We navigated closer, the GPS guided, “Turn left ... turn right ... (and finally) ...you have reached your destination.”
The black gate of Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Farm is emblazoned with the Stonestreet logo. Dan, the gate attendant, greeted us, “Are you gentleman hear to see Rachel?” We nodded an emphatic "Yes!"
The gate opened. A friend from Stonestreet, Amy Kearns, greeted us with a golf cart and a bright smile. My co-worker and friend, Brian W. Spencer, turned to me and said, “This is going to be cool.”
It was windy and cold, but the sun shown brightly on this perfect fall day. The wide open fields allowed a crisp wind to cut through us like a razor blade, but at the same time the warmth of the sun rested on our faces.
I, of course, forgot a sweatshirt.
As we drove around the farm, we passed by several barns named after different types of wine (chardonnay, merlot, etc.). Amy told us a bit about the history of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, the Jackson Family Wines and last but not least, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
As the golf cart hummed toward our final destination, we passed several fields where weanlings (baby horses), such as Jess’s Dream, the son of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, and sidekick Union Jackson, were enjoying the day with an afternoon snack, the green (blue)grass. As the cart turned toward the Zinfandel barn, we could see the silhouette of someone very special waiting for us.
I asked, “Is that her?”
Amy smiled, “That’s her.”
Her name is Rachel Alexandra. For many reading this, I don’t have to say much more than that.
Rachel, the 2009 Horse of the Year, put together one of the most impressive campaigns of any racehorse ever. Rachel won the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Mother Goose Stakes (G1), Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1), Woodward Stakes (G1), and who could forget the Preakness Stakes (G1).
Rachel walked toward us, fully showing a large baby bump as her coat glistened in the sunlight. At this stage in her life, Rachel doesn’t worry about morning workouts or traveling around the country to win races, because her job is to be a mom now. Rachel, in foal (pregnant) to Bernardini (the baby’s dad), was standing right there.
Although he was nervous, I let Brian meet her first. As he learned to stroke her neck to her satisfaction, he spoke with Cheri Mercier-Bradicich, the broodmare manager. I spent my time, bending the ear of Stonestreet’s farm manager, Garry Megibben.
Garry, spent well over an hour and a half answering the many questions I had regarding the day-to-day operations of the farm. More importantly, I was interested to learn about the human interaction that one has with, not only Rachel, but the other 90+ pregnant broodmares (or mothers, as us humans would say) on the property.
As our visit continued, something that was interesting to note at this point for me was that I never thought of horses in any other way, than by what I saw in the program.
Whether it was a speed figure, a morning workout or a class dropper, most horses to me never really had a living, breathing element to them. I know this may sound odd, but as someone who teaches the game and plays it, you never really think about it all that much. When you are figuring out the puzzle that is a horse race, you try to figure out the pace of the race and how the race will play out. You don’t think about where a horse was born, when the horse likes to eat or sleep and the people that care for them.
As Rachel posed for photographs, Garry filled me in on the many aspects of the farm. I learned about the timeline that a mare carries a foal, feeding and caring for horses and just about everything else he could teach me in the short period of time. This learning process changed my thoughts on how I always perceived horses and horse racing. See, to Garry these horses are like family. Amy even shared with us that, “Garry tucks his kids into bed and then he comes back out here and tucks Rachel in.” I am sure this element exists at most other farms, too, but there is a compassionate feeling that exists at Stonestreet I had never considered.
It was now my turn to meet Rachel. As Garry pointed me over to meet her, I realized I was nervous just like Brian had been.
I believe we both warmed up to each other after a few strokes of her back. Cheri took Rachel back into the Zinfandel barn, where she currently resides, and we chatted some more. As we talked, my focus turned suddenly away from the predictability of a horse’s genes and the outcome on the track, to the interaction between Rachel and first foal, Jess’s Dream.
Garry mentioned that Rachel allowed Jess’s Dream to be independent and to explore freely and be, in a way, his own horse.
I learned that Rachel has around-the-clock care and that she thoroughly loves her new role in her life. The thing I enjoyed most of all was the passion and happiness that Amy, Garry and Cheri had for their jobs and their life at the farm.
On our way back to our car, we made a few stops on the way. Amy stopped the golf cart near a large, gated field. Many might say there was a feeling that we we were about to meet a horse with the status of royalty, but Jess’s Dream was actually very friendly and almost wise beyond his years, with his mom’s looks and his dad’s temperament. Ironically, we share this in common and many people in my family would describe me the same way. He grazed a bit as Brian and I took a few photos and enjoyed the last couple of moments of the farm on that gorgeous day.
As I took one last look to capture the picturesque and scenic views of the farm, I really appreciated the experience I just had.
Since that day, I have had some time to reflect on what I wanted to write about and I found it simple, as I came to one understanding in my mind. A month ago, I would have looked at a racehorse as a number in a program. While I still notice those things when handicapping, I now see a lot more. I think about the people that bring horses into their racing careers. I see the farms in which they were raised and the history of the parents who have influenced their lives.
Most importantly of all, I now see the natural beauty of what makes a horse a racehorse. At the end of the day, many roles are needed to make horse racing a success. It is important that we recognize the roles of those on the farm.