I've heard all about it. The images etched in my mind. The plank fencing - painted black. The barns - classic Kentucky, nestled in the hillside. The indoor arena, where winter training begets summer champions. The whole picture played out in my mind, conjured on walks to and from the track at Saratoga, with the likes of Successful Dan, Turallure, Here Comes Ben and, of course, Wise Dan.
It's Charlie and Amy LoPresti's farm. In my mind, it's near Keeneland, a few turns off Versailles Road. It's got rolling hills, miles of board fencing, paddocks of all shapes and sizes, not fancy but efficient, a working farm, designed for the horse to enjoy and the human to employ. There's a house, without an arch window or a hot tub. There are some roping horses and a herd of cows. A stream for fresh drinking in the summer, woods for shade and windbreak. And horses.
Throwbacks in an era when year-round racing has devoured the notion, Amy and Charlie LoPresti like to slow down in the winter, slow their horses down in the winter, "You got to let them be horses, you know," Charlie LoPresti preaches at Saratoga every summer, as his horses grab another summer stakes.
It's January, on my last day in Lexington, and I force myself to go see the LoPrestis' farm, to see horses being horses.
Force, because I think I have too much to do. Force, because I don't take road trips to write columns of my own free will any more. Force, because I've got eight hours to drive. Force, because I've got a kid to feed, a wife to see, a farm of my own, with a never-ending to-do list. But, for a change, I make the call and arrange to see Wise Dan. I haven't seen the two-time Horse of the Year since the last night of Saratoga, when I drifted around the backstretch in my golf cart, eventually stopping in the grass behind his barn. Facing the front corner of his stall, he turned his head and looked out the back window, through the screen, he stared. I snapped a photo in the dark and said thanks, the endless summer coming to an end. It was like he knew what I meant.
That was September. He won another Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in October, then had ankle surgery. We went to the Breeders' Cup without him. It wasn't the same.
"What time's he go out?" I ask Amy LoPresti, the night before our visit.
"Perfect, I'll see you then."
I type in the address in my GPS on my phone and, no, it's not even close to Keeneland. It's up and over, on the other side of Lexington. In the dark, I drive around New Circle and up, past gas stations, a Panera Bread and the neon lights of suburbia, thinking, wondering if I typed in the right address. Crossing I-75, it changes, yes, this looks more like it. Through the one stop-sign town of Athens, now, this feels right. Eight tenths of a mile later, I find a driveway, make a left and see a light at the top of the hill. I'm five minutes early.
Amy waits for me. I park. We walk. I'm glad I dressed warmly.
Through a gate, down a hill, past some cows, around the indoor ring, ground crunching below our boots, we turn. Light escapes in slices, through the slats of a converted tobacco barn. Along a row of stalls on the right side, there's Wise Dan. Standing between Donny and Sally (Donnie and Sallie?), two roping ponies, there's the champ, winner of $7.5 million.
Aloof at best at Saratoga, the 8-year-old gelding looks happy to see me. I know, I know, but I'm telling you, he was happy to see me.
Amy slides his stall door and I pet him between his eyes, he puts his head on my chest, keeps it there, white hair from his blaze mesh into the zipper of my coat.
"He doesn't get a lot of visitors this time of year," Amy explains.
Amy hands me the shank while she slides two bell boots over his front hooves. I look down at both ankles and can't remember which one needed the surgery, they both look good. I don't run my hands down his legs. He's due for another set of X-rays soon. If they're as good as they've been, he could start back to work Feb. 1.
"Want me to take a picture of you two?"
Amy takes it anyway and I'm glad she does.
We walk into the darkness, along a cart path, through a gate, we walk to a paddock, between his barn and his brother Successful Dan's barn. I push the gate open and Amy walks Wise Dan into his paddock. She unsnaps the shank, he walks a few feet and puts his head down to graze. He has acres, he uses feet.
"That's pretty much it," Amy says.
I stare into the darkness, at the outline of a chestnut gelding, under a blue blanket, eating grass.
"Want to see Successful Dan?" Amy asks.
"Are you kidding?"
A bonus, Wise Dan's older brother stands in the center-aisle barn above Wise Dan's paddock. Now 9, he looks like a stuffed animal in my son's room. Burly and wooly, he picks up his head for a moment, then goes back to his pile of hay. Standing on fragile legs, less than $2,000 short of a millionaire, he doesn't care.
We traverse back the way we came, walking past Wise Dan again, he picks up his head for a moment, like a two-finger wave from the top of his steering wheel, and goes back to eating.
A horse being a horse.
Check out more photos from Sean's trip to Forest Lane Farm to see Wise Dan.