All I could think was I wish we had done this for the Dubai World Cup back in March. The community of Fair Hill met at Bruce Jackson’s equine therapy center Tuesday morning to watch Animal Kingdom run, one more time.
The crowd included grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, assistant trainers, college students (one in a top hat), senior citizens, men, women, English, French, Spanish. And it was magic, if only for a moment.
Animal Kingdom never really got into the race. He was a little strong early, a lot flat late and labored home 11th of 13 in the Group 1 race.
Then everybody went back to work. Had he won there would have been much rejoicing, a toast, maybe even a speech or two, some backslaps for those closest to the horse. We might have even stayed around to watch the King’s Stand.
But that’s horse racing and everybody in that barn Tuesday knew that. They run, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, life always goes on. A win would have been extraordinary, a collective experience like seeing your team win a World Series or your country win a World Cup, and that’s why people stopped what they were doing and went to watch. Most barns at Fair Hill have televisions, but watching with a group meant more than just watching. It wasn’t just that they had to see it. They had to see it together.
Trainer Jimmy Toner was there. So was jockey Jeremy Rose. Jenn Patterson, Orb’s friend, was there with her father Duncan, a racing commissioner in Delaware. Keith Cooper, who drove Animal Kingdom home from Kentucky after the 2011 Derby was there. Adrian Rolls, who led Animal Kingdom off Cooper’s van that day, found a spot on a chair, checked his phone and mapped out the rest of his day. Exercise rider Jody Petty, who galloped Animal Kingdom back when he was just the chestnut horse training with Pluck, brought Shaggy the dog. Blacksmith Mark Pino and veterinarian Tom Reid took breaks from their mornings. Fair Hill vet and director Kathy Anderson stood against a bank of cabinets, hoping for one more achievement for the place. Maybe the governor would show up again with a proclamation. Owner Frank McEntee (whose racehorse Paddy The Caddy is now an eventer) marveled at the crowd queuing up in the next room, where a big television perched on a wheeled cart next to an equine water treadmill. Jump jockeys/exercise riders Robbie Walsh and Xavier Aizpuru were there. Trainer Edwin Merryman, jockey Trevor McCarthy, former champion jump jockey Dave Bentley, somebody in a Wabbajack shirt . . .
They talked, asked questions, waited, laughed. When a race from Thirsk sprung to life on the screen shortly before Ascot post time, everybody jumped. “No, that’s not it.” Of course, a loose horse briefly interrupted the moment. He (maybe she) flashed past the windows, headed east toward the tracks with people in pursuit. Somewhere, he reversed course and galloped past the windows again – headed west.
“We’ll get him after the race,” somebody joked. “How far can he go? There are 6,000 acres of nothing out there.”
The dark humor was just that, a joke, and the escapee was quickly nabbed and put back in the barn.
When not sweating a “caballo solo,” Jackson shuttled around with a remote control, trying to make sure the TVs worked (note to anyone who does this, you have to aim the remote at the satellite box back in the office, not at the TV at the other end of the 20-foot HDMI cable). Somebody had brought quiche and pie and blueberry bread, though not many people ate.
Across an ocean on the old turf of Ascot, the gates opened for the Queen Anne and Animal Kingdom bounded out of stall 13. There was no gasp, no ooh, no “Here we go,” but the place got quiet. The jockeys in the crowd noticed an issue right away. Not a crisis, but they could read the mind of John Velazquez. He’d have a better chance if he could get Animal Kingdom behind a horse or two, make him relax. That can be difficult anywhere, but truly so when breaking from a wide post on a straight course while riding a heavy favorite from a foreign land in race with little early pace.
For a beat, Animal Kingdom did back off the pace, and seem to find a stalking spot, some comfort, maybe, but when the others started running he did not. Race over, moment with it.
Right then, back to work.
Nobody said it, but the declaration hung there over our heads. The stable staffers walked back to their barns, Pino went to get his hammer and nails, Cooper set up a trip, Reid and Anderson returned to their rounds. Rolls and the rest who work for trainer Graham Motion started a half-hour early to fit in the Ascot break. They still had two sets to train.