I did ask who his sire was, and Tom took out his phone to look it up: the well-known Rahy. Genuine Reward never raced, but even at his age, twenty-three, he is a beautiful horse, and looks very similar to his mother. I was enchanted, and one of the first visitors to offer him a carrot, provided from Tom’s bucket.

GENUINE REWARD. Photo and copyright L.S.

GENUINE REWARD “… one of only two offspring who survived to adulthood.” Photo and copyright L.S.

Across the lane from Genuine Reward was Sarava, a Belmont Stakes winner, and spoiler for War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid in 2002. He is a very nice looking dark horse, in more ways than one!

SARAVA

SARAVA “…spoiler for War Emblem’s Triple Crown.” Photo and copyright, L.S.

We continued down the road, visiting with Game on Dude, who would not allow his paddock-mate, Cat launch, to eat any carrots! We had to walk down the path a little further in order to feed Catlaunch, as he kept back from the fence while Game on Dude was monopolizing our attention. Both were also very good-looking thoroughbreds, and I noticed that Game on Dude appeared to have more of an Arabian “dish” look to his face.

GAME ON DUDE

GAME ON DUDE “…who would not allow his paddock-mate, CATLAUNCH, to eat any carrots!” Photo and copyright, L.S.

Across the pathway we met and fed Amazombie, and his paddock-mate, Rapid Redux. Most of the horses we saw at Old Friends had halters with engraved name plates; some halters also included career highlights of the horse included on the plates.

AMAZOMBIE

“Across the pathway we met and fed AMAZOMBIE…” Photo and copyright, L.S.

 

RAPID REDUX

“…and his paddock-mate RAPID REDUX.” Photo and copyright, L.S.

We were not allowed to get close to another Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem, as he was in a “time out” paddock, with a double fence between the visitors and this retiree. Tom explained that, after years of racing and being used in breeding, War Emblem did not have the best disposition, and was separated for his own good, and the safety of others.

"We were not allowed to get close to WAR EMBLEM

“We were not allowed to get close to WAR EMBLEM… (because he) did not have the best disposition.” Photo and copyright, L.S.

At this point of the tour we were joined by a gentleman who had ridden down to our location using a golf cart. I’d been asked by Abigail to say hi to “Michael” for her, and when I discovered this gentleman was Michael, I passed on her greeting, and he replied favorably of Abigail. I also mentioned that she had asked me to feed Tinners Way an extra carrot “for her”, and I was disappointed that that particular thoroughbred was not on that day’s tour. At this point, Michael offered to take me in the cart up the road to where Tinners Way was housed, and I readily, and eagerly accepted his offer! I did grab a couple carrots from Tom’s bucket before getting in Michael’s cart.

Michael

” At this point, Michael offered to take me in the cart up the road to where Tinners Way was housed…” Photo of Michael Blowen and “Tinner” and copyright, L.S.

We rode up the hill, past a barn, and to a paddock in which a chestnut horse was standing, with a mesh covering over his eyes, and so I met Tinners Way, son of the great Secretariat! It was obvious that this horse was special to Michael, and he talked at some length about the horse, and how Old Friends was started. I was able to give Tinners Way two carrots, and I seem to recall being bold enough to touch his velvety nose. After a few minutes spent with the elderly racehorse, we climbed back into Michael’s golf cart, and talked about Forego and Forli and some other famous horses before I was dropped off with the tour group.

I'M CHARISMATIC

I’M CHARISMATIC and ARSON SQUAD. Photo and copyright, L.S.

 

DANTHEBLUEGRASSMAN

DANTHEBLUEGRASSMAN “…seemed to be more interested in cribbing the railing than eating carrots!” Photo and copyright, L.S.

I was glad to see I’d not missed much of the tour, as they were just finishing up visiting with I’m Charismatic, Arson Squad, and across from them, Danthebluegrassman, who seemed to be more interested in cribbing the railing than eating carrots! I took a couple quick pictures, then hastened to catch up to the tour, which was making its way around and down the final turn, toward a very special horse.

That special horse was Silver Charm, the champion that I really wanted to see, and even at his advanced age, he still looked great, though much more white than in his racing days. Tom had imparted a little biography with each of the horses we’d visited, but I don’t recall much about this horse, as I was soaking in just seeing this champion in the flesh. I do recall feeding him at least one carrot, and I might have stroked his nose lightly, I can’t recall for sure. I guess I was rather star-struck!

SILVER CHARM

SILVER CHARM: “I guess I was rather star-struck!” Photo and copyright, L.S.

Across from Silver Charm’s area was the horse graveyard, with markers for all the horses that had been residents of Old Friends at the time of their death. While many of the horses had names I was not familiar with, I knew by the markers whose progeny they were. I was very sorry to have missed being able to visit Gulch, Fraise, and Kiri’s Clown, the last who was the son of Foolish Pleasure, one of my favorite Derby winners.

The final thoroughbred on the tour was Alphabet Soup. I am not totally sure, but I think this guy is one of Tom’s favorites, just by how he talked about him. For an elderly, sway-backed horse, Alphabet Soup had a lot of charisma. The kids gravitated to him, and he was fed several carrots. One of my pictures shows “the look of eagles” in this old-timer.

ALPHABET SOUP

ALPHABET SOUP and Tom. Photo and copyright, L.S.

 

ALPHABET SOUP

ALPHABET SOUP “…had a lot of charisma.” Shown here with Tom, one of Old Friends’ tour guides. Photo and copyright, L.S.

But Alphabet Soup was not the last of our equine tour, as Little Silver Charm awaited us and our attentions. A tiny pony, he had been saved from slaughter many years ago by Michael, the Old Friends founder, and named after Michael’s favorite race horse, Silver Charm. How could Michael know then that eventually Little Silver Charm would be pastured close to his namesake, the original Silver Charm?

"Two Charms" -- LITTLESILVERCHARM and SILVER CHARM with Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends. Photo and copyright, Liz Read for THE VAULT

“Two Charms” — LITTLE SILVER CHARM and (BIG) SILVER CHARM with Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends. Photo and copyright, Liz Read for THE VAULT

With this last stop, our tour was over, and we headed up the slope toward the main office. However, I noticed a gravestone, all by itself in a small paddock, with the infamous name “Noor” engraved across its front. I caught up with Tom, and asked him about this particular stone. The story of Noor’s stone was then related to those of us remaining from the tour: many of the farms where famous racehorses were buried were being bought for development. Apparently, one of the original employees of the farm where Noor was buried recalled the location of the burial plot, and after getting permission, the remains of Noor were exhumed, and reburied at Old Friends. For those of you not familiar with Noor, he was the son of Nashrulla, and was owned and raced by the same man who raced Seabiscuit, Charles S. Howard.

NOOR'S GRAVE_a27821b25dc6e687af31113b8eb00abf

It was a very gratifying, satisfying visit, and I plan to visit again as time allows. Since I have a grandbaby in Chicago, it might not be too long before I walk the fields and roads of Old Friends again.

071116 Old Friends 01

View of part of Old Friends. Photo and copyright, L.S.

 

ALPHABET SOUP. Photo and copyright, L.S.

ALPHABET SOUP. Photo and copyright, L.S.

 

Inspired by a pair of exceedingly rare photographs and the opening of Saratoga — a place of magic, history and imagining — comes this tale of two great fillies.

MOTHER GOOSE wind-up toy by Marx from the 1920's.

MOTHER GOOSE wind-up toy by Marx from the 1920’s.

 

Most American readers know the association between the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and the thoroughbred of the same name, after whom The Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park is named. Once part of the triad of races that formed the American Triple Crown for fillies, The Mother Goose Stakes were removed from the Triple in 2010, but carries on as an important Grade 1 stakes for 3 year-old fillies. That part of the Mother Goose story is easy. Trying to get a look at H.P. Whitney’s champion filly or even a true sense of her racing career is quite another matter, even though she did everything right on the track and in the breeding shed. In fact, in the latter case, she made a very direct contribution to a thoroughbred dynasty.

The daughter of French import Chicle (1913), Spearmint’s (1903) best son who was also notoriously bad-tempered, Mother Goose was born in 1922, a Whitney homebred. Her dam, Flying Witch, from the Ben Brush sire line, was also the producer of a very fine full brother to Mother Goose, Whichone (1927). He raced against Gallant Fox, whom he managed to beat as a 2 year-old in the 1929 Belmont Futurity, while annexing a number of prestigious races, notably the Champagne, the Withers and the Whitney before breaking down after a dual in the stretch with Jim Dandy and Gallant Fox in the Travers. {If Whichone’s name sounds familiar it might be because of his two best sons: the gelding Whichee (1934), who had the misfortune to race against Seabiscuit and Kayak II, but who was a good runner in his own right, and Bourbon King(1935) a tough campaigner who won the Remsen Stakes.}

CHICLE, the sire of MOTHER GOOSE.

CHICLE, the sire of MOTHER GOOSE.

 

MOTHER GOOSE the broodmare shows a very kind eye, despite her bad-tempered sire.

MOTHER GOOSE the broodmare shows a very kind eye, despite her bad-tempered sire. This is one of the very few images of her.

 

The fact that Mother Goose had a Grade 1 stakes named after her can be taken as proof that she was a filly who sparked the hopes, dreams and imagination of racegoers in the 1920’s, when the sport in North America was relatively new. Her most impressive victory came at two, when she beat the boys in the 1924 Belmont Futurity, most notably Marshall Field III’s sabino chestnut Stimulus(1922), a great grandson of Domino (1891) and winner of the 1925 Pimlico Futurity. In retirement, Stimulus proved a useful sire, producing the champions Beaugay (1943) and Stir Up (1941), as well as a small army of other good runners. {Summer Tan (1952), Nantallah (1953), Decidedly (1959), Sword Dancer (1956), Dust Commander (1967) and Slew O’ Gold (1980) are all direct descendants of Stimulus.}

STIMULUS after his win in the 1925 Belmont Futurity.

STIMULUS after his win in the 1925 Belmont Futurity.

I knew that Mother Goose’s rout of the boys in 1924 was her biggest moment on the track, enough to award her champion 2 year-old filly honours that year. But like any good researcher, I wanted to know more.

And then it happened.

A few weeks back, on a day (to quote Thornton Wilder) “when the dogs were sticking to the sidewalk” in the heat, I was cruising around on the internet and spied an old racing photo at auction that had a peculiar heading: “1924 Press Photo Harry Payne on Mother Goose at Belmont Futurity race in NY.”  Could it be…….?

And there she was:

MOTHER GOOSE (on the rail) shown winning the 1924 Belmont Futurity.

MOTHER GOOSE (on the rail) shown winning the 1924 Belmont Futurity. STIMULUS is in blinkers nearest to the camera. Photo and copyright, Wide World Photo.

 

And as if that weren’t enough, the press photo included the press release on the back, clear as a bell. Like a message in a bottle, I learned more about Mother Goose the runner than I had been able to uncover in decades of searching.

 

The press release was as clear as a bell, describing the courage of the juvenile MOTHER GOOSE in battling on right to the wire. Photo and copyright, Wide World Photo.

The press release was as clear as a bell, describing the courage of the juvenile MOTHER GOOSE in battling on right to the wire. Photo and copyright, Wide World Photo.

Of course, I bought the photo — for the unbelievable price of $14.99 USD. (I do feel badly for the merchant but, like people who run bookstores knowing little about authors, the company is one of several who have bought up the newspaper archives of papers like The Chicago Tribune, knowing little about famous thoroughbreds.)

Mother Goose didn’t stop at the Futurity. She also won the Fashion Stakes and came second and third respectively in the Astoria and Rosedale Stakes that same year. After her debut, the filly seems to disappear from the record books. But as a broodmare, she left a lasting mark as the grandam of Almamoud (1947), one of the greatest ancestresses in American thoroughbred history who was the grandam of Natalma (1957), who produced Northern Dancer (1961).

And isn’t it lovely to know that each time you look at a descendant of Northern Dancer (Natalma) or Halo (whose dam, Cosmah, is a daughter of Almamoud) or Sunday Silence (son of Halo) you are beckoning the spirit of Mother Goose?

SUNDAY SILENCE with the great Charlie Whittingham.

SUNDAY SILENCE shares a silence with the wonderful Charlie Whittingham.

 

Since the explosion of online auction centres like EBAY, these kinds of finds have become rare for me. But there was another purchase I made some time ago that is as precious to me as this photo of Mother Goose. It was of another champion filly and matriarch: Alcibiades. And the circumstances that led me to her were remarkably similar.

Alcibiades’ career on the track and in the breeding shed are perhaps better known than the exploits of Mother Goose. Like her predecessor, Alcibiades has a Grade 1 stakes for 3 year-old fillies named after her and now sponsored by Darley as part of the Breeders Cup Challenge series.

Hal Prince Headley’s great filly was a homebred, born in 1927. Named after a soldier and statesman of Ancient Greece (for which Headley took more than a little abuse because the filly’s dam was called Regal Roman), Alcibiades was a descendant of the incomparable Domino (1891) through her sire, Supremus (1922). Her dam, Regal Roman (1921), a daughter of Roi Herode (1904), arrived in the USA from Great Britain in 1923. Alcibiades was her best progeny.

Her major win at two was in the 1929 Debutante; in 1930, Alcibiades captured the Kentucky Oaks and the Arlington Oaks. One lesser known incident in her three year-old season was that she also ran against Gallant Fox in the 1930 Kentucky Derby, setting blazing fractions on the lead before fading to finish tenth. It was easy to forgive her: the Oaks and Derby were only two weeks apart and the Oaks, which Alcibiades won, was the second of the two. So after this effort in the Derby, one must conclude that the daughter of Supremus was one courageous filly, with a heart as big as her ability, to come back to take the Oaks:

 

After winning the highest award in the land at two and again at three, Alcibiades was retired with a bowed a tendon to take up breeding duties at the Headleys Beaumont Farm. Her last race pitched her against older horses in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, where she ran beautifully to finish third to Wallace Kilmer’s champion, Sun Beau (1925). As serious a competitor as Alcibiades had been on the track, it was as a broodmare that she endowed the American thoroughbred with her most enduring gift. From her brilliant son, Menow (1935), in a direct line of descent, came two jewels of American racing: Tom Fool (1949) and his son, Buckpasser (1963). From her daughter by Man O’ War, Salaminia (1937), descended the Epsom Derby winner, Sir Ivor (1965), the first American-bred to win it since 1954. And Sir Ivor, as many will know, went on to become the ancestor of some very important thoroughbreds, among them Shareef Dancer (1980), Green Desert (1983), Zabeel (1986) and his son, Octagonal (1992), as well as the recently retired Encosta de Lago (1993).

 

Alcibiades' son, MENOW, the sire of TOM FOOL and grandsire of BUCKPASSER.

Alcibiades’ son, MENOW, the sire of TOM FOOL and grandsire of BUCKPASSER. Photo and copyright Acme.

 

SIR IVOR ridden by Lester Piggott goes down to the start.

SIR IVOR, ridden by Lester Piggott and trained by Vincent O’Brien, goes down to the start.

 

ENCOSTA DE LAGO, who descends from ALCIBIADES through a daughter, SALAMINIA, is a recently retired champion Australian sire. Photograph published in the Herald Sun (Australia).

ENCOSTA DE LAGO, who descends from ALCIBIADES through her daughter, SALAMINIA, is a recently retired champion Australian sire. Photograph published in the Herald Sun (Australia).

I stumbled across her photo on a popular auction site and again, the listing was curious: “Alcibiades and her jockey ready to race, 1930.” Assuming that I would be unlikely to find an actual photo of the beloved American filly, I was shocked to find that the image was, indeed, Alcibiades. Unlike the Mother Goose photo, the press release — normally tacked onto the back — was missing and the context around the filly gives little clue as to where the photo was taken. So it’s impossible to say what race this was, except that she was a 3 year-old in 1930. It’s clearly post-race, given the froth in Alcibiades’ mouth. And her jockey sure looks happy, so this is possibly after her win in either the Kentucky Oaks or the Arlington Oaks. But that’s pure guesswork.

In any case, we see her lovely face and soft, dark eye, and note the powerful shoulder and hindquarters of a champion.

 

ALCIBIADES as a three year-old.

ALCIBIADES as a three year-old.

 

Finding these two photographs is like opening a time capsule, or slipping through a wormhole to a time over eighty years ago. It’s as though two photographers in the early part of the last century chose to record two fillies in the hope not only that their images would feature in a prominent newspaper but also that they were capturing something significant, since images always signify something to the person who captures them.  Even if they are two hard-working individuals with an assignment, it was each of them who decided the angle, the lighting, the moment to press the button. They could not have known how important Mother Goose and Alcibiades would be for the breed or even what each filly would contribute to thoroughbred history. But framing each photograph is the hope that they just might be witnessing history-in-the-making. By opening the doors of a living present to those of us who stood like shadows in their futures, two people we will never know have, with two great fillies, reached out to us and in so doing, overcome the limitations of time.

Surely it is this, as much as the subjects themselves, that makes these photographs so precious.

 

Sources

Hunter, Avalyn. American Classic Pedigrees website:http://www.americanclassicpedigrees.com

Bowen, Edward L. Matriarchs. KY: The Blood-Horse, 1999.

Mitchell, Frank. Racehorse Breeding Theories. Wisconsin: The Russel Meerdink Company Ltd., 2004

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