From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Dawn Magic

Most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try.

Mary Kay Ash

A bridge over the Big Sandy River took us over the state line. Dusty, ochre ugliness. Kentucky wasn’t supposed to be dry and beige. It was supposed to be rich and green. What was this brown limestone world, this claylike landscape of dirty yellow rock, this Daniel Boone Forest that didn’t seem to have any trees? I made an emergency stop at the Ponderosa buffet in Morehead, so we could fill ourselves with comfort food and recover from the disappointment of learning that Kentucky—at least this part of it—was not very pretty.

Closer to Lexington, redemption. Hints of green and blue. Patches, then whole pastures, of rolling, perfect grass. Grass that nurtures champions. Mare and foal pairs in love and nuzzling, savoring their time together, sunlight on their withers. Horses so beautiful you want to cry. Elegance and long legs and strong backs and power bred for a purpose. This was Lexington.

My daughter Dana’s dream became real, mile by white rail-fenced mile. The horses were pure majesty. I watched my son, Adam, watch Dana. I could see him decide to go with the flow and let his sister enjoy. I filled up. My daughter was in her place of a young lifetime, we were surrounded by equine beauty that took your breath away and Adam was showing himself to be a true gentleman.

Our Lexington days were all horse. We made an eighthour, 85-degree-in-the-shade, no-square-inch-missed visit to Kentucky Horse Park. We went three times to Thoroughbred Park to leap among and sit atop the life-size bronze Derby contenders. We stalked a pair of Lexington cops and their chestnut mounts as they walked their Main Street beat. “The police even ride horses!” marveled Dana, as she added law enforcement to her mental list of jobs for horse lovers.

I don’t think Dana slept much the night before our dawn pilgrimage to Keeneland Racecourse to watch the morning workouts. When I whispered in her ear at 5:30 that it was time to get up, her eyes shot open and her face beamed. We dressed quietly so we wouldn’t wake Adam, slipped out and went downstairs for a quick breakfast before heading into the already hot Lexington pre-dawn. We were the first breakfast customers of the morning. As we passed the reception desk, I whispered to the clerk, “We’re off to Keeneland.” “Ahhhh,” she whispered back, nodding at Dana with a knowing look, telepathy transmitted from one horse lover to another. “You’ll love it.” I looked at Dana, always beautiful and, at this moment, the most excited, gorgeous little girl on the planet.

We traced a route around venerable Keeneland along parts of the Bluegrass Driving Tour, following Rice and Van Meter and Versailles. “We say ‘ver-SALES,’ not fancy like the one in France,” the night desk clerk had told me when I’d come down to ask the best route from the hotel to Keeneland. Dana could have spent hours on these roads, each a thin, gray ribbon along which lay some of Lexington’s most storied horse farms. The pastures were lush green carpet, the architecture distinctive and utterly beautiful. Crisp lines, fresh paint, rich trim. Pristine clapboards and elegant cupolas, graceful weathervanes.

Dana has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything equine and, from her reading, was more familiar with these farms than I. Her excitement as we read their names—John Ward, Drumkenny, Broodmare, Manchester, Fares—traveled like an electrical current, stirring in me a deep contentment. We pulled over by a white rail fence on a slight rise in Rice Boulevard and looked out over the pastures spreading before us, hints of blue visible in the rich grass as it waited in the low, early light for the new day to burn off the night’s dew and mist.

On Van Meter, the red trim on the outbuildings of a vast farm betrayed it as Calumet and, as we neared its fences, from a stand of tall trees that graced a velvety grass hillock, came a line of grooms, all Latino, each man leading a stunning Thoroughbred on a rope. The line of small, silent men and sinewy horses flowed down the hillock toward us, then turned left and continued, parallel to the fence and the road we watched from, keeping under the shade of the trees, then turned left again, gently ambling back up the rise toward Calumet’s stables.

At Keeneland, we stood at the rail of the fabled oval, the only spectators, and watched trainers lead horses from the misty rows of silvery stables and onto the track. Light, lean, blue-jeaned trainers, one with dreadlocks flying from under his helmet, put pounding, sweating Thoroughbreds through their paces. The trainers wore helmets and most wore chest pads. They carried crops, which they weren’t shy about using. Some stood, others crouched. Some made their horses step sideways. The men and animals took the track’s bends and straightaways at breakneck speeds. Old Joe, tall and gaunt and wrinkled, in jeans and western shirt and a helmet with a pom-pom on top, sat astride his horse, Frog. They sat at the track rail, inside and on the course, ready to go after runaways. That was their job. Joe’s eyes were peeled and he was ready to ride Frog to the rescue of any trainer whose trainee decided he’d rather be somewhere else.

A good number of the riders took note of Dana. A little girl with a beautiful brown ponytail who’d risen before the sun to stand at the rail. Like this morning’s desk clerk, they recognized her as a kindred spirit. They smiled, waved and slowed down when they passed so she could look longer at their horses. Dana had brought her little plastic camera and some of the trainers posed for pictures.

One trainer with a gentle face and shining eyes assembled himself and three others into a parade formation. They passed us, four abreast, at a slow, regal posting trot, like palace guard presenting the colors before the queen, each rider smiling down at Dana. I thanked them with my eyes. That they took note and took time turned this special morning into magic. These were busy men with hard work to do. Some were watched by the horse owners who paid them and they weren’t paid to be nice to little girls. But they were and I’ll always remember them with fondness.

Before we left Keeneland, as the first brush of hot, higher-than horizon sun kissed the bluegrass, we ventured into the great grandstand and sat awhile in “Mr. George Goodman’s” personalized box, imagining what it would be like to settle in here in the cool shade on a sunny race day to watch the horses and the other race goers.

Adam had slept until we turned the key back in the door. “Breakfast is about to close. You’d better get down there, bud.” On this trip, I left no hotel amenity unturned, amassing a sack full of little soaps and bottles of shampoo that I used to wash our clothes in the sink or bathtub. And, I encouraged the eating of any available free food. I looked for the magic words “Free Continental Breakfast” on motel signs. Sometimes we hit pay dirt, finding a motel that also hosted a “Manager’s Happy Hour.” This meant free dinner, because, next to the beer and wine and soda, the manager usually laid out cheese and crackers and a big tray of crudités. The kids drew the line at raw cauliflower and broccoli, but tucked into the celery, carrots and cherry tomatoes, huge dollops of dip on the side. Sometimes pay dirt turned to mother lode, with a spread that included things like tacos and little egg rolls.

Through careful husbandry of free motel fare and a manager’s cocktail hour here and there, we were occasionally able to patch together a string of five free meals in a row. By meal number six, we were ready for a restaurant and we always voted unanimously on type: Mexican.

Dana and I accompanied Adam down to the breakfast bar. “So, how was it?” he asked, of our visit to Keeneland. He asked Dana, directly. I wanted to hug him over his plate of biscuits and gravy. As she wove a tale of the magic kingdom of Keeneland, Adam listened and chewed. While it was clear he thought Keeneland sounded cool—he said “okay” a few times as Dana talked—I knew he didn’t feel he’d missed anything. Dana preferred horses, he preferred sleep. He was content they’d both gotten what they most wanted from the morning.

That night, while I worked on my first installment for the newspaper, Dana was writing her own story, “Horse Capital of the World.” It begins: “In the heart of Lexington, Kentucky, lies a beauty like no other . . .

Lori Hein

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