Flying with Air Maggy

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How about this for juxtaposition? The riding horse for visitors at Jonathan Sheppard’s barn is three years younger than the Grade 1-winning champion the visitors want to see.

After riding a lead pony to report about Maryland Million runner Roadhog at Fair Hill Training Center Wednesday, I took another equine excursion – this time at Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm – on a mission to check up on Grand National contender Divine Fortune. The latter is 11 and seeks his second consecutive win in Saturday’s Grade 1 steeplechase worth $250,000. Thursday, he looked like a horse one-third his age. Really.

My mount? Air Maggy. The 8-year-old gray gelding won twice – once on the flat and once over hurdles – and last ran Jan. 20, 2013 at Tampa Bay Downs. Luis Garcia rode him that day. They finished eighth for a $25,000 tag and the horse wound up with a hairline sesamoid fracture.  He went much better for me Thursday. We trotted on the road with Divine Fortune and 4-year-old novice All The Way Jose, walked through Sheppard’s Buttonwood division (to the great humor of head assistant Jim Bergen) and galloped up the hill behind the racehorses. Unlike Divine Fortune, Air Maggy was not sharp or ready for a race. He was a perfect gentleman who flowed through the trotting early, walked easily toward the gallop and rolled up the hill like a pro. He accelerated to keep pace with the others and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself.

And I stayed on.  

More importantly, OK maybe not, I got a look at Divine Fortune. He’s one of the horses of my lifetime – piling up major wins, a huge bankroll and exhibiting daily the magic of the Thoroughbred. He can run, he can jump, he can finish, he can fly. He’s not perfect, he’s taken two of the hardest falls I’ve ever seen. But he never seems to waver. He walks like a lifeguard at the beach – above us, in charge, marching to his own beat. I love that in a horse.

Thursday morning it was on full display, though I owe Air Maggy for taking me to see it. Sheppard’s assistant Keri Brion suggested the ride. I laughed at first, explained that I only ride a little, now and then, and that my last ride on a Sheppard horse was in 1983. I’m good with a lady’s hunter, a push-button horse. I need an iPhone horse – point and shoot.

Brion assured me that Air Maggy was just such a horse. The son of Sky Mesa used to belong to Maggie Bryant, of V.E. Day fame, and was given to Brion after the injury. Recovered, he now lives in the small green barn across the driveway at Sheppard’s as something of a mascot. He might be a timber horse next year.

“You can ride Air Maggy! :)” Brion texted Wednesday. Sounds OK, I thought, and off to the barn I went late. I told her I’d be there at 11 – after running with the dog. She texted back, “11 is good. JS said come on over.”

All I could think was, “Oh great, the Hall of Fame trainer will be there to watch me.”

The grooms called Air Maggy “Champion” when he came in the main barn. Almost polar-bear white, he was decked out in Sheppard green and yellow, and a set of tack. Sporting an ugly borrowed helmet with no cover (I’m going to need one of my own if I’m going to keep doing this), I on at the mounting block, put the stirrups down a little and started walking the shedrow. 

He felt like a racehorse, jigged to keep up with Divine Fortune and All The Way Jose. Walking around, I snapped some photos with my iPhone, tried to keep my heels down and sit up straight. Jogging up the road, I looped a finger in the yoke just in case. We trotted in a line – Divine Fortune (with Brion), Air Maggy (me) and All The Way Jose (Anna Carrow). We turned left and slowed to a walk, toward Sheppard’s second barn across the way. Bergen runs this operation and was prepping a set when we rode up.

After a double-take, or was that a triple, Bergen figured out who the guy was on the white horse and laughed. Bergen has surely seen everything in his career with Sheppard and can now mean it.

We crossed the bridge over the creek, turned left between two paddocks and navigated a few grass and board “steps” up the bank. Air Maggy lightly stubbed a toe once, but otherwise marched right up into the field. High on a hill, the spot offers a Chester County view – of horses, barns, rolling green spaces. Below us, three turnouts (including Saratoga jump winner Martini Brother) looked out over a post-and-rail fence along Route 926. A blue Jeep pulled off the road, and a person got out to pet the horses, then drove away.

Our set of three hacked across the hill, and walked to the bottom. Divine Fortune and All The Way Jose were suddenly keyed up – they know the galloping point. A beat behind his pals, Air Maggy followed suit and off we went, turning right and powering up the hill along the trees. I wish I’d kept my hands down a little more. I wish I’d felt more balanced. But it went fine. Brion said the horses know where to stop and they all eased to a halt at the top. They could have all gone again, but we were finished.

On the walk back, Sheppard drove up and asked me how the gray horse felt.

“He was great,” I said, again trying to look at least a little bit like a proper exercise rider.

“That’s good,” he said. “You’re the first one who’s been able to stay on him longer than 10 minutes.”

Then he cackled and drove off. I think he was kidding.


Air Maggy’s Equibase record.

Watch Air Maggy run at Saratoga in 2011.


The team – All The Way Jose (left, Anna Carrow) and Divine Fortune (Keri Brion).



The view from Air Maggy’s back headed back to the barn after galloping.