Valerie Buck was taking a litter of kittens to the veterinarian this fall when she got the call she didn't think would come, the one she convinced herself not to expect and the one that ultimately reunited her with a favorite horse from a previous life.
The call came from Mike Rogers, president of the racing division for The Stronach Group and a close and trusted advisor to Frank and Freda Stronach, in response to Buck's letter to the Stronachs about Canadian classic winner Harlem Rocker.
Buck, who spend nearly three decades as an exercise rider before giving it up to use her horsemanship to help people, heard that Harlem Rocker was living as a pensioner in Kentucky and hoped she could provide a home to the 10-year-old son of Macho Uno. She'd ridden Harlem Rocker when she worked for trainer Todd Pletcher and his saddlecloth from the 2008 Travers Stakes proudly hangs in her home in Cambridge, New York.
"One of my very most favorite horses I rode in my 28 years as an exercise rider was Harlem Rocker," Buck wrote. "He came to Saratoga in his 2-year-old year and I fell in love with him right away. I was lucky enough to stay with him through most of his career. I sat with him when he was sick in Florida, I damned the stewards when they took him down in the Cigar Mile - still a bad call. ... I missed visiting him when he was a stallion in Saratoga.
"I've done a bit of research and found that Harlem Rocker is living in retirement in Kentucky. This may be a bold request, but I would love to give him a forever home here at our farm in upstate New York."
The voice on the other end of Buck's cellphone that day brought her to tears.
Rogers told the excited Buck that the Stronachs agreed to let Harlem Rocker, who won the 2008 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie and Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct for them, return to upstate New York to continue his retirement. Harlem Rocker stood his only season in 2011 at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds before being taken out of service due to a neurological issue that required spinal cord surgery.
"Mike Rogers called me and said, 'do you know he can't be ridden?' I said, 'that's fine we don't need to ride him,'" Buck said as she greeted Harlem Rocker with carrots in his spacious stall Tuesday morning at Long Shadows Farm. "He had wobbler syndrome and they put a titanium plate in his neck, but he's fine. Totally fine."
"The only time they said they ever saw him have trouble was when he would lay down and try to get up, he would take a couple tries to get up. Here the other day I watched him get down and get up and he didn't have any problems."
Harlem Rocker isn't turned out with the rest of the equine residents at Long Shadows Farm, which include 2003 Albany Stakes winner Traffic Chief and the 11-year-old Hennessy gelding Three Lions, a $270,000 yearling known around the farm as "Budder." Harlem Rocker was gelded before he left Adena Springs in Paris, Kentucky, for the trip back to New York.
Buck hitched up her horse trailer to her pickup, collected a few of the foster dogs she's taking care of for the trip and made the more than 800-mile and 14-hour drive herself to pick up Harlem Rocker last month.
"There aren't any vans going up and down here this time of year," Buck said. "So I said, 'the heck with it, I'll just jump in the truck and go down there.' "
Harlem Rocker is settling into life on another farm quite well. He spent most of the early part of his turnout in his paddock complete with a large run-in shed checking things out, marking his territory a bit and devouring any of the carrots Buck offered.
"I have to be careful since he was gelded when I hug him that he doesn't hug me back," Buck joked as she got Harlem Rocker ready for the short walk from the barn to his paddock. "Isn't he beautiful? He's so good, too. I took the leather halter and the stud chain off him immediately and put a rope halter on him and he's been very good.
"Everybody at Adena Springs was absolutely wonderful; Mike Rogers, Michelle Abbott, Eoin Ryan, the guys at the farm. They're just wonderful people and that reflects on the Stronachs. I don't know them at all, never been around them, but can't thank them enough. I just wrote another letter, a nice thank you note, to them."
Buck plans to show Harlem Rocker off a bit more during an open house event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13 to promote her ACTT Naturally programs. Admission to the event is free with donations appreciated and demonstrations of natural horsemanship and equine assisted learning, along with light refreshments, are part of the day's events.
Listen to Valerie Buck read her letter to the Stronachs:
Read Sean Clancy's 2014 column "Buck Up" from The Saratoga Special
Read Annise Montplaisir's 2015 story "Helping Hand" about Buck and ACTT Naturally from The Saratoga Special (Page 44)
For more information, visit ACTT Naturally