We know that we’re supposed to remember, always, that horse racing is a business. That even though we’re animal lovers, horses aren’t pets. That, as much as we cringe to read it, or to write it, they are property.
That truth is hammered home nowhere more clearly than the sales ring, when a literal price is put on a horse’s head, and the one that puts up the most money gets to take her home. It’s a transaction.
But even at auctions, there are moments that force even the shrewdest, most professional, most experienced among us to remember that horses are more than a business venture, that they’re living creatures that can be loved and that can suffer, that need our love and care to thrive, and that can affect us so much emotionally that we stop thinking about the finances.
One of those moments came on February 10 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Winter Mixed Sale, when 11-year-old Leaving Virginia walked into the ring with her new foal—born just hours before—elicited not a single bid, and walked back out.
— Ron Mitchell (@BH_RMitchell) February 10, 2014
“My heart was breaking,” said Pam Robinson of Brandywine Farm in Paris, Kentucky.
Robinson was at the sale with her husband Jim to bid on a broodmare for an out-of-town client; the breeder or co-breeder of graded stakes winners Ruler On Ice, Debt Ceiling, Secret Compass, and Jody Slew, she and her husband also foaled, raised, and sold multiple Grade 1 winner Champagne d’Oro. To call them pros would be an understatement. If they let their hearts rule their decisions, they’d be broke.
“My husband was sitting beside me, and we already have 100 mares at our farm,” she said, remembering the moment that Leaving Virginia and her baby left the ring. “He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you dare.’”
She didn’t have to, because five hips later, the out-of-town client called.
Unlike the Robinsons, who have been in the business for 40 years, Ressa Harris is relatively new to Thoroughbred racing and breeding; she bought her first horse about three years ago, after her husband died. She sits on the board of Canterbury Park, and she’d been watching the sale from her home in Minnesota.
“I don’t remember the hip number of the horse I wanted to bid on,” said Harris. “It was several before Leaving Virginia, and as I’m watching, they usher in this mare and this tiny little foal.
“The announcer said, ‘This is the youngest one in the sale; he was born at 5 o’clock this morning.’”
“I watched it no-bid,” she went on, “The guy in the ring was kind of helping him and he was hobbling, and my heart went out to him. I knew I had to do something. I’m a registered nurse, I knew it was freezing, and I know from my own little horse that was foaled last year how crucial the first 24 to 48 hours are.
“I knew that the Robinsons were getting ready to leave, so I quickly called Pam. I didn’t know anything about the mother; I just knew that there was a little animal that needed help.”
“She said to me, ‘Did you see that mare and foal go through the ring without a bid?’” Robinson recalled. “’It’s breaking my heart and I want you to go and buy them for me.’”
The Illinois-bred Leaving Virginia made six starts as a racehorse; racing at Laurel Park, Woodbine, and Charles Town, she never finished better than sixth. Her breeding career hasn’t been much better; she has a 2010 New Mexico-bred gelding who raced 11 times, winning once; he was sired by Aeneas (Capote), who placed in multiple stakes, including the 2003 Gulfstream Park Handicap, Washington Park Handicap, Hawthorne Gold Cup, and Clark, and earned more than $400,000.
Robinson and agent Dapple Stud, who consigned Leaving Virginia, agreed on a $2,000 purchase price, and later that day, Leaving Virginia and her newborn colt were on their way home to Brandywine Farm. The little guy was barely 12 hours old.
“It was super, super cold out that day,” said Robinson. “One of the consignors had taken off his sweatshirt and cut the arms off and put it over the baby, then put a blanket over that to keep him warm.”
Said a spokesperson from Dapple Stud, who consigned Leaving Virginia, “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t adore the animals. Every single person on our team loves them, and the people on our team made the best of an unexpected situation.”
Bound by a contractual obligation to sell the mare, Dapple’s team was as surprised as anyone when the colt came that morning–at least as surprised as the Robinsons were to be bringing home a mare and foal.
“We had to go home to get our truck and trailer,” said Robinson, “and we brought back two fleece-lined foal blankets. On the drive back, we heated the blankets up in the truck, and one of the fellows carried the foal to the trailer after we put the blanket on him.”
By Crafty Prospector out of the Secretariat mare Secretaridge, Leaving Virginia has potential as a broodmare, said Robinson, and matches up nicely to the Giant’s Causeway line.
“There’s no way we’re going to pay $85,000 to breed to a mare that was a no-bid,” she said pragmatically, “but I love Hold Me Back, who’s by Giant’s Causeway, at WinStar, and I called my friends there. They were very nice and accommodating, and Leaving Virginia is booked to him.”
No longer a knock-kneed, frail newborn, the colt is, according to Robinson, “gorgeous.”
“He’s got some flesh on his little body and he’s a pistol,” she said. “He’ll double-barrel his mother, and if you put your hand on his butt, he might kick you, too. He’s full of himself.”
Not a surprise, perhaps, from the colt so eager to get into the world that he made a fairly splashy and attention-getting debut, one that his new connections can hope he’ll duplicate on the racetrack. His unraced sire, Star Cat, is by Storm Cat and out of two-time champion Ashado.
“He’s got a future,” Robinson said, “and he’ll be raised to race.”
Harris has three other broodmares and several horses in training, among them relatives of Caleb’s Posse, Shackleford, and I’ll Have Another. Her runners have made six starts this year, and while she’s yet to make it to the winner’s circle, she already considers 2014 a success.
“I’m the kind of person who believes strongly that what God wants to happen will happen,” she said. “I do believe that for some reason, God wanted me to help this little horse.”
She continued, “I knew if I could get him in Pam’s hands, he’d be in as good hands as he could get in Kentucky.”
His first few hours might have been a little rough, his future at first uncertain, but no matter what kind of a racehorse the little guy turns out to be, thanks to all the people who took notice and care of him on the day he was born, both he and his mother have already ended up winners.
Note: this post was updated to include comments from Dapple Stud and to correct information about Leaving Virginia’s 2010 foal.