CELEBRITY INTERVIEW: MEET THE RESIDENTS OF KENTUCKY HORSE PARK’S, HALL OF CHAMPIONS

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Most of us can only dream, of walking into the home of a celebrity. “Access to greatness,” as explained by Director of Equine Operations, Wes Lanter. “You can’t walk up to Derek Jeter’s house and expect to be welcomed inside,” but at the Kentucky Horse Park, not only can you meet the famous, you’re invited in their home, you can talk to them, ask questions about them, and sometimes, on really special days, even give them a pat on the shoulder. Wes introduced me to “they guys” who were in house during our visit, and helped interpret for them while we chatted…

Currently, there are nine horses calling the Hall of Champions their home. When you think of retirement, it’s easy to picture them spending their days grazing and talking to each other over tall, white paddock fences. What you don’t consider, is that to these horses, they’re still hard at work. Consider their retirements, a long-term public relations tour of duty. Three times a day, during their busy season, three or four of the horses are featured in presentations to an eager crowd. Situated in the middle of four large paddocks, sit the show barn, and a pavilion. A moderator shares the famous history of each horse, followed by a short video of their best-known work, leaving the audience cheering for their victory, and this is how they enter the presentation, to applause (as well they should!). During our visit, 23 year old Thoroughbred stallion, Go for Gin, 14 year old Standardbred trotter gelding, Mr. Muscleman, and 22 year old Thoroughbred gelding, Da Hoss, lead their handlers to the center of the pavilion and posed.

Gin explained, “it’s like a daily walk down the red carpet, except ours is made of black rubber, for our safety. The handlers think they have to walk us through it, but the truth is, we know the routine better than they do! Stop in the middle, count to 10, walk to the right and stop, count to ten, turn back to the left… you get the idea.” Gin also shared with me how much he enjoys the rewards of his work, like having his gums rubbed. He’s a bit of a ham though, watch him in his stall, if you get close enough, it’s like sitting in the splash zone of Sea World! Gin’s fame came from wins in the 1993 Remsen Stakes, and 1994 Kentucky Derby, as well as several notable 2nd place finishes, before a tendon sheath tear retired him in 1995. Gin is the second oldest living Kentucky Derby winner, next to Sea Hero. He was then sent on to Claiborne Farm, and later Bonita Farm, where he went on to produce offspring netting more than $22 million in career winnings.

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Muscles is one of the few Standardbreds to have enjoyed a brief show career under saddle. He’s one of the crowd favorites for his affable personality, and told me how much he enjoys the little two-legged animals the most. “When we’re not being paraded around for the crowds, I like to hang out with that Quarter Horse fella, Be a Bono. He’s a race horse too you know. He’s kind of bossy sometimes, but I know it’s just because he’s protective of his friends. The truth is, he’s really an old sweetheart! We both made good money on the track. I was one of only two to make $1 million in two non-consecutive seasons, and he’s the 19th richest racing American Quarter Horse. Now you see why we have such fancy digs!” Be A Bono is one of the younger residents, at only 13 years old.

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When Hoss came into the pavilion, I was immediately reminded of a William Shakespeare quote, “though he be but little, he is fierce.” Hoss is small by Thoroughbred standards, but don’t let his size fool you. “I’m 10 feet tall when I stand on all the hardware I’ve won! I’m the only gelding who’s ever won two Breeders Cup races, and the only horse to do it in non-consecutive years. I still hold the world record for a two year old going 6 furlongs too (1:07:1/5). Racing was great fun, but honestly, I really love my work here. I taught the humans to give me treats after I lay a little kiss on their cheek, they love that stuff, and I love those little orange slice candies. It’s a win win! Actually, I get pretty excited for any kind of food, but I guess that’s where the expression hungry as a horse came from.”

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14 year old Thoroughbred gelding, Funny Cide, and the youngest member of the herd, 10 year old Standardbred pacer, Won the West, were offsite during our visit, but I asked the others about them… “Funny, ironically enough, can be a bit of a grumpy old man trapped in a horse suit. If he’s napping, don’t even think about waking him up without a carrot! He’s the self-proclaimed Alpha of the barn, and takes his retirement as seriously as he took his career as a racehorse.” Funny is known for winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness as a three year old, and was the first gelding to take the Derby crown since 1929. He’s also one of the horses who still travels on press tours.

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“W, can make the funniest faces when he’s getting scratched, if you hit the right spot! He hangs out with Bono and Muscleman sometimes, they’re all good friends.” W is one of only eight horses to receive the Dan Patch Award for Best Older Male Pacer in consecutive years, and the 3rd richest pacer in North America, when he retired.

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While I was given the barn tour, and talking with the boys inside, two more were on their turn out breaks in the back paddocks, 25 year old Standardbred pacer, Staying Together, and 20 year old Standardbred pacer, Western Dreamer.

Stanley (Staying Together) no longer participates in the presentations. He now only has one eye, and is blind, so he greets his visitors from his paddock. “I was Harness Horse of the year, Pacer of the year, and Champion Aged Pacer, in both US and Canada in 1993. That’s something! I even set a couple records in my day for the fastest race time on a half mile and one mile track in ’93. It was a pretty good year for me, I guess.” Stanley has developed a reputation as a teddy bear, he loves hugs, and has developed a warm, trusting relationship with his handlers.

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Dreamer’s year of note was 1997. “I was the first gelding to win pacing’s triple crown, and the only gelding of any breed to win one. That’s why they named me Pacer of the year, Harness Horse of the Year, and Champion three year old Pacing colt, back then. Nowadays, I love to play ball in my free time… a stall ball that is. My favorite part of our presentations, is when one of my fans has a dog with them. I always make a point to introduce myself, nose to nose.”

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Lastly, I met the ladies man… Cigar. All time leading money winner at his time of retirement, 1990’s Racehorse of the Decade, and the 18th best racehorse of the 20th century. He was coming out of his stall for treatment at the wash rack, so we got to have a little “locker room interview.”

“I’m Cigar, you’ve heard of me, I’m sure.” Cigar certainly knows how to make an impression. The guy’s a big deal, and he knows it, but above all, a consummate professional. Wes brought him out to meet me, and while we talked, he showed his playful side, by picking at Wes and the leather lead in his hand. I have to admit, I was a bit awestruck. It isn’t every day I get to meet such handsome celebrities (and when I do, the human ones aren’t usually as interesting!). I congratulated him on his remarkable career, we talked about his tie with Citation for 16 consecutive wins, after which, he was quick to point, out he always received a peppermint-one of his favorite treats. “When I lost that 17th race though, I just couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t taste as sweet.” Sadly, he was never able to pass his talents and personality down to later generations. “In 1996, that guy on TV, Bill Cosby, retired me with a big to do at Madison Square Garden. It was a nice little party. After they figured out I wasn’t stud material, I came here to the horse park in 1999.” He went on to share that he feels akin to Wes, because during Wes’ time at Spendthrift Farm, Wes also worked with Cigar’s maternal grandfather, racing legend, Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown Winner.

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In a typical day there, Wes explained, the horses are fed at 7:30am, then room service and grooming. They try to rotate the horses around, so none are shown more than twice in one day. During the course of the day, between presentations, there’s always turn-out time, followed by more grooming and stall-tidying. At the end of the day, another meal time, and back to their private stalls for a good night’s sleep. Wes is a self-described “Thoroughbred man,” with a resume boasting time spent at Overbrook Farm, Three Chimneys Farm, and Spendthrift Farm. His favorite race now though, is the Little Brown Jug, a standardbred race held in Delaware, Ohio every September. “It’s a slice of Americana, you need to check it out.” Thanks for the tip, Wes! It sounds like a great future blog entry to me!

It may surprise you, that all those famous racehorses, are so laid back and social. I think we expect them to act like the human celebrity athletes we see on tv now, vying for endorsements, marketing their personal “brands,” but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. They recognize their path to stardom, and eventually on to retirement, was then, and is still now, lined with their fans. They’re appreciative and humble. But most importantly, they’re all accessible!

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