The note was slipped to me at the press table. It was from a fellow journalist covering the 1999 University of Connecticut men’s basketball team in its first national championship year. But this night, the game is a blur. All I can think about is the note. It would transform me from a lifelong horse racing fan to the owner of a Thoroughbred.
The game ends and I race home to file my story by the 11 p.m. deadline. Instead, I sprint upstairs, grab the phone, dial the number, and ask for the name on the wrinkled note shoved into my pocket. Soon I am talking to one of the managing partners of the Write Stuff Stable (an editor waiting for the UConn game story). Our conversation is brief, but long enough to convince me to join the dozen other sports journalists who had pooled their money to buy horses. I file my story and then write a check for a couple of thousand dollars as casually as if paying my electric bill. I mail it the next morning. I am a two percenter.
Write Stuff Stable had had success with Love That Magic and after he is claimed, is casting around for another. I quickly learn that except for the races themselves, this is not a sport of immediate gratification. UConn rolls through the season, spring training approaches, and still no horse. There is always an issue. A handful of potential Gulfstream claimers have problems: one is too old, another sore, two are lost in shakes.
In early March, we win a four-way shake for Native Talk, a 4-year-old filly. I watch her first race in the burgundy and gold silks of Write Stuff Stable from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino. She finishes last in a field of seven. That was the bad news. Later that night I get the good news: Native Talk has been claimed.
The search begins anew. A 2-year-old colt purchased at an Ocala Breeders Sales Co. sale is sickly from the start and succumbs to laminitis. The vision of the little guy fighting for his life in a New Jersey stall haunts me for a long time. I remind myself: This is business.
Then we claim an older gelding, the Irish-bred Castan. My memory is hazy about his inaugural race, but not the outcome. I learn the results through a method that becomes standard: my partner scrolls to our race and gives me the news. This time, it is the best: Castan wins. I am so elated I jump up, bang my knee on a desk, and limp around for days. I still get an occasional flash of pain. Life, poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, is comprised of “twinklings and twinges.”
One of Write Stuff's biggest successes was stakes-placed Tiffish, who ran every race as if it were a Breeders’ Cup event. When we retire her, she is purchased as a broodmare and her first foal, Taitt Hill, now a 4-year-old, wins two races and finishes third in her first four starts.
Our best runner was Wheaton’s Aly, a handsome sprinter plagued with injuries from the time we claimed him as a 3-year-old in 2002. In 17 starts for us, Aly had three wins, seven seconds, and three thirds. On a Florida visit, Aly practically takes my hand off when I offer a carrot. That spirit stays with him until his last race.
When the time came to retire Aly, we send him to greener pastures. Through the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, he is placed at a farm owned by the late John Hettinger, who won a Special Eclipse Award in 2000 for his efforts to save retired horses. An employee, Sue Roth, falls in love with “Twitch,” his nickname, and he now resides at her Pleasant Valley, N.Y., farm.
This summer, I visited Aly to thank him for making me such a believer in this sport. I brought a cup full of carrots and this time we share a peaceful few minutes, his strong white teeth encircling the fragile orange sticks in my hand. He’s a happy horse: his chestnut coat bleached from the sun, he runs freely in his paddock on Roth’s 10-acre farm.
So thanks for the rides, Aly, and Tiffish, and Castan, and yes, you too, Native Talk. Photographs of the winners fill my living room: Castan at Monmouth, Tiffish at Gulfstream, Aly at Belmont. They’re displayed among pictures of my family. And I guess that’s as it should be.
Terese Karmel is a Connecticut journalist and college instructor.