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Archive for February, 2011

 

 

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.

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>Thoroughbreds can fall “off the radar” for any number of reasons, some of which we cannot change and others which we can correct by working together as a community.  This article is dedicated to the ordinary, hard-working thoroughbreds of today and yesteryear. They run their hearts out on the track but never attain the heights of an Uncle Mo or a Ruffian. In the breeding shed, they were a disappointment. But winner or loser, a horse is a living being — and they depend on us to take care of them. 

My urge to collect thoroughbred photos derived from television, an environment that turned individuals like Secretariat, Ruffian and Northern Dancer into overnight celebrities. Until recently, what appeared on television was fleeting, so to recapture and hold those memories in place, it seemed natural to turn to photographs. From the very beginning, I found myself drawn to the craft of a photograph almost more than to its subject. The result was that even though I started out intending to find photos of specific — and usually famous — horses, I found myself drawn into the world of images instead.

It is the photos between 1900 – 1950 that I most treasure; and it has been particularly satisfying to learn the identities and stories of the thoroughbreds from this period, horses who always tried their best but never became “superstars.” To secure a place in thoroughbred history a horse must distinguish itself from its contemporaries, whether on the track and/or in the breeding shed. The thoroughbreds in some of my favorite photos accomplished neither of these feats, making them that much easier to forget.

Over The Top, pictured in 1937

One good look at this handsome fellow and one is struck by his physical resemblance to his sire, a connection evident in his conformation and in the faraway look in his eyes. Over The Top (1934) was a son of Man O’ War (1917). His dam, Cresta (1920) was by Whisk Broom (1907) ex. Cresson (1916) a female descendant of the great Persimmon (1893). The year is 1937. Other than the date, there are no other details on the back of the photo other than his name, stamped in black.

For the first three years of his life, Over The Top was owned by Samuel Riddle and trained by George Conway in company with the mighty War Admiral, who was born the same year. Like all of Big Red’s offspring, the leggy red colt was slow to develop, hitting his peak at 3 and 4 years of age, respectively. Shortly before the 1937 Preakness he was purchased from Riddle by Mrs. William H. Furst of Chicago for an undisclosed amount. As a 3 year-old, Over The Top finished 3rd to War Admiral and Court Scandal (1934) in the Chesapeake Stakes, a performance that earned him black type status.  In an issue of the Daily Racing Form (DRF) from the same year, a pre-Preakness work between Over The Top and War Admiral gets the following notation, “… Over The Top had no difficulty keeping pace with War Admiral.” Despite the inference, the colt ran poorly in the Preakness. Later in the year, Over The Top scored a win in the Riverdale Purse at Washington Park, coming from behind at a fast clip and withstanding the late charge of a colt called Military (1934), a son of St. Germans (1921) who was good enough to have finished second in the Santa Anita Derby that same year. Over the next two years there are reports of Over The Top’s works, together with charts in which his name appears in a number of allowance races in the category “also ran.” By 1938 the colt had a new owner — A. M. Koewler of California. No extant records of the sale could be located in the DRF archives or elsewhere.

There are two remaining bits of information about Over The Top before he goes off the radar. The first, that he had developed a “sulky attitude” in the final year he raced (1939); the second, this time in 1940, that he had covered the good mare, Lady Bowman (1932). She was a daughter of Carlaris (1923) a son of the great stallion, Phalaris (1913). Her dam, Necklace (1921) was a granddaughter of Commando (1898). At the time of his retirement, Over The Top’s race record was 34-5-3-2, with earnings of $5,675 USD. He retired with more respectable earnings than the figure would seem to suggest, since $1 USD in 1939 is roughly equivalent to $15. 42 USD today. Over The Top died at the age of six in 1940. No further details concerning his death could be located.

He was an average race horse who was a disappointment given his royal lineage, even though by the time Over The Top was foaled Man O’ War’s best years at stud were over. One assumes that his premature death was due to either accident or injury, since there was apparently an intention to breed him. Perhaps his owners were aware that there are thoroughbreds — many, in fact — that make important contributions to the breed through succeeding generations, but that’s mere speculation. In any case, a stallion with a spotty track performance would have been unlikely to attract top mares.

With the help of the American Stud Book, Volume 18, the very wonderful “Lucy” of Pedigree Query was able to locate the foal that resulted from the 1940 mating of Over The Top to Lady Bowman. The colt was named Over Lad (1941), a gelding. He made 53 starts, won 5, placed in 7 and showed in 5, earning $4, 487 USD. According to Lucy, there was also an indication in the stud book that Over The Top had sired a few other foals. However, as none were champions (otherwise, we’d know about them) it would take months to track them all down, assuming that archives such as those of the DRF are complete. And such is often not the case. So the narrative of Over The Top’s life ends here, a case of going off the radar forever.

Whereas Over The Top’s story ends as a result of both incomplete or lost information and misfortune, a good thoroughbred can go off the radar for any number of arbitrary reasons. As I was to discover in a very direct way about three years ago.

Chapel of Dreams with her 1993 filly, Erinyes
(Photo courtesy of Patricia McQueen @ http://www.photopm.com )

We all have thoroughbreds that we love and Terlingua (1976), the daughter of Secretariat ex. Crimson Saint (1969) is one of mine. Years ago, I began to collect everything I could find about Terlingua’s racing and breeding history, and soon became a “Terlingua expert.” Of her offspring, I discovered that a daughter, Chapel of Dreams, most resembled her and off I went to find out more.

Chapel of Dreams (1984), a daughter of Northern Dancer (1961) made 24 starts for William P. Young’s Overbrook Farm, earning $643, 912 (USD) by 1988, the year she was retired. Her offspring were unremarkable, with the exception of Seeking The Dream (1995) by Seeking The Gold (1985) and If Angels Sang (1994) by Seattle Slew (1974).  However, in the breeding shed another daughter Bridal Tea (1991) by Gulch (1984) got the very fine Postponed (1997) by Summer Squall (1987). Postponed was a good runner, but he has proven himself to be an outstanding sire in the western hemisphere where he now stands at Westbury Stud, in New Zealand.

Postponed (1997) by Summer Squall ex. Bridal Tea,
Chapel of Dreams’ grandson

In 2008, I discovered that Chapel of Dreams had gone off the radar by reading Barbara Livingston’s piece on Terlingua in her wonderful book, More Old Friends.  In discussing Terlingua’s impact on the fortunes of Overbrook Farm, Livingston noted that only a few of her offspring remained at the farm. Chapel of Dreams was not on the list.

A different kind of search was on, one made even more urgent by the fact that Chapel of Dreams was then 24 years old and my preliminary research had shown her to be barren. I tracked her from Overbrook to another prestigious stud farm where my email was answered in the following manner, “If she’s still alive, she’s probably a lawn ornament…” All the while, I kept thinking: “How could a broodmare who won over a half-million dollars, a daughter of Northern Dancer and granddaughter of Secretariat, just go missing?” By then we had all learned about the fate of the brilliant Exceller (1973) and the gentle Ferdinand (1983). Terrible things could happen to any thoroughbred. I determined to forge ahead.

Finally, I was referred to Three Chimneys and boldly sent off an e-mail to Case Clay. He returned my correspondence, stating that an employee had seen Chapel Of Dreams recently and that she looked fine. I wrote back, explaining that given her age and the likelihood that her breeding years were over, I was worried about what the future might hold in store. In response, I received another email saying, “… you and I think alike,” and promising that he would look into it and get back to me. After a subsequent email, telling me that he had offered to buy Chapel of Dreams and retire her to Three Chimneys, the following arrived on August 13, 2008:

Abigail,

I have some fantastic news!! Chapel of Dreams is back at Three Chimneys,
safe and sound, and will be here for the rest of her days in retirement.
She will no longer be bred, but will just enjoy the green grass and
sunshine here in Kentucky. I am so thrilled to have her back with us,
knowing that she will live out her days in dignity. 

Just wanted to share the good news.

All the best,

Case

P.S. You are more than welcome to visit her here at the farm any time.



“Doing is the best way of saying,” Augusto Boal, an internationally celebrated teacher and friend, would remind his students. Boal knew from experience that action is the path that leads to justice. I have no doubt that without Mr. Clay’s actions  — despite a demanding schedule — Chapel of Dreams would have gone off the radar, lost in the shuffle from one owner to the next. Like Over The Top, Terlingua’s daughter was not a superstar and even though she was no slouch during her racing days, she proved disappointing as a brood mare.  In giving an aging mare the right to “… live out her days in dignity,” Case Clay and Three Chimneys offer eloquent testimony about the actions we all need to take on behalf of any thoroughbred that runs the risk of going off the radar, perhaps forever.

Other than the fact that I acted as a kind of ombudsman for Chapel of Dreams, I can take absolutely no credit for this happy ending. And since I was never able to find a way to visit Terlingua when she was alive, helping in a modest way to keep Chapel of Dreams on the radar seemed a fitting way to remember “my best girl.”

Terlingua nuzzles her new baby, Chapel of Dreams
(Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt, courtesy of The Blood-Horse)



COMING SOON: Who is your favorite Secretariat descendant? Next week’s blog is about one of Secretariat’s most famous progeny — a thoroughbred who, like Big Red, was to become a legend in his own time. 

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As it would be impossible to talk about all of the outstanding individuals in Black Tie Affair’s lineage, this article sheds some light on a few of the “great greys” found in his pedigree — thoroughbreds whose influence on both the sport and the breed is immeasurable.  Special thanks to Rick Capone, who generously allowed me to borrow his beautiful portrait of Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (below), while also referring me to articles he and others had written. 






Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (photo courtesy of Rick Capone)

On my regular visits to the Old Friends web site, I came to understand that Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (IRE, 1986) shared a special bond. It’s eminently clear that each one of the thoroughbreds at Old Friends’  — including my very favorite “thoroughbred wanna be,” Little Silver Charm — is appreciated, treasured and loved. But between Michael and the silver stallion there was a connection that belonged only to the two of them.


Of course, it would be difficult not to love a horse like Black Tie Affair.


On the track, he is likely best remembered for his brilliance in the 1991 Breeders Cup Classic which he won at the age of 5, leading the field gate-to-wire to defeat Strike the Gold and Unbridled. Jerry Bailey was quoted as saying that when they turned for home “he had a lot left.”  Some reports saw his victory as an upset, but nothing could be further from the truth — he was of royal blood and, as E.P. Taylor (breeder & owner of Northern Dancer) was fond of saying “… in the end, breeding will always tell.” And so it was that Black Tie crossed the finish line on that day at the head of the pack, just as he was bred to do.


Nor was it enough that he was a BC Classic Champion, Horse of the Year in 1991 and the winner of 18 of 45 starts, placing or showing in an additional 15. The imposing grey stole hearts as well.


Like his great great grandsire, Native Dancer, Black Tie was a character in his racing days — the kind of character who “took charge” of a race. He went to the track for works in a calm, businesslike fashion as if to remind his rider that he knew exactly what was expected of him. A tough individual, he weathered stud duty on two continents in two very different cultures and came home with his gentle personality intact. Throughout his life, Black Tie never waivered in his love of those who were a special part of his world. Dee Poulos, the wife of Black Tie’s trainer, Ernie Poulos, considered him to be her inspiration in dark times. As a pensioner at Old Friends, Black Tie waited patiently for his morning carrots from his special friend, Michael Blowen, standing to attention when he reasoned that Michael was due to arrive. Sweet enough to lower his head when small children visited him, he battled a number of serious illnesses with the kind of courage that bespeaks volumes about the heart within.


Although the mating that produced Black Tie was based on opportunity rather than intense research, it was indeed a happy accident since Black Tie’s bloodlines boast a stunning array of thoroughbred royalty. When we say “royalty” we mean stamina, speed, courage and heart. “Heart” is about running from within — that imponderable quality that makes a thoroughbred go on and on and on, in more ways than one. But to account for the fullness of character and talent in an individual like Black Tie Affair solely on the basis of a fortuitous mating would be like trying to stuff a galaxy into a pickle jar.


Every living thing is genetically unrepeatable. In the genes of each one of us — whether plant, animal or human — lies the secret of what makes this so. But our genes also connect us to our past in a profound way. While we are absolutely unique, we also simultaneously express a re-combination of ancestral traits that make us that way. A child owes her blues eyes to her mother and great grandmother on her father’s side. Or a grey thoroughbred owes his pigmentation to his dam, while his stamina may derive from a potent great grandsire. That’s how it works.


Grey is commonly called a coat color but it is actually a depigmentation pattern and because the gene that causes grey is dominant, an offspring needs only one copy of it in either parent to be grey. Hat Tab Girl, Black Tie’s dam was a grey from a line that featured a number of distinguished grey ancestors, namely Mahmoud (1933), Mah Mahal (1928), Mumtaz Mahal (1921) , The Tetrarch (1911) and Roi Herode (1904).  As well, through his sire Miswaki, Black Tie inherited another “trace of grey” from Native Dancer, who owed his pigment to a number of individuals including Roi Herode (1904),  Le Sancy (1884) and Chanticleer (1843). Black Tie’s pedigree over 5 generations also showcases a bounty crop of illustrious sires who were not greys, notably War Admiral, Mr. Prospector, Raise A Native, Buckpasser, Princequillo, Nasrullah, Nashua and Count Fleet. 

Alcock’s Arabian (1712)




Crab (1722)



It is only over the last eighty or so years that the grey thoroughbred has been accepted by thoroughbred breeders and patrons of the sport as being as legitimately a “true” thoroughbred as a black, bay or chestnut. In days of yore the grey pigment was referred to as the “ghost hue” and was the object of everything from rampant curiosity to disdain to outright fear. Interestingly, the bloodline of grey thoroughbreds runs in an unbroken chain from the present day back to the first known individual of this color recorded in the annals of the British General Stud Book, Alcock’s Arabian (1712). Written records at this time are often hard to unearth as well as inaccurate — for example, according to Lady Wentworth, the noted authority on Arabian bloodlines, Alcock’s Arabian was aka Widdrington Grey Arabian, Pelham’s White Barb, Pelham’s White Turk and Bridgewater Arabian! Called by whatever name, the pedigree of Alcock’s Arabian was that he was by the Curwen Bay Barb (1681) ex. Old Wen Mare ( date unknown) by Hautboy


Curwen’s Bay Barb had an impact on thoroughbred bloodlines equivalent to the three better known Arab forefathers of the breed, being the ancestor of individuals like Highflyer and King Herod. It is through the King Herod line that Boston (1833) and his son, Lexington (1850) in the USA come down to us. At stud, Alcock’s Arabian sired the grey colt Crab (1722) still another important influence, as well as the grey filly, Alcock Arabian Mareis (date unknown) who was the dam of Dismal (1733) by the Godolphin Arabian, a brilliant runner who retired from the turf undefeated.  When in the presence of a grey thoroughbred like Black Tie we are meant to understand that their pigment signifies an unbroken thread back to the very beginning of the breed in the eighteenth century. 

The Tetrarch (1911), jockey Steve Donaghue up, showing off his chubari spots

The Tetrarch is a perfect example of just how visually arresting the grey pigment can be in a thoroughbred. He was born in Ireland in 1911, the son of the grey stallion Roi Herode (1904), himself a superbly bred thoroughbred by the French St. Leger winner Le Samaritain (1895) out of the French Oaks winner Roxelane (1894). Roi Herode was not a great success on  the track despite his impeccable lineage and was subsequently retired and bought by the Irishman Edward “Cub” Kennedy of the Straffan Station Stud in County Kildare. Cub had a plan: his passion was to revive the Herod line and Roi Herode represented the Herod’s male line — albeit ten generations back. At this point in his career, Cub owned three mares, including The Tetrarch’s dam, Vahren (1897), a descendent of Bend Or. Even by the standards of the day Cub was a small entrepreneur, but this mating was to realize not only his dream but also would result in a thoroughbred so remarkable that his name is associated with greatness a century later. 


When he was foaled, The Tetrarch was a chestnut with black splotches. By the time he was a yearling, The Tetrarch’s coat had changed to steel grey with splotches of white referred to as “chubari spots,”a transformation that earned him the nickname, “The Rocking Horse.” In a striking example of just how long a genetic trait may lie dormant, an ancestor of The Tetrarch’s who was seven generations back had had exactly the same markings at birth and went on to develop the same coloring and spots. When his jockey Steve Donoghue first saw The Tetrarch, he described the colt as “…elephant grey with big blotches of lime color looking as though someone had splashed him all over.” 


Not even the brilliant Donoghue could know what was to come, distracted as he was by the two year-old’s coat with its egg-shaped pattern of white — a white with a lime sheen due to the black skin underneath that is characteristic of grey thoroughbreds. The colt was brilliant on the turf, giving spectators performances so dazzling that they forgot his color and concentrated on his abilities. So it was that “The Rocking Horse” became “The Spotted Wonder.” Today he is viewed as the fastest two year-old ever to have graced a track. Shortly after his retirement, Donoghue declared that he believed the colt had been on the earth before because he always knew instinctively what to do, even in situations where he was untried.  The one race The Tetrarch lost was due to a false start; as for the other races, he crossed the finish at a kind of loping canter. On this point, we see something of Black Tie Affair, whose racing form was very much a “loping” style. Turf writers remain unanimous in their opinion that the career-ending injury sustained by The Tetrarch at the beginning of his three year-old season just before the 1914 Epsom Derby was one of the turf’s darkest moments, since few doubted that the colt would have taken the British Triple Crown. The Tetrarch’s trainer, Atty Persse, put it this way,” I honestly don’t think he would have been beaten at any distance. He was a freak and there will never be another like him.”


The Tetrarch also had quite the personality, a mixture of docility and lightening-swift rage. There were two things in particular that aroused his demon: having to take medication and being shod by a stranger. So dreadful was his behavior in the latter case, that his own farrier was obliged to travel with him. He had another odd habit in common with the champions Bayardo and Hyperion: he would suddenly come to a halt during gallops and stand gazing far away, just as though he was in a full meditative trance. Despite the efforts of his rider or jockey (he did this at least once in the walking ring too) he would only move on when his reverie was complete. The same meditative state overcame him in the breeding shed where he was quite content to gaze on the mares who were brought to him for as long as two hours, never moving a muscle, before getting on with the job. The result was that he produced only 130 foals, even though he topped the sire lists in 1919 and ranked third twice. And it was to be his daughter Mumtaz Mahal, “The Flying Filly,” who would revive memories of his brilliance on the turf, as well as pass on his outstanding ability to future generations. 

The filly Mumtaz Mahal (1921) with her lad
Mumtaz Begum (1932) daughter of Blenheim2 and Mumtaz Mahal


Mah Mahal (1928) daughter of Gainsborough and Mumtaz Mahal

The incomparable filly was named by her owner, the Aga Khan, after the great beauty who inspired the building of the Taj Mahal. She was a big filly, nicely proportioned with a regal head and a deep, dark, intelligent eye. Her dam, Lady Josephine, had been a very fast race horse who won the British Acorn and Coventry Stakes. Like her sire before her, the British racing public adored Mumtaz Mahal from the moment she first set foot on the turf. Depending on who one reads, her best distance either proved to be about six furlongs or else she was badly hampered in the longer races that she lost. Either way, her popularity was undiminished perhaps because Mumtaz Mahal was what is called an “honest” thoroughbred, meaning that she always did her best each and every time she ran. As befits such a game heroine of the sport, she went out a winner. In the breeding shed, she proved to be still another case of a great horse who never succeeded in reproducing anything close to herself. However, her daughters proved to be phenomenal broodmares. Of these, Mah Mahal (1928) the daughter of Gainsborough (1915) produced the champion Mahmoud (1933) by Blenheim2 (1927) andMumtaz Begum (1932) a daughter of Blenheim2 produced Nasrullah (1940), by the great Nearco (1935). The Tetrarch and Mumtaz Mahal appear four times in the fourth and fifth generations of Black Tie Affair’s pedigree, with both Mumtaz Begum and Mah Mahal represented, while Nasrullah appears three times in his fifth generation …. a “ghostly pantheon” so to speak, with the exception of Nasrullah (who was a bay).

Mahmoud as he looked in his later years


Black Tie Affair during his career at stud. Photo copyright Tony Leonard.



Mahmoud’s victory in the 1938 Epsom Derby showed such a devastating turn of foot over an uncharacteristically fast turf that it took until 1995 when Nijinsky’s brilliant son, Lammtarra won the Derby to unseat his record-breaking time.  It was with the greatest pride imaginable that the Aga Khan led his homebred into the winner’s enclosure, a scene immortalized on the cigarette cards of the day and in various other memorabilia. His victory is described this way by Edward Bowen in “Dynasties: Great Thoroughbred Champions”: “The author has seen few old race films as startlingly impressive as that of Mahmoud’s Epsom Derby. The view of the early stretch run seems to show a grey projectile bursting toward the leaders in a manner that is very much like the corresponding view of Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby rally. Even knowing that several furlongs still face the field from that point at Epsom, those close at hand as the 1936 Epsom classic unfolded before them must have sensed that the race was all over at this stage.”


Here is the actual footage of the 1938 Derby on the British Pathe web site. Watch it through the opening clips to get a better idea of the race (as well as British humor!). And remember: watch out for the grey! 


Address: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=6849


Sold to C.V. Whitney shortly after his retirement, Mahmoud would never have arrived on American soil had it not been for the fact that there appeared to be something wrong with his export papers. A lucky happenchance, since the vessel he was due to board was torpedoed enroute to New York.  At stud, Mahmoud proved to be very useful. Interestingly, many of his really successful progeny were greys with the exception of First Flight (1944), Almahmoud (1947), Cohoes (1954) and Vulcan’s Forge (1945). His prestigious grey progeny include Flushing2 (1939), Snow Goose (1944), Oil Capital (1947), Billings (1945) and The Axe II (1958).  However, it was through his daughter, Almahmoud, that his pivotal contribution to the breed was established, she being one of the greatest thoroughbred matriarchs of all time and the granddam of Northern Dancer (1961). It is The Axe II’s son, Al Hattab who was to become the maternal grandsire of Black Tie Affair. Al Hattab was an absolutely outstanding sire. He was what is called a homozygous grey, meaning that he carried a double copy of the grey gene and would produce only grey offspring, as well as passing on a grey gene to his daughters and sons. His daughter, Hat Tab Girl, the dam of Black Tie, carried the grey gene to her most outstanding offspring: Black Tie Affair, Black Tie Kiss (1994) and Great Palm (1989) who is an international sire standing in Europe and Ireland. 


Finally, we arrive at Native Dancer(1950) by Polynesian(1942) out of the grey mare, Geisha (1943) who was a daughter of Discovery (1931) and who descended from Fair Play(1905) and Sweep (1907. “The Grey Ghost” as he was known in his day was well-loved by his fans and has been the subject of many books and articles. Adored by fans he may have been, and the greatest thoroughbred since Man O’ War he undoubtedly was, but Native Dancer also had a rather nasty personality. Highly intelligent, he used his mind in a calculated and bullying fashion with people and horses alike. No one could really relax in his presence unless they were holding a whip, since this was the only thing he seemed to fear. Native Dancer frequently used his teeth on both groom and rider, and it was folly to attempt to bring him in when out at pasture before he was ready, since he would rear and charge anyone who tried. These behaviors point to his being a natural “leader of the pack,” a quality he passed on through his daughter, Natalma (1957), to his grandson, little Northern Dancer. As a sire, Native Dancer stands as one of the most influential of the twentieth century. His progeny include Kauai King (1966), Dancer’s Image (1968) and the European filly, Hula Dancer (1960) who was the first filly to ever win over 100,000 pounds in earnings. As well as being the grandsire of Northern Dancer, he is also the grandsire of the incomparable Sea Bird II, rated the best thoroughbred of the twentieth century in Europe if not worldwide.

Native Dancer at work



It is a stunning fact that throughout Black Tie Affair’s bloodlines the grey pigment has signaled horses of outstanding speed, stamina and courage, without whose bloodlines the thoroughbreds of today would not exist. Certainly the thoroughbred enthusiast of two hundred years ago would have been surprised to learn that the grey thoroughbred has had such a distinguished history in the shaping of the modern thoroughbred. Precious is the “grey filament” that lights the way from Black Tie back to the Arabians that engendered the breed — possibly the strongest argument that can be made for the role of the past in shaping the present. 


It is wonderful that Old Friends exists, allowing us to know a great champion like Black Tie Affair and to learn about the proud history that he embodies. As Michael Blowen undoubtedly knows first-hand, it is folly to take such individuals and their magical stories for granted by reducing them to mere commodities.


Time to open our eyes and go beyond looking to seeing. Seeing that part of Black Tie’s mission when he was among us was to remind us of just how very special he was. Not just because he was a champion, or a sire of champions like the wonderful Evening Attire. For reflected in the deep, dark eyes he shared with Mumtaz Mahal and the courageous heart he shared with his Arabian forebears, Black Tie Affair is the work of centuries of individuals and the issue of a legacy that we must always embrace, respect and protect from harm.


Michael Blowen and all of those who have made the commitment to thoroughbred retirement homes and rescues understand — they see the magic. And because they do, thoroughbreds like Black Tie Affair go on. And on. And on.

Going on: Evening Attire (Black Tie Affair ex. Concolour by Our Native)




And on: Formal Gold (Black Tie Affair ex. Ingoldsby)
sire of  19 stakes winners
with global earnings of 16 million


















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This piece looks at the living connection between Rachel Alexandra and one of her most famous ancestors. It is my tribute to Rachel whose racing career was brilliant and whom I am honored to have known, albeit from afar.  I hope that Rachel’s connections will make it possible for those of us who loved her to keep up with her in retirement, visit her, feed her goodies and tell her that we will always be with her. Until that happens, this piece is my way of celebrating just how special Rachel really is…….


In 1907 one of the greatest thoroughbreds ever born stepped off the turf and into history. “The best ever” they said of her, noting, “Possibly not since the days of Eclipse have we seen such a smashing horse.” This was the Edwardian age — a time of neither radio nor rapid transit — but her every race was attended by thousands of devoted fans. This last was no different … even though it had ended in defeat. Her name was Pretty Polly and she is arguably one of the most potent ancestors in Rachel Alexandra’s pedigree, where she appears on both the top (Medaglia D’Oro) and bottom (Lotta Kim).
I don’t recall whether or not I knew about Rachel Alexandra before the 2009 Kentucky Oaks — but after it, I knew that I would never forget her. I knew that I had been a witness to one of “the greats,” even before her stunning victories in the Preakness, Haskell, Mother Goose and Woodward. On Oaks day, she set the bar for excellence with a casual nod of her sculpted head and in so doing called up memories of Ruffian showing her heels to the competition in the Mother Goose, of Secretariat’ s Belmont and Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby.
One can wait a lifetime for a thoroughbred like Rachel Alexandra and while they are among us, it’s important to celebrate their presence.
So, Rachel — this one is for you, girl.
As fate would have it, the look and feel of Rachel as she cantered to the wire in the Oaks was oddly familiar to me. A month or two before I had read a delightful little book about Pretty Polly, who had raced a little over a century earlier in England. It took me a few days to realize that not only did Rachel and Pretty Polly share an uncanny physical resemblance, but also that the two were deeply connected in other ways. Certainly their respective canters down to the finish of the Kentucky Oaks (2009) and the British Dominion for two year-olds at Sandown Park (1903) were identical.
Pretty Polly as a 3 year-old with W. Lane up
Rachel at Saratoga in 2010 (courtesy Steve Haskin)
 Pretty Polly was born in 1901, the daughter of the stallion Gallinule (1884) and the mare Admiration (1892). Admiration was a rather ordinary thoroughbred, but her matings to Gallinule produced offspring who made their mark on the evolution of the thoroughbred. According to John Hislop, noted British breeder, owner and author, it was the presence of The Baron (1842) and Pocahontas (1833) in her pedigree that accounted for Polly’s stupendous abilities on the track, although the filly’s bloodlines also trace to the superlative little mare, Beeswing (1833). (The Baron, sire of Stockwell, remains one of the most important of thoroughbred sires to this day; Pocahontas was another profound influence on the breed and is also believed to be the progenitor of the big heart characteristic that is found in thoroughbreds that trace back to her, Secretariat being perhaps the most famous example. Beeswing could well be the subject of her own book. In brief, she raced until she was 9 years old and even though a diminutive 15 hands, was a fierce competitor, racing exclusively against the colts and winning 51 of 64 starts. Like Pocahontos, she exerted a potent influence on the development of the thoroughbred through daughters such as Honeysuckle, who also appears in Rachel Alexandra’s pedigree. Adored by her fans, Beeswing even had music written in her honor — ” The Beeswing Hornpipe.”)
Like Rachel, Pretty Polly was a big filly, standing just under 16 hands. She had a dark, rich chestnut coat, a white star on her forehead and one white sock on her left foreleg — this last another similarity that she shares with her famous descendant. Neither filly made much of an impression on their owners and trainers before they went into training. In Rachel’s case, she was looked upon as a “scruffy” baby and yearling. Polly tended towards a masculine body-type and was thought too muscular to really be any good by her trainer. Although gentle in nature, she was precocious for a 2 year-old, quick to display the fact that she had a mind of her own, as was the case with Rachel, according to her first trainer, Hal Wiggins.
When she went into training, Polly’s works were sluggish. In fact, she seemed fairly disinterested in the whole training process.  But two weeks before her debut on the turf, Pretty Polly was sent out to gallop with three colts, one of which was very fast. Since Polly was carrying more weight than her trainer thought good for her, he decided to give her an arduous work and asked her rider to push her to the finish. To the trainer’s surprise, Polly and the speedy colt dead-heated most of the way, he finishing a short length ahead of her. The talent she displayed on that day was a precursor of what was to come on her first start — and throughout her career. 
Pretty Polly broke her maiden by more than 10 lengths (according to one spectator) but the photo of the finish suggests that it was closer to 20, beating some very good colts along the way. So astounding was her lead as she continued to pull away from the other horses that the spectators thought there had been a false start. (In the absence of starting gates, false starts were fairly common. The way the crowd would recognize a false start was when they saw a horse so far on the lead that the other horses appeared to have started the race a second time.) Like Rachel’s Kentucky Oaks, which she won by over 20 lengths, Pretty Polly came home at a canter looking for all the world as though she’d simply been out for a gallop at home. Too, as the trainers of both Polly and Rachel noted, their fillies loved to race because they loved being “let loose.” However, both of these girls were decidedly feminine in other ways and Polly was noted for the sweet manner in which she accepted the sugar laying in a gloved palm of some lady or other in the winner’s enclosure after a race. Her best friend, a cob called Little Missus, accompanied Polly to the track; similarly, Rachel travelled and trained in the company of Steve Blasi’s pony, Dakota.  In Polly’s case, so attached was she to her friend that when they met up in the winner’s enclosure, Polly greeted Little Missus with a whinny and a nuzzle. More than once the little cob attempted to race Polly to the start, much to the delight of the champion’s fans. Even though Polly’s sensibility seemed focused on Little Missus (it was rumored that Polly ran as fast as she did to get back to see her buddy), local and national newspapers were filled with plaudits after each of her races. The whole of Great Britain seemed to want to know her down to the most minute of details. She was given a number of affectionate nicknames by the press and her fans: “Peerless Polly,” “Her Ladyship” and “Queen of the Turf” among the most popular. There were even birthday cards. This one, made by a devoted admirer, shows Polly trouncing a colt named Zinfadel in the Ascot Gold Cup and reads:  “Wishing you health, wealth, glory and good luck this season. This is how you must win!”
Birthday Card for Polly (in “Pretty Polly: An Edwardian heroine“)
In her two defeats, one in France and the other in England, the response of Polly’s fans was a deafening silence, followed — in the case of the Ascot Gold Cup loss — by weeping and a torrent of insults flung at the winner. The Times wrote of the loss in what was to be the last race of her career, “…the defeat of Pretty Polly was regarded as something like the shattering of an idol … and Bachelor’s Button was looked upon as the perpetrator of the deed.”  (In both of her winless starts, Polly finished second. It was thought that her voyage to France, where she was the victim of poor sailing and rail conditions, accounted for her defeat there. At Ascot, it was the opinion of her trainer that the loss could be attributed to her jockey’s decision to move her to the lead too early, although she was also blocked at the final turn by a tiring horse, forcing her to be carried wide and likely costing her the race. And even though she was, like Rachel, very calm in the face of her boisterous fans, Polly seemed unusually disturbed by them in the walking ring prior to going down to the start.)
During the years she raced, Pretty Polly’s career overlapped that of another brilliant filly named Sceptre and although they never met, fans of each mare stolidly insisted on their horse’s superiority, not unlike the Rachel vs. Zenyatta debate of 2009. And, as was argued about both Rachel and Zenyatta on separate occasions, Pretty Polly’s critics claimed that she had not beat enough champions to be considered one herself and/or that the horses she had beaten were rather mediocre. (History has shown that these arguments become irrelevant over time. Other owners did indeed avoid running their horses against her, making it ridiculous to consider the absence of stronger competition a reason for her astounding turf record.)  The “filly for the ages” retired with 22 wins in 24 starts, a total that no classic-winning filly in the 20th century would match. Her victories included the British Triple Crown for fillies, as well as the Doncaster St. Leger, the Coronation Cup at Epsom (twice) and the Jockey Club Cup at Newmarket. And even though Pretty Polly ran her final race in 1906, she was ranked as the best filly and brood mare of the 20th century internationally by the noted turf writers John Randall and Tony Morris in their book, A Century of Champions (1999). 
Initially, Pretty Polly’s new career was not much to her liking. She became nervous and irritable and, perhaps because of this, proved barren the first two years and then slipped twins before producing her first offspring, a bay colt by Spearmint. With the colt’s arrival, Polly seemed to find a renewed interest in life and her sweet nature returned as she mothered her new baby. In general, she was looked upon as rather a failure in the breeding shed, largely because her admirers were hoping that she would reproduce herself. Her sons proved to be mediocre by any standard and among her daughters there were no champions who even came close to their dam, although two were fairly good runners. When Polly died, at the age of 30, this prevailing wisdom went to the grave with her. 
However in one of the most important books produced in the twentieth century for pedigree researchers, Family Tables of Racehorses, written by Kazamierz Bobinski, it was found that only one mare born in that century qualified for special status as head of a special branch, identified in her own right as a prolific source of quality in the breed and the designated matriarch of family 14-c. That mare was Pretty Polly and it was her four daughters that carried her attributes into subsequent generations. Her first daughter Molly Desmond was the most prolific of the four. Molly’s descendants include Nearctic (the sire of Northern Dancer), Brigadier Gerard, Britain’s Horse of the (20th) Century and the Classic winners Premonition, St. Paddy, Flying Water and To-Agori-Mou, as well as the international sires Luthier and Northern Taste. Her other three daughters, Dutch Mary, Polly Flinders and Baby Polly accounted for Donatello II, Supreme Court, Vienna (the sire of Vaguely Noble), Carroll House (winner of the Arc de Triomphe), Psidium, Only For Life, Unite, Marwell and Court Harwell (a champion sire). When Bobinski’s text of 1953 was updated by Toru Shirai in 1990, Pretty Polly’s influence had become so enormous and her descendants so successful that the continued force of family 14-c into the 21st century is assured.
John Hislop, the breeder and owner of England’s Brigadier Gerard, bred the colt deliberately along Pretty Polly’s bloodlines. An author who has written several books on the thoroughbred, Hislop never doubted that Polly’s genetic material would carry down to the present day. In fact, Hislop was so certain of this that in 1945 he bought Brazen Molly (b. 1940, out of Molly Adare, Mary Desmond’s maiden daughter) who became the granddam of “the Brigadier.”
Rachel Alexandra’s connection to Pretty Polly is through her most prepotent daughter, Molly Desmond and the uncanny resemblance to Pretty Polly may hint of “more than just a trace” of her great ancestress in Rachel’s blood. In other words, it’s not a matter of whether or not Rachel has inherited some genetic trace(s) of Pretty Polly — she has — but rather what that might mean in her broodmare career that makes this “living connection” so exciting. 
The great Vincent O’Brien, who trained Nijinsky II, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor and so many other thoroughbred champions, always referred to his horses as “individuals.” I like to use that term myself because it serves as a reminder that each and every horse is unrepeatable, hence the nouns like “gift” or “treasure” that become attached to them in our hearts. In our lives, there are thoroughbreds that help us to “grow” that appreciation — in some uncanny way they touch us deep in our souls, making their absolute “unrepeatability” clear.  Then there are individuals like Rachel Alexandra, who is not only unrepeatable, but also expresses her ancestry in a way that bridges past and present. In so doing, she brings her own history to life and leads us to the understanding that she is “the work” of centuries.  
Thank you, sweet Rachel, for the thrills, anticipation and excitement. Thank you for your generous heart, a heart that expresses all that is noble, courageous and mysterious in the thoroughbred. May your future shine before you as brightly as the flame you grew within the hearts of those of us who love you. And may you, like Pretty Polly, go on and on and on.





Rachel Alexandra, Kentucky Oaks 2009. Photo by Skip Dickstein for Blood Horse. 















Pretty Polly — first time out; Sandown Park, June 27, 1903

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As some of you may know, this article first appeared on the Blood-Horse web site, in Hangin’ With Haskin, in December 2010. As the story goes, I had been so moved by Steve Haskin’s piece on Zenyatta, “I Lied,” that I sat down and wrote this and sent it off to him. Being the incredibly generous spirit that he is, Mr. Haskin asked me if I would like to publish it on his blog — and after picking myself up off the carpet — I said, “Yes, please!”  Over 400 people read it and almost the same number left incredible comments. I was so delighted that I started to think about doing my own blog. I owe it all to Steve Haskin, who is not only the greatest writer in the sport but who has been completely supportive in every way. Thank you so much, Steve. AA

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“Nostalgia is like grammar, you find the present in the past perfect.”(Unknown)

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That face! Portrait of Zenyatta, circa 2009.

 

I have been passionate about horses most of my sixty years on the planet. My grandfather, who was born in the late 1880’s, introduced me to thoroughbreds as a young girl when it became apparent to him that I, too, had “the bug.” He had owned one of the first standardbred horses in the province of Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century, a coal black filly whom he had gotten at a ridiculous price because she apparently hated people. My grandfather was a tiny man, a little over five feet tall, but he loved his statuesque filly and it was through loving her that he gentled her. Although he never raced her, she became a legend at horse shows in Quebec, Ontario and New York State where her fans typically gave her a standing ovation each time she entered the ring. Her photographs hung over his desk in his office and stories about her are part of the legacy and history of my family, passed down from one generation to the next.

We spent many weekends at my grandparents’ house when I was growing up and somewhere along the way, the ritual of watching the Kentucky Derby evolved. Grandpa and I would sit together in front of the television that first Saturday in May and talk about the runners. Then we would each choose a favorite and explain the reasons for our choices.  Grandpa usually made his selection based on bloodlines. And so it was I learned about Man O’ War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, Stymie, Citation, Nashua and Assault, as well as entertaining stories about Will Harbut, Eddie Arcaro, Samuel Riddle and the dynasty of August Belmont and the Whitneys.

My grandfather would lean back in his favorite armchair and recount stories about Man O’ War’s races, or the bond between Eddie Arcaro and Citation, or the War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race or an anecdote about the “people’s horse,” Stymie, as though horse and rider were standing in the room with us. It was only many, many years later that I realized he had participated in the careers of these great thoroughbreds by listening to the radio, watching newsreels in the early cinemas of the day and reading the newspaper. In other words, it was devotion to the sport and imagination that sustained his love for Man O’ War or made it possible for him to tell, in a breathtaking and suspenseful style, about Count Fleet winning the American Triple Crown.

One of my grandfather's great loves, Count Fleet, in a news clipping from the time he was racing.

One of my grandfather’s great loves, Count Fleet, in a news clipping from the time he was racing.

At Christmas there were books – Walter Farley’s “Man O’ War” and “The Black Stallion” series, C.W. Anderson’s “A Filly for Joan,” Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague,” as well as Breyer model horses. Through the spring, summer and fall there were trips to the fairgrounds, where my grandfather’s “horsey friends” (as my grandmother called them) stabled their horses – standardbreds, thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds, Hackney and Shetland ponies. The men would stand around, smoking their pipes and talking horses, while I – one ear cocked to the slow cadence of their voices – busied myself bugging kind grooms like Stanley Whaley to be allowed to brush a horse, or walk a horse, or muck out a stall. The soft, fuzzy light inside the barn, the smell of horses, saddle soap and Absorbine Junior, the rows of tack, the bales of hay and the sounds of horses’ breathing and stirring in their stalls engendered a warmth in me that told me I was home.

Christmas was filled with horse books....

Christmas was filled with horse books….

I suspect that it is experiences like these that engender a love of, and a respect for, all things equine. So, then, it is no surprise that the great civilizations of the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, together with the indigenous peoples of the Americas grew to revere the horse. Horses appear in the fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends of most of these cultures and are always primarily associated with matters of the spirit, or soul: they fly above the world of mortals, they carry the dead into the afterlife and heroes into battle, they nurture courage in the human spirit, as was the case of the tiny racehorse, Reckless, who became “the pride of the Marines” during the Korean War. As deities, horses are symbols of freedom, fertility, immortality and the unfettered landscapes of the imagination in which they are often depicted as oracles or visionaries, imbued with magic, mysticism and mystery. I like to think that every horse, regardless of breed, embodies a noble history. In the case of some breeds, like the Thoroughbred, it is quite literally the case – The Byerley Turk, The Darley Arabian and The Godolphin Arabian were all the issue of cultures that considered the horse a gift of the gods.

Regardless of whether or not you would rate Zenyatta as the best thoroughbred mare of her time, she is the product of centuries of outstanding equine individuals, making her “…a gift,” as Ann Moss has said repeatedly. Zenyatta’s bloodlines bespeak the careful breeding, over the centuries, on three different continents and in five different countries, of champions. Pre-1920, her ancestors include Papyrus, Tracery, Minoru, Rock Sand, Gallinule, Sainfoin, Orme, Isonomy, Galopin, Cyllene and Ormonde. From1920-1950: Hyperion, Native Dancer, Princequillo, Nashua, Hail To Reason, Hoist The Flag, Never Bend, Turn-To, Tom Rolfe and Tom Fool. It’s astounding to think of the legacy that Zenyatta’s family tree expresses, once again, in her. Once upon a time, in publications like Estes’ American Thoroughbred Horses, these legacies were recounted and celebrated. Today, they are usually overlooked in favor of the research of bloodstock specialists who are more focused on earning and breeding potential than the human-interest stories of great thoroughbreds.
Ann Moss refers to Zenyatta as "a gift...a precious gift." Here, Ann and Zenny at Lane's End, circa 2011

Ann Moss refers to Zenyatta as “a gift…a precious gift.” Here, Ann and Zenny at Lane’s End, circa 2011

Below are a few stories drawn from the legacy, or bloodlines, connected to the “gift” that is Zenyatta.
Hyperion (1930): a little horse, Hyperion loved to nap and refused to prep for any of his races. He was so resistant that his owner referred to him as a “lazy little brute.” Lazy he may have been, but his indolence had little effect on his turf record. Hyperion won the Epsom Derby going away, followed by the St. Leger and the Prince of Wales, winning nine of thirteen starts and only ever being out of the money once. His reputation as a sire is, of course, legion. And, until his last days, Hyperion was noted for his dancing – on the end of a (very short) lead!
HYPERION with LORD DERBY after his Derby victory.

HYPERION with LORD DERBY after his Derby victory.

Prince Rose (1928) was a big, beautiful and astoundingly good racehorse of Belgian lineage. Of all Zenyatta’s more distant ancestors, he is the one that most reminds me of her in conformation. The grandson of Prince Palatine and, on his dam sire side, Gay Crusader, winner of the British Triple Crown in 1917, Prince Rose sired Princequillo and is the grandsire of Misty Morn, Round Table and Hill Prince. Mill Reef, Fort Macy and Secretariat all descend from Prince Rose. Exported from England back to Belgium and, subsequently, to France, Prince Rose died in a military gunfire attack in 1944 during the Second World War.
PRINCE ROSE, a champion lost to the waste of war.

PRINCE ROSE, the sire of PRINCEQUILLO, was a champion lost to the ruin of WWII.

Tracery (1909) was a game little horse that was beaten in the Ascot Gold Cup when a spectator rushed onto the course and fired a pistol at the horses, causing him to fall. His son, Papyrus (1920), was an excellent colt noted for his beautiful leg action — which also comes very close to Zenyatta’s dance and may also account for her exceptional maneuverability, given her size. Although best remembered in the USA for his loss to the Kentucky Derby champion, Zev, it should be remembered that Papyrus had won the Epsom Derby that year, that he was shipped to the USA by boat and that he caught a muddy track on the day of the match race. More importantly, through his daughter, Cosquilla, Papyrus contributed to the heritage of the thoroughbred the outstanding individual, Princequillo.
PAPYRUS, the Epsom Derby winner, leaves the Aquatania to set foot in the USA for the match with ZEV. He lost but it's hardly a defeat. PAPYRUS was a great thoroughbred champion who had been asked to travel to the USA by boat (the only way to get there in those days) and then to run on soaked dirt for the first time (it rained just before the start).

PAPYRUS, the Epsom Derby winner and son of TRACERY, leaves the Aquatania to set foot in the USA for the match with ZEV. He lost but it could hardly be described as a defeat. Both TRACERY and his best son, PAPYRUS, figure in Zenyatta’s ancestry through the mare COSQUILLA, dam of PRINCEQUILLO.

The ill-fated Epsom Derby winner, Minoru (1906) was first sent to stud in Ireland, where he stood only a few seasons before, in 1913, he and fellow Derby champion, Aboyeur, were sold and sent to Russia. Sadly, both horses disappeared during the Russian Revolution and although there were fanciful tales suggesting that they had survived, neither was ever seen again. (It is through Minoru’s daughter, Mindful, who he got while at stud in Ireland, that he figures in Zenyatta’s pedigree.)
MINORU shown winning the Epsom Derby of 1909 for HM The King.

MINORU shown winning the Epsom Derby of 1909 for HM The King.

Isonomy (1875) was described thus by his groom, John Griffiths: “He had wonderful hindquarters and was deepest through the heart I ever saw.” His strong competitive spirit led J. B. Robertson, a prominent turf analyst of the day to reflect, “ All courses hard or soft came alike to Isonomy.” A winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, as well as the Doncaster and Goodwood Cups, Isonomy’s “triple” stood until 1949. The most dangerous threat to Isonomy came in the Doncaster Cup where he was matched against Lord Falmouth’s filly, Jannette, who had captured the Jockey Club Cup that same season and the year before, the classic St. Leger. The legendary British jockey, Fred Archer, was her jockey. Isonomy was partnered with his usual rider, Tom Cannon. In the home stretch, Jannette was in the lead. Cannon aimed his colt to come alongside Jannette on the rail in home stretch. In what appeared to be a deliberate foul, Archer maneuvered his foot in such a way as to drive his spur right into the shoulder of the onrushing Isonomy. The colt charged ahead to win the race in a desperate finish, tearing his shoulder on Archer’s spur in the process. Afterward, Archer proclaimed that his ankles were weak and difficult to control. It was a poor excuse, but Isonomy was swathed in glory for the rest of his life because of the tremendous heart he had shown on that day. At stud, the little guy (15.2 hands) with the courageous spirit sired two winners of the British Triple Crown, Common and Isinglass.
ISONOMY, another champion ancestor of Zenyatta.

ISONOMY, another of Zenyatta’s champion ancestors.

Ormonde (1883) was considered the best colt of the nineteenth century in Great Britain – if not the best British thoroughbred of all time – despite an odd history of mishaps and infirmities. Although he matured to16 hands, Ormonde was carried by his dam for 12 months instead of the usual 11. As a result, the colt’s mane never grew longer than 3 inches, his knees were very bent and he moved in a way reminiscent of Kelso’s sire, Our Host. Even though troubled by splints and breathing problems as a 3 year-old, his capacity to accelerate was the stuff of legend, as was his kind temperament and great curiosity. Part of his natural inquisitiveness was a love of non-conventional foods, which he consumed with gusto! (Nothing in my research about Guinness, but one never knows…) Ormonde was unbeaten in all of his 16 starts and won the British Triple Crown. In the Doncaster St. Leger, the third race in the Triple Crown series, Ormonde won by four lengths at a canter, needing no encouragement from his jockey. Even though he produced very few progeny, among them was the brilliant colt Orme who, in turn, went on to produce the British Triple Crown winner, Flying Fox, as well as the Derby winner, Orby.
ORMONDE

ORMONDE was considered the best colt of the 19th century in Great Britain.

Finally, there is the exquisitely tempered Cyllene (1895), who won nine of his eleven starts and is today considered a classic racehorse and an important international influence on the development of the thoroughbred worldwide. Interestingly, many British thoroughbred owners greeted Cyllene with indifference when he was first retired, since it was felt that he had beaten very inferior horses during his career. (An opinion that subsequent research shows to be unfounded. The horses that Cyllene defeated, notably Chelandry, Airs and Graces, Velasquez, and even Jeddah, who reaffirmed his Derby victory by taking the Prince of Wales Stakes, were hardly inferior adversaries.) At stud, he sired no less than four Epsom Derby winners – Minoru, Cicero, Lemberg and Tagalie – as well as the exceptional Polymelus. Exported to Argentina, he also proved to be an important influence there and to this day is honored as one of the most influential South American thoroughbred sires of all time.
CYLLENE was one gorgeous dude -- and a sire of multiple Derby winners.

CYLLENE was one gorgeous dude — and a sire of multiple Epsom Derby winners.

So many other stories could be told about the individuals in Zenyatta’s pedigree. As we admire her beauty and strength, her sweet temperament and her great heart, I imagine that Zenyatta whispers to us of the great, great horses that came before her. In this way, we can begin to remind ourselves that each and every thoroughbred is indeed a gift, a testament from our (human) ancestors that has come down to us over the ages, a living link to the past.Zenyatta expresses her extraordinary lineage in every move she makes, on or off the track. It’s in her eye – the eye that both looks right at you and then, as suddenly, looks right through you. It’s in the majestic turn of her head. It’s in her prancing and dancing. It’s in the strength of her hindquarters and her depth through the heart. And it is this heart, bred in the blood, that accounts for Zenyatta’s capacity to “show up” in each and every race she ever ran. If there’s a reason that fans are drawn to her, imbuing her with magic and mystique, it is that she is unmistakably part of a distinguished heritage that speaks to us of a time when horses were partners in the experience of what it meant to be human. What a cause for celebration!
HYPERION frequently danced on his way to a race or, later, the breeding shed. He isn't really dancing here, but there don't seem to be any images that show him doing a real dance.

HYPERION frequently danced on his way to a race or, later, the breeding shed. He isn’t really dancing here, but there don’t seem to be any images that show him doing a real dance. But Zenyatta has kept the memory alive in her own dance of joy.

Bill Dwyre of the LA Times wrote, “Zenyatta and her connections taught their sport so much, if only it would pay attention…” (November 7, 2010) His observation touches on another reason that so many have grown to love Zenyatta – because they were recognized as important by the people closest to her and welcomed, by them, into her world. Like the team that surrounded Man O’ War, Secretariat, Northern Dancer, Barbaro and a few other notable thoroughbreds of the last 100 years, Team Zenyatta stands firm in its conviction that she belongs to the people. They have spent hours and hours reading her fan mail, hosted television crews and endless streams of fans, accepted cakes and packs of Guinness, answered questions, donated memorabilia to charities and, in short, given up their own privacy to make it possible for Zenyatta enthusiasts to get close to her and to get to know her a little. And now that she is retired, her fans can read all about her exploits on a daily basis on zenyatta.com, as well as see photos and videos of her in her new home. Not surprisingly, Zenyatta’s diary has sparked lots of occasions for learning about thoroughbred horses and their care. Of course, given her amazing interest in people and her seemingly infinite patience with them, Zenyatta contributes in her own special way. But why does Team Zenyatta do it if not because, like the rest of us, they heed the call of the muse of the “Sport of Kings”?

Penny Tweedy, during her stay in Toronto for Secretariat’s final race was quoted as saying that Secretariat had been so important in bringing people into the sport of horse racing, and that it was this that made her particularly proud to be associated with him. Before her, the handlers of champions like Man O’ War welcomed enthusiasts to Faraway Farm, where they could meet the first “Big Red” and, later, his son, War Admiral. And it was not just nostalgic fans that visited. During the war years, servicemen of all ranks came to see the champions, basking in the glory of the Old Warrior and his feisty son.

MAN O' WAR meets with members of the American Armed Forces.

MAN O’ WAR meets with members of the American Armed Forces.

Today few people have an opportunity to fall in love with a thoroughbred: most horses are swallowed into the vortex of the breeding industry before they reach the age of four. And prior to their retirement, very few owners and trainers are willing to take the time to allow fans to develop a relationship with their animals. The impact of this kind of distancing, it seems to me, is to create the impression that the thoroughbred world has somehow turned inward upon itself to become a kind of “old boys club.” And, as an educator with 36 years of experience, I can attest to the dangers inherent in this sort of myopia.

For there are parallels that can be drawn between the woes plaguing educational systems worldwide and the current state of horse racing and breeding in North America. Principally, the following – both the educational and thoroughbred communities tend to talk to themselves, rather than embracing all of the stakeholders in their respective milieus. Parents and students are marginalized in the educational system; in the thoroughbred industry, it is racing fans that find themselves relegated to the periphery of things. In education, ignoring this population has proved disastrous and accounts for the massive abandonment of the public school system in both the USA and Canada. I submit that the same type of tunnel vision constitutes as real a threat to the health of the thoroughbred industry as any of the more commonly cited factors, including the state of the economy. Just as parents and students themselves are the cornerstone of any educational system, so it is the racing fan that generates the passion and the excitement that makes horse racing a compelling sport – without which, there is little reason to breed and sell thoroughbreds, let alone attract bettors.

So it is that I have read, with a practiced eye, the heartfelt comments of those “over-the-top” sentient beings (racing fans) and the seemingly calm, logical rejoinders of those terrible teases, the “rationalists” in the prelude to the Eclipse Awards. And although I have little interest in awards in general, it would seem that the old dichotomy of either/or has achieved a kind of mantra status. As in: either heart (sentience) or head (traditional view of logos, or logic) will decide whether Blame or Zenyatta takes the highest honours.

In fact, the divorce of sentience from logic in the lives of intelligent people has long been frowned upon since it is the stuff of non-sense. Thought is the product of both feeling and form – the latter being the cognitive structures that allow communication to take place and information to be turned into knowledge. People like Albert Einstein, admittedly a genius, relied upon both throughout his life: sentience provided insight and imagination – “zeitgeist” being the birthplace of reason; and logos, a structure for turning insight into knowledge. Add to this the fact that the criteria to select a winner of an Eclipse Award are, to be kind, “lacking” and the stage is set for bitterness and, inevitably, the alienation both of those very people that are drawn to the sport by great thoroughbreds like Zenyatta and the horsemen and women that care for them during their careers on and off the track. As any good teacher knows, the result of evaluating students without clear, concise evaluation criteria that are communicated before students begin to work can only bring discredit to the teaching profession. The same risk is true in the thoroughbred industry. What can one say, after all, about an award where the criteria are determined on a private, individual basis by the voters and shared in such a smug, superior tone with the “great unwashed”?

I did not write this response to “I Lied” to justify Zenyatta being awarded Horse of the Year. Rather, I wrote it to remind myself of the history of the development of the thoroughbred and of the traditions that were once vital to thoroughbred horse racing – wonderful stories of great horses, generous owners and trainers, the passionate devotion of horse racing fans, the sense of belonging to a community.

Like you, Steve, I can see no reason for marginalizing Zenyatta’s fans on the grounds that they are tilting at windmills. After all, if not for those of us that still regard the thoroughbred with awe, the sport would lose its majesty and its appeal. Of course, it would be nice if the “old boys” promoted inclusion, rather than exclusion, as they pen their polemics. But, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. For those of us who have had a chance to fall in love again with a thoroughbred named Zenyatta, as for her wonderful team, there are all those memories – of the way we smiled when she danced or laughed as she posed for a kiss, of the hitch in our throats when Ann Moss or Dottie Shirreffs or Mario or Steve’s eyes brimmed with tears, of the thrill of watching her run, or of John Shirreffs’ quiet reminder that “hundreds of years go into breeding a thoroughbred”  — and there are still more memories to come, to be sure! Zenyatta touched our lives as we accompanied her on her way from fuzzy baby to mature adult, learning to become a community in the process. And we will no more forget her than we could forget Man O’ War or War Admiral or Count Fleet or Citation or Northern Dancer or Secretariat or Ruffian or Genuine Risk or Personal Ensign or Barbaro …… or any thoroughbred that we have loved.


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SPECIAL NOTE: The last two Zenyatta videos in this article owe to footage and the great talent of Zenyatta’s greatest fan, my friend the late KARI BUSSELL aka ANIMALSROCK4LOVE.

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