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Dating back to well before the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest horse races in the world. Steeped in medieval tradition and filled with colour, controversy and drama, The Palio lies at the very heart of the identity of the city of Siena.

(Dear Reader: This post is neither a promotion of the Palio nor a condemnation of it. Rather, it was inspired by a treasured memory and a recent visit to Italy. Video footage included here shows no horse or rider being fatally injured, although some may be seen falling during the actual running of the race. AA)

 

MEETING GAUDENZIA

It wasn’t that Rome or Venice or Verona weren’t breathtaking, but my connection to Siena was personal, rooted deep into my childhood.

In 1961, when I was 12 years old, my grandmother had given me a book by Marguerite Henry entitled, “Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio.”

Some fifty-seven years later, here I was in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where the climax of Gaudenzia’s story had taken place.

Entering the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Lined with restaurants and lying in the heart of city, it’s a place where tourist and the Sienese congregate over drinks and food.

 

Under the clock tower in the Piazza, noticeable in grey stone, lie the stables where the horses will be kept on the day of the Palio. Within these cool, dry walls, horses await the start of a race that has gained international status.

 

Over a gin-tonic and pizza, I contemplated the giant oval of the Piazza, imagining how it must transform in July and again in August, when The Palio is run. Like a palimpsest veiled only by the sights and sounds of lunch on an ordinary day in June, medieval buildings festooned with flags, cobblestones covered over with sand and an infield packed where hundreds stood, packed tighter than sardines in a tin, drifted like ghosts across my inner eye.

Winding through the narrow streets that extend like spokes on a wheel from the Piazza, there were many signs that the Palio of July was, indeed, on its way: street lights adorned with the colours of the different contradas, or districts of Siena; a winding street in the contrada of Leocorno (The Unicorn) festooned with orange and white Leocorno flags; a deserted cafe that opted for diplomacy by displaying the flags not only of Leocorno, but also della Pantera (The Panther, in red and blue) and della Tartuca (The Tortoise, in blue & yellow); and a bodega (small grocery store) where the entire back wall was a riot of Palio memorabilia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PALIO

Different as the regions of Italy may be, one of many things they share in common is a strong commitment to local customs and traditions. Located in Tuscany, Siena is famous for its centuries-old rivalry with Firenze (Florence), as well as being the home of the world’s oldest horse race, The Palio of Siena. Although historians estimate that the Palio is about 800 years old, the first written records about it don’t appear until the sixteenth century. Sometimes a third Palio, called the Palio of Peace or the Extraordinary Palio, is run between May-September. But when this happens, it is because there is a special event that is being commemorated.

The Palio is, ultimately, about the courage of a horse and rider, and the centuries-old, fierce competitiveness of the seventeen contradas of Siena. There is, of course, intrigue as these rivalries play out in July and August. But the intrigue only adds to the drama of horses and men reliving a beloved tradition. However, to fully understand The Palio and the sensibility of Siena, it helps to know a little of Italy’s history.

Until 1861, when Italy became a unified country under the Sardinian king, Victor Immanuel II, the whole of what we know today as one country was in fact ruled by a number of powerful city states. These city states controlled their own territories and were regularly at war with one another. Italy was a celebration of a richly diversified regionalism up until 1861, when all these regional customs and traditions had to learn to live together. And live together they do, but it is a kind of begrudging unity and it is those regional qualities that keep that going. Even in 2018, the citizens of Firenze/Florence consider themselves the chief rival to Siena, just as it was in ancient times. And our tour guide, who came from neither city, confided, ” You know, I find Siena the most beautiful city in the North. But any Florentine will tell you that the Sienese people are really not that nice, not very friendly. The Florentines are much nicer, much warmer.”

To a large extent, the magnificence of the different cities and regions of Italy today is due to their ancient roots as powerful jurisdictions. This is arguably most evident in Venice, a city that presents itself to you as though it was the only important city in Italy.

In the Piazza San Marco, the city of Venice presents herself in all her power and glory. The lion of the city flag hangs proudly next to that of Italy.

 

Proclaiming its power to the world: The Piazza San Marco in Venice.

 

The drama of the first Palio is re-enacted yearly by Siena’s seventeen contradas. Each one has its own flag, its own museum and it own Church. Each Sienese is christened in his/her contrada and it is to the contrada that they return when they die. In Siena on July 2 (Palio di Provenzano) and again on August 17 (Palio dell’Assunta), when the Palios are run, whole families split up, each joining his/her contrada for the day. To refuse to do so would be considered a social aberration, unless you were a babe in arms.

 

 

The colours of the contradas of Siena.

Long before the races of summer, the hunt by each contrada is on for a horse and rider. Whereas jockeys can be contracted by a contrada early in a given year, in the last 60 or so years it is more common after the horse chosen to represent their district is assigned. Each contrada contributes to the pool of horses available, even though not every horse is chosen and there is no certainty that they will be represented by the horse they have put forward. The horses themselves are always mixed breeds, pure breeds being forbidden largely because horses need to be fast and strong enough to withstand the rigors of the Palio. They can come from any walk of life, from working horses to pleasure horses, or from any region of Italy. The most important criteria is their speed. The horses selected are often trained by each contrada’s jockey, but then a twist comes in the form of a lottery.

A few days before the Palio a process takes place to choose horses. On the morning of the third day before the Palio the lottery takes place, but not before each horse is given a thorough check by a veterinary team, followed by a trial run around the Palio course. After this, the ten most suitable horses are chosen and then assigned to each contrada in a draw. The draws for horses being random, it is rare that a horse and its trainer, now turned jockey, end up together.

Only ten contradas participate in each Palio; in the July 2 Palio, the seven contradas who didn’t participate in July of the previous year are included, as well as three additional contradas, who are selected at random in another draw.

Below: The “Drawing of the Horses.”

 

The moment a horse is assigned, the contrada takes it away to their district stables, in a procession of contrada members. It will only return to the Piazza del Campo on the day of the race.

From the time he is contracted, the jockey is given security guards, whose job it is to see that he isn’t tempted by other contradas to throw the race. From the time they are chosen, the best jockeys are habitually assailed by offers in the form of bribes. The only way to assure their loyalty is for the contrada to offer them a handsome sum of money, the payment of which takes place before the Palio. But don’t feel sorry for the contradas: they frequently enpower their jockeys to bribe other jockeys right up to the start of the race. As well, each contrada has up to the morning of the Palio to change its jockey if he is suspected of being compromised in a way that will endanger their winning.

Jockeys can be changed but the horses cannot. If they become ill or unable to race, the horse withdraws as does its contrada and, for all the brutality of the Palio, there have been numerous cases of horses being withdrawn because a contrada feared for its safety.

Three days before the first Palio, as Siena begins to explode with contrada flags and marching bands, the jockeys and horses are given a chance to have a dry run in the form of six horse trials around the course, the last of which occurs on the morning of the actual Palio. Before the trials begin, the entries are drawn and this will decide the order the horses are called to the start on Palio day. The “wild card” — the tenth contrada drawn — does not line up with the rest of the horses. Instead, this pair stand farther back and only when they decide to go is the race officially on.

 

The Tratta is the ceremony in which places are drawn for the Palio. You can see the results on the board in the background. Number ten is the “wild card” — the horse and rider that will determine the start of the race.

On the day of the Palio, horses and riders are blessed in the church of their contrada. Then the horse, wearing its brightly coloured spennacchiera and bridle, is paraded to the Piazza del Campo, where it will be stabled within the cool, stone walls of the del Campo stables to await the race, which takes place at 7:30 pm in July (and at 7 p.m. in August).

The Blessing of the Horse:

 

The running of the Palio is the final event of a day of colour, excitement and festivity, all invoking the rites and rituals of hundreds of years before, called “The Historical Walk” (Passeggiata Storica).The participants number about 600 and are drawn from all of the 17 contradas. The war cart (Carroccio), drawn by white oxen, carries the Palio — a hand-painted banner that goes to the victor of that year’s Palio and hearkens back to the original Pallium banner of the 1500’s or earlier, made of sacred, liturgical cloth and after which the race derived its name.

The arrival of the Palio, or victory flag, is the last event before the Palio itself is run.

 

 

As the horses for the Palio appear on the track, a roar goes up from the crowd. The jockeys, now wearing the silks of the contrada for which they are racing, are bareback and carry only a long riding stick, called a nerbi, make of dried cow hide and with which they can drive on their horses or impede another horse, specifically by knocking off its spennacchiara. Since it is the horse and its contrada, not the rider, who is credited with the win, even a riderless horse can race to victory in the Palio. That is — as it used to be — unless the closest jockey manages to knock of its spennacchiara. But this latter rule has been changed, even though its absence remains contrversial. Spennacchiara or no, the first horse across the finish line, riderless or not, wins.

 

GUESS, who won the July 1 2013 Palio for Oca (The Goose), wearing his spennacchiara (between his ears) in Oca colours.

The horses will race around the Piazza de Campo course three times before the finish and the winner is greeted by a three-gun salute. At the start, the horses are called by the name of the contrada and in chronological order, as per the position they have drawn. Nine line up between the two ropes that mark off the starting gate. The 10th horse and rider, the rincorsa, waits behind the ropes: when the other horses are reasonably orderly in front of him, he will kick off the race by encouraging his horse to leap forward.

As you can see, in the video below, readying for the start can take some time! Here is the July 2, 2018 Palio that took place only a few days after I had left Italy and was on my way home. Note the rincorsa, in the yellow and red colours of the Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) contrada, behind the other nine horses. Note, too, the sharp turn horses and riders make and the white on the walls — thick mattressing put up to lessen the chances of a horse or rider falling to its death. The winner for the Drago (Dragon) contrada was the bay Rocco Nice, ridden by jockey Andrea Mari.

(Note: Riders are unseated and horses fall, but there were no casualties or serious injuries sustained.)

 

HOMAGE TO GAUDENZIA

 

The real GAUDENZIA was not only the heroine of a children’s story. She was adored by an entire nation and went on to become an international superstar, thanks to Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

I recalled little of Marguerite Henry’s story of Gaudenzia.

When I arrived home, one of the first things I did was to pull the book down from the shelf where it sat with other beloved books of my childhood and start to read it again. By the time I had read the last page, I remembered that I didn’t really like the book and I could hazard a guess as to why 12 year-old me might not have been enamored of it.

First of all, “Gaudenzia” is a harsh story of a very poor boy and a forgotten cart horse. Secondly, there’s the annoyance of Henry’s attempt to write people speaking Italian in English, as was the tradition of the time, and dialogue comes off in a way that reminds you of the imperfect speech of a toddler. I felt that Giorgio Terni would have been deeply offended reading this in the context of 2018, but in the 1950’s and long before, this was typically the way dialects and “foreign speakers” were represented. (It was lightly documented, but true, that Will Harbut was deeply hurt by the publication of the phrase he became most noted for: “Da’ mostest horse.” Harbut felt that his words should have been published in standard or, as he put it, “correct” English, i.e. “the mostest horse,” as a sign of respect.)

Last, but not least, “Gaudenzia” has its dark moments and chief among them is the fact that Giorgio’s father bought and fattened horses to be sold for their meat. In fact, it was the loss of the blind mare, Bianca to slaughter — a mare who Giorgio loved desperately — and the coincidence that Gaudenzia came into the world on the same day, that engendered the boy’s interest in the filly foal. Giorgio believed that Gaudenzia was the blind Bianca, coming back to him. As a girl who loved horses, it is quite possible that it was inside the pages of Henry’s narrative that I first learned about horse slaughter and, as a youngster, the very idea of eating a horse would have been inconceivable.

GAUDENZIA, as she is shown with Giorgio, in the book by Marguerite Henry.

It was when I read the final page of the book that explained Gaudenzia’s brilliant reign over the Palio and her retirement, that it hit me: Gaudenzia was real.

And off I went to research her further, to discover that she had, in fact, won four Palios. In her second victory, Gaudenzia had won without her rider, even as her beloved Giorgio — who had trained her but was aboard another horse — raced along beside her, trying desperately to remove her spennacchiara. (In the 1950’s the old rule was in place and it would have effectively disqualified Gaudenzia from her riderless victory had another jockey managed to knock off her spennacchiara.) Giorgio was devastated at trying to stop his mare from gaining a second consecutive victory because he knew that he was one of the few people she trusted.

 

GAUDENZIA racing to victory in the July Palio in 1954, with Giorgio Terni on her back.

Henry travelled to Tuscany three times in order to understand the phenomena of the Palio and was there, with Giorgio, when he and Gaudenzia won the first Palio. She confessed that she had to scrap her first idea for a story because the real story of the grey, part-Arab mare and the peasant boy, Giorgio Terni, was so much more dramatic. As she put it in her preface “… Their battle to outwit destiny is a drama of human and animal courage.”

 

GAUDENZIA and Giorgio: “…a drama of human and animal courage.” (Marguerite Henry, Preface, “Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio.”)

Gaudenzia, who was born in 1942 and won her first 3 Palios at the age of 12, was barred from running for a year because she was certain to win. Returning in the August Palio in 1956, at the age of 14, she won again. It would be the last time she raced. She retired having won 3 consecutive Palios in 1954, in which there was an additional September Palio. No horse had ever done this before Gaudenzia. When she annexed a 4th win in 1956, she became the stuff of legend. The cart horse had morphed into a Queen.

Gaudenzia and Giorgio win their first Palio for the contrada Onda (The Wave) on July 2, 1954. Note that Gaudenzia is the 10th horse and so, is the one who signals the start of the race. (FYI: There is no sound on the video, but there are some wonderful close-ups of Gaudenzia that make up for it.)

And here is Gaudenzia’s last Palio, on August 16, 1956. This time she ran in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) and was ridden by Francesco Cuttoni. Giorgio Terni was her trainer.

Gaudenzia was retired with all the glory of a queen, which she had become, and lived out the rest of her days in a medieval castle near Siena. Giorgio visited her regularly until her death, in 1972 or 1974, at the age of 30/32.

GAUDENZIA being led to the stable of her contrada after the drawing of the horses. Date unknown.

 

GAUDENZIA in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) after her final victory in the August Palio of 1956.

 

GAUDENZIA’S beautiful face appears on this German version of Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

GAUDENZIA in the lead — where she always was — in what appears to be her first win in July of 1954.

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

The trailer from the documentary PALIO, available on Netflix. In it, those involved speak in their own voices, leaving the viewer to construct his/her own understanding and conclusions about this complex and controversial race. Some might also be interested to know that the featured jockey, Giovanni Atzeni, is the third cousin of jockey Andrea Atzeni, of thoroughbred racing fame. (NOTE: This is in no way a promotion of the documentary, to which I have no affiliation, but I did watch it and enjoyed it very much.)

 

“…The emotions of a life, the feeling of a life” : Siena Prepares For The Palio

 

Bibliography

Henry, Marguerite. Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio. Rand McNally and Company, New York. 1960

Edizioni KINA Italia/L.E.G.O. The Palio: The Heart and Soul of Siena. ND

Sports Illustrated. Issue of August 30, 1954.

GAUDENZIA: Archivio del Palio di Siena @ https://www.ilpalio.siena.it/5/Cavalli/413?cod=C413

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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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If — which is the longest word in any language — Mendelssohn pulls off a win in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, be sure that his maternal ancestor, Sea-Bird II, will have blessed his effort with the gift of wings.

SEA-BIRD II. Conformation shot, identified with stamp of trainer Etienne Pollet. Credit: Photo & Cine RECOUPE, Paris, France. (Photograph from the collection of THE VAULT, purchased on Ebay.)

Far back in the fifth generation of Mendelssohn’s maternal family sits the name of Sea-Bird II. Of course, he is just one of many that account genetically for the Ballydoyle superstar. But Sea-Bird II was arguably the best thoroughbred of the twentieth century, at least as far as the British and the Europeans are concerned, rating #1 in John Randall and Tony Morris’ important book, “A Century of Champions.” ( The mighty Secretariat came in at #2, followed by Ribot in #3, Brigadier Gerard in #4 and Citation in #5. Man O’ War finished in the #21 spot.)

Tony Morris is one of the most respected figures in thoroughbred geneology and pedigree, as well as being a consummate historian of the sport, in the world. The Randall-Morris tome begins by asserting that it is foolhardy to compare horses over the generations, while adding that, thanks to the system devised by Timeform in 1947, reliable handicapping figures can be drawn across the decades of the twentieth century using their formula. In 2016, Sea-Bird II’s rating of 145 ranks him second on the list of Timeform’s all-time world’s best since 1947; Frankel sits at #1 with a rating of 147.

Sea-Bird (as he was registered in France) only raced for a period of roughly eighteen months, in a career that saw him lose just once and winning both the Epsom Derby and the 1965 Arc in his three year-old season. By the time he left for the USA to join the stallion roster at John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky, Sea-Bird had become a legend in his own time.

However, the colt foal who came into the world in March 1962 set his tiny hoofs to the ground unaware that his owner-breeder, Jean Ternynck, a textile manufacturer in Lille, France, considered his pedigree rather medoicre. His sire, Dan Cupid, a son of the incomparable Native Dancer, had been a runner-up in the 1959 Prix du Jockey Club to the brilliant Herbager, arguably his best race although he did take the Prix Mornay as a two year-old. His dam was a daughter of Sickle by Phalaris and a grandaughter of the superb Gallant Fox — a pedigree that appeared to promise some potential. However, as of 1962 Dan Cupid had yet to produce anything of merit as a sire. Sea-Bird’s dam, Sicalade, from the sire line of Prince Rose, was in a similar predicament and while Dan Cupid was maintained by Ternynck, Sicalade was gone by 1963.

 

The handsome DAN CUPID (by Native Dancer ex. Vixenette) raced in France for Jean Ternynck and stood at stud there. But he never produced anything that even came close to SEA-BIRD II.

 

SICKLE, the BM sire odf SEA-BIRD II. Hailing from the PHALARIS sire line, with SELENE as his dam, SICKLE’S influence as a sire was outstanding. Imported to the USA by Joseph Widener, SICKLE produced individuals like STAGEHAND and is the grandsire of POLYNESIAN, who sired NATIVE DANCER. SICKLE was one of two leading sires produced by SELENE.

Ah, the mystery of breeding! The numbers of great sires and mares who produce nothing much are astronomical in number, but by the time Sea-Bird made his third appearance as a juvenile, his owner was likely considering the corollary. Namely, that two mediocre thoroughbreds had got themselves one very promising colt.

 

In France, DAN CUPID, the sire of SEA-BIRD, has an audience with HM The Queen.

Sea-Bird was sent to the Chantilly stables of trainer Etienne Pollet, a cousin of his owner, Ternynck. The colt raced three times as a two year-old, winning the Prix de Blaison (7f.) despite being green and getting off to a poor start. A short two weeks later, he won again, but this time it was the prestigious Criterium de Maisons Lafitte. Like his first win, Sea-Bird crossed the wire a short neck ahead of the excellent filly, BlaBla, who would go on to win the Prix Diane/French Oaks as a three year-old. For the final start of his juvenile season, the colt was entered in the prestigious Grand Criterium against some of the best of his generation.

GREY DAWN as portrayed by Richard Stone Reeves. The son of HERBAGER was the undisputed star of the 1964 juvenile season in France.

The colt Grey Dawn was also entered and he had already won the two most important juvenile contests in France that year, namely the Prix Morny and the Prix de la Salamandre. Run at Longchamps over a mile, the Grand Criterium was thought to be Grey Dawn’s to lose. The son of Herbager — who had, ironically, been the nemesis of Dan Cupid in the Prix de Jockey Club — was a superstar.

During the race, Grey Dawn was always in striking position. Sea-Bird, on the other hand, had been left a lot to do by his jockey, Maurice Larraun, as the field turned for home. Finally given his head, the colt rushed forward in a mighty charge to take second place to Grey Dawn. But it was too little too late. Despite that, many felt the Sea-Bird was the true star of the race, even though Grey Dawn had won without ever truly being extended. Trainer Etienne Pollet was delighted, knowing full well that Sea-Bird’s late charge had been something quite spectacular. (Note: Footage of this race appears in the SEA-BIRD feature video, below.)

SEA-BIRD at work, probably as a three year-old in 1965. Credit: Paris Match, Marie Claire. (Photograph in the collection of THE VAULT, purchased on Ebay.)

The three year-old Sea-Bird was a force to be reckoned with. His first two starts, the Prix Greffulhe at Longchamps (10.5f) and the Prix Lupin, had him pegged for Epsom given his winnings margins of 3 and 6 lengths, respectively. And in the Prix Lupin, he had left Diatome, the winner of the important Prix Noailles, and Cambremont, who had defeated Grey Dawn in the Poule d’Essai des Poulins, in his slipstream.

On Derby day, Sea-Bird started as favourite. In the field were Meadow Court, who would go on to win the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in authoritative fashion, as well as the filly, Blabla, the winner of the French Oaks.

Sea-Bird is wearing number 22, with Australian jockey Pat Glennon wearing dark green silks and a black cap:

 

“…The Derby performance had to be seen to be believed. In a field of 22 he came to the front, still cantering, 1 1/2 furlongs from home, then was just pushed out for 100 yards before being eased again so that runner-up Meadow Court was flattered by the 2 lengths deficit. ”  (In Randall and Morris, “A Century of Champions,” pp 65)

Apparently, Glennon had been told by trainer Pollet to watch Sea-Bird after the finish line, since there was a road that crossed the track and Pollet was worried the colt would run right into it. Glennon told the press that it was all he could think about near the finish, which was the reason he pulled up the colt. Otherwise, the winning margin could have been well over 5 lengths.

SEA-BIRD moves away from the pack, on his way to victory at Epsom. MEADOW COURT and I SAY are just behind him. Photo credit: Keystone, UK. (From the collection of THE VAULT)

 

Epsom 1965: At the finish, ears pricked. Photo credit: Sport & General, London, UK (From the collection of THE VAULT.)

 

Sea-Bird only raced twice after his victory at the Epsom Derby, winning the Grand Prix Sant-Cloud at a canter.

Then came the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the three year-old’s greatest challenge.

The field was stellar, including the American champion, Tom Rolfe, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the undefeated Russian superstar, Anilin, the British champion, Meadow Court, and the French champions Reliance and Diatome. But despite the undisputed quality of the field, Sea-Bird produced one of the most devastating performances in the history of the Arc:

Just prior to the running of the Arc, the American John W. Galbreath had reputedly paid owner Ternynck $1,350,000 to lease Sea-Bird for five years to stand him at stud at his legendary Darby Dan Farm. Galbreath was no stranger to European racing, having already acquired the stellar Ribot in 1959 under another 5-year lease. One of America’s greatest breeders, in 1965 Galbreath stood the stallions Swaps, Errard, Helioscope and Decathlon at Darby Dan, while holding breeding rights to other champion thoroughbreds, notably Tudor Minstrel, Royal Charger, Gallant Man, Arctic Prince and Polynesian.

Retired in 1965, Sea-Bird was crowned the Champion 3 year-old in both England and France, as well as Champion Handicap colt in France.

 

SEA-BIRD pictured at Orly all kitted out to fly off to the USA and John W. Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm. Credit: Keystone. (From the collection of THE VAULT.)

 

SEA-BIRD appears reluctant to board. Credit: Keystone (From the collection of THE VAULT)

The young stallion stood his 5 years at Darby Dan, during which time he bred two excellent progeny. He returned to France amid expectations of still more outstanding progeny.

Sadly, Sea-Bird’s life was cut short upon his return to France, where he died of colitis at the age of eleven. But he is remembered for siring an Arc winner of his own, in the incomparable Allez France; as well as the brilliant Arctic Tern, Gyr, who had the misfortune to run in the same years as the brilliant Nijinsky, the millionaire hurdler, Sea Pigeon, Mr. Long, who was a 5-time Champion sire in Chile from 1982-1986, and America’s beloved Little Current, the winner of the 1974 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, who like his sire, stood at Darby Dan Farm.

It is a great and tragic irony that his short life never allowed Sea-Bird a chance to produce European and British grass champions of the quality of his American crops.

 

In the Belmont Stakes, Little Current was every inch Sea-Bird’s son:

 

 

Even though Sea-Bird can’t be credited for the brilliance that is Mendelssohn, he played his part in the genetic landscape of the colt’s pedigree.

I, for one, will be watching on May 7 to see if there’s a mighty bird sitting just between Mendelssohn’s ears.

 

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Below, a lovely SEA-BIRD feature, including very rare racing footage together with the insights of his trainer, Etienne Pollet.

 

 

Selected Bibliography

Hunter, Avalyn online @ American Classic Pedigrees: Sea-Bird (France)

Randall, John and Tony Morris. A Century of Champions. London: Portway Press Limited, 1999

Timeform online @ https://www.timeform.com/horse-racing/features/top-horses/Timeforms

Tower, Whitney. The Man, The Horse and The Deal That Made History in Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1959

 

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************NOTE: THE VAULT 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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Named after an infamous spy for the Germans in WW1, this mighty filly leaves her imprint on the 2018 Kentucky Derby, as well as on international thoroughbred racing.

 

MATA HARI was a brilliant grandaughter of MAN O’ WAR. Photo: DRF, May 23, 1934.

 

A solid bay filly with a feminine head, Mata Hari came into the world in 1931, sired by Peter Hastings out of War Woman, by Man O’ War. It is difficult to wager what her owner-breeder, automotive pioneer Charles T. Fisher, who had purchased the fabled Dixiana Farm in 1928, might have expected from a filly born to a pair of unraced thoroughbreds. What was certain, however, was that her sire descended from the Domino sire line. James R. Keene’s Domino had come into the world at Dixiana Farm, bred by the farm’s founder, Major Barack G. Thomas, from his brilliant thoroughbred sire Himyar.

Perhaps there was a little fairy dust falling from Dixiana’s rafters onto the newborn filly’s head. Too, her BM sire was a national treasure, quite capable — at least potentially — of getting good colts and fillies through his daughters.

 

George Conway, pictured with Man O’ War at Saratoga.

Named Mata Hari after an infamous Dutch spy who worked for Germany in WW1, the filly was sent to the training stables of Clyde Van Dusen. Van Dusen had been a jockey before getting his trainer’s licence. His claim to fame was to train the first Kentucky Derby winner for Man O’ War, a gelding named after himself: Clyde Van Dusen. When the 1929 Derby winner was retired, Clyde continued their relationship by taking him on as his personal pony.

 

Greta Garbo portrayed MATA HARI in the 1931 film of the same name.

 

CLYDE and Clyde: Trainer Clyde Van Dusen rode his Derby winner as a stable pony when the gelding was retired.

 

Van Dusen’s connection to Mata Hari’s owner came through work: shortly after winning the 1929 Derby with his namesake, he went to work for Charles T. Fisher at his automotive plant in Detroit. In 1930/-31, he took over training duties for Fisher and his first success came with Sweep All, who ran second in the 1933 Kentucky Derby to the great Twenty Grand.

Sweep All and Mata Hari would have been stablemates in 1933, and both were escorted to the track by “the Clydes” for their works.

 

MATA HARI at work, circa 1933-1934.

The daughter of War Woman’s two year-old campaign was sensational, earning her Co-Champion Two Year-Old Filly honours in 1933 with Edward R. Bradley’s filly, Bazaar. The title handed Man O’ War second place among BM sires in 1933. It was his first appearance in the top ten of BM sires nationwide. Mata Hari began her juvenile season by winning three in a row, culminating in the Arlington Lassie Stakes. In the Matron and Arlington Futurity, the filly was hampered by weight and this caused her to swerve badly, resulting in third place finishes in both cases.

 

Two year-old MATA HARI in the winner’s enclosure at Arlington after winning The Arlington Lassie Stakes.

In October, Mata Hari won the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at Latonia, beating HOF Discovery, setting a new 6f. track record in the process. One week later, she became only the second filly to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where she once again dismissed Discovery who came in second, one better than his third place the week before in the Jockey Club.

That Mata Hari beat a colt of this calibre not once but twice within a period of seven days speaks volumes about her stamina and speed. And she seemed to scorch her rivals so easily. Her two year-old campaign had made her a sensation in the West.  Nicknames like “A Juvenile Princess” (Toledo News Bee, 1933) were used to celebrate her winning ways in the local press. Further afield, The Vancouver Sun in Canada added to the accolades.

DISCOVERY at work. As a BM sire, his daughters produced the champions NATIVE DANCER, BOLD RULER and BED O’ ROSES. Copyright The Baltimore Sun.

 

MATA HARI was the darling of the West. Article + cartoon from the archives of the Toledo News Bee.

 

Expectations were high for Mata Hari in her three-year old season and she did not disappoint. Arguably the most publicized of her performances came in the 1934 Kentucky Derby:

 

She didn’t win it — finishing just off the board in fourth place — but she sure made a race of it.

Following the Derby, Mata Hari ran in the May 23 Illinois Derby against males at Aurora Downs, where she once again broke an existing track record by more than three seconds with a time of 1:49 3/5 for a mile and an eighth on dirt. Then, on June 23, the filly took the Illinois Oaks at Washington Park. Her victory in the Oaks was superb, gaining the praises of The New York Times, who hailed her as the “…queen of the 3 year-old fillies.”

So impressive was she that Mata Hari was named Champion Filly for the second straight year, once again sharing three year-old honours with Colonel Bradley’s Bazaar.

 

MATA HARI again was awarded Champion Filly, this time in the 3 year-old division, in 1934. Once again, she shared the honours with Colonel Bradley’s BAZAAR. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Retired to the breeding shade, Mata Hari was courted by the likes of Eight Thirty, Sickle and Bull Lea. But her best two progeny came through matings with Balladier and Roman. The former mating produced the champion colt, Spy Song (1943), and the latter another very good colt in Roman Spy (1951).

SPY SONG was MATA HARI’s best son. Sired by BALLADIER, the colt would run up an impressive race record, running against the likes of Triple Crown winner, ASSAULT.

The handsome Spy Song had the misfortune of being born in the same year as Triply Crown champion Assault. But despite that, he carved out his own place in the sun, winning the Arlington Futurity in his two year-old season, followed by a campaign at three that saw him running second to Assault in the Kentucky derby and winning the Hawthorne Sprint Handicap. At four, he again won at Hawthorne in the Speed Handicap, as well as annexing the Chicago and Clang Handicaps and the Myrtlewood Stakes. He raced into his five year-old season and retired after thirty-six starts, of which he won fifteen, and earnings of $206,325 USD.

Here is Spy Song’s run in the 1946 Kentucky Derby:

 

At stud, Spy Song proved a solid sire. His most successful progeny was Crimson Satan, a speedster who undoubtedly benefitted from the influence of Commando through Peter Pan in his fourth generation sire line.

Crimson Satan, like his sire, met up with two mighty peers in his three year-old season: Ridan and Jaipur. These two dominated the Triple Crown races in 1962. But Crimson Satan was a hardy colt who had been named Champion Two-Year Old in 1961 and by the time he retired, he’d chalked up victories in the Laurance Armour, Clark, Washington Park and Massachussetts Handicaps, as well as the San Fernando Stakes and the Michigan Mile And One Sixteenth Handicap.

 

CRIMSON SATAN (hood) eyes fellow Preakness contender ROMAN LINE in the Pimlico shedrow. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

It is as a sire that Crimson Satan arguably made his most notable mark, through his graded stakes-winning daughter, Crimson Saint. Retired to the breeding shed, Crimson Saint’s meetings with two Triple Crown winners, Secretariat and Nijinsky, produced Terlingua and Royal Academy, respectively. Another colt by Secretariat, Pancho Villa, was also a stakes winner.

Terlingua, an accomplished miler, is arguably most famous for being the dam of Storm Cat. Royal Academy’s son, Bel Esprit, is equally renowned for siring the brilliant Black Caviar.

 

CRIMSON SAINT, the dam of TERLINGUA, PANCHO VILLA and ROYAL ACADEMY, was a brilliant sprinter as well as a Blue Hen producer.

 

Crowds stood 3-deep to see Secretariat’s daughter, TERLINGUA. Photo reprinted with the permission of Lydia A. Williams (LAW).

 

Mata Hari’s grandson, Crimson Satan, established the bridge from this mighty mare to Storm Cat. “Stormy,” as he was affectionately known, pretty much made the now defunct Overbrook Farm and although he died in 2013, his influence as a sire through sons like the late Giant’s Causeway and Hennessey, together with the late Harlan and 2 year-old champion, Johannesburg, the sire of the prepotent Scat Daddy, remains noteworthy.

GIANT’S CAUSEWAY gets a bath as his young trainer, Aidan O’Brien (back to camera) helps out. The gorgeous colt stands out as one of the greatest that O’Brien ever trained.

 

The great Mick Kinane gives JOHANNESBURG a well-deserved pat after the 2 year-old’s win the the 2001 BC Juvenile.

Storm Cat daughters also continue to make a splash of their own, represented by Caress and November Snow, as well as the dams of Japan’s King Kanaloa and Shonan Mighty, while in America, Bodemeister and In Lingerie number among his best as BM sire. The stallion is also the grandsire of Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah through his dam, Littleprincessemma.

With trainer Bob Baffert at Saratoga, AMERICAN PHAROAH won the Triple Crown in 2015.

In addition, Storm Cat mares have proved a very good match with super sire Galileo. The Galileo-Storm Cat nick has been particularly lucrative for Coolmore, attesting to the fact that Storm Cat can get excellent turf runners too.

 

This tapestry of STORM CAT and owner-breeder William T. Young, The Master of Overbrook Farm, hangs in the library, named after Mr. Young, of the University of Kentucky.

 

At Royal Ascot in 2015, Storm Cat lineage accounted for the winners Acapulco, Amazing Maria, War Envoy, Balios, Ballydoyle and Gleneagles. More recently, Mozu Ascot, a son of Frankel ex. India, whose grandsire is Storm Cat, is proving to be a serious contender on the turf in Japan.

2018 Kentucky Derby contender, FLAMEAWAY. The son of SCAT DADDY was bred in Ontario by owner, John Oxley. He is trained by Mark E. Casse.

So it comes as no surprise that Storm Cat also brings the imprint of Mata Hari straight into the field of the 2018 Kentucky Derby, principally through his son, Scat Daddy. However, “Stormy” also appears in the third generation of the female family of Noble Indy, another contender in the Derby field.

The three Scat Daddy’s that have made the Derby roster are Justify, Mendelssohn and Flameaway and all three have a chance at winning.

Arguably the most impressive is Aidan O’ Brien’s Mendelssohn, who is a half-brother to the American champion Beholder, and the excellent sire, Into Mischief. That alone would have peaked interest in this rising 3 year-old star, who the North American public got to know in his 2 year-old performance on turf in the 2017 Breeder’s Cup, where he beat 2018 Derby hopefuls Flameaway and My Boy Jack:

 

 

“On a dizzying ascent to greatness…” is the lightly-raced and undefeated Justify, shown here in his last pre-Derby race, the million dollar Santa Anita Derby:

 

 

Flameaway may not carry the enigma of either Mendelssohn or Justify, but he’s got the experience and determination to be a serious threat if he can cope with the deep track at Churchill Downs. But, then again, the same could be said of the superstar Mendelssohn.

Here’s a punter’s look at Flameaway:

 

 

We’ve ventured a fair distance in time and place from the heroine of this piece, Mata Hari. And it’s easy to forget the ancestors of today’s future champions, who have left their imprint, if not a direct influence, on exceptional colts and fillies.

But a pedigree is like a living puzzle, where every piece needs to fit into place to produce a champion.

And as the first Saturday in May draws nigh, will Mata Hari have a say on who wears the roses?

 

MATA HARI: this superb mare rides once again in the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

 

Selected Bibiliography

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

The Blood Horse.

— Article on the death of Crimson Saint. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/193186/prominent-broodmare-crimson-saint-dead-at-32

— A Quarter Century of American Racing and Breeding: 1916 Through 1940. Silver Anniversary Edition.

 

 

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************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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There were some great races (San Felipe, the fabulous Tough Sunday, Justify, etc.) the weekend of March 10, 2018 in the USA. But for me, THE story of that weekend had nothing to do with horse races.

(NOTE: No graphic images or footage of horse slaughter in this article.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

On March 9, shortly after she posted this video (above), I picked up a tweet from Dina Alborano of http://www.icareihelp.com that 15 thoroughbreds had arrived at the Thompson kill lot in Louisiana, shipping in from Delta Downs with the order to “direct ship” to Mexico, according to the individual you hear speaking in the second video, below. (“Direct ship” means that they would not go to auction but ship straight to slaughter. I would add that in the information given by the Thompson spokesman, there was absolutely no information to suggest that these horses had been bought at auction or privately, or even that they might not all have come from Delta Downs.) At least seven were “fresh off the track,” according to the Thompson spokesperson, who wanted to sell them as a lot at $875 USD a head, or roughly $20k USD before expenses like shipping and quarantine are added.

That they all allegedly came from Delta Downs was no shock to me. Shipments from this track are all too frequent, arriving with a horrible punctuality throughout their racing season. This “herd” of thoroughbreds had shown up on the final days of the flat racing season at Delta Downs. Seemingly no coincidence there.

By March 10, the true number dispatched to Thompson was revealed to be 24 thoroughbreds, aka “The 24.”

 

 

 

 

 

I am not naïve: I know that horse slaughter didn’t begin in the last decade. I have rescued horses, written to the Prime Minister of Canada and the Canadian Minister of Agriculture about the slaughter of horses in Canada, protested at one of Quebec’s three horse slaughter plants, and publicized the fact that, since 2015, any horses destined for slaughter whose meat is exported to the European Union (EU) must be resident in the country where they are to be slaughtered for a minimum of 6 months before they die.

This has resulted in a 38% drop in the production of horse meat in Canada since this EU directive came into effect.

The argument used with great success, first by organizations like the Canadian Horse Defense Coalitiom (a nonprofit that has battled the issue on the frontlines for many years) was to inform horse meat consumers worldwide that the thoroughbreds and standardbreds they were eating were rife with chemicals harmful to human beings. Humane arguments didn’t get the job done. Threatening the health of human beings did. The response from the EU was so emphatic that one of Quebec’s slaughter houses hasn’t rendered a horse for consumption since April 2017, principally because they have no interest in feeding and caring for horses for 6 months before they render them into meat.

But despite the efforts of huge numbers of rescues and individuals, horses — from the wild mustang to the child’s pony — remain under attack. However, the presence of social media also means that the flagrant abuse and practice of sending horses to slaughter has gone public for all to see:

BEAR WITNESS (Skip Away ex. Lady’s Secret by Secretariat) at auction in 2015. I would have thought that any horse with these bloodlines would have been safe. But I was wrong: “BEAR” was purchased by a young couple and, despite their valiant efforts, died of the abuses he had sustained.

 

Before I read Dina’s post, I had had a few weeks of optimism about the plight of thoroughbreds who end up in the slaughter chain.

Rick Porter, owner of superstars like Songbird, Havre de Grace, Hard Spun and Eight Belles, had announced the formation of the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization (NTWO), an organization he initiated to resolve the issue of thoroughbred slaughter by working proactively with racetracks, trainers and owners. As well, the NTWO intended to set up a national information and help hotline. A central goal was to work cooperatively with rescue groups and individuals to plug the flow of thoroughbreds that end up in kill pens on their way to Mexico or Canada.

The announcement brought me to tears.

I have been a “horse nut” my whole life and come from a family that owned champion horses and ponies. My father, who was a British Commando during WWII and later trained to be a veterinarian, raised us with the understanding that when you own an animal you take responsibility for it — from the beginning to the end of your time together. It was a cardinal rule in our family, never to be broken.

Finally, here was a key figure from the sport who held the principle of responsible ownership to be paramount. A man who had the courage to step up and give thoroughbreds — and so many people like myself — a voice.

On February 28, 2018, in The Blood-Horse, Rick Porter was interviewed by eminent senior journalist and HOFer, Steve Haskin, himself a proponent of responsible ownership and thoroughbred aftercare:

“…Through the efforts of the NTWO, Porter says the solution to the “feedlot extortion” problem is to secure discarded horses before they end up in the hands of feedlot owners and slaughter buyers. In the short term, this may require watching over the small auctions where these horses are funnelled, and outbidding slaughter buyers. The long-term solution is to stop the pipeline flow at the source, which is at the track.

‘No track should knowingly allow or turn a blind eye to trainers on their grounds who are turning over horses to potential slaughter,” Porter said. “The tracks who allow this are doing a great disservice to the sport.’ ” (Steve Haskin interview with Rick Porter, The Blood-Horse, February 28, 2018)

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“Feedlot extortion” is nothing new. Kill buyers know all the tricks to appeal to rescue groups and individuals, from lies to misinformation to factual misrepresentation. And they continue to make a huge personal income from such “extortions” all over North America.

It is this sad reality that fuels the argument of the many thoroughbred and horse rescues in the USA and Canada that the place to rescue horses bound for slaughter is before they reach the kill lots. Their reasoning is that by funding kill buyers, enough capital is generated to allow these same buyers to purchase still more thoroughbreds, standardbreds and horses of all types, as well as ponies and burros, for slaughter. Too, kill buyers can often afford to outbid rescue teams and individuals at auctions when they have been handsomely paid at the other end, i.e. by those pulling horses out of their pens at places like Thompson’s.

By the time they arrive in kill lots, the prices set on their heads are far in excess of what any horse, pony or burro would bring at auction or sell for to slaughter houses. This trend makes the argument of rescues a sensible one that should, in theory at least, be effective in taking on the kill buyer conduit of the slaughter industry.

But the problem here is that some owners, race tracks and trainers don’t play by the rules, as the 24 thoroughbreds filmed in the Thompson kill lot, marked “direct ship,” attest. In their specific case, it is fair to speculate that at least one individual on the Delta Downs backstretch, with the support of owners and trainers and the collusion of Delta Downs, is prepared to get thoroughbreds off the track and out of the country without a single thought to their rehabilitation and re-homing.

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However, for “The 24” in a kill lot in Louisiana on March 9, 2018, none of these arguments mattered. Many were youngsters and most were terrified. Some just hung their heads, sensing that something new and not very good was happening to them.

For a nascent organization like NTWO, news of their arrival at the Thompson kill pens had to be as deeply disturbing, as it was for the warriors that work with rescuers like Dina Alborano. There was little that NTWO could do while in the midst of setting up an organizational structure that should, in the long run, make a difference for many thoroughbreds at-risk. And although it is tempting to believe that “saying it makes it so” this is a misconception. Important work requires that solid structures are put into place — and this takes time.

Time that “The 24” didn’t have.

 

 

 

 

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Even Dina Alborano herself was overcome by the amount it would take to get the thoroughbreds out. But, like those standing with her, she shored up her courage and marched on.

And so it began.

All weekend, people from as far away as Great Britain stepped up to help save “The 24.”

Dina sounded the charge, but the vast majority of her warriors were not made up of wealthy horse owners or breeding farms or trainers. Instead, they were people of modest means, many of whom could only afford a donation of $10 or $20 dollars. Some were unemployed, some were retirees on fixed incomes, others were working at jobs where they weren’t bringing home as much as the thoroughbreds they wanted so fervently to save were going to cost. Those with little financial means began a Twitter storm, getting the word out to more and more people.

It was an interminable weekend, with each and every one of those determined to save “The 24” watching, re-tweeting and sending out words of encouragement that lit up the darkness.

Shortly before midnight, on March 11, came the words we were all waiting for:

 

 

 

All of us watching and waiting were also “literally in tears.”  A band of modest means, with the help of those like Colorado Avalanche’s Erik Johnson and thoroughbred owner, Michael Cannon, had raised 30k in a little less than 3 days. Also contributing were  “anonymous” donors from the sport/industray.

This was arguably the most dramatic but not the first rescue by Dina’s warriors. Some in the thoroughbred community had already provided vital financial support that saw several other thoroughbreds escape slaughter, among them the Zayat family, the Graham Motion family, jockey Gary Stevens and his wife, jockey Mike Smith, XBTV host, Zoe Cadman, and members of the handicapping community.

But I can only imagine what so many gave up to save 24 horses they didn’t own –and hadn’t profited from at the track — and would never even meet face-to-face. And, for this writer, the determination, sacrifice and commitment of this community will stay with me forever, just as do memories of other rescues and individuals who have overcome huge obstacles to pull thoroughbreds, standardbreds, BLM mustangs, wild burros, draft horses and minis from slaughter lots. Not to mention those sanctuaries, havens and OTTB organizations who have provided homes and new careers for unwanted and captured horses, such as the wild mustang.

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It was bizarre experience to read Twitter posts during the campaign to save “The 24”: sports racing correspondents twittered on, seemingly oblivious, while farms posted thoroughbred foals struggling to take their first steps. All this sandwiched between news of the drive to pull “The 24” out of a certain, terrifying death.

The late John Berger observed that there is a kind of “quiet insanity” in our culture – the kind that allows us to watch 24 thoroughbreds on their way to slaughter, juxtaposed with a video of the running of the San Felipe, and not bat an eyelash. Perhaps that’s because this type of juxtaposition has become so much a part of our daily lives that we’ve adapted by snuffing out our obligation to question, numbing ourselves to a seemingly endless barrage of horrendous events.

Consigned to slaughter “…because her hooves needed trimming.” From the blog of the CANADIAN HORSE DEFENSE COALITION.

Make no mistake: events like the perilous journey from stall to kill lot of “The 24” are horrendous. For one thing, there is no connection between euthanasia and slaughter. Like thousands before them, the imminent death of “The 24” would be merciless. But even this appears to have no impact on those owners, trainers and race venues like Delta Downs which routinely engage in the practice of shipping thoroughbreds to slaughter.

A mare and her foal at a slaughter house. Shortly after this photograph was taken, they were “disposed of.”

 

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Laws make it easy to dump a horse, or a pony, or a burro into a kill lot.

In most countries around the world, not only do equines fall outside the laws that govern the slaughter of animals raised for human consumption, but they are also viewed as “property” under the law. Like a sofa, or a pair of shoes, animals are essentially characterized as objects, i.e. void of feeling, consciousness or any of the other qualities that distinguish the living from the inanimate.

And, as objects, their owners can do what they like to them with impunity.

American horses held in export pens before being sent to slaughter.

Under the conventions of the EU all animals are regarded as sentient beings rather than property: “Animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs.” There are inspectors to supervise and fines levied for the mistreatment of any animal. In Great Britain, there is a law essentially saying the same thing and plans are now underway to monitor slaughter plants with CCTV. In Canada, the province of Quebec has declared animals to be sentient beings even though three of of five Canadian horse slaughter plants are in that province. What it means for horses slaughtered in Quebec is that how this is being done is now open to supervision (together with the six months boarding demanded by the EU). But the fact that, in Quebec, being sentient does little to protect horses from slaughter points out that even this progressive step can’t singlehandedly stop the practice itself.

Horse meat coming from Mexico was banned by the EU in 2015. It also appears that the majority of Mexicans have little interest in eating horses. So why is Mexico quickly becoming the preferred destination for American horses going to slaughter?

In its 2015 ban, the EU pointed out that one deep concern was that The U.S. Department of Agriculture “does not take responsibility for the reliability of affidavits issued for horses originating in the U.S., and the FVO audit team found very many affidavits which were invalid or of questionable validity, but were nonetheless accepted.” Mexico has adapted to losing EU business — with the exception of Belgium which is, ironically, the capital of the EU — by attracting markets in Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Vietnam, among others. The meat is exported from Mexico as “top grade” and consumed by people in these countries looking for a “delicacy” dish.

It should be noted as well that Alberta and Manitoba, in Canada, are busily exporting large numbers of draft horses that are shipped live to Japan, where they are slaughtered. There can be little question that the Japanese have more confidence in the “high grade” of Canadian horses than that of those coming from Mexico.

(NOTE: No slaughter images in video below.) Produced by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC):

 

 

 

Since there is absolutely no evidence to support the practice of placing horses who are likely filled with drugs harmful to humans in quarantine in Mexico, it cannot be assumed that Mexican horse meat is safe for human consumption. It would be an important initiative to inform countries importing horse meat from Mexico about what they are encouraging their citizens to consume. Such communication might very well result in an EU-type ban by countries importing Mexican horse meat.

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This is the point where I’d normally be writing a conclusion, except there is no end in sight on this one.

Instead, I will conclude by thanking the many rescues, sanctuaries, havens and individuals, including donors and supporters, who have given so much of themselves in this struggle to save horses, ponies and wild burros from slaughter, captivity and abuse. And to Mr. Rick Porter and Mr. Steve Haskin, both of whom have had the courage to speak out against the kind of practice seen here at Delta Downs and elsewhere, thank you for your courage and for speaking out for thoroughbreds who have no hope of a safe future.

As Maya Angelou has said, “YOU are enough.” 

“Enough” to bring change and to make a difference, through your voices, your commitment and perseverance, and your love.

“Untitled,” by Abigail Anderson. Property of the artist.

POST SCRIPT

Of “The 24” who arrived at Hal Parker’s farm, we now only have 23.

Charlee’s Maid, an 8 year-old grandaughter of Pulpit, stepped off the van and collapsed. When Dr. Odom, who checks all the thoroughbreds Dina rescues, arrived early on the morning of the next day, it became clear that she could not be saved. Surrounded by Hal and his family — who had stayed with her all night long — Charlee’s Maid was humanely euthanized.

CHARLEE’S MAID, pictured at Hal Parker’s farm. THe grandaughter of Pulpit, who carried names like SEATTLE SLEW, CADILLACING, MR. PROSPECTOR and DANZIG in her pedigree, was humanely euthanized as a result of injuries sustained and never attended to in time.

As well, a filly who is also part of “The 24” arrived with a wound so severe that the bone was showing through. She is now in a veterinary hospital and we hope that she will make it.

Severely injured filly was sent off to slaughter with a terrible wound in her hind leg. Had she made it to Mexico, she would have been euthanized.

 

The filly’s hind leg. The white is bone.

BONUS FEATURES

Background on Japanese slaughter houses, giving addresses and URL of these facilities. (NOTE: No images of actual slaughter). Produced by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC):

 

 

 

 

Anna Sewell wrote about cruelty in a book that has become a Classic:

 

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************NNOTE: 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.

*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

 

 

On the occasion of Dayton Hyde’s 93rd birthday, THE VAULT revisits an article first posted two years ago. Mr. Hyde is the founder of BLACK HILLS WILD HORSE SANCTUARY, where 500 wild horses run free forever today. He was a trailblazer and his shining example has led to the founding of several other sanctuaries for wild horses and burros throughout the USA.

Dedicated to Susan Watt, Executive Director of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and the Kunz family, with love. Special thanks to Monica Mohr, Steve Leonard and Wayne at the BLM, Canon City CO for their support and kindness. To my dear friend, Jim Pettyjohn: Without your partnership in this endeavour it could all have ended in a dull whisper. 

 

 

LADY'S SECRET with BEAR WITNESS as a colt foal. Photo and copyright Steve Haskin. Used with permission of Steve Haskin.

LADY’S SECRET with BEAR WITNESS as a colt foal, with Joan and Amanda Haskin and the Glenney family. Photo and copyright Steve Haskin. Used with the written permission of Steve Haskin.

 

BEAR WITNESS (SKIP AWAY X LADY'S SECRET) at auction in 2015.

BEAR WITNESS (SKIP AWAY X LADY’S SECRET) at auction in 2015.

I don’t remember how I came across the news that a young couple had pulled an emaciated gelding out of a horse sale and determined that he was the son of Skip Away and Lady’s Secret.

Foaled on April 9, 2000, the colt who carried the bloodlines of Secretariat, his champion daughter and the incomparable Skip Away, came into the world at John and Kim Glenney’s farm. It was clear from his iron-metal coat that he would be a grey. But what he wouldn’t turn out to be was a racehorse. He made 16 starts and a little less that five thousand dollars (USD) before his owners, caring and good people who would eventually get out of the thoroughbred business because of what they saw happening to horses like Bear, gave the gelding to a woman who trained show jumpers. In an article published online by The Dodo, John Glenney pointed out that when it was obvious that a thoroughbred wasn’t going to run, they were given away to trusted individuals to find new careers. Potential owners were interviewed by the Glenneys to assure that the horse in question was going to the best possible home.

Bear already suffered from a condition known as EPM, and had received costly treatment throughout his time with the Glenneys. Given his medical issues, it was critical that he be given to someone who would continue his treatment.Despite all of this good intention and despite the fact that the Glenneys were nothing if not “Type A” in researching where their horses were going, “Bear” slipped through the cracks. (Having done some horse rescue myself, I need to add that the numbers of times I talked to caring, responsible owners who thought their horses had been adopted into loving homes was legion.)

It seems likely that Bear’s second owner was legitimate, but over the time he goes off the radar, changing hands numerous times until he ended up at a horse auction in Tennessee.

 

Not only was BEAR WITNESS starving, he was also covered in cuts and abrasions.

Not only was BEAR WITNESS starving, he was also covered in cuts and abrasions.

 

The young couple who saw him just couldn’t turn away. So home he came with John and Jessie Kunz.

“…It took a month for Kunz to gain the horse’s trust. ‘I couldn’t even touch his face he was so terrified,’ she said.

‘He had a big, bloody open wound on his back leg,’ Kunz said. ‘He hadn’t been fed in a month and his hooves had not been maintained — they had not been cleaned out, shoes checked, kept moist. He could barely stand or walk.’

Originally from Germany, Kunz says she had never been to a horse and tack auction, where various farm animals and gear are sold, in Tennessee before. What she saw there horrified her. Bear was covered in rain rot, a bacterial infection of the skin that causes scabbing and hair loss, from head to tail. ‘He was down from 1,400 to 500 pounds,’ Kunz said. ‘People were shocked at the cruelty. I just couldn’t stand it. I went to [Bear’s owner at the time]. He took $250 and I took Bear home.’

A month after being moved to Kunz’s care, Bear slowly started gaining weight and trusting people again.” (reprinted from THE DODO, https://www.thedodo.com/bear-witness-horse-abuse-1571398906.html)

But despite all their love and care, Bear couldn’t be saved. He fell in his paddock in October and was unable to get up. The decision was made to have him humanely euthanized. Bear Witness was 15 years old.

 

BEAR WITNESS with Jessie.

BEAR WITNESS with Jessie.

 

Learning that Bear had been put down was shattering news for the many who flocked to his FB page daily. It came as a shock that a son of the mighty Skip Away and the brilliant Lady’s Secret would be entitled to anything less than a life of care and respect, because we all want to believe that our society takes care of the horses that we love.

But John and Jessie Kunz knew better, and their grief was visceral.

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In mythology, the horse stands proud. In almost every culture throughout history, horses are bestowed with greatness, honour and gifts. The Celts and Native Americans believed that horses travelled between this world and the next, carrying souls to their final resting place.

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EPONA, or RHIANNON, depicted in Celtic jewelry.

Blame it on my Celtic ancestry: when a death touches me, I always long for a horse to carry that soul into its future.

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My Facebook home page is always crowded with horse rescue postings, messages from lobby groups like the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, and the work of brilliant photographers associated with different horse breeds all over the world.

It was there that I first saw her face and it stopped me in my tracks.

As in, “Drop everything, be still and just look at me.”

 

 

First encounter.....and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

“Drop everything, be still, and just look at me.”

 

A bay mustang mare in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) online auction, she had been captured in the Antelope Hills of Wyoming in 2011, when she was only a yearling. She was exquisite. The expression in her eyes reached out to me, travelling across the internet as though there was no medium dividing us. Even with a red rope hanging around her neck (she was officially # 9579), her dignity refused to be diminished. Despite coming to a place where she could only see the wild hills from behind the rails of her small paddock, she knew she was meant to be free — and so there was sorrow in those deep, dark eyes too.

 

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

She could see the wild hills through the paddock rails…..

As many of you know, the mustang is in terrible, terrible trouble in Canada and the United States. In the former, a handful still exist on the Prairies but they are under constant threat of being rounded up; in the latter, the BLM has been charged with the unenviable task of “gathering” wild horses all over the country as their habitat becomes increasingly overtaken by cattle ranchers. As the argument goes, since America’s mustangs were protected under federal law, they have done too well, i.e. there are too many of them. So one solution has been to gather them up and try to sell them off at online and real-time auctions. Despite a veritable city of activists and lobby groups, some mustang herds have been reduced to less that 60 individuals and others have been wiped out altogether. These “gatherings” of mustangs takes no account of genetics, making it quite likely that some important bloodlines are being removed permanently, increasing the risk of inbreeding inferior animals.

 

wild horse, Antelope Hills Herd Area, Wyoming, roundup, stallion, mares, foal, helicopter

Antelope Hills Herd, Wyoming, 2011: This was “my” mare’s herd and how they were “gathered.” She is quite possibly in the photo — a yearling filly, running for her life. Used with the permission of Carol Walker.

 

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Antelope Hills Herd, Wyoming, 2011: Part of the herd in the containment chutes. Used with the permission of Carol Walker.

 

The mustang came to North America long before the arrival of the Spaniards, crossing the Bering straight into a new world. These “dawn horses,” as they were called, roamed free along with the American camel, sabre-toothed tiger and the wooly mammoth. The native American horse is the only animal that survives from this world.

The American mustang began as a "dawn horse" during pre-history, living on the plains with the American camel, wooly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

The American mustang began as a “dawn horse” during pre-history, living on the plains with the American camel, wooly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

In the face of # 9579 I saw not only dignity and sorrow, but the palimpsest of a being older than time, whose journey to me had taken place over thousands of years.

 

#9579 running in her paddock.

#9579 running in her paddock @ the BLM.

 

The plight of this mare — one of so many posted on the BLM online auction site — haunted me.

But before I could intervene, I needed to find a home for her and someone who could bid on her once I had secured a place for her to live. (Canadians are prevented from online bidding, for reasons I never looked into.) So, working with my friend, John Pettyjohn, I began to search for mustang rescues within proximity of the mare’s location. Which, in turn, led to Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

As I learned more about Black Hills, I knew that this was where I wanted “my” mustang mare to live. In fact, Black Hills is where I wanted to live!

The stories below, written by founder Dayton Hyde about two of Black Hills’ personalities told me more about the spirit of Black Hills than any “fact-based” documentary ever could:

And then there was Dayton’s story of Medicine Hattie:

But I learned that there was another treasure at Black Hills: Susan Watt, the Executive Director and driving force behind her partner, Dayton Hyde’s, dream. Without Susan’s vision, expertise and skill, Black Hills today might have looked very different. But under her guidance, the Sanctuary thrives as well — or better — than most non-profits. And a good thing too. Because if there’s one thing she can count on, it’s the calls Susan gets every day about horses needing rescue. So when I called, she wasn’t surprised to hear my request.

 

Executive Director SUSAN WATT, who brings vision and strategic planning to Dayton Hyde's dream.

Executive Director SUSAN WATT, who brings vision and strategic planning to Dayton Hyde’s dream.

Having worked for a number of non-profits during my career, I understood “the basics” they all share, the central one being the constant search for funding. I suspect that Susan was relieved to find that Jim and I were prepared to sponsor our mare, once we had purchased her. And so this amazing woman from South Dakota and two people she had never met, one from Montreal and the other from Portland, began to plot the adoption and return to freedom of mare #9579.

And then there were two: #8869, a mare of the same age also gathered from the same herd, turns out to be #9979's best friend.

And then there were two: #8869, a mare of the same age, gathered from the Divide Basin herd in Wyoming, turns out to be #9579’s best friend.

Jim and I sent more money than was needed to secure # 9579 and Susan suggested we look into whether or not the mare had a best friend. Sure enough, she did. It was another bay mare, with a bit of white on her hind leg, who had been captured the same year from the Divide Basin herd of Wyoming. So we bought her as well.

This all happened in November 2015. It would take until March 2016 for the best friends to set foot on the vast reaches of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota.

 

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Once we had “our girls” and had secured the best home in the world for them, Jim and I decided that they should be named in honour of Bear Witness.

We named the first mare Maya Littlebear and asked John and Jessie Kunz to name her BFF. The name they chose was Felicitas Witness aka “Tassy.”

MAYA LITTLEBEAR (foreground) and FELICITAS WITNESS (bay mare in background, looking into the camera) shown together @ the BLM in Canon City, Colorado. They arrived at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on March 10, 2016.

MAYA LITTLEBEAR (foreground) and FELICITAS WITNESS (bay mare in background, looking into the camera) shown together @ the BLM in Canon City, Colorado. They arrived at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on March 10, 2016.

Maya and Tassy: carry Bear into your future and anoint him with your joy. You are his eagle feathers.

(“Prairie Lark Gets Her Eagle Feather” filmed at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary)

 

BONUS FEATURE

Take a tour of the amazing Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on their website or (below) on video: http://www.wildmustangs.com

Videos:

BLACK HILLS WILD HORSE SANCTUARY: THE MISSION

FREE TO RUN: AN AFTERNOON AT BLACK HILLS WILD HORSE SANCTUARY

 

 

REFERENCES

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

http://www.wildmustangs.com

“What Happens To Racehorses Who Never Win?” at The Dodo: https://www.thedodo.com/bear-witness-horse-abuse-1571398906.html

Wild Hoofbeats: Carol Walker

http://www.wildhoofbeats.com

Bureau of Land Management, Canon City, Colorado

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What more can we say about this wonderful mare? Well, let’s have a look in “7 clicks” — just for fun.

 

CLICK #1: “…I think I remember saying to Chris (Waller), ‘Do you really like her?’ ” (one of the triad of Winx owners, Peter Tighe)

So it was that the daughter of Street Cry-Vegas Showgirl came to the stables of one of Australia’s outstanding trainers, Chris Waller. Owners Peter and Patty Tighe, Debbie Kepitis and Richard Treweeke were overjoyed at their purchase.

But had they asked Coolmore Australia’s stud manager, Peter O’Brien, who had attended the filly’s birth, he would have told them that from the outset Winx showed signs that she was going to be a late developer, even though she looked a really good individual in other ways.

During her days at Coolmore, Winx was easy to notice: she stood within 10 minutes of her birth, showed a great deal of independance very early on, and was blessed with a kind nature.

WINX at two days old. Photo and copyright: Coolmore.

 

Peter O’Brien’s understanding that it would take Winx some time to mature and show what she really was all about proved timely: Winx’s cavalry charge to the top of the world’s standings only started in earnest in 2015, when she was a four year-old.

It is likely that, had she gone to anyone other than Chris Waller, Winx would never have been given the time she needed to become the mighty mare we know today. And Winx’s owners were also prepared to wait, trusting in their trainer’s knowledge and experience.

 

CLICK #2: A surprise in Winx’s tail female

 

Winx’s dam, Vegas Showgirl, started thirty-five times, winning seven and retiring with earnings of $59,700 AUD. It is fair to say that she was not a household name, but she did win twice as a three year-old making her a solid, if not assured, broodmare prospect. Examining Vegas Showgirl’s tail female, what leaps out is Obeah in the third generation.

OBEAH, shown here with her trainer, Henry Clarke. Source: Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.

A grandaughter of 1943 Triple Crown winner, Count Fleet, Obeah raced for Harry and Jane Lunger out of Henry Clarke’s Delaware Park stable. Notable wins came in the Blue Hen Stakes and the Delaware and Firenze Handicaps.

But North American racing fans know Obeah best for one reason and one reason alone: she was the dam of the brilliant, ill-fated Go For Wand:

Pedigree influences up to the fifth generation carry some influence — although how much, exactly, is almost impossible to determine. But it’s a safe bet that North American fans of Winx will be delighted to learn that a small part of her DNA comes through Count Fleet and that she is a cousin, albeit a very distant one, of the beloved Go For Wand.

 

CLICK #3: How did Winx get her name?

According to owner Richard Treweeke, Winx’s name owes much to Vegas Showgirl. In an interview done by 60 Minutes Australia (below in Bonus Features), Treweeke recounted how, when one sees a stage show in Las Vegas, the showgirls give you a “…wink, wink, wink.”

So, with a slight adjustment, Vegas Showgirl’s filly became Winx.

“…wink,wink,wink.”

 

CLICK #4: What individual attributes help Winx to win — and keep on winning?

It has been speculated that Winx’s heart and lungs hold greater capacity than most thoroughbreds.

But one thing — other than her steely determination to win — that gives Winx a decided advantage has to do with her racing form, or style.

Granted, Winx’s running style isn’t the most fluid. Rather, she can look at times as though she has egg-beaters for legs.

But this is where what we think we see can be deceiving.

For one thing, the length of Winx’s stride has been measured at almost 6.8m. The stride of most thoroughbreds is about 6.1m. Exceptions are Phar Lap and Secretariat at 8.2m and the mighty Bernborough was said to have a massive stride of 8.6m.

But it’s not only Winx’s stride that helps her get the job done: whereas most thoroughbreds have a stride frequency of 130-140 strides per minute, Winx checks in at nearly 170 strides per minute. And she can maintain this frequency for much longer periods, notably as she kicks for home, a point in any race where most runners are tiring.

This short video of her win in the Sunshine Coast Guineas in 2015 highlights the impact of Winx’s stride and its frequency. The 2015 Guineas win also marks the beginning of Winx’s winning streak that now stands at 23 straight wins, 17 of which have been Group 1’s:

 

CLICK #5 : Winx and Hugh Bowman

Hugh Bowman is a jockey at the pinnacle of his career. But his promise showed even during his apprentice days, receiving the crown for champion apprentice NSW jockey in his very first year of riding, and champion Sydney apprentice followed in 1999/2000. The 37 year-old was awarded Longines’ 2017 Best World’s Jockey at the end of last season, having won 10 of the world’s Top 100 Group/Grade 1 races, six of which were on Winx. It was Bowman’s masterful win in the 2017 Japan Cup aboard Cheval Grand at Tokyo Racecourse that sealed the Longines’ title. Among the champions they beat in the Japan Cup were HOTY Kitasan Black and champions Makahiki, Soul Stirring and Satono Crown.

So strong is trainer Waller’s faith in Bowman, that Winx was withdrawn from what would have been her first start of the season (in the 2018 Apollo Stakesin Sydney) when a suspension made it impossible for Bowman to ride her. Unlikely that few were surprised by Waller’s decision, since Bowman and Winx are an established partnership at this point in time and no-one other than her inner circle knows the mare as well as Bowman. Famous racing pairs dot the history of thoroughbred racing worldwide and these powerful relationships underscore the importance of finding just the right fit between a jockey and a thoroughbred.

Here, in footage collected in February 2018 at a trail at Randwick,we catch a glimpse of some of the relationship between Winx and Bowman, as well as that between Bowman and Waller. The video also illustrates the complexities of conditioning a thoroughbred and, in this aspect, sheds a light on the profession that is universal.

(Note: Footage from the cam recorder picked up during Bowman’s ride comes at the end of the video.)

 

CLICK #6: Umet Odemisioglu  wanted to be an actor…

After her most recent win, in the 2018 Chipping Norton, an emotional Chris Waller noted that professional as she is, Winx loves to go home where “…she can just be a horse.”

And there’s no question that Umet Odemisioglu and Candice are the two of the humans that make Winx feel that she’s home.

 

WINX with Umet Odem.

Born in Turkey, Umet is Chris Waller’s foreman and one of Winx’s strappers. The champion mare is one of some twenty thoroughbreds in his care.

But his path to Winx’s side was an unlikely one: Umet’s first love was film. He studied acting for two years in Turkey before attending what he describes as a “horse university” in Istanbul. Once he’d graduated, Umet left for Ireland, where he worked on a stud farm until his arrival in Australia in 2006. He has worked for trainer Chris Waller since 2011.

Umet has looked after Winx since she first arrived in Waller’s barn as a youngster. If she were an actress, he figures Winx would be Angelina Jolie because, “…they’re both sweethearts, especially Angelina with the charities. They’re both box office superstars who bring in the crowds.” (quoted in “Strapper Recalls Winx Journey” by Matt Kelly in G1X)

Back at home after a trial or a race, Winx doesn’t like to be bothered — she likes lots of time to herself. And it is Umet who assures that the mare’s down time is just that. On big days, it’s Umet who brings her into the spotlight, equipped with hood that blocks out some of the sounds of the track.

Winx is no lover of the starting gate and Umet, together with Candice, as well as her trainer and jockey, each play their part in keeping her off her toes as much as they can before the gates fly open. He walks close to her, letting her know that he’s there and focusing on keeping the mare as calm and relaxed as possible. And this is no easy job when you’re assailed by cameras, together with the noise and movement of a huge, jostling crowd.

Winx may be used to the attention, but Umet needs to be able to anticipate what she’s not used to seeing. It’s a big part of keeping her safe.

(Note: To learn more about Winx’s second strapper, Candice, please see BONUS FEATURES, below.)

 

CLICK #7: The “Paradox of Champions”

The excitement that characterizes each time a champion like Winx races is fuelled by the risk of her losing. This is what we have coined as the “paradox of champions.”

All those feelings — “Can she do it again?” “Will X defeat her?” “Can she win no matter the odds?” “Is she ready for today’s race?” — are underpinned by the anxiety that Winx may, indeed, be beaten. Even the speculation that her owners might consider Ascot or Hong Kong or Japan or the 2018 Breeders’ Cup is underpinned, to some extent, by the lure of the risk.

It is this paradox that accounts for analogy between the careers of great thoroughbreds and the archetypal hero/heroine’s mythical journey. Like the heroine of myth, Winx needs to keep overcoming obstacles, be they foreign courses or other talented thoroughbreds to guard her title of one of the very best worldwide.

At this point, no-one knows what the 2018 plans are for Winx, in what may well be the last season of a brilliant career.

But, thankfully, it seems clear that Winx herself will be foremost in making that decision.

 

 

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

1) TEAM WINX

 

 

 

2) 60 MINUTES AUSTRALIA

 

 

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************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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As CHELTENHAM 2018 approaches, we re-visit one of the most popular posts THE VAULT has ever done. This is the story of the incomparable ISTABRAQ, the medoicre flat runner with royal blood who would rise to the status of a Superhero in the history of the British National Hunt.

 

 

Charlie Swan and ISTABRAQ retire from the 2002 Championship at Cheltenham amid the applause and tears of thousands.

…..When the young jockey pulled up the 10 year-old bay gelding after the third hurdle of the 2002 Cheltenham Championship, the thousands who had come to see him race rose to their feet. But Charlie Swan knew that he was doing the right thing. The year before, the game old warrior had actually fallen and in the minds of his jockey, trainer and owner, it was unthinkable to put him at risk. As they walked by the stands that day, the spectators — who were still on their feet — began to applaud. Swan saw grown men crying. Women clutched tissues to wet cheeks. Young people stretched out their hands to touch a horse who was the bravest they had ever seen.

But no amount of emotion could change the realization that a thoroughbred who had dominated horse racing for the last 5 years was leaving the turf for the last time. 

The career of a legend had ended.

His name was Istabraq (1992), a Sindhi word for “brocade.” In his early years, Istabraq seemed an unlikely candidate to wear the mantle of racing legend, despite his impeccable breeding. His sire was the sire of sires, Sadler’s Wells (1981) and his dam was Betty’s Secret, by Secretariat. Betty’s Secret had already distinguished herself as the dam of Secreto (1981), the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1984. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum. The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.

Whereas his dam was a loner, known for her aggressive behavior toward other mares, Istabraq had a sweet disposition. His only quirk as a youngster was that he enjoyed showing himself off to other foals — and anyone at the paddock fence who might be watching.  “…It was almost as if he knew he was worth a fortune,” reflected Tom Deane, who cared lovingly for Istabraq as a young colt at Derrinstown in County Kildare, Ireland. But Deane adored all of his young charges. Istabraq grew into a nice, correct yearling, but in every other way he seemed pretty average.

“Worth a fortune…” Baby ISTABRAQ (by SADLER’S WELLS) with his dam, BETTY’S SECRET (by SECRETARIAT). The little colt foal was the son of a champion and the grandson of two champions, NORTHERN DANCER being the sire of SADLER’S WELLS.

As a two year-old racing on the flat, Istabraq was backward and lacked a good “turn of foot,” meaning that he needed too much time to pick up speed. Sheikh Hamdan’s advisor, Angus Gold, believed that any thoroughbred with real ability shows promise in its two year-old season. Even though Istabraq seemed to try when he ran and even though trainer John Gosden was prepared to give him the time he needed to develop, in the end it was Gold’s judgement that won out. By 1994 the verdict on Istabraq was that he was unlikely to live up to his wonderful pedigree. His jockey, the great Willie Carson agreed. He described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”

By his third year, Istabraq had developed foot problems. He had always been rather flat-footed, especially in front and it was difficult to shoe him such that his heels were off the ground. Consequently, he developed a quarter crack and was out of commission for several weeks that year. In his final race on the flat, he refused to quicken despite Carson’s aggressive ride and was beaten by a length. Sheikh Hamdan decided that he had persevered with Istabraq long enough and gave instructions that he was to be sold.

When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him. “He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.
John Durkan believed in him and that belief changed a mediocre flat horse into an Irish national legend.

John Durkan believed in him and that belief changed a mediocre flat horse into an Irish national legend.


In Great Britain it is not unusual for thoroughbreds to be moved from racing on the flat to the world of National Hunt racing when they meet with little success at the former. National Hunt racing originated in Ireland in the 18th century and to this day the Irish remain devoted to a style of racing that they continue to dominate. Each type of National Hunt race has its own features. An average hurdle race, for example, involves a minimum of 8 hurdles over 3.5 feet high and is run over a distance of at least 2 miles. The chase involves horses jumping fences of 4.5 feet minimum and courses that range from 2 – 4.5 miles. The steeplechase is restricted to thoroughbreds that have a hunter certificate; the most famous steeplechase in Britain is the Grand National. Thoroughbreds that hurdle, chase or steeplechase need to have an aptitude for jumping. But since National Hunt racing demands that horses both jump and run over longer distances than is usual on a flat course, a National Hunt thoroughbred needs to be particularly courageous and tough, as well as blessed with endurance. Arguably, National Hunt colts and fillies need to be deeper through the heart than their “softer” flat racing cousins.

The first item on the agenda for Istabraq upon his return from Tattersall’s was an appointment with the vet. It is traditional to geld National Hunt thoroughbreds to ensure their safety and comfort, as well as make them easier to handle. The operation itself is straightforward but can be taxing for an older horse and Istabraq fell into this category. Turned out, he was given time to heal and come back to himself. In the mean time, John Durkan was busily making plans to buy yearlings for new owners and finalize the purchase of his own stable when he fell ill. A short time later, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Before he left for Sloan Kettering in New York, arrangements were made to send Istabraq to a brilliant young trainer, Aidan O’Brien, with the understanding that when John recovered the colt would be returned to him.

The first to school Istabraq over hurdles was the young stable jockey, Charlie Swan. As they moved from the baby hurdles to the “real deal,” Istabraq demonstrated a flair for jumping. He didn’t back away and he didn’t hesitate. Swan recalls, “He was quite amazing, a real natural.” It was the beginning of a famous partnership.
Even at the very beginning, while he was still in training, ISTABRAQ demonstrated his jumping talent.

Even at the very beginning, while he was still in training, ISTABRAQ demonstrated his jumping talent.


In Istabraq’s first start over hurdles at Punchestown (IRE), O’Brien instructed Swan to focus on making the experience an enjoyable one for the horse. To that end, he told the jockey to drop Istabraq behind and, if he felt that the horse was willing and ready, to move him up to the leaders as they turned for home. It is the considered opinion of many that it is Aidan O’Brien’s instinctive understanding of a horse’s mind that has been the major ingredient in a stellar career. In character, O’Brien is a modest, shy man, whose greatest concern is always for the well-being of the thoroughbreds in his care. And not unlike Istabraq’s first trainer, John Gosden, O’Brien understood the virtues of patience in building up a thoroughbred’s confidence and stamina.

The plan went off perfectly until the final hurdle, where Istabraq made the kind of mistake a novice might well make, losing ground as he raced toward the finish. But the game colt finished second, beaten only by a short nose. All concerned were pleased with his performance. In defeat, Istabraq had shown the qualities of a champion — albeit an inexperienced one. And sure enough, from his second start in 1996 through to his twelfth race in 1997, Istabraq took ten hurdle races in a row; he won on courses that were rated from soft to yielding and from good to firm to heavy. Along the way, he won the hearts of a nation.
It was impossible not to love this courageous pair: Charlie and ISTABRAQ.

It was impossible not to love this courageous pair: Charlie and ISTABRAQ.


Over the same period, John Durkan’s valiant battle with cancer continued. His belief in Istabraq, combined with the support of family and colleagues back home in Ireland gave him the will to go on. After each race, O’Brien, McManus and/or Swan would call Sloane Kettering to share all the details of Istabraq’s performance. Sometimes John was able to hear the races live over the radio from his hospital bed. And once he made it back to Ireland to see his colt win, going 2m 3f at Leopardstown — a victory the press described as a “mere formality,” so certain were punter and fan alike of the colt’s prowess. For John, however, Leopardstown was a special moment, renewing his resolve to beat leukaemia and return to the sport — and the colt — he loved.

In March 1997, from an apartment in New York where he awaited a bone marrow transplant the following day, John was able to hear the running of the Royal Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle from Cheltenham (ENG) live via his father-in-law’s mobile phone. As John listened in, little did he know that Istabraq was giving his trainer and jockey cause to worry. As was the case with the great Nijinsky, Istabraq had inherited the “delicate sensibility” of many of the Northern Dancers. Even when home at Coolmore, he would fret if there were any changes in his routine and this had made shipping him to Cheltenham tricky. In the walking ring prior to the Sun Alliance, surrounded by noisy onlookers, Istabraq became increasingly agitated. His blood-bay coat was dark with sweat. The only solution — one that was to cost both O’Brien and Swan a small fortune in fines throughout the horse’s career — was to get Istabraq out of the walking ring and onto the race course. And although National Hunt rules prohibit a horse from going onto the course before the others, the tactic never once resulted in Istabraq’s being disqualified from a race.
As John battled cancer, Aidan O'Brien stepped in to train ISTABRAQ. Shown here in conversation with Charlie Swan.

As John battled cancer, Aidan O’Brien stepped in to train ISTABRAQ. Shown here in conversation with Charlie Swan.

Istabraq ran his race even though it took Swan some moments to settle him. The colt was coming up a winner when he was bumped hard by another horse as they flew over a hurdle. Charlie Swan feared his mount would go down, but miraculously the colt landed on his feet. It was unbelievable that   Istabraq recovered: he had been travelling at about 30mph when the other thoroughbred cannoned into him. Istabraq was on his feet and moving, but winded. Swan gave the colt about three strides to collect himself before asking him to pick it up. And Istabraq, who had once been regarded as lacking a good turn of foot, turned it on. With a horse called Mighty Moss at his throat latch Istabraq battled back, winning the Sun Alliance by a length. Mobbed by ecstatic fans, the gelding was led into the victory enclosure. Over the din, Aidan O’Brien, JP McManus and Charlie Swan got on a mobile phone to share every moment with John Durkan. Not only had John’s bold prediction for the grandson of Secretariat come true, but Istabraq would go on to finish the 1997 season unbeaten.

As Istabraq’s star ascended, John’s health went into sharp decline. The decision was made to bring him home to Ireland where he could spend his days in the company of family and friends. Despite the fact that he was dying, John turned out to see Istabraq win The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in November, 1997. It was the last time he would see “his lad” : on the night of January 21, 1998, John Durkan died. 
ISTABRAQ and Charlie Swan in full flight at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

ISTABRAQ and Charlie Swan in full flight at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, handled the race with ease. John Durkan had been laid to rest only the day before, making it a bittersweet victory. But John’s wife, Carole, joined Istabraq in the winner’s enclosure and accepted the trophy on behalf of her late husband. 

The AIG had been a final prep for Istabraq before the prestigious Smurfit Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, to be run at Cheltenham in March. By this point, Istabraq was a mature and experienced hurdler at the top of his form. Charlie Swan gave him a final work before the big day and as they returned to the stable, Aidan O’Brien confided, “He will bloody destroy them.” Swan was taken aback at the force of O’Brien’s conviction. “But Aidan, this is the Champion Hurdle.” To which the trainer replied, “I don’t care. He will destroy them.” And destroy them he did: Istabraq took the first of what were to be three consecutive Champion Hurdle victories by twelve lengths, in a time just shy of the record. It had been 66 years since a thoroughbred had won the trophy so decisively — and that horse had only faced a field of 4. 

“This one’s for John…” ISTABRAQ and Charlie lead the field home by an astonishing 12 lengths.

Istabraq’s victories in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, 1999 and again in 2000 remain the races for which Istabraq is renowned. In the 2000 race, he not only won but set a time record and joined an elite group of four other thoroughbreds who had also clinched the trophy three times. As the Racing Post put it, “Istabraq exchanged greatness for immortality.”

Here he is in a video summary of the highlights of the career of the “Mighty Istabraq”:

“… it was the manner of Istabraq’s wins that remains shocking … he simply cruised to victory, whatever the conditions, with a grace and strength that often beggared belief.” Shown here, with Charlie Swan.

In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth forced the cancellation of the Champion Hurdle and as Istabraq’s legion of fans — together with Aidan O’Brien — insist to this day, the likelihood of his winning a fourth consecutive time. Given the fact that he had won the second and third Champion Hurdles under less-than-ideal circumstances, one could not blame them for believing that Istabraq would “destroy” the field one more time.

Returning to Cheltenham a year later as a 10 year-old, Istabraq was not the horse he had been in 2000. Days after Charlie Swan rode him off the course after only the third hurdle, Aidan O’Brien announced that the gelding had damaged the equivalent of the Achilles tendon in his hock. Istabraq was retired, having won 23 of 29 starts over jumps, with earnings of over 1 million BPS.

ISTABRAQ takes flight. Note his distance from the actual hurdle.



In 1989, the year that Secretariat died, it was discovered that he had a very large heart — literally — estimated to weigh between 22-23 lbs. It was a perfect heart in every other way. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that the great thoroughbred Phar Lap (1926) had possessed the largest heart, at 14 lbs.  The discovery of Secretariat’s huge heart sparked renewed interest in  X-chromosome research that had been taking place for a number of years on human runners, as well as in the work of equine geneticists like William E. Jones of California and Dr. Anthony Stewart of Australia. The X-chromosome is a more potent carrier of genetic material than the Y, although both have important roles to play in the making of a thoroughbred. But it is the X that is a possible precursor of thoroughbred performance when it is linked to the transmission of a large heart. Subsequently, it was discovered that Sham (1970), Secretariat’s mightiest rival, had a heart that weighed 18 lbs., lending credence to the probability that had he been born in any other year, Sham would have swept the Triple Crown himself. Today we know that there are 4 sire lines that transmit a large heart on the X-chromosome: Princequillo, War Admiral, Blue Larkspur and Mahmoud. These 4 sires, if one traces back the genetic pattern for the transmission of the X — which is from sire to daughter and from that daughter to her son(s) — the incidence of strong race performance is more or less continuous. Secretariat produced 4 double-copy daughters: Weekend Surprise (1980), Secrettame (1978), Terlingua (1978) and Betty’s Secret. (Double-copy because all carried Princequillo plus one or more of the other 3 sire lines on the top and bottom of their pedigrees.) All of these, in turn, produced at least one son who is a potential heart-line source, notably A.P. Indy (Weekend Surprise),  Gone West (Secrettame), Storm Cat (Terlingua) and Istabraq (Betty’s Secret). Of these mares, only Betty’s Secret carried Princequillo on the top and bottom of her pedigree, suggesting that she would pass on to a son like Istabraq a “double dose” of Secretariat’s large heart. 

ISTABRAQ in retirement with his best buddy, RISK OF THUNDER.

At 19, Istabraq still greets vistors at J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud (IRE). Although politely sociable with his fans, Istabraq’s greatest affection is reserved for his pasture pal, Risk of Thunder. Watching the two nuzzle and romp and roll in the dirt together, they are just horses. But when Istabraq’s fans come to visit, they see the greatest Irish champion hurdler who ever set foot on the turf. As if to let him know how much they love him, the Irish public voted him their favourite horse of the last 25 years in 2009. 

Recently, ISTABRAQ was honoured by his Irish fans and his racing Team.  Join them in this delightful short:

It’s impossible to mistake the stamp of greatness. Just watch Istabraq coming to win his first Champion Hurdle by 12 lengths in strides so enormous that he seems to be eating up the ground as he goes. Or watch how he quickens at the last, producing a mighty surge that precious few thoroughbreds could muster.

No question about it: in Istabraq, the heart of Secretariat has come home.

Still a ham for the camera, ISTABRAQ cavorts in his paddock in 2010.

Catching up with Istabraq, February 2018: