The Outside Rail

As my journalism professors told me it would, a pencil saved me as I scribbled down some observations. I’m sure I still have the notebook (because I hardly ever throw those things away), but I’m not sure where it is. The notes would have been difficult to read, and would have gone something like this:

Snow.

He’s loose.

Ice.

Cold.

No blanket. 

Look at that donkey.

Dirty.

Oddly, he’s more more brown than black but maybe that’s the dirt – or the cold makes his hair stand on end.

Whoa, here he comes.

I hoped photographer Maggie Kimmitt’s camera wouldn’t freeze the way the ink in my pen did. I heard the motor drive, saw her out of the corner of my eye and thought, “Man this is great. We’re in a field, with Ben’s Cat. He’s loose, basically by himself with no human interference, turned out with what might be the world’s fattest donkey and an old lead pony. Maggie’s going to get some great shots.”

It was February 2013 in Warwick, Md., two days before the Baltimore Ravens would win the Super Bowl and colder than Everest base camp. The wind blasted the small farm in Cecil County and anything that moved – or tried to move – on it. 

There was snow, some icy patches, tree limbs on the ground. My fingers ached. My face hurt. I really wanted a hat. The wind snapped a Ravens flag to tatters across the way. That pencil really did come in handy because no pen on Earth was going to handle those conditions. 

It was one of the best, most alive assignments I’ve ever been on, even if I barely interviewed anyone. 

I was trying to write a Horse of the Year profile for the Maryland Horse section of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine and needed a new angle. The horse’s breeder, owner and trainer King Leatherbury said to stop by the farm so I called and made an appointment. On the coldest day of the year apparently. We arrived to desolation. No people, no barking dogs, a few dozing horses in the barn. I recall a cat (a real one, not Ben) and then finally caretaker Carol Hartmetz. She emerged from some heated zone in the barn, said hello, pointed us toward the turnout paddock a few steps from the barn door. There stood Ben, with Sammy the donkey and Brownie the retired lead pony. 

“It’s the same thing every morning, I put the pony out first, then Ben herds them around all day,” said Hartmetz. “Ben’s vacationing. I do as little with him as I can. He gets fed, he gets his feet picked out and gets turned out – every day.” 

The donkey was as wide as he was tall (you could play cards on his back). Brownie was a retired lead pony, a job Thoroughbreds do when they’re retired. 

Ben was Ben, relaxed but all coiled speed waiting to be unleashed come spring. And he was clearly in charge. He spied us from across the way with a high head and a stare. You could almost see him doing a mental checklist: “Too early to come in, no lead ropes, they’re not veterinarians, they don’t have carrots. Hmm. What do these jokers want?”

We opened the gate, and stepped through the snow to get a better view. Kimmitt walked to the right to try to get just the right background for photos. I stayed near the gate and called the then 7-year-old, coming off a 2012 season with five wins and $557,060 in earnings. There was no better turf sprinter alive, and there he was eyeballing us like an assistant principal stares down tardy arrivals.

He went straight for Kimmitt – at a trot, a canter, a full gallop. She just kept pushing the shutter. I cringed, and started mentally dictating her obituary. Then he veered off, made a loop, snorted at Sammy and Brownie (who really didn’t care) and trotted up to me.

He stopped short, and walked the final 10 steps. Right to me, my notebook and that pencil. I just scribbled down what I saw, but mostly repeated in my head how cool this moment was and how lucky I was.

In a dirty leather halter, mane askew, frosty whiskers, dirt splotches speckling his chocolate (again, not nearly as black as he looks at the races) coat, Ben’s Cat looked me over. I assessed him back. What a cool customer. Here was a racehorse, a millionaire, fast enough to run 5 furlongs in :54.96. He looked through me, not at me, with a peace or whatever mortal beings in touch with their reality have. He was good, he knew it and I was privileged to be part of his world. 

Twenty yards away, Kimmitt kept taking photos. One made the magazine cover. Another was used inside, and she got one that I love. It’s just me, Ben, that pencil and a reporter’s notebook. It’s such a real photo, so in the moment.

And now it matters more than ever. Ben’s Cat, four-time Maryland-bred Horse of the Year and earner of $2.6 million in a 63-start career, died July 18 after colic and colic surgery. He was in Kentucky, at a veterinary clinic, about three weeks into retirement at age 11.

He made 63 starts, won 32 races – tops among his 2006 crop (other than two Puerto Rican dynamos) – captured 26 stakes wins. And he died from a twisted intestine or whatever an epiploic foramen entrapment is. 

I want to know why, the big-picture why not the technical or medical why. I want to know what he was feeling. I want to know if he knew how much he was appreciated. I want to know where he felt he fit in to all of this.

But no pencil can write that.

Originally published in The Saratoga Special newspaper July 21, 2017.