By Alexa Ravit
With Ashado about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this week, I felt it was appropriate to post this as a guest blog, as it depicts the love of a horse beautifully by a young fan, Alexa Ravit.
Whenever I'm asked who my favorite racehorses of all time are, four names come to mind. The first two to roll off my tongue are Funny Cide and Rachel Alexandra. Funny Cide is THE reason that I love horse racing as much as I do, while Rachel elicits the strongest emotional connection that I've ever felt toward any horse, and probably ever will. I was too young to see Cigar, the third horse on my list, but for reasons only my heart can explain, I love that horse as much as any fan who was fortunate to see all or part of his 16-race win streak in person.
These first three horses all made their ways into public consciousness through their historical accomplishments. Funny Cide has his own website. Rachel has articles of clothing bearing her name and likeness. Cigar paraded through Madison Square Garden in New York City at the conclusion of his racing career. The last member of my beloved core four was given no such rock star status. Don't get me wrong, she lives a life of luxury superior to most people. However, before 2012, when her name first graced the Hall of Fame ballot, I hadn't seen her mentioned in any kind of horse racing media whatsoever in almost seven years.
Who is this horse who holds a significant chunk of my heart? None other than the two time champion, the Hall of Famer, the GREAT, Ashado.
I first became a fan of Ashado after her victory in the 2004 Kentucky Oaks. As an 11-year-old who was still a novice to horse racing, I was vulnerable to becoming attached to any runner I thought had talent. From her rivalry with Stellar Jayne in the summer of '04 to her last victory in the Beldame over a year later, Ashado was a constant during my pre-teen years. While my other equine hero of 2004, Smarty Jones, was whisked away to stud, Ashado kept competing and succeeding.
Thus, when Ashado was consigned to the Keeneland November sale as a broodmare prospect, I was sad, but not disappointed. The soon to be two time Eclipse Award winner had nothing to prove and deserved retirement. When I heard that the hammer had dropped at $9 million for her, I wasn’t surprised. To me at least, she was priceless.
I never expected to hear anything again about Ashado unless one of her offspring made waves on the track. I knew she was owned by Darley and resided in Kentucky, but that was about it. Then, on February 12, 2013, the wheels that would bring her back into my life were set in motion. It was on this day that I was offered the opportunity to intern at Darley's Gainsborough Farm for the summer, working with mares and foals. Of course, I accepted.
As the months passed and the calendar inched closer to my dream summer, my mind started to drift back to a conversation I had overheard on a tour of Darley's Jonabell Farm during Derby weekend in 2008. I vaguely remembered hearing someone ask about Ashado, and the tour guide had said that she was at Gainsborough. Five years later, it had me wondering. Could this be true? Could my childhood hero really be at THE farm I would be working at for the summer? I didn't think about this too much as the countdown to my internship slowly dwindled from three months, to two, to one...after all, regardless of whether or not Ashado lived there, I would still be taking care of some of the best broodmares and most valuable foals in the country!
When I finally arrived in Versailles, Kentucky and met my boss, I shyly asked if Ashado resided on the farm.
"Oh yeah, she does! You can see her."
Safe to say, my summer just got a whole lot more exciting than I thought possible.
While I didn't work directly with Ashado ("my" barn did house champions Riboletta, Balanchine, and the dam of Alpha...) I was told where she lived and that I could see her whenever I wanted. I was too shy to take the short drive to her barn on my first Sunday off, but on my second, with peppermints in tow, I nervously headed over. When I found her stall, her four month old Bernardini filly came right to the front door to check out the new human visitor, but the great mare seemed unaware of my presence. She gazed out the back door, dozing off in the summer sunshine that peeked through the grates.
As I stood outside her door, Ashado continued to pay me no attention whatsoever. While admittedly a little disappointed, I was grateful just to see her up close. Then, as I was preparing to leave, one of the grooms came over to me and said "Oh, you can go into the stall! You work here!"
With slight trepidation, I slid open the door, and walked into the presence of greatness. Like a queen realizing that a stranger had entered her castle, Ashado immediately awoke from whatever daze she was in, turned to face me, and walked on over. I have worked with horses of all shapes and sizes for most of my life, and thus, only a notoriously dangerous or spooky horse can make me anxious. Yet, here I was, gingerly petting Ashado, expecting her to pin her ears, to spook, to bite. In reality, all she wanted was my bag of peppermints. I guess you could say I was thoroughly star struck. In my defense, I was hanging out with a horse who won the two most prestigious races for female horses in the country, who was twice named champion, and sold for nine MILLION dollars! I think being a little nervous was a fair reaction in the midst of such equine royalty.
Eight years removed from the racetrack life, Ashado no longer resembled a top athlete at first glance. These days, her stocky frame is more resemblant of a draft horse. As a racehorse, I always thought she had a bit of an awkward donkey look to her face, an expression she still bears. Yet, in maturity, you can see the class, intelligence, and quality that led her to domination of her division for two seasons. Ashado’s coat looks fantastic, and if she dropped a few pounds, she would be indiscernible from a 3-year-old filly on the backstretch at Belmont. Some Thoroughbreds have “wild” eyes that suggest an intense, high strung demeanor (Rachel is one of those horses), but Ashado’s stare exudes kindness, class, and a bit of wisdom. One of my co-workers once said that he thought broodmares were so cool to be around because they seemed so smart and sage. Ashado certainly supports that notion.
For every week until Ashado's foal was weaned, I visited, spoiled, and loved both mare and foal. My co-workers and bosses probably thought I was crazy, but if you were to tell my 11- and 12-year-old self that I could visit Ashado whenever I wanted, I first would have laughed in your face. My next reaction would be to slap myself if I didn't spend every minute with her that I could. And so I did.
When my parents came to Kentucky at the end of July to drag me home, they also wanted to see Ashado. I hopped over the fence into the field she was residing in, grabbed onto her halter, and led her to them. It was during this seemingly ordinary moment that I had an emotional awakening.
I haven't gotten significantly attached to a horse since Rachel retired at the end of 2010. I've often questioned since then if I've consciously gotten jaded toward the sport of horse racing, choosing to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the latest Thoroughbred stars. After all, in this sport, devotion results in disappointment more often than joy. But in that moment, when I read the name "Ashado" on the mare's halter nameplate as I led her, I smiled and remembered that it was horses like the one I was holding onto who made me fall in love with the sport. A horse who competed and succeeded at the top levels of the sport every year she ran. A horse who didn't blow you away in physique or style, but knew her job and knew it well.
There's something to be said for a Thoroughbred who can win no matter the circumstances. Ashado could run on any dirt surface, fast or sloppy. She won her first graded stakes race sprinting six furlongs and went on to take the Coaching Club American Oaks going ten. She could prompt the pace or sit just off it. She was fast enough to dominate the Go For Wand by nine lengths and game enough to gut out a nose victory in the Demoiselle. When she was on her game, she was pretty tough to beat.
When I found out at the end of April that Ashado had been elected into the racing Hall of Fame, I couldn't contain my pride. Even better was knowing that I would soon get to see her and congratulate her in person when I returned to Kentucky for the Derby. I was as ecstatic to be reunited with her as I was for the most exciting two minutes in sports.
Derby morning, I leapt out of bed like a child on Christmas morning, brimming with excitement not for the Derby (well, yes, the Derby too), but for my impending visit with a horse who had already proven her greatness time and time again. When I arrived, Ashado was turned out in a group with her 2014 Bernardini colt and several other mare and foal pairs. Luckily, they were all along the fence line. In typical Ashado fashion, she cared more for her grass than to hang out with her number one fan. Eventually, however, she did come over, as kind and classy as ever.
After she was satisfied with the attention and praise she received, Ashado left me on the fence line...for more grass of course. As she moseyed away, I was greeted by a boisterous bay foal who I quickly realized was hers. He hammed it up the entire time I stood there, sticking his head over the fence and longing for attention. Most young colts are extremely nippy, but he never once attempted to bite me. He insistently stuck his nose in my face, and plenty of pictures of my kissing that soft muzzle exist as evidence of his good nature. I made sure to tell him how special his mother was to me and that he had some pretty large shoes to fill.
When Ashado was racking up victories, I never considered that her achievements might earn her a plaque in Saratoga. I was just happy that a horse I cared about was winning. My pre-teen self couldn’t appreciate that it takes more than a good horse to win seven grade one races, almost four million dollars, and two Eclipse awards. In August, she will be enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame, to be remembered forever for her accomplishments on the track. However, to a girl who knew little about racing other than the Triple Crown, I will be grateful to Ashado for teaching me and pulling me in further to a game that has become my passion, and hopefully, my career.
Ultimately, that is what the great mare’s legacy will be.