Archive for the ‘Thoroughbred horse’ Category


Each year that the Oaks is run, it brings with it different stories and contexts. And if we have a “filly favourite” running, we learn their stories by heart. Some of these narratives stay with us. Join me as I re-memory the fillies and the Oaks runs over the last sixteen years that remain my favourites to this day.

A Brief History of the Kentucky Oaks

Despite the fact that the history of the Kentucky Oaks is as venerable as its twin, the Kentucky Derby, through much of the latter part of the last century it has been treated as the “second” on the card. Yet it’s fair to say that any filly who runs in the Oaks is as exceptional, in every way, as the colts who will run in the Derby on the first Saturday in May. Like the boys, these fillies are the best of their year and, in some Oaks years, even better than the colts that win the Derby.

The first Kentucky Oaks was run in 1875 and won by a filly named Vinaigrette. Its founder was Colonel Meriwether (aka “Lutie”) Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of explorer General William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. The tempestuous Lutie — who would commit suicide after the stock market crash of 1893 — did much to introduce horse racing to America, also founding the Kentucky Derby and the Louisville Jockey Club, as well as supervising the building of Churchill Downs on land purchased by his mother’s family, the Churchills, after which the track takes its name. In Lutie’s eyes the Oaks and Derby would showcase America’s finest thoroughbreds, just as the Epsom Derby and Oaks did in the United Kingdom.

It was a place built to welcome dreams. And it did just that.

Colonel Meriwether aka “Lutie” Lewis Clark, Jr.


My Favourites: Kentucky Oaks 1990 – 2016

These are the Oaks that most moved me over the last quarter of a century. I have never had much interest in comparing the winners, since each filly ran in different contexts unique to her time and circumstance. But there are two qualities the fillies showcased here share: the racing heart that got them to Churchill Downs in the first place, and the courage to take on their peers no matter the challenge.


1990: SEASIDE ATTRACTION (Seattle Slew ex Kamar, by Key To The Mint)

She was a daughter of Seattle Slew out of a Key To The Mint mare, Kamar, but she was decidedly unlucky to be born in the same year as the incomparable Go For Wand.  An over one million dollar Keeneland purchase by William T. Young of Overbrook Farm, Seaside Attraction was trained by D. Wayne Lukas. In the 1990 Oaks, Seaside Attraction would have her work cut out for her: even the legendary Joe Hirsch (in video below) felt the winner was a foregone conclusion. The track was sloppy, but few felt this would hinder Go For Wand, a “filly for the ages.”

(Note: The videotape runs for 41 minutes, but I started it closer to the actual race itself, even though the whole telecast is a treat to watch.)

Hearts were broken on this day, mine among them.

I wanted to see Go For Wand wear the blanket of pink, but her previous start had almost been a walkover, the Churchill track was tiring, and the sheer number of times she had raced as a three year-old may have, indeed, been her Achilles heel. But this takes nothing away from Seaside Attraction, who ran her heart out. And even through my disappointment, I was reminded of the hopefulness that fills the heart in a race of this calibre. It’s the “secret ingredient” of the sport: the knowledge that nothing is certain once the starting gates fly open.


1994: SARDULA (Storm Cat ex Honor An Offer, by Hoist The Flag)

In 1994, Sardula was Jerry and Ann Moss’ Kentucky Oaks filly. The daughter of Storm Cat, like her grandam Terlingua, had been a hot-blooded two year-old and trainer Brian Mayberry had invested hours and hours into teaching her how to relax. This is another “secret ingredient” of racing: colts and fillies that don’t relax when they run are unlikely to do their best work. Too, the risk of injury is far greater when a thoroughbred is wound up too tight.

A year earlier, at Del Mar, Sardula broke into racing with a 10-length victory. A month after that, she won the Del Mar Debutante by 7 1/2 lengths. In April, after a layoff of almost four months, she won the Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita by 8 1/2 lengths. And only a month before the Oaks, at Hollywood Park, Sardula won the Princess by 5 1/2. All very Terlingua-like. Sardula was a speedball and she came into the Oaks a multiple-stakes winner. Regular jockey Eddie Delahoussaye would again be in the irons.

But despite earnings of over $800,000, Sardula didn’t start as the Oaks favourite. That honour went to another outstanding filly: Lakeway.

I was, of course, in Sardula’s camp and principally because of my lifelong love for Terlingua. But Sardula’s courage in battling Lakeway to the wire is something I will never forget. It is the mark of a champion and was to be Sardula’s final legacy. Later that year, the filly was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a painful bone disease. Despite the efforts of veterinary facilities in Kentucky and California, the magnificent Sardula could not be saved. She is buried in California, on the grounds of the veterinary facility where she was humanely euthanized.


1999: SILVERBULLETDAY (Silver Deputy ex. Rockeby Rose by Tom Rolfe


Like so many Oaks contenders, Silverbulletday had a spectacular fan following before she even stepped onto the track at Churchill Downs. Under Bob Baffert’s guidance and in the skilled hands of Gary Stevens, Silverbulletday had won top honours as the Two Year-old Eclipse Champion filly in 1998. As a juvenile, she had raced on the East and West coasts but seemed to prefer the former to the latter, resulting in her being permanently moved to Churchill Downs. There, she reeled off another three straight wins including the G2 Alcibiades and the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Silverbulletday’s three year-old campaign was as brilliant as her accomplishments at two. She annexed the Ashland, Black-Eyed Susan, Monmouth BC and Fair Grounds Oaks, the Gazelle, Alabama and Davona Dale Stakes, losing out to Beautiful Pleasure in the Beldame. Her achievement resulted in an Eclipse Award that year. She raced at four but was less accomplished, retiring at the end of the season with over three million USD in earnings. In 2009, she was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

Silverbulletday was a hard-working filly and an honest one. Those who loved her during her racing years loved everything about her, but it was her honesty that won my heart. She always gave everything she had and that determination was breathtaking to witness.



2004: ASHADO (Saint Ballado ex. Goulash, by Mari’s Book)

Ashado: I loved her name and everything about her. She was the first filly in the twenty-first century that I thought of as “My Girl.”

Ashado didn’t win every race at two, running against some powerful competition in Society Selection and Halfbridled, winner of the 2004 BC Juvenile Fillies. But she never gave up either, even though Todd Pletcher cited “morning laziness” ( the filly was so resistant that trainer Pletcher felt guilty working her at all) and the fact that Ashado got bored on the lead as probable causes for the races she lost. Context in the year a thoroughbred races has a direct impact on how they do. And in 2004, Ashado went up against the likes of Storm Flag Flying, Nebraska Tornado, Madcap Escapade and Stellar Jane. But her wins in the Oaks and BC Distaff that year were gutsy and brilliant, earning her Eclipse Champion Three Year-Old honours.

Ashado raced on at four, winning three G1’s, before her retirement in 2005. In 2014, “My Girl” was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.




2007: RAGS TO RICHES (A.P. Indy ex. Better Than Honour, by Deputy Minister)

How could you ignore Rags? Although arguably not the most cuddly of personalities, Rags To Riches’ courage — some might say “sheer bloody mindedness” — swept all before her, even the mighty Curlin, whom she defeated in the 2007 Belmont Stakes, despite bobbling at the gate. Everything about this filly was bigger than life, from her size to her stride to her determination to win. Those devoted to A.P. Indy saw in this burly, chestnut daughter a fitting testimonial to an outstanding sire nearing the end of his stud career. And, of course, she was all that, defeating the 2006 Eclipse Champion Two Year-Old and BC Juvenile Fillies winner, Dreaming of Anna, in the Kentucky Oaks.


Rags’ defeat of Curlin and Hard Spun in the Belmont Stakes just a few weeks later was a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching battle to the wire that few will ever forget. It was the first time that a filly had won the gruelling classic in over a hundred years.

Following a number of minor injuries, Rags To Riches was retired in 2008 with in excess of one million USD in earnings.

Rags never gave me that “warm and fuzzy” feeling. I didn’t dream of meeting her, or of giving her peppermints as I stroked her head. But she was greatness on four feet, the kind of thoroughbred whose refusal to be headed bespoke a will of iron. It was her weapon and she used it fiercely, like the Warrior Queens of myth and history. Boadicea would have happily ridden her into battle, that’s for certain.




2009: RACHEL ALEXANDRA (Medaglia d’Oro ex. Lotta Kim, by Roar)

It will be impossible for me to ever watch another Kentucky Oaks without carrying Rachel in my heart. Even though she would go on to great heights, culminating with her induction into the American Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, it is the Kentucky Oaks that I still watch, over and over again. With her mane flying, down the home stretch she came — and she owned me, body and soul, from that day forward. That race, at least for me, defined her. Bred by Dolphus Morrison, trained by Hal Wiggins and ridden by Calvin Borel, Rachel’s Oaks was also a victory for small breeding enterprises and successful, hard-working trainers and jockeys who seldom tumble into the spotlight.

It is so hard to know why some fillies go straight to your heart while others, themselves beautiful and brilliant, don’t. But in Rachel’s case, it was the kind of feeling associated with those of us who see in horses something otherworldly, embodying an essence that transports the human spirit. Watching her, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that this is what it must have been like to actually see a Man O’ War or Count Fleet in action. Too, I was reminded of Secretariat’s Belmont, of the exaltation of the soul watching a great thoroughbred running for the sheer love of it.

Watching Rachel cantering home on Oaks day, I was the little girl who played with Breyers and made up stories about them, and who shortened long trips in the car by imagining a beautiful, powerful horse running along beside me, jumping fences and floating over fields high with corn.

Rachel Alexandra took me home.


2010: BLIND LUCK (Pollard’s Vision ex Lucky One by Best of Luck, a son of Broad Brush out of Crowned, by Chief’s Crown)

The anticipation going in to the 2010 Oaks was huge. Two great fillies, Evening Jewel and Blind Luck, were anticipated to face-off in the run for the pink. Blind Luck’s come-from-behind running style was always risky, although she had won the Las Virgennes and the Fantasy by a hair’s breadth and would go on, after the Oaks, to victories of the same genre. Evening Jewel had the more conventional running form, moving into mid-pack and rating just off the pace before striking out for home. Blind Luck went into the Oaks’ the favourite, but I held my breath as the race got underway:

The challenge that Blind Luck and Evening Jewel threw down bespoke magnificence. Two brilliant fillies — one sweeping to the front from the tail of the field — going head to head, as the wire drew ever closer. For anyone unsure as to what “heart of a thoroughbred” looks like, this is it.


2011: PLUM PRETTY (Medaglia d’Oro ex Liszy, be A.P. Indy)

It was a young Martin Garcia and trainer, Bob Baffert, in the spotlight in 2011 when they brought Plum Pretty to the winner’s circle in the Oaks. I tuned in to see Zazu, Daisy Devine and Joyful Victory, and I don’t really remember knowing much about Plum Pretty, even though I was wise enough to respect any filly that Bob Baffert brought to the Oaks. Like so many Medaglia d’Oro’s, she was a striking filly with lots of scope and a fine head. But for all that, what lay within on that first Friday in May was so much more:



Plum’s Oaks might not have conjured the stuff of legend: she hung on to just win it. But the willingness to hang on, to do your very best, is a quality bred into the best thoroughbreds — and this was the signature of Plum Pretty’s 2011 Kentucky Oaks.




2013: PRINCESS OF SYLMAR (Majestic Warrior by A.P. Indy X Storm Dixie by Catienus, a son of Storm Cat)

Dreamers make-up at least 85% of the constituency of horse racing. These are the folks who take risks because they really believe that anything is possible and that dreams can come true.

Princess of Sylmar is a dreamer’s elixir: a filly who lacked a trendy pedigree and throughout most of her early, brilliant career was ignored because of it. Bred in Pennsylvania by Ed Stanco, “The Princess” raced in Stanco’s colours for his King of Prussia stable and was trained by Todd Pletcher.

In her second start at two, The Princess won a race at Penn National by nineteen lengths before moving to Aqueduct, where she won an allowance race by four under jockey, Rajiv Maragh. At this point, the filly was one of those hard-working girls running in small races that nobody much notices.

The filly kicked off 2013 with combined wins of fourteen plus lengths in the Busher and Busanda Stakes under jockey Javier Castellano. Moved up in class in The Gazelle, The Princess went down to defeat to Close Hatches and the loss caught people’s attention, likely resulting in her starting in the Oaks at 38:1 odds.

In a way, it was easy to ignore Princess of Sylmar, since the field included the Two Year-Old Eclipse Champion, Beholder. Too, both Dreaming of Julia and Close Hatches had distinguished themselves as very good fillies.

The start was unkind to Beholder, who fell in the Post Parade, throwing jockey Garrett Gomez. When the race was over, Gomez saluted Beholder for the way she had regained her composure, although he knew that she had quite possibly lost her Oaks at the gate. Dreaming of Julia got smacked at the jump out by Rose To Gold, impeding her chances of winning as well.


But was Princess of Sylmar’s win a fluke, at the expense of Beholder and Dreaming of Julia? It’s possible, but she defined herself in subsequent authoritative wins in the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Alabama and the Beldame, where she beat champion Royal Delta. When she finally met up with Beholder again, in the BC Distaff, The Princess failed to produce the kind of performance we had all come to expect from her. But, then again, she had had a long season by current standards.

Retired at the end of her four year-old season, Princess of Sylmar was sold to Shadai in Japan, where she delivered a colt by super stud Deep Impact in 2016. Princess of Sylmar was reportedly bred back to Deep Impact for 2017.


2016: CATHRYN SOPHIA (Street Boss by Street Cry X Sheave by Mineshaft) 

She was another filly who, though not ignored by the punters, languished in the background, largely because of the hopes tied to Rachel Alexandra’s talented daughter by Bernardini, Rachel’s Valentina. And like so many who tuned in to watch that day, I was practically willing Rachel’s daughter to follow in her dam’s footsteps.

Cathryn Sophia was trained by the great John Servis, who conditioned Smarty Jones, another love of mine. Even though I favoured Rachel’s Valentina, my respect for Servis meant that I always paid attention to his runners and Cathryn Sophia was, indeed, very impressive. But when I read a column that quoted Servis as wondering whether or not his filly would stay the distance, I kind of pushed Cathryn Sophia off my radar. After all, her sire was a sprinter and Sheave, a daughter of Mineshaft (A.P. Indy) had beautiful bloodlines but Cathryn Sophia was her first foal.

Too, it was not as if there weren’t other serious challengers: notably, Land Over Sea, Lewis Bay and Terra Promessa, although the latter’s front-running style made her chances of taking it more risky than those of the other two.

But the Oaks played to Cathryn Sophia’s advantage, and Rachel’s Valentina seemed to have no more to give once the field turned for home. It was a thrilling finish, as the daughter of Street Boss danced away from the rest of the field:

Cathryn Sophia was retired in 2016, after a third place finish to Songbird in the G1 Cotillon. She was bred to Pioneerof the Nile in 2017.

With Cathryn Sophia’s win I was reminded of those fickle racing gods, who never fail to make me doubt myself, while assuring that each Kentucky Oaks is an adventure in its own right.



Thoroughbred racing is more often than not the theatre par excellence of sports. With their rich history and tradition, classic races like the Oaks are punctuated by triumph and loss, and the promise of hope and possibility. The dramatis personae may change from one year to the next, but the tone and message endure.

On Oaks day, these elements help to construct a rare opportunity — that of slipping away from daily cares to take your place in a country of dreams, dreamers and magnificent fillies.


KENTUCKY OAKS 2009: RACHEL and Calvin, coming home.



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In conformation, she is unmistakably her mother’s daughter. But at this stage of the game, Soul Stirring is also the best of Frankel’s first crop, as well as his first and only G1 winner of 2016.

Champion STACELITA with her FRANKEL filly, born in 2014 and to be named SOUL STIRRING.

2014: Champion STACELITA with her newborn FRANKEL filly, SOUL STIRRING. Photo source: Twitter.

This is one alliance of bloods that did exactly what might be expected, much to the delight of Katsumi, Haruya and Teruya Yoshida, the owners of Shadai, Northern and Oiwake farms on the island of Hokkaido, in Japan. Take an outstanding stallion in Frankel– arguably the greatest thoroughbred that England has ever known — and put him to a champion thoroughbred mare and daughter of Monsun, Stacelita. Then hope and pray.


Prayers aside, it sure helps if the possibility inherent in a particular mating is a gleam in the Yoshidas’ eye, as this much-anticipated foal was. After all, these are the breeders who imported Sunday Silence from the USA and turned the son of Halo into the Northern Dancer of Japan and a leading sire from 1995-2008. In 2017 Shadai remains the home of Sunday Silence’s most powerful sons and daughters, notably the pre-potent Deep Impact. But there’s a down side to any giant bloodline: so prevalent is Sunday Silence’s blood in Japanese bloodstock in their own country that the Yoshidas, together with most Japanese breeders, are keen to acquire mares who provide an outcross to his bloodline.

Enter champions like Stacelita, Danedream, Azeri, Ginger Punch, Proud Spell, Champagne d’Oro, In Lingerie, Mi Sueno, Zazu, Sarafina, Evening Jewel, Princess of Sylmar and, more recently, Curalina and Don’t Tell Sophia, among other global acquisitions purchased by the Yoshidas.


Nor are the brothers only interested in broodmares. Daughters of Deep Impact, like the great Gentildonna, also need suitable suitors. Shopping in North America, Britain and Europe for great bloodstock for well over three decades, Shadai has acquired champions like War Emblem (now retired and living at Old Friends in Kentucky), Harbinger, Workforce (now standing at Knockhouse Stud in Ireland), Novellist, Carroll House, Tony Bin, Falbrav, Empire Maker (now back in the USA), I’ll Have Another and Pentire.

The Frankel-Stacelita union represents a desire to enrich and diversify the Shadai bloodstock through the introduction of powerful bloodlines like that of Monsun, Galileo and Danehill (through Frankel’s dam, Kind). But the pairing was a crapshoot: Frankel, standing his first season, was unproven and Stacelita was also a wild card, since her first foal, a filly by Smart Strike, was only a yearling.

SOUL STIRRING just before she was weaned is already an impressive individual.

SOUL STIRRING just before she was weaned was already an impressive individual. Photo source: Twitter.

When snow drifts lay high and gleaming against the bare trees, Stacelita brought her filly foal into the world. As winter melted away and greenery festooned paddock and tree at Shadai Farm, it became clear that Stacelita’s daughter had inherited her dam’s conformation, coat colour and large, expressive eyes. According to trainer Chad Brown, who took over training duties from Jean-Claude Rouget in France, Stacelita was noted for her “presence” — something that other thoroughbreds noticed and respected. At three and four, Stacelita won the Prix St. Alary, Prix Vermeille, Prix Jean Romanet, La Coupe and the Prix de Diane. In France, she was an absolute superstar. Shipped to Chad Brown, she annexed the Beverly D. and the Flower Bowl Invitational, but a terrible trip in the Breeders Cup that same year resulted in her giving a lacklustre performance. It didn’t matter: Stacelita was the Eclipse Award winner for Best Turf Female in 2011. She retired with well over two million in earnings and visited Frankel in 2013.


Right from the start, STACELITA'S little daughter had presence. Used with the permission of Michele McDonald. Photo and copyright, Michele McDonald.

Right from the start, SOUL STIRRING had presence. Shown here with her dam, STACELITA. Used with the permission of Michele McDonald. Photo and copyright, Michele McDonald.

Frankel followers were beginning to note that many in his first crop shared a distinctive feature: on the outside, they took after their dams. And Soul Stirring, as she was named, had Stacelita’s size, scope and bone. As a baby, what she had inherited from Frankel certainly couldn’t be discerned just by looking at her.

The devotion Frankel had gained as a racehorse showed no sign of ebbing when he retired, and  “The First Frankels” were eagerly awaited, despite the risk that this great thoroughbred wouldn’t necessarily prove to be as great a sire. Frankel nevertheless got the immediate support of Juddmonte, who offered him a modest book of exceptional mares in 2013. And this trend is likely to continue throughout his stallion career. The idea is to keep him “exclusive” — as his privileged status demands.

So it was that Soul Stirring’s first start in July 2016 in the land of her birth was greeted with great excitement. She was, after all, Japan’s own “baby Frankel.”

And her win came with a sense of what Frankel had almost certainly contributed to her pedigree (Soul Stirring is #3, yellow-striped silks and red cap):

True, she won it by a fraction of a nose, but the explanation for that probably came in the walking ring before the race (video below), where the 2 year-old was fractious. Unlike other Frankels, who showed his enthusiastic forward locomotion, Soul Stirring’s running style was reminiscent of Stacelita. But although her willingness and speed couldn’t be attributed to Frankel alone, it seemed likely that on the “X” her sire had contributed was more than a little of Danehill, one of the most stunningly successful sires of the last forty years.

Soul Stirring had indeed stirred hearts around the world. But one start does not a champion make. With Christophe Lemaire back in the irons for trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, the filly made her second start, this time against the colts, in the October 2016 Ivy Stakes (please click on video):

This win was something different: Soul Stirring showed a lightning turn of foot when asked, powering into the lead to finish with ears pricked. It was a thrilling, decisive victory. And even the champion and two-time Horse of the Year in Japan, Gentildonna, had only won once in two starts as a two year-old. So Japanese racing fans, together with Teruya, aka “Terry” Yoshida, were ecstatic.

SOUL STIRRING in the walking ring before the Ivy Stakes looked composed.

SOUL STIRRING in the walking ring before the Ivy Stakes looked composed. Photo source: Twitter.


Crossing the finish line, ears pricked.

Crossing the finish line, ears pricked. Photo source: Twitter,

Soul Stirring was acquiring a following after beating the colts, and social media was regularly peppered with shots of her preparation for the final start of her two year-old campaign, the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, a G1 race for the best juveniles in the land. Should she win it, Soul Stirring would become Frankel’s first G1 winner. The filly seemed to have it all — looks, turn of foot, ability to rate off the pace and blazing speed. It was impossible not to wish the best for her in her final race, scheduled to take place in December.

SOUL STIRRING works prior to the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies.

SOUL STIRRING works prior to the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies. Photo source: Twitter.

Elsewhere, it was late in the flat season: The Frankels racing in England and France, despite signs of brilliance, had not managed a G1 and had been put away until their three year-old season. Too, a majority of the best-bred Frankels hadn’t even shown up on the turf: Frankel himself raced at two, but he was by all accounts a “late bloomer,” a quality that seemed in evidence in his 2014 crop.

December 11th arrived and Soul Stirring’s cheering section held its breath, while those in other parts of the world consumed gallons of coffee the evening before and got set to stay up all night. (Soul Stirring is #2, yellow-striped silks, white cap):

With that, it was settled. Stacelita’s daughter was indeed a champion juvenile, having beaten the best of her age and sex with relative ease. The win would be enough to award her Champion Two Year Old Filly honours in Japan, before getting some time off.

A delighted Christophe Lemaire congratulates his filly.

A delighted Christophe Lemaire congratulates his filly. Photo source: Twitter.


Victory salute.

Victory salute. Photo source: Twitter.


SOUL STIRRING, Champion two year-old of 2016.

SOUL STIRRING, JRA Champion Two Year-Old Filly of 2016. Photo source: Twitter.


What a difference two months can make.

By February 2017, Soul Stirring was back in training for the first start of her three year-old campaign, the Tulip Sho, in March. The choice of the Tulip Sho spoke volumes: the race is the habitual qualifier for the Japanese Filly Triple Crown, comprised of the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas), the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) and the Shuka Sho (formerly the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup, run from 1976–1995). The most recent winner of the Filly Triple is the brilliant Gentildonna, who won it in 2012.

Caught in the lens of eager photographers, Soul Stirring was already bigger and stronger than the juvenile version of herself, just eight weeks after her mini-break. In fact, she had added 20 kgs. Put another way, the filly was beginning to “grow into herself.”

SOUL STIRRING, December 2016.

SOUL STIRRING, December 2016. Photo source: Twitter.


SOUL STIRRING, February 2017

SOUL STIRRING, February 2017. Photo source: Twitter.


February 2017: SOUL STIRRING works, prior to the Tulip Sho. The hood is used to keep her mind on business — and likely signals to the filly that something important is on the horizon. Photo source: Twitter.

By now Frankel lovers around the world knew about Soul Stirring and, as even breeders are inclined to feel, the sense that she could be “The One” (of 2014) to carry the beloved Frankel into the future was visceral. When you love a thoroughbred you pray for that, pray that time won’t swallow them up and render them ghostly. And Soul Stirring gave people the same stirring in the heart, in the soul, as Frankel had once done. She drew you in. She had presence alright — and that ineffable something that sets hearts and minds on fire.

But would she train on into her third year? So many brilliant two year-olds don’t…..

March 3, the day of the Tulip Sho, Frankel enthusiast Jess Samy noted: “Don’t mess with me. She’s a girl on a mission” And Soul Stirring sure did. Tight as a coiled spring, she strode the walking ring between her handlers exuding power, making it impossible to take your eyes off her — even at 1 a.m. in the morning (central North American time).


“A girl on a mission,” said Jess Samy. She’s got her game face on. Photo source: Twitter.

Walking ring footage. Soul Stirring is #10:

The competition befitted a Triple Crown qualifier, the strongest of them being Entry Ticket (#4), Lys Gracieux (#3) and Miss Panthere (#7), all granddaughters of Sunday Silence. Two others were by the winningest of Japanese sires, Deep Impact. And Soul Stirring was starting from deep outside the rest of the field.

With Christophe Lemaire once again her pilot, Soul Stirring stepped into the starting gate:

Hugely evident in her victory is that Soul Stirring had come into 2017 very much the same, willing competitor as she had been at two. That, and how readily she quickened to win, ears pricked. As an American jockey might say, “I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of her yet.”

SOUL STIRRING in her winning colours. Photo source: Twitter.

April and the Oko Sho (1,000 Guineas) await, where Soul Stirring may very well face another very good Frankel daughter in Mi Suerte (out of Mi Sueno), as well as Miss Pathere and Lys Gracieux who finished second and third, respectively, in the Tulip Sho.

But on that day, all around the planet, you’d better believe that hearts will swell and hope will power her wings.

SOUL STIRRING, taken in February 2017. Photo source: Twitter.

SOUL STIRRING seems to be saying, “That’s right. I did it again.” (In winner’s circle, Tulip Sho.) Photo source: Twitter.



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Special thanks to Charlotte Farmer, who introduced this great filly to me, and John Engelhardt, Executive Director, Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners. Without their help, this article would never have been written and I would have missed out on the story of an exceptional thoroughbred. Thank you.

This article is dedicated to Ryan Brady, whose journey with a filly he had never met speaks of a love great enough to overcome adversity, and an enduring respect for those who weave our history. 

GLACIAL PRINCESS with her dam, GAY NORTH, a daughter of the mighty NEARCTIC, who sired NORTHERN DANCER.

GLACIAL PRINCESS with her dam, GAY NORTH, a daughter of the mighty NEARCTIC, who sired NORTHERN DANCER. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners.

When you study thoroughbred history you quickly come to see that the stories of hundreds of great thoroughbreds have been forgotten. The reasons are as many as the individuals themselves, but at particular risk are those thoroughbreds who raced locally, often in the states where they were born, never venturing to prestigious venues or those races, like the Kentucky Derby, that almost guarantees an enduring legacy. That they are forgotten is especially harsh, considering that these horses are in many ways the true heroes and heroines of racing in North America and in the world at large. Without them and the many racetracks where they ran, there would be no sport at all.

The dark filly pictured above with her dam could have run with the best of her year, colt or filly, but she made her stand principally at Beulah Park in Ohio. Glacial Princess, as she would be named by owners William Fouss and Dr. John Graver, crowns the pantheon of thoroughbred champions in her state. A legend and beloved, she brought people to the track just to see her, to breathe in a little of the same air that Glacial Princess inhaled and to go home saying that they had seen a mighty filly run.

Despite a proud 91-year history, Beulah Park, its people and their stories were about to disappear forever.

During a walk through Beulah Park with his fiancee shortly before it closed, Ryan Brady and his intended came upon Glacial Princess’ headstone. Brady’s fiancee wondered aloud if the champion filly’s memorial would be paved over, once the track was sold and developers started to dig up the infield. The thought made Brady feel ill.

“…’It was really important to find a dignified resting place for Glacial Princess,’ Brady told thisweeknews.com. ‘I couldn’t stand the thought of her grave being paved over by a parking lot or a new building.

‘I never got to see her race, but growing up in Ohio, I knew her history,’ added Brady, ‘and I thought this is just the right thing to do.’ ” (excerpted from The Blood-Horse, January 19, 2017)

And so it was that Ryan Brady began a two-year campaign to honour a Princess he had never actually seen. And he was lucky enough to enjoy the full support of many key people, among them Beulah Park’s new ownership.

Dr. John Graver, who owned Glacial Princess in partnership with William Fouss, was stoutly behind Brady’s efforts and agreed to donate his filly’s headstone, should a suitable burial site be found for her. Brady also consulted with Charlotte Farmer, who had located, exhumed and transported the champion Noor’s remains from California to Old Friends in Georgetown, Kentucky for re-burial. And when he heard about the efforts to find an eternal place of rest for Glacial Princess, Michael Blowen of Old Friends stepped forward once again, just as he had for Noor and Barbara D. Livingston’s beloved champion, Springsteel, who found himself in similar straits when Rockingham Park closed, to offer “…a place for her {Glacial Princess’} fans to come and honour her.” Upon hearing the news, Charlotte Farmer expressed her joy, saying, “…Now my Prince {Noor} will have a Princess beside him to complete his royal court.”



BRENT'S PRINCE was Ohio's Horse of the Year in

BRENT’S PRINCE was Ohio’s Horse of the Year in 1975. The son of the 1967 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Proud Clarion (Hail To Reason), BRENT’S PRINCE proved a very good sire. Photo and copyright, the Estate of Tony Leonard.

Glacial Princess was bred by Cider Mill Farm in Ohio and came into the world in 1981. Other than a white star, the youngster bore a distinctive white spot on her right flank. The spot was like a kiss from Mahmoud, who appeared in her female family in the 5th generation. But that was just the beginning. The dark-coated newborn was racing royalty: a daughter of the 1975 Ohio Horse of the Year and 3 year-old Champion, Brent’s Prince (a son of the 1967 Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion by Hail To Reason) and Gay North, a daughter of Nearctic, the sire of Northern Dancer. And within the bloodlines of the filly foal’s pedigree were other legendary names: Nearco, Bull Page and his sire, Bull Lea, Hyperion, Turn-To, Blue Larkspur, Scapa Flow (GB) and Gainsborough (GB).


NEARCTIC, who famously sired Canada's NORTHERN DANCER, was the BM sire of GLACIAL PRINCESS.


There was not much question who had dominated the Princess’ blood. She had Nearctic’s determination to never be headed in a race, and his (at times) thoroughly unloveable personality. In fact, as far as her character went, Glacial Princess was a carbon copy of Northern Dancer, who reserved his affection for only one person — Winnie Taylor, the wife of E.P. Taylor, who bred and owned him. Otherwise, he was a mean-spirited little bully. In the case of the daughter of Brent’s Prince, the object of her affection was trainer John Rutherford. By the time she arrived at Rutherford’s barn, Glacial Princess had matured into a tall, iron-grey filly and she quickly let everyone know that she just wasn’t cut out to be a cuddle bug.

Lynn Boggs, herself a thoroughbred owner, got to know Glacial Princess when Rutherford asked her to braid roses into the filly’s mane for an upcoming race.

“With John, she was an angel. He loved that horse and she loved him,” she {Boggs} said. “Other people — she didn’t much like dealing with them.

“She had a little bit of a mean streak in her, it’s true,” she said. “But when you have a horse like that, so regal and proud on the track, you can’t help but fall in love with them.” (excerpted from This Week Community News, January 11, 2017)


GLACIAL PRINCESS on track, wearing the colours of Fouss and Graver's Equinall Stable.

GLACIAL PRINCESS on track, wearing the colours of Fouss and Graver’s Equinall Stable. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners.


It didn’t matter that she wasn’t one of the “sweet” ones. Glacial Princess was as rare as flamingos in an Ohio winter: a superstar filly who would triple her sale price in earnings by the end of her juvenile season. Ironically, her nickname was the “Iron Lady,” the same as that of another racing champion born a year after Glacial Princess, Lady’s Secret.

Ohio’s Iron Lady not only earned the title for her steel grey coat, but also for her fierce competitive spirit. Running against fillies and colts, under all conditions and carrying as much as 128 lbs. on her back, Glacial Princess always gave it her best shot. She was one of those thoroughbred’s who answers the question with 150% effort in race after race after race. The jockeys who guided her through to a remarkable career included Heriberto Rivera Jr., Danny Weiler and Sebastian Madrid.

In 1985, Glacial Princess ran 17 times, winning 11, 9 of which were stakes and earning Ohio Horse of the Year honours.

GLACIAL PRINCESS out of the gate.

GLACIAL PRINCESS out of the gate. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners.

The following year, Glacial Princess ran 19 times, closing out the year with a record of 8-2-2. The filly made Ohio thoroughbred racing history, when she became the first Ohio-bred to ever record $200,00 plus earnings in back-to-back years and she went on to win a second consecutive Horse of the Year title in a tie with the colt, Rhinflo.

1986 also saw Glacial Princess run her finest race, cruising to victory in the Miss Southern Ohio Stakes at River Downs by 5 lengths. The performance is emphatic enough to spark memories of Ruffian and of Rachel Alexandra’s Oaks. But 1986 also brought disappointment: defeat at Aqueduct in The G.III Vagrancy — although Glacial Princess was later found to have had a virus — and in Hawthorne’s Yo Tambien Handicap (The Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1986.).

And somewhere along the way, the filly had lost trainer John Rutherford, first going to Marvin Moncrief and finally to Gary M. King. In fact, on the Pedigree Query website, two other trainers’ names appear next to the filly’s list of graded stakes wins: Linda Lysher (Evergreen Stakes, 1986) and Patrick J. Kerins (George Lewis Memorial Stakes, 1986, Diana and Lady Liberty Stakes, 1987).

Still, her year had been a winning one. As co-owner Graver told the press, ” …All of her losses this season have been justifiable…She will continue racing as long as she remains healthy and sound.” (The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 24, 1986.)

GLACIAL PRINCESS was racing royalty and Ohio's greatest pride.

GLACIAL PRINCESS was Ohio’s greatest pride. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners.


On April 25, 1987 it all came to an end when Glacial Princess broke down. The injuries she sustained made it impossible to save her and she was buried in the infield at Beulah Park, near the finish line.

When a loved one is taken, the bereft mourn forever. So it was with the Ohio racing community: a filly who raised hopes and hearts was gone.

Old Beulah Park cradled her in its arms, an embrace that bespoke memory and loss.

GLACIAL PRINCESS' headstone, in the infield at Beulah Park. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred

GLACIAL PRINCESS’ headstone, in the infield at Beulah Park. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners.


The film below chronicles Glacial Princess’ career, offering rare footage of her as a filly foal and on the track. It was written and produced in a collaboration between Carroll and Marlane Nibert, John Engelhardt and the filly’s owners.

It is an absolute treasure:


In January 2017, having the approval of Beulah Park’s Pat Kelley and the Grove City administration, the search for Glacial Princess’ mortal remains began, with the assistance of members of the anthropology department at Ohio State University. John Queen of Richwood, a friend of Brady’s, supplied the back-hoe and the team went to work with Brady in attendance. They knew where the filly had been buried, but other important details were sketchy.

“…after hours of digging Saturday, the group found no trace of her. It’s possible the remains deteriorated, they said.

“They found a railroad spike, the remains of a small dog wrapped in a blanket, and a race ticket believed to be from the 1930s. Ultimately, after excavating a good portion of the infield, they decided that Glacial Princess will remain permanently at rest at the track where her impressive career began and ended.” (excerpted from an article in the Columbus Dispatch, January 22, 2017.)

The video below includes footage from the original short film about Glacial Princess (above) but also includes coverage of the search for the champion filly’s remains:


With mixed emotions, Ryan Brady carefully collected pieces of the winner’s circle, some dirt from the finish line and the burial site, together with an old betting ticket that they had found. Then he deposited it all into a tote that would be sent on to Old Friends, followed by Glacial Princess’ headstone. Of very real comfort was the fact that the plan for the development of Beulah Park will include a sizeable park to commemorate Grove City’s racing history — and preliminary renderings {of said plan} show it encompassing Glacial Princess’ grave, meaning that what remains of her won’t be disturbed.

When the Memorial Service in her honour takes place at Old Friends, Ryan plans to bring red carnations — the state flower of Ohio — for his Princess.






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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(Source: Facebook.)


The heart and mind process imminent endings before they actually happen. There are reflections, a fondness for the past tense, a sense of distancing the self from the event, because when heart and mind know an ending is upon them, they rehearse.

But eyes and mind are different, as they must be, since the eyes live in an eternal present. On January 29, 2017 California Chrome left his stall on the Gulfstream shed row to begin a new career at Taylor Made in Kentucky. Eyes and hearts watched him go for the final time, saw the empty stall, began to register the absence.

As I watched Chrome leave his home in Los Alamitos, I knew in my heart what Art, Alan, Dhigi and Raul were feeling. They had welcomed me into Chrome’s world, closing the space between the far-away me and themselves, and as the van pulled out of Los Alamitos for the last time I was filled with sadness. “The eyes are the window of the soul” and my soul was right there beside the people who made Chrome’s stall a home.

Chrome’s departure for Gulfstream had almost nothing to do with the Pegasus and everything to do with the closing chapter of a brilliant career for me. And along with the Team Chrome family, I knew I’d miss the presence in my life of this magnificent copper horse and his honest, courageous heart.



Trainers Art & Alan Sherman, exercise riders Willie Delgado (until April 2015 approx.) and Dhigi Gladney (April 2015-January 2017 approx.), groom Raul Rodriquez and jockey Victor Espinoza comprise the “hands on” of Team Chrome, the people who did everything from picking out his feet to teaching him how to win.

And they did it brilliantly, while always making time for the press and their colt’s devoted Chromies by throwing open windows to the tribulations, trials and excitement of campaigning a great horse.

(Videos: from 2014, produced by David Trujillo and Blood-Horse, respectively):


Art Sherman was not entirely a stranger to the media, having been champion Swaps’ exercise rider in 1955, at the age of eighteen. Between 1957-1979, Sherman was a professional jockey, turning to training thoroughbreds after that. And even though California Chrome was Sherman Stables’ first Kentucky Derby contender, Art brought a depth of knowledge about thoroughbreds to the table. His down-to-earth, straight-shooting and always cordial style set the bar on what it means to be a consummate professional. The Shermans are sportsmen and they love the game. Art’s admiration for Shared Belief and Arrogate was palpable following their victories over Chrome, and bespoke a classy gentleman of the track.

In the three/four years that the colt and his trainers were under the microscope they taught us all so much — not only about California Chrome, but about the life of a trainer responsible for a North American racing icon. Expressions like, “He (Chrome) ran his eyeballs out…” and “He’s just a cool horse,” became part of my lexicon, as did the familiarity of Art in cap and jacket, hands in his pockets, answering still another round of questions.

Of all the interviews with Art, this one, after his colt’s win in the 2016 World Cup, is my favourite. I was so thrilled for Art, Alan, Dhigi and Raul that I danced all around the living room, my eyes glazed with tears.

But glamour of Dubai aside, the largest percentage of Chrome’s racing life happened at the Sherman Stables in Los Alamitos (and before that, at Hollywood Park). It’s easy to forget just how much time thoroughbreds spend in their stalls or in training; a trainer’s greatest skill is keeping his horse happy during the (sometimes) long stretch between races. Keeping a horse “well within himself” is based on familiar routines, appropriate exercise and attention from those who are most important to him/her. Centre stage are the exercise rider(s) and the groom(s) and it is the latter who often become a thoroughbred’s best friend. As with dogs and cats, the person who cares for them is, in the horse’s mind, the person to whom they belong.

Enter Raul Rodriguez, who accompanied Chrome from his very first start to his retirement (video produced by the Blood-Horse in 2014):


Raul’s bonuses from Chrome’s wins have allowed him to purchase a home amid an 80-acre ranch in his home, Jalisco (Mexico), where he intends to retire. As I write this, Raul is with his boy at Taylor Made, helping him to settle in. And I’m remembering Eddie Sweat taking Secretariat and Riva Ridge to Claiborne, and that photo of Eddie in tears, leaning against a stone wall….. May your goodbye be a kinder one, Raul.

Raul and his boy, CALIFORNIA CHROME

Raul and his boy

It was William Delgado and Dhigi Gladney who put the muscle on America’s 2014 and 2016 Horse of the Year. Working in tandem with Art and Alan, they were the ones who taught the juvenile his job. Through their hands and voices, Chrome learned about gallops, works and cooling out. They taught him how to break from the starting gate and how to change leads on the fly. It was from Willie and Dhigi that he received praise, and began to understand how to work with a rider instead of against him. Too, it was from Willie that the colt first heard “the question” — that moment a thoroughbred is invited to really run. With Dhigi came the fine tuning — sharpening Chrome’s sensitivity to his rider’s commands, helping him move fluidly from one “gear” to another. And both of these fine young men had everything to do with the champion’s “attitude” towards racing.

Delgado worked Chrome as a juvenile and then until April 2015, teaching him many key lessons along the way (video produced by America’s Best Racing in 2015) :

And it was Dhigi’s beautiful smile, cordiality and enthusiasm that lit up the last 18 months of Chrome’s career, as he added his skill to the racing repertoire of the champion (video produced in 2017 by Gulfstream Park):


The accomplished Victor Espinoza was Chrome’s jockey throughout most of his career. Victor is a man known for his generosity with fans. But he is also the man that guided Chrome home, giving him confidence when he needed it and helping him navigate safely through traffic. There is another kind of intimacy between a jockey and a horse he knows well, and it was when Victor took over the irons in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park in 2013 that California Chrome began to turn into the Chrome we know and love. There was a chemistry between them. An understanding. And it was Victor who took care of Chrome in his final start, making certain that the horse got back to the barn without sustaining what could have been a fatal injury.

Here they are in the August 21, 2016 Pacific Classic, where they took on an absolutely stellar field:



Msrs. Steve Cobourn and Perry Martin were the first owners of California Chrome and through the eyes of two new to the sport, we shared the ups and downs of Chrome’s early career. One can only wonder how many newcomers were inspired to get into the game by knowing the enthusiastic duo and their copper-coated colt with his purple silks.

Mr. Perry Martin and Mr. Steve Cobourn

Mr. Perry Martin and Mr. Steve Cobourn

Although Perry Martin had wanted to retire the colt in 2015, partner Steve Cobourn sold his share in the horse to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky and the whole game plan changed. When the Taylors joined Team Chrome, the colts silks turned from purple to chrome, literally. Too, following his loss in the 2015 Dubai World Cup, he was sent to Taylor Made after a stint spent in the UK before returning to the Shermans for the 2016 racing season. It was a joy to see him hanging out in Kentucky and I thought the idea a brilliant one: since Chrome would retire to Taylor Made, I wondered whether or not getting used to the place would ease the transition, when it came.

But in Taylor Made, the Champ found a new home. A family business where he was greeted with deep respect and love.

Chrome playing with Taylor Made Stallion Manager, Gilberto Terrazas (video produced in 2015 by Armando Reyes)

This superb Blood-Horse video features the story of post-UK Chrome (2015) right up to the Dubai World Cup win (2016) and gives viewers a great look at what Taylor Made is all about:



Leading up to California Chrome’s retirement, the new partnership busied themselves setting up a form of “super syndicate,” partners who will make a 4-year commitment to Chrome at stud and assure him great mares.

Through the final campaign in the Champion’s career, Taylor Made were there. And when he arrived at the farm, they found their own way to make it clear that they knew we Chromies were out there.

(Video produced on Jan. 30, 2017 by Taylor Made Sales Agency Inc.)



(Video produced on Jan. 30, 2017 by Taylor Made Stallions)




Thank you for your warmth and kind generosity.

Thank you for reaching out and “seeing” me — and understanding what it is to love a horse.

And thank you, Chrome. You made my heart soar. You made me feel wonder.

And I will love you forever.



(Video by David Truhillo, Nov 2016)



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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The PHAR LAP photo.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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






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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy coincidence? Certainly.

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

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


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

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


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

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

As she went on to say:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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






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

COUNT FLEET shown here with his trainer

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

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

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

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




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


QUICKLY, the dam of COUNT FLEET. Photographer unknown.

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

It was the last race Count Fleet would ever lose.

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

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

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

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


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




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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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


THE COUNT arrives at Pimlico with trainer,

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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



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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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



COUNT TURF. Source unknown

COUNT TURF. Source unknown.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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





A Visual Story of Count Fleet:






Johnny Longden’s last ride:





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

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

³ Ibid, pp 99


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

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

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

Archives of the Milwaukee Journal.

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


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



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” To be great is to go on,

To go on is to be far,

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Along came MAYA...

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

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

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

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


#9579’s BFF in her pen at the BLM.


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


April 7, 2016: First day of freedom.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Choctaw fillies. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.

Choctaw fillies. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT.


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

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

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

From the BHWHS website:

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

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

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

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

Lunchtime for the Choctaws. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

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

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

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


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



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

The photos tell the story.

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

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

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

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


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

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


This close. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

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


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

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

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

Joan in the herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

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

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



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

Part of the herd. Photo and copyright: THE VAULT

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


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

Except that it kept happening…..

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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



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



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



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


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

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

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



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



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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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



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



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


Curly mustang winter coat.

Curly mustang winter coat.


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

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

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




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

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



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



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