Sarah Thomas: Another hole in the sport’s fabric

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If I’d known I was going to write so many obituaries, I don’t think I would have started Steeplechase Times. Some – the ones about old-timers and legends such as Burley Cocks, Cary Jackson and John Thigpen – were honors to toil over. Others brought pain, anguish, questions.

This one fits the latter category.

Sarah Beth Thomas died June 2 from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse she was exercising at trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s farm near Unionville, Pa. She was 29, a graduate of Penn State University and Unionville High. She leaves behind a mother, a father, three sisters and a legion of friends from all walks of life. See the official obituary in the June Steeplechase Times, but she joins Trish Daniels, Jonathan Kiser, Cort Marzullo, Bruce Haynes and the rest in the gone-far-too-soon category.

I didn’t really know Sarah Thomas, we didn’t really have anything more than brief conversations. I did trade e-mails with her, sent her some photos, wished her well, shared a laugh about horses and cameras and children and circumstances. That was the middle of March. Nobody would have guessed she’d be dead in 2 1/2 months. It’s cliche to talk about living every moment like it’s your last, but that’s the only lesson. This life, this biological accident of being is precious, fragile, short, unpredictable. Live it.

OK, sermon’s over.

While working on the first edition of ST this winter, my 10-year-old son Nolan and I went to Sheppard’s farm to interview assistant trainer Jim Bergen, check in with champion mare Sweet Shani, take a few photos and otherwise get out of the house on a chilly, sunny morning. Sarah was riding out, alongside Frank Steall and Alex Robertson. Nolan snapped photos of the goats, the barn, a No Parking sign, the training sessions. Sarah rode Slice Of Gold on one set, Time Off on another. She looked clean, tidy, polished, hands and heels down. The horses trained well, looked ready for the season. Jim told us who was who, how far along they were, talked about his past as a commodities broker, his present as overseer to the Sheppard string. He didn’t tell us about his girlfriend, Sarah, the rider with the smile and the curly black hair.

A few days later, I got an e-mail from Sarah. She wanted to know how the photos turned out and if I could send her some. She offered to pay. I laughed and sent her what we had. Several of Slice Of Gold turned out nicely. She wanted something of Time Off, but the memory card went haywire and the photos never actually got taken – despite probably 50 pushes of the shutter. Oh well. In an e-mail, Sarah called Slice Of Gold “Melman” after the accident-prone giraffe in the movie Madagascar. I cracked up. He looks like Melman, long neck, legs everywhere, kind of bug-eyed in a friendly sort of way. With creativity like that, Sarah could have been a writer.

I sent her the photos, she posted them on Facebook with a credit (Nolan was thrilled) and we used one or two in the March edition.

I didn’t really think about Sarah again until I heard of the accident, which happened May 27 at the farm. Sarah was working a horse on Sheppard’s wood-chip track. On the bottom turn, slightly out of view from the clockers’ platform near the barn, Sarah came off. The horse ran off, loose. Sheppard and Sarah’s co-workers Keri Brion and Amy Mullen arrived quickly, called 911. Sarah was breathing, could move her arms, but was otherwise unresponsive. Despite being an experienced rider, despite wearing a helmet and a flack jacket, she was hurt and was taken to Christiana Medical Center in Delaware.

There, she was lucid. She knew she’d fallen from a horse. She talked to her parents. Maybe she was going to be OK. Then she had a stroke and never spoke or truly lived again. She died June 2, six days after the accident.

“It’s still unbelievable, still hasn’t really set in,” said Brion. “How do you make sense of something like this? You can’t. It’s an accident, but it’s a person too. Someone you knew, someone you enjoyed, someone you’d been with.”

Brion remembered Sarah’s first days at work a few years ago. The event rider with the college degree showed up in winter and learned about racehorses by jogging roads for miles and miles in the cold. Arcadius was one of her first morning rides, and he ran off at a trot. Three Carat bucked her off, Sarah laughed and climbed back in the saddle. A few minutes later, Mixed Up bucked off champion jump jockey Danielle Hodsdon. Sarah stuck it out, learned, improved, made a place.

Sarah put her animal science degree to good use, moving up to an assistant’s role (even without the title). She helped Bergen organize the barn, the training, the various special treatments individual horses needed.

“She was great, she always smiled, she was always happy – I’m not just saying this,” said Brion. “She was opinionated, like all of us girls, but that’s why she fit in. She stayed, she made it, she worked at it. She learned to do it.”

Brion figured Bergen and Sarah would someday get married, that Sarah would carve out a career – with or without horses. In addition to the job with Sheppard, Sarah had worked at Select Breeders Services (an equine reproduction facility) and Unionville Equine Associates veterinary clinic.

“She could have done anything she wanted, whether she stayed here for a while longer or not,” Brion said. “She had her degree, she had a pretty good business on the side making and selling horses, she’d worked for a vet for a while, she had a lot more life to live.”

Instead, Sarah’s death helped give life to others as her family donated her organs, turning an awful negative into something resembling a positive.

This week, I went back and read the e-mails Sarah and I exchanged. She ended some with a smiley face, used exclamation points, called the horses “fantastic.” Somewhere along the line, she became one of my 513 “friends” on Facebook. I’m not a big sharer, I only superficially know a bunch on that list and I originally signed up for work.

But I realized an unseen and unplanned benefit to the social network- memorials. Sarah’s page lives on beyond her as friends and family post photos, messages, memories. I hope they never take it down.

Sarah’s own photos paint a picture of a life well-lived, a life we might not have known without computers and the Internet. I look through Sarah’s Facebook files and see a young woman who smiles easily. I see happiness, joy, vibrancy. I see some zaniness, too, a little chaos, a few decisions she might regret (never, ever, let anyone take a photo of you doing a kegstand).

Mostly, I see a life…

Sarah Beth Thomas rode horses.

She played kickball for a team sponsored by a butcher shop (Number 20).

She competed in an Easter egg contest involving a ramp and a cannon of some kind.

She wore jeans, little black dresses, uncomfortable shoes, floppy hats, white blouses, pink platform sandals, wool hats with tails.

She took Bergen to Longwood Gardens for Christmas and out to dinner for a special occasion.

She made cookies.

She enjoyed looking for the perfect Christmas tree – and laughing about it.

She loved a dog.

She rooted for the Phillies.

She mucked stalls.

She twirled sparklers at picnics.

She once ate too much from Taco Bell.

She sang karaoke (at least once).

She danced with relatives and friends at weddings, even made a toast at one.

She was proud of her biceps.

She shot pool.

She had good taste in beer.

She participated (as Mary) in the funniest live nativity I’ve ever seen. It appears Bergen was Joseph, Bob Bailey a shepherd, one-eyed racehorse Dirge and an uncooperative goat the animals.

She took an African dance class.

She sat by a bonfire for a phenomenal profile photo that ought to be a greeting card.

And on and on. I’ve been back and people keep adding photos (a rainbow, clouds, a fun kickball game in early June), inspirational quotes, whatever.

I once told someone – a child, myself, I don’t know – that God (or whatever is in charge of this) handles all the good in our lives. The great days, the joys, the success, the magic, the positives are his. Think about it, there are too many for them to just be random. God’s got them, but he’s too busy making sure everybody gets some good that he can’t stop the bad. The deaths, the sadness, the accidents, the illnesses, the worries, the troubles, the natural disasters . . . they find us all, they just happen. It probably goes against every religious teaching you want to conjure, but sometimes it makes me feel better. And now it makes me think of Sarah.


*PHOTO: Sarah and Slice Of Gold – a.k.a. Melman –  gallop this winter (photo by Nolan Clancy).