I’ve rarely met a highway I didn’t like, and thus, with Christmas festivities behind me (we had a terrific holiday in the Backstretch household, including Christmas Eve dinner two tables away from Eli Manning, perhaps my best ever celeb sighting), I hit the road on Boxing Day to head south and west. After a brief sojourn in western West Virginia, I arrived in Lexington Saturday morning and headed straight for the Kentucky Horse Park.
I’d visited once before, in April of 2007; December at the Horse Park is rather a different story, and we were reminded more than once, “We’re in our winter season.” The good news is that entry was half price ($9); the bad news is that there’s not a whole heck of a lot going on, and even the Hall of Champions presentation is reduced to a “stall side chat.”
Prepared to be disappointed, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the stall side chat, well worth the $9. We got lucky, too, as we arrived just as Funny Cide was having a bath, and his handlers were incredibly gracious about letting us get close, take pictures, pet him. He does not yet seem entirely at ease in his new home, and he was cranky on more than one occasion. He was far from the placid horse I saw on the Saratoga backstretch, but perhaps that will come.
Alysheba, on the other hand, seems to have adjusted quickly and well, and he’s assumed easily his role as the successor to John Henry. He’s in John Henry’s stall and he’s got John Henry’s paddock, and he clearly considers himself the star of the show, keeping an eye on the other horses and on the visitors, strolling to the fence, hanging his head over, posing obligingly and frequently for pictures. As Da Hoss took center stage and was brought out of his stall to see visitors, Alysheba got as close as he could and kept a watchful eye on proceedings, perhaps wondering why someone else was getting all of the attention.
Da Hoss, for his part, took advantage of an unlucky break on the part of Cigar to claim prime stall space in the Hall of Champions. Cigar was turned out for most of Saturday because he’d been stall-bound Friday night after having broken one of his fences Friday afternoon. Usually turned out at night and kept inside during the day, Cigar would have “had a fit” if he’d been kept inside any longer, so he was brought out into Da Hoss’s paddock while his own was repaired, and Da Hoss claimed his stall, up from his own in the Big Barn. As Cigar tried to poke his nose through the door from the paddock, Da Hoss taunted him, rolling in the hay and then walking to the door as if to say, “What? You think this is YOUR stall?” and lying down to roll again.
Three horses—Da Hoss, Funny Cide, and the standardbred Western Dreamer were brought from their stalls and presented to visitors by handlers Cathy Roby and Robin Bush, both of whom did their jobs terrifically well, adding humor and detail to the horses’ biographies. This was, according to Cathy, Funny Cide’s first “performance,” and he did not appear to be all that pleased to be asked to stand still in front of a crowd of visitors. Cathy noted that John Henry had made more money than any other North American horse until Alysheba came along, and then Cigar came along and broke Alysheba’s record. She observed the appropriateness of having all three of them at the Horse Park, and then suggested, after noting that Curlin broke Cigar’s record earlier this year, “Maybe we’ll get Curlin someday?”
As Robin told the remarkable story of Da Hoss, she tried to keep the horse focused while talking to both him and the crowd. As explained to visitors that Da Hoss was changed from a dirt route horse to going shorter on the turf, Alysheba walked over to observe the proceedings; Da Hoss responded immediately by looking over, as did Robin: “Hello, yes, that’s Alysheba…”
The usual presentation at the Hall of Champions is longer and includes all of the horses, along with video of their races. This abbreviated version precluded us from seeing up close Kona Gold (above) and Cigar (below), and from seeing the horses’ races, but it was plenty satisfying for an unseasonably warm late December afternoon in the Bluegrass.
Next stop: Old Friends on Sunday.