Fenella O’Flynn was riffling through her Toyota 4Runner in search of a cigarette lighter. “I haven’t smoked since New Year’s Eve,” she paused long enough to say. “But f*** it.”
It was the drive none of us wanted to make – heading up Route 1 toward Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. That’s never a good thing, even under the best circumstances. But Fenella, Su Chung and I knew exactly what awaited. We were going to say goodbye to Better Talk Now.
It felt like we were marching straight into a sucker punch to the kidneys.
We had all known since earlier in the day that this outcome was a strong possibility. Anita Motion broke the news to me as soon as I arrived for work that morning. Fenella ran into Graham Motion at the barn where he shared the same update with her.
“He could barely get the words out,” she said.
Graham and Anita saw Blackie the night before, and Anita posted a photo on social media of him with his head hanging out of his intensive care stall, enjoying the breeze from his fan. Graham even remarked that “he seemed content.”
That was Monday evening, June 26. By Tuesday morning, the situation had deteriorated. And as we made our way from Fair Hill to New Bolton late that afternoon, each of us understood we most likely wouldn’t be making the trip again. Still, we held out hope for something – a miracle, divine intervention, however your belief system labels it. We asked for anything that would flip the script and change what by that point seemed inevitable. Perhaps we’d walk in to find that he had turned a corner. Maybe in the time it took us to arrive, there had been surprising improvement. It could happen, right? Right??
It was too much to expect. And we all knew it as soon as we got there.
We covered our hospital-issued Crocs with disposable protective booties and slipped on the required surgical gloves. Blackie stood wrapped in the post-op belly band protecting his incision, IVs hooked to a swivel arm mounted a safe distance above him. Lisa Davison, the exercise rider who had shared duties with Fenella over the years, stood at his shoulder, gently rubbing his neck. Equine physical therapist Mary Jo Trotter had her forehead against his. Herringswell assistant Cat McGee and vet James Fukuda kept vigil outside his stall, leaning on the half-door.
Fenella walked into the stall and quickly dissolved, tears overcoming her resolve to keep it together. Immediately sensing the need to provide strength to the rest of us, Su in fact did keep it together. Personally, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel my stomach clench at the sight of the whole scene.
Mary Jo, Lisa, Fenella and Su, Sue Kenny – they had all visited frequently during Blackie’s hospitalization. They weren’t seeing this for the first time. But on this night there would be no fairytale ending. No hero to save the day despite a racing career full of heroic performances. He won 10 stakes, five of them Grade 1, rallied from far back to win the Breeders' Cup Turf in 2004, earned $4.3 million.
Twenty days. That’s how long he’d been at New Bolton, rushed in on June 7 for emergency colic surgery. Fifteen years. That’s how long he’d been at Herringswell, how long he’d been a fixture in many of our lives. Yet it all came down to a little over 60 minutes. One short hour’s visit that changed everything. There is nothing like a profound moment in time to make you stop and consider the true measure of time. How much is enough?
I can’t imagine how much time would have placated us Tuesday evening. Word came through an assistant that Dr. Janet Johnston, who had performed Blackie’s surgeries, suggested that we prepare to say our goodbyes. There was no pressure, we could spend however long we needed with him. Once things had quieted down a bit after our departure, Dr. Johnston would administer the sedative and then carry out the euthanasia procedure. A few in our group had expressed the desire to be present, believing it best for Blackie if someone familiar was there with him at the end. Dr. Johnston discouraged the idea, explaining that the emotional toll it would take on any one of us would far outweigh the minimal benefit to Blackie.
“Let’s remember him happy and healthy,” she told us. “It’s much better for everyone.”
Andrew Debenham, a former Herringswell employee now with New Bolton, explained that he and other staff could help us take Blackie outside for a short walk to the grass. Andrew was in the barn when Blackie arrived as a 3-year-old in 2002. We could take a few minutes, take a few photos and, whenever we felt ready, take our leave.
“It’s entirely up to you all,” we were told.
But that was the catch – it wasn’t about us. It never had been. We all know that, no matter what, it’s always about the horse. And it was time to do the right thing. Time to let him go.
Fenella went back into the stall and joined Lisa, who had not left Blackie’s side. The rest of us deferred, giving them their space. They embraced and sobbed openly, these two women who had spent more time on Blackie’s back and at the end of his shank than anyone else. Lisa accompanied him to Tokyo for the Japan Cup in 2005. Fenella took him to Dubai for the Sheema Classic in 2008. An extraordinary force transforming ordinary lives.
In turn, each of us had a few minutes with him. Mary Jo and Su, Cat and James. Blackie stood patiently, head lowered, allowing us to stroke his neck, plant a fleeting kiss on his forehead, speak a few quiet words in his ear . . . behavior so very far removed from his customary demeanor. Clearly, he knew what each of us needed. They’re wiser than we are, animals. Pure and instinctive without pretense or a human’s fear of what waits on the other side.
So much has been written and said over the past few weeks about what we’ve all done for Blackie – about the amazing life the entire Herringswell team provided him as a racehorse and as a retiree. But as I stood watching, the realization hit hard. What we were all experiencing was Blackie giving back to us, and what an incredible gift it was. He spent his final moments showing us gratitude, showing us love, showing us how to heal and move forward without him now. We’ll go on as he lived and as he left us – with guts, class and dignity.
So on a cool early summer night in Pennsylvania, our little group took one last stroll together. And I’m still not quite sure how we pulled it off, but there were smiles as we surrounded Blackie and posed for a few photos. Afterward we stepped away and allowed Lisa and Fenella to walk him back to his stall. At the sound of his hooves on the pavement, each horse in the hospital unit popped its head over a stall door. And it looked for all the world as though they were telling each other who he was.
“That’s Better Talk Now. He’s a Breeders’ Cup champion…a multiple Grade 1 winner…a superstar.”
That’s right, gang. That’s exactly right.
Maggie Kimmitt is a freelance writer, photographer and part-time staffer at Graham and Anita Motion's Herringswell Stables.