One of the things I enjoy most about studying equine business is the stories I get to hear on a daily basis.
As my first semester in the Equine Business program at the University of Louisville comes to a close, I've been recalling some of the stories I've heard in class, and I thought I'd share a few of them.
Make Rain, Not Love
One of my professors, Timothy Capps, has worked all over the equine industry, from Claiborne Farm to Pimlico Race Track to racing media publications. His memory is filled with legendary stories.
He told us one about Seattle Slew, who after winning the Triple Crown in 1977, went on to a successful stud career at both Spendthrift and Three Chimneys farms.
I don't know if you'd call it a fetish or what, but Seattle Slew's handlers learned that this great champion only liked to breed mares when it was raining. You can see how this might be a problem, since a stallion farm can't possibly make money if it has to wait for rain in order to breed.
It just so happened that the breeding shed at the farm had a tin roof. So, when Seattle Slew was brought into the shed, his handlers would turn on the sprinkler system and point it at the roof. Voila - to Seattle Slew's ears, it had started raining, and that meant it was time to get down to business.
A lot of stallions have these mating quirks. The great stud, Nasrullah, would not mate under any circumstances if Arthur B. Hancock, Jr., the operator of Claiborne Farm at the time, was in the shed. They tried several ways to sneak him in the barn when Nasrullah wasn't looking, but Nasrullah would sense his presence and back off the mare.
Horses are funny creatures, aren't they?
Face the Broom Handle
Capps tells another story about Nasrullah, who was an ornery sort. None of the grooms at Claiborne Farm could do their jobs because Nasrullah would attack them when they came into his stall. One of the fed-up grooms went to Mr. Hancock and said, it's either me or the horse. One of us has to go.
Obviously, Mr. Hancock wasn't about to send Nasrullah packing, so the groom told him, okay, let me try something, but I can't tell you what it is. You just have to trust me. Nervously, Mr. Hancock agreed, telling the groom not to injure his stallion. The groom said he would cause no "permanent damage."
So, when the groom went into the stall the next day, he carried with him a broomstick handle, and when Nasrullah came at him, he whacked him three times on the forehead. Not gently, mind you. Nasrullah backed up and let the groom grab the feed bucket.
The next time the groom went in, Nasrullah attacked him again, and he got a whack, whack, whack on the forehead. Again, Nasrullah backed up. The third time the groom went in, Nasrullah started coming after him, but all the groom had to do this time was show him the broomstick handle, and that was the end of it. He never attacked the groom again, and for the remainder of Nasrullah's stud career, that groom was the only one who could successfully go into Nasrullah's stall.
It CAN'T be Mind That Bird
Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson spoke to one of our classes and played us his call of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. My background as a radio broadcaster led me to notice something interesting about the stretch run of that race.
I told Mark, "I heard you buy yourself some time." He laughed and told the story of what happened in those two seconds.
During the call, Mark says something about Mine That Bird being "long last" on the backstretch, and he never mentions him again until deep stretch. As the leaders were hitting their late strides, Johnson says "Towards the inside... picking up now... bursting through... Mine That Bird!"
Mark said he noticed a horse skimming the rail and was trying to figure out who it was. Mark is a big fan of the cartoon, Tom and Jerry, and he said that moment was just like the Tom and Jerry episodes where the characters would have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, telling them what to do.
The angel was telling Mark, "You know that is Mine That Bird. You know those are Calvin Borel's silks." The devil was saying, "Come on, that can't possibly be Mine That Bird! He was just chasing the ambulance a minute ago!" This went back and forth in Mark's brain at lightning speed, and his mouth was trying to buy him time to decide. So he said, "Toward the inside...picking up now... bursting through...", and at last, he decided to go with the angel and shouted "Mine That Bird!"
What makes his call even more impressive is that Tom Durkin, who called the race for NBC, muffed it and didn't pick up Mine That Bird until the wire.
Apparently, the devil got the best of him.
By the way, Mark invited me up to the announcer's booth for a race call a few weeks ago, and it was scintillating. He's a tremendous talent, and watching him work was a thrill.
Who is That Ugly Foal?
Another one of our speakers was Shannon White, manager of Fares Farms in Lexington, KY. Shannon told us the story of a foal that was bred on her farm a few years ago.
As the foal was developing, Shannon formed the opinion that he would never even sniff a racetrack. He was too awkward-looking with too many conformation flaws. She said she wouldn't have paid a dime for that foal. That's his weanling photo on the right.
Well, somebody did buy that foal, and he not only raced, but he broke his maiden with a 101 Beyer Speed figure rating. He went on to win the Preakness, finish second in the Belmont and win the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Shannon said it just goes to show you that you can't look at a horse and determine the size of his heart, and she learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
That foal was none other than Curlin, who to this day is prominently displayed on the Fares Farms website.
In my regulatory law class, we spent the semester pouring over case law involving patrons ejected from racetracks, trainers violating drug rules, OTB bettors thrown out for screaming, jockeys using "buzzers", a woman slipping on a half-eaten hot dog, a gambler being bitten by a rattlesnake in the parking lot - you name it.
You couldn't make up the characters in some of these cases, and they illustrate the colorful, always interesting, sometimes disturbing elements in the racing industry. My professor, Robert Heleringer, has written a book chronicling the entire history of regulatory law cases in racing. It should be published soon. His book has essentially been the material for our class. Highly recommended (and entertaining) reading!
This first semester has been incredible. I went to the Keeneland auction and race meet. I worked the Breeders' Cup for the Paulick Report and watched the Classic from six floors above the finish line. I clocked workouts in the mornings at Churchill with workout master, Bruno de Julio. I met people in every corner of the equine industry from jockeys and trainers to farm managers, equine insurance agents and horse massage therapists. I made great friends, including fellow student Michael Vesce, whose uncle trained a phenomenal racehorse of the 90's - Formal Gold.
I learned how the tote odds at the track are calculated with takeout included, how a stallion manager determines stud fees, the economics behind auctions, the science of horse reproduction, the origin of the saying "never look a gift horse in the mouth" (you can tell his age by the teeth), and much, much more.
The spring semester should be just as enjoyable. It will include equine marketing, a course on racing media, commercial law and current issues in the industry among others. And while this semester culminated with the Breeders' Cup at Churchill, my final semester will end the week of the Kentucky Derby.
What more could a horse nut ask for?