If Only

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If David and JoAnn Hayden didn’t go to a horse show at Fair Hill, Md. in 1973 . . . If Ron Alfano didn’t claim Safely Home in 1980 . . . If Charlie McGinnis wasn’t so protective of his stallion Horatius . . . Safely Kept would not be going into the Hall of Fame today.

But they did, he did and he was . . . so the sprinting dynamo from Maryland takes her place alongside the other greats in Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. Safely Kept ran 31 times, won 24 races (22 of them stakes), earned $2.1 million, won an Eclipse Award as Champion Sprinter in 1989. She lost just two stakes starts vs. her gender, ran at 11 racetracks, won for eight jockeys.

And took her breeders along for a ride.

“It’s the culmination of something we thought would never happen,” David said Thursday morning at Saratoga. “You can’t expect that. We’re first-generation horse people and she was early on in our career. I really didn’t appreciate it until 20 years down the line. We just weren’t aware back then of the privilege of breeding such a horse.”

David Hayden ran an advertising agency with shopping centers for clients. JoAnn Hayden taught elementary school. They liked horses, moved to the country, rode, showed and turned to racehorses after watching the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

“We were at a horse show at Fair Hill and somebody had a black and white television set with the Belmont on,” David said. “I saw Secretariat win that race and said ‘I’m going to get one of them.’ It looked like a lot more fun than showing. I think that’s the last horse show I ever went to.”

He’s probably exaggerating, a little, but Thoroughbreds gradually became part of their lives. Alfano claimed Safely Home, she tore a suspensory a few races later, retired, became a broodmare at the Haydens’ Dark Hollow Farm. And took part in another twist of fate.

“We sent a mare to be bred to Horatius at Thornmar Farm and she wouldn’t stand, she tried to kick him,” David said. “That was enough for Charlie. He called and said ‘I’m not breeding my stallion to your mare. You’re going to get my horse hurt.’ She came back home and we looked around the farm and figured we better send a mare who would stand, who’d had a foal. It had to be Safely Home. We chose her. That’s the genius of that breeding.”

Safely Home delivered a striking dark bay filly, who quickly became the one the Haydens talked about. She had a shoulder, a hip, a presence, whatever good horses have.

“When she was born, she was awesome,” said David. “To us she was awesome anyway.”

“You could look at her in the field, she was the package,” said JoAnn. “She was always the one you looked at. She was a big powerful horse, but never a problem on the farm. Wonderful, a sweetheart. All of the foals from that mare were the same way, wise beyond their years with a calmness about them. Tough, very smart, but not rank or pushy.”

Everybody says things like that afterward, but the Haydens made me believe. I felt like I was standing in the driveway at Dark Hollow watching her run past.

The filly was pretty convincing on the racetrack too, winning her second and third starts easily after losing her debut by a half-length. She drew attention and soon the Haydens were considering offers to sell. The best one came from Barry Weisbord, whose Matchmaker International company was a client of David Hayden’s advertising agency, and a deal was reached for $300,000.

“The money,” David Hayden replied simply when asked why they sold. “Back then, that was real. It’s still real money, but $300,000 was a lot of money for us. I could have gone back to the neighborhood I grew up in and bought a block of houses. It put everything into perspective. That was a lot of money. We were doing ad campaigns and logos, I never saw $300,000 from a client.”

The Haydens sold, Weisbord wound up partners in the filly with Jayeff B Stable and she became a champion for trainer Alan Goldberg. The Haydens no longer owned her, but felt like part of the team.

“Barry and everyone kept us in the loop, we were part of it all,” David said. “It was great, the best of both worlds. We’re still great friends and we’re here for this – amazing when you think about it.”

Truly. All breeders hope for the best when it comes to their foals. Like everyone, the Haydens waited up all night, sweated the mare’s delivery, worried about the foal stretching its legs for the first time, tried to do the right thing at every step.

Horses don’t all become Safely Kepts, but they might – and that’s the beauty.

“The whole thing meant a lot to us,” JoAnn Hayden said of the Hall of Fame nod. “We try to treat all of them like the next Eclipse winner or Hall of Fame member. You don’t know. It could happen. Just look at us.”