Images From the Heart

To follow up on my last column about 9-year-old Eva Lytle and her love for War of Will, there are several ways of instilling the love of horses in children at an early age. Of course, the most obvious is to get them a horse. Bringing them to the racetrack and attending some of the morning programs is another, but that is a longer process. And then there was my obsession with photographing my daughter Mandy with great horses from the time she was a baby. Perhaps it was for me as much as her, but it was my way of attempting to preserve something that has encompassed and dictated my entire life. It was hoped that one day these photos would find their way into her heart as they always have mine.

Everything erodes with time. Everything but memories. But there are unfortunate times when even memories fade and we have to dig deep within our psyche to try to find them and restore them, for without memories of events, it is as if they never happened. Cherished moments from one's past are too valuable to lose or even dim. We need to have them with us, to comfort us, and rekindle the joy we felt while we were living them.

Photos of great Thoroughbreds in action are pieces of memorabilia that remind us of the exciting moments those horses provided us. Head shots and conformation shots remind us of their presence and nobility. But when you or a loved one are in the photo, it becomes a special memory--linking that horse with you forever.

I always wondered what it would have been like had my father left me with photographs of me petting Man o' War or feeding carrots to Seabiscuit or hugging Citation. I could only imagine those legends of the Turf becoming a part of me.

From the time our daughter Mandy was a baby, I became obsessed with providing her (and me) with unique memories of great Thoroughbreds and forming a personal link with them. Whenever a new star emerged, I had to get a photo of Mandy with him or her. There also were visits to breeding farms to photograph her with the greats of the past who raced before she was born. I knew Mandy, at an early age and even as a pre-teen, would not be able to appreciate photos of her with horses, for that is all they were, horses. She was too young to feel their aura or know how special they really were. But I knew how it made me feel taking them and I could only hope she one day would appreciate the gift I was giving her and myself.

I did witness the seed I planted sprout in other ways, from Mandy riding and showing horses at a young age, working with handicapped children through horses, signing up for Rutgers University's equine program where she showed and groomed horses, taking three years of pre-vet courses and majoring in equine science, and finally to working two summers at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. One of the patients she came in contact with was Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex, a horse I always wanted to photograph her with, but never did.

As Mandy grew older and changed her course in life, I came to the realization that she would never truly appreciate all those photo albums accumulated over the years, even though she loved horses and going to the track and to the barns in the morning. But she never really acknowledged the enormity of those images that filled the countless photo albums.

That was until one Christmas when I saw her sitting on the couch going through one of the albums, then another. She was now 26 years old and college life and jobs and a new-found love in her life had taken her on roads far removed from the world of Thoroughbred racing. And so those photo albums just lay in a pile in a corner of the dining room and some on shelves, in my mind at least, still vibrant, alive, and filled with joy and memories.

As she turned the pages there seemed to be a twinge of nostalgia looking at the photos, but I had no idea how much they were inspiring her to write what follows. When I read her words I became choked up with emotion. For the first time those pages had become alive to her, not so much evoking memories, but enlightening her to special moments she could only now appreciate. It was like opening an unwrapped gift that had been gathering dust up in the attic and forgotten about until discovered years later. And when you opened it, you found a part of yourself inside.

I first printed Mandy's impromptu words, which also made their way into Stride magazine, an online racing publication, back in 2010. Since then, Mandy has become a mother and has already put Theo up on his first horse at Saratoga, just as I had done with her on her first birthday. She has already brought him to Bill Mott's barn and introduced him to several of his top horses, as I had done with her and Cigar and other stars trained by Mott. She has already brought him to the races at Saratoga, as I had done with her so many times. And she has already dressed him to the nines for his first Kentucky Derby experience at Lincoln Race Park in Lincoln, Nebraska where they currently reside, just as she had decked herself out in her finest garb for her visits to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and Dubai World Cup. Of course, I was there with my camera to capture most of those moments, and if I wasn't, Mandy surely was.

I certainly don’t expect the cycle to continue as it had been, but Mandy has exposed Theo in some small way to horses and racing at an early age, planting the same seed I planted 34 years ago. Of course it will not be nurtured as I had done with photo albums and numerous visits to the racetrack and breeding farms. I wouldn't expect it to. But by the age of five months, well before his mother, Theo had already looked into the eyes of a Thoroughbred and sat atop the back of a lead pony. And that is something that warms my heart.

I am already looking ahead to Saratoga a year later and making up my photo assignments--Mandy and then 17-month-old Theo with War of Will, Catholic Boy, Country House, Tacitus, Point of Honor, etc. Maybe the cycle will continue after all, at least for now. That is all I can hope for. Perhaps one day Theo will read his mother's words and open his heart and soul to the greatness of the Thoroughbred.

So, after a number of years, here once again, for those who haven't read it or wish to read it again, are Mandy's words about one of the most precious legacies I have left her and one of the most precious gifts she has left me.

All the Pretty Horses, by Mandy Haskin

"When you wake you shall have all the pretty horses. Blacks and bays, dapple grays..."

That lullaby pretty much sums up my childhood. Indeed, I grew up with quite a number of pretty horses.  It started at 10 months old, with a very pretty bay named Northern Dancer. From that day on, my picture was taken with a lengthy list of champion Thoroughbreds. A chestnut stallion called Secretariat soon followed. A sunny afternoon was spent playing in a field with a sweet dapple gray by the name of Lady's Secret. I rode in a car up the rolling Pennsylvania hills as Lonesome Glory galloped alongside. I picked flowers as Da Hoss grazed just inches from me, only a week after his second Breeders Cup Mile win. Genuine Risk showed off her first foal to me. And I saw the regal Dahlia twice--first as a baby in my mother's arms, and then years later, standing on my own two feet, now tall enough to reach her nose.

I introduced my dolls to Precisionist, gave a bouquet of dandelions to Alydar, and Holy Bull nibbled on my hair. And I have it on good authority that my first kiss just may have been from Cigar. He was quite the charmer. Then there was Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Forego, John Henry, Damascus, Mr. Prospector, His Majesty, Danzig, and Spectacular Bid, who by that time was white as snow. The list goes on and on. Mighty photo albums lined our shelves at home, as they still do today. The pages are not as white as they used to be, and some are now frayed along the edges, but the albums are still there, forming a wall of memories that any horse lover would dream about.

On my last trip home, I looked at some of these albums. The covers creaked open, revealing a rich tapestry of scenes--this horse, that farm, big smiles, outdated outfits. But instead of joy or nostalgia, a strange emotion crept into my mind. Regret. I suddenly realized that I didn't have one true memory of these scenes. That my only "memories" of these remarkable experiences were through photos and stories. Even once I was old enough to capture these moments, I lacked the appreciation to really make them stick in my head. Despite what my father enthusiastically tried to tell me, I couldn't fully understand who these horses were, or what they had accomplished. That feeling of regret was quickly followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt. How many people would kill for experiences like this?

Yet, to my naïve younger self in these photos, it was just another horse. It pains me to write that. Admittedly I took it all for granted, not knowing at the time how lucky I really was. While my dad was having me pose for pictures (no doubt encountering some resistance and overly dramatic rolling of the eyes in later years), I didn't realize he was actually giving me a very special gift. I have to believe that he knew I couldn't appreciate all this then, and that's why he froze these moments in time. He wanted me to look back at them all these years later and think, I did this--how lucky was I? Sitting here now, looking at a photo of me as a baby with chubby cheeks meeting Northern Dancer, I'm thinking that very thought.

I suppose childhood memories can only be fully embraced in retrospection. Only then do we grieve over their transience and celebrate their sublime purity. That's why we take photos. So that those moments will one day be suspended in time and bound by gilded picture frames. Untouchable. A brief glimpse into who we were and the experiences that made us who we are today. I am the person I am today because of years of green pastures, white fences, shaded stables, the soft purring of barn cats, the crinkling of peppermint wrappers, and of course the blacks and bays and dapple grays.   

Thanks to my dad and a library full of photo albums, I will always have cloudless memories of all those pretty horses.

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