Richard Valentine walked toward the side gate of the paddock, paused, turned and gazed across the top of sport coats and sun dresses like he was looking for someone. Then he wiped his hand down his face and exhaled.
"I don't know if I should laugh or cry."
Demonstrative, his best horse creeping toward $1 million in jump earnings, walked out of the paddock for the A.P. Smithwick Memorial. The seven-time Grade 1 winner from Saratoga to Camden, found a sweet spot in the middle of the 10-horse field, stepped inside the wings and launched like the old days. But when the running started, he couldn't go with them. He had shown for the last time that age had caught up to him, losing his sixth consecutive start over hurdles. Making his 35th start over hurdles, Demonstrative had lost a step, a once awe-inspiring, gravity-defying step.
After the race, Laird George, Valentine's assistant and friend who has been there from the start, turned and told it to him straight, not that Valentine didn't already know.
"Brother, it's time."
Valentine knew it, deep down, he knew it was time to stop on the best horse he's ever trained.
It wasn't how the champ should have gone out, no, he should have gone out with a bang, a send-off, a crescendo of reclaimed glory, but sometimes we lose the story by fixating on the ending. Nobody will care the Gainsborough-bred 9-year-old fell short of becoming only the fourth American-based steeplechaser to eclipse the $1 million mark.
Nobody will remember the losses.
We'll remember the day he walked into the paddock for the 3-year-old hurdle race at Virginia Fall in 2010.
Black as night, stepping like he had placed floor mats down the night before, the son of Elusive Quality accelerated at half speed, winning that day. The sport had a star.
We'll remember the summer of 2012, when Demonstrative doubled at Saratoga, winning the Jonathan Kiser, beating novices for the last time, and the New York Turf Writers Cup, beating Grade 1 horses for the first time. He ran and jumped like even he knew he had arrived. The pomp now had polish.
We'll remember the Colonial Cup 2012. Actually, this is the one that is chiseled in my memory. The day he pulled too hard early, took a long, slow breather in the middle of the race, landed in last over the final fence and passed eight horses in the stretch, an on-rushing black blur, so dashing, you grabbed the person next to you and screamed, "Did you see that?"
We'll remember when he snapped a six-race losing streak with a three-race win streak, dominating the Turf Writers again, the Lonesome Glory and silencing his ghosts by controlling the Grand National at Far Hills. Up to then, Demonstrative (that's him in the ad photo below too) hadn't won at the sport's best meeting, he kicked that asterisk to the Amtrak station.
We'll remember his battle with Divine Fortune in the 2013 Iroquois, his neck separating two champions, who pulled 34 lengths clear of the third horse.
And, of course, we'll remember the 2015 Iroquois, when he scraped the bottom of his bucket to nail Mr. Hot Stuff in the final stride of a 3-mile thriller. It would be his last hurdle victory.
Yeah, all those and others, that's what we'll remember about the big horse.
On a long walk from the paddock to the Reading Room, Valentine would, indeed, cry, as he and owner Jacqueline Ohrstrom reminisced about those wins, coming to terms with the great passage of time. Glad that it happened and so, so sad that it was over.
"I thought we would retire him at the end of the year, but he's been too good to us. I get so nervous when he runs, I couldn't do it." Valentine said. "I desperately wanted him to go over the million-dollar mark but the fence in front of the stands, he stood so far back, I was like 'if this horse falls...' we talked about putting blinkers on him, he didn't deserve that, I thought that was a cheap move. He never fell, he never had an injury on the racecourse. He looks great, he's covered in dapples. It's not sad, it's a relief."
Demonstrative will go back to Whitewood Farm, in The Plains, Va., where a horse sees nothing but green grass, stone walls, post-and-rail fencing and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. He might become a show horse (Valentine talked about riding him over eight fences at Upperville next year), a foxhunter or he might just be the champion in the field.
"It's not the way I would have scripted it," Valentine said. "But, if there's anything sad about it, as we all know as horsemen, I'm never going to replace that horse and that's sad."
Laugh or cry, it's his choice.