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The Sport of Kings

Racing Thoroughbred Horses Is a Grand and Time-Honored Passion

In September 2003, Elizabeth Valando received word from Kentucky that her famous thoroughbred racehorse Fly So Free was mortally ill. The dark chestnut stallion had been a celebrity in his day. Voted the best two-year-old colt in the country in 1990, he began the 1991 season with three major victories in Florida, making him the favorite that year to win the Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious of horse races and the first leg of the American Triple Crown.Mrs. Valando, a fine-boned Texas beauty now past eighty, and her husband, the music publisher Tommy Valando, could hardly believe the hoopla stirred up by Fly So Free. When this magazine trooped out to their backcountry home and a photographer set up lights and reflective umbrellas, Tommy Valando blinked up into the halogen glare and said, with a note of wonder, “It’s that hoss that’s causing all this.”

The Valandos were then novice owners. Fly So Free was the first horse they owned outright, purchased for $80,000 at the 1989 July Yearling Sale in Keeneland, Kentucky. Buying a racehorse, no matter how much one spends (and $80,000 isn’t that much), is a chancy undertaking. For one thing, the odds of your new thoroughbred becoming a so-called “big horse” are terrible. “About 35,000 thoroughbred foals are born each year,” Mrs. Valando says, “and out of that number there are only twenty that can run the Kentucky Derby. Then you have to have a certain amount of stakes winnings [stakes races being the major league ones divided, in descending order, into grades I, II and III]. It’s not easy to get to the Derby. Oh, it’s very, very difficult. But it’s everybody’s dream.”

Mrs. Valando, unlike her husband, was initially pretty cool on horse racing. But she had to confess when watching Fly So Free, “Well, he’s got this mystique about him.” She absorbed the colt’s shimmering beauty, the elegant way he moved, his gentle, confident personality and was smitten. What’s more, love of the horse seemed to mingle with the love the couple had for each other. The Valandos joked that when they met, in 1960, they had nothing in common. “Once I told her, ‘The only thing that you like that I like is you,’ ” Tommy Valando said in 1991. “Now we have the hosses.”

Fly So Free placed a disappointing fifth in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. His trainer Scotty Schulhofer said the horse had turned “edgy” by race day, perhaps because of the travel, the attention and the 160,000 clamoring race fanatics. Fly So Free sat out the remaining Triple Crown races — the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York — but he rebounded late in the season with wins in two big races, the Riva Ridge Stakes and the Jim Dandy Stakes.

Then, mysteriously, he faded. At age four, he was preparing for the $500,000 Donn Handicap in Florida when he contracted a life-threatening virus. He skipped the Donn, then performed poorly at a race in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “Strange. A lot of people think horses don’t know anything, but they’re very smart, you know,” Mrs. Valando says. “When we went back to the barn, he was absolutely furious with us. He didn’t want anybody to touch him. He knew he lost, he knew we were trying to get him to do something he couldn’t do.”

Tommy Valando died in 1995. He left the horses to his wife — a sure sign, she says, that he intended for her to continue their shared passion on her own. By then Fly So Free had embarked on a profitable stud career, siring a new line of graded stakes winners; but the premature end of his own racing days remained a puzzle until 1999. “Did this horse ever have a bad virus?” a vet from the insurance company asked. Mrs. Valando told her about it. “Well,” said the vet, “it’s damaged his heart valve.” Four years later, Fly So Free went downhill rapidly. The stallion manager at Three Chimneys Farm, the Kentucky grassland where Fly So Free lived, called Mrs. Valando and said, “I don’t think he’s going to be here much longer.”

By then she had bred and owned many thoroughbreds. “I adore my horses, all of them, whether they can run well or not,” she says. But Fly So Free had started it all; she flew to Kentucky at once. “I wouldn’t have recognized him as my horse. He didn’t even look like himself, he’d gone down so. I brought peppermints, which he always loved. The stallion manager said, ‘Well, he’s stopped eating.

I don’t know whether he’ll eat those.’ But he did. So I kept feeding him peppermints. He looked right into my eyes — he had the most wonderful eyes — and he knew I was there for him.”

Fly So Free was gone the next morning. “I was devastated, but what could I do?” Mrs. Valando says, grief still evident in her voice. “I gave him the best possible life he could have.”

Thoroughbred racing is one of those things people take up when they have money. But far from being an idle pursuit, it’s a grand and complicated passion, one that often assumes centrality in owners’ lives. That passion has been shared historically by the masses, though this is changing. Magazines and newspapers have diminished or dropped their coverage of the races (the New Yorker, for example, ended its racing column in 1978), attendance at most racetracks is down, and some storied tracks, such as Hialeah in Miami, have closed for good.

“Horse racing’s been in decline for a while, for two reasons,” observes Robert Sheldon “Shel” Evans of Belle Haven, chairman of the Crane Company, a trustee of the New York Racing Association and member of The Jockey Club. “One, it used to be the only legal form of gambling, back when there weren’t casinos on every street corner. Two, until the thirties and forties, people knew what horses were. They rode them and used them and kept them in their backyard.” Then there’s a third reason.

 “Racing’s fairly complicated. People actually have to know something. To play the lottery, all you have to do is go in and buy a ticket.”

But the sport’s death knell, often sounded, seems premature. Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book Seabiscuit awakened the dormant horse lover in many Americans. The latest horse to capture the popular imagination was Barbaro, a bay colt who breezed to victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, then, two weeks later, horribly shattered a hind leg at the Preakness. The delicate surgery that followed — a stainless-steel plate and twenty screws — was explained in detail on the front page of the New York Times. Flowers and get-well cards poured in from around the world. Alas, Barbaro’s hopeful prognosis did not hold; in January 2007, eight months after his accident, he had to be euthanized.

Greenwich thoroughbred owners have often seen the bright side of horse racing. Henryk de Kwiatkowski, who died in 2003, owned Conquistador Cielo, the Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year in 1982, and Danzig Connection, the 1986 winner at Belmont. He also owned Stephen’s Odyssey, runner-up at the 1985 Kentucky Derby, and Danzig, the world-class sire of foals with winnings of $100 million. Among horse people, de Kwiatkowski is perhaps best known for buying, and saving from development, the bankrupt Calumet Farm in Kentucky. The most famous of horse farms, Calumet bred and owned Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. Wall Street financier Thomas Mellon Evans, Shel Evans’s father, owned the fabled Pleasant Colony, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1981.

A laconic man with a dry wit, Evans chuckled softly when asked if his father taught him about horses.

“I would say my brother and I taught him more than he taught us. He was a bright man, very capable. He was also remarkably lucky.” Shel Evans has raced many stakes-winning horses himself — Sewickley earned him over one million dollars — but mainly he considers himself a breeder and seller. That’s where the big money is.

“I wind up keeping some horses,” he says, “because to be successful in the game, you really need to have a stallion, a steady source of income” in the form of stud fees. Sometimes, though, Evans sells a stallion he should have kept. Forestry, for example, is a son of the great broodmare Shared Interest, for which Evans had particular affection. “You try not to fall in love with these horses,” he says. “You know, it’s a business.” As it turned out, selling Forestry made no economic sense, either. “I bred him and sold him for a million and a half dollars. He went on to win half a million dollars at the track. Now he stands for $125,000 for one season to breed to him, and he breeds to a hundred mares a year. You can do the math. Selling him was a big mistake.”

Horses who win Triple Crown races represent the peak of a tricky business, unattained by all but a few wealthy and lucky owners. What’s seldom seen by the public, but which all owners know intimately, is the relentless disappointment. “This game isn’t all peaches and cream,” remarks John McNamee Sullivan Jr. as he leads a visitor to the stable behind his backcountry home. “Things go wrong, just as they do in life. In horse racing, you live with a lot of disappointment.”

Sullivan is a solidly built man with wavy red hair and an intense but kindly manner. His mother’s family, the Gerlis, got going in the silk business in northern Italy in the late 1700s and later consolidated the silk industry in the United States. Today, Sullivan runs the family business, American Silk Mills. Horse-love came from his father’s side. John Sr. was a “master of hounds” for regional foxhunts in the fifties, and young John rode in point-to-point races in Long Island woodlands and spent summers working on his father’s stud farm on the Boyne River in Ireland.

Sullivan is one owner who can speak from a jockey’s point of view. “The most exhilarating thing I ever did was to be at full speed on a racehorse with horses on either side, also at full speed, grunting and groaning and straining, all of us trying to get to the front.” Mainly, though, he was an “exercise boy” who galloped horses in training. Once, in Ireland, his horse refused a fence and Sullivan flew off, landing upside down against a post. He broke his back. Earlier, on Long Island, he’d slid off in midjump and slipped a disc. He lives with back pain every day but still rides in the fields surrounding his white clapboard house.

Today, Sullivan has four thoroughbreds in training, a handful of mares, foals and yearlings at stud farms in the South, and two older thoroughbreds, plus a show horse, in Greenwich. “I just do this because I love it,” he says. “I don’t have a big operation. I’ve never had a great horse.” Not a Derby winner, maybe. But he has had very good horses, including Bride’s Best Boy, briefly considered a Derby contender in 2004. The veteran trainer Barclay Tagg, who had won the Derby in 2003 with Funny Cide, finally had to conclude that Bride’s Best Boy was too green for the Kentucky Derby, saying at the time, “I don’t think it would really be fair to the colt to throw him to the wolves like that.”

Bride’s Best Boy never quite became the big horse that Tagg and Sullivan hoped he might. Losing races, though, is but one form of disappointment, the most common one. “About ten percent of thoroughbreds get to the track and make money for you,” Sullivan says. “It’s like drilling for oil,” adds Shel Evans. But there’s much else to worry about. Sullivan has had foals born dead. Once, a colt reared up and fatally smashed his head on a beam. “A horse can step off a van and twist an ankle and you’re done, just like that,” Sullivan says.

When these things happen, thousands of dollars go down the drain. An owner might pay around $50,000 to mate a mare to a good stallion, or as much as $500,000 to mate that mare to a truly blue-blooded one. “Then let’s call it $50,000 a year to keep a horse in training,” Sullivan says, not to mention vet and travel bills and race entry fees. “So it had better do something.”

Barclay Tagg, who trains for Shel Evans and Elizabeth Valando as well as Sullivan, mentions with a quick laugh the pampered life of a racehorse — the rubdowns, the hot and cold whirlpools. Then he addresses the darker side of the seemingly excessive care regimens. Racehorses are fragile creatures — more so than they used to be. Their 1,200 pounds are supported on narrow legs that carry them forty miles per hour. One jarring move can perilously redistribute all that weight. “They used to breed racehorses for stamina and hardiness,” Tagg says. “Those horses were a lot sounder. They could run two miles at a stretch. You could even take them over jumps if you wanted to. Nowadays they breed for speed, speed, speed, speed. There’s an old saying: Speed kills. And it’s a truism.”

Thoroughbred racing is the most dangerous of all mainstream sports. Roughly two horses “break down” on American tracks every day, and roughly two jockeys die in spills every year, never mind the broken bones. There is quiet debate in the racing world about whether the sport should be, or even could be, made safer. The answer seems to be no. Riding at high speed on horseback is a fairly basic proposition, not open to much tinkering. And there’s no realistic way to turn back the clock on breeding. Some insist that thoroughbreds are physically too immature to race at three years old, the age at which they run the Triple Crown races; others point out that they aren’t exactly overworked and might race as few as a dozen times in their entire careers. Of elite athletes, human and equine, a certain small percentage is going to get hurt.

The equine variety are lucky to wind up with an owner like John Sullivan.

Sullivan enters his paddock and whispers soothingly to Popeye, a huge bay stallion who placed in twelve of his seventeen races. Sullivan had owned a piece of Popeye when the horse suffered a stress fracture that curtailed his racing career. And he’d been gelded when young, so a stud career was out of the question. “I said, ‘What a great horse. What’s going to happen to him?’ ” Sullivan became Popeye’s sole owner in 1999. Today, he speaks of him with abiding respect. “Popeye is an extraordinary horse. He has depth of character. And he has class — like some people.”

Sullivan loved the horse’s grit, too. After he recovered from his injury, he quickly won a race. Only then, however, did it become apparent that continued racing might hurt him. Even foxhunting could prove too much for Popeye’s racehorse legs, Sullivan decided. So he and Popeye go out galloping in Sullivan’s fields, two athletes,
a little beat up but happy to be together.

Elizabeth Valando registered the name Nobiz Like Shobiz to honor her husband’s memory. (Tommy Valando, widely loved on Broadway, published such composers as Stephen Sondheim and John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team that gave us Cabaret.) Then she waited for a worthy horse to emerge from her Kentucky stable. And so he did, on January 29, 2004. Nobiz, a bay colt with a small white blaze on his forehead, won four of six races going into the 2007 Kentucky Derby, including the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

Once again she had a big horse.

“He has the most marvelous personality,” she says, as if this were all that mattered. “I just felt so attached to him.” Others, too, wanted to become attached to Nobiz. The New York Times reported that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, offered $17 million for him. Mrs. Valando declined. “Yes, I was offered a lot of money,” she admits. “I just felt I wanted to keep him, you know? And I’ve not been sorry a minute.”

Elizabeth Valando can hardly bear to watch her horses race. “Everybody says, ‘I’ll bet you have the greatest time.’ No, I don’t! I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but to me it’s sheer torture.” At the Kentucky Derby, she and Barclay Tagg, Nobiz’s trainer, watched nervously from a clubhouse box as Nobiz began to separate himself from the pack. As the horses entered the home stretch, Nobiz stepped on the gas, gaining on leaders Hardspun and Street Sense. Then something weird happened: He gently applied the brakes. Tagg, watching through binoculars, was dumbstruck. The horse appeared to be backing up. Nobiz was a Triple Crown horse the equal of Funny Cide, Tagg firmly believed. Now he watched his prodigy finish tenth in a field of twenty.

As it happened, Churchill Downs just wasn’t Nobiz’s sort of track. “A lot of horses don’t like it, you know,” Mrs. Valando says. “Some of the greatest horses didn’t win the Derby.” Two months later, Nobiz raced in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont and placed second on a hard dirt track, but here a clue emerged: “When he came back after the race, he had three bloody heels, where he had ‘run down,’ ” she says, referring to wear on a horse’s hoofs. “I wouldn’t feel like running either if my feet hurt. But he still made a valiant effort.”

Tagg prudently switched Nobiz from races on dirt to those on the more forgiving turf, and Nobiz was born anew. In August he won the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga — the center of summer racing in North America. In September he won the Kent Breeders’ Cup at Delaware Park and on October 6 the Jamaica at Belmont. That latest victory pushed Nobiz’s career earnings to $1,410,600.

Elizabeth Valando does not exactly wish her husband could share these high moments in horse racing; she believes he already does. “Oh, he does see me,” she says. “He sees everything we’re doing, and I’m sure he’s happy.” So why not leave the last word to Tommy? “I really don’t feel like I own this horse,” he once said of Fly So Free. “I feel like he’s everybody’s, and I’m just picked out to watch over him.”