Posted Sunday, October 20, 2019
Gene McLean rekindled childhood memories watching his 2-year-old filly work.
Posted Wednesday, September 11, 2019
A Godolphin vs. Coolmore battle at Keeneland took Gene McLean back to 1983.
Posted Sunday, September 08, 2019

It had been awhile since I last saw my 2-year-old filly, Miss Jacqueline. Can’t remember exactly the date. But I do remember that I saw her breeze for the first time. Had to be back in July, when the sun was hot; the air was stagnant; and the coffee steam seemed like air conditioning compared to the heat coming up off the ground.

So when I wheeled into the open parking slot next to the barn at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington last Friday, and I was able to escape the nonsensical ramblings of sports talk radio, I was truly amazed when I took a gander into Stall No. 1.

Gone was the slender, little teenager with the gangly legs and the starry eyes, who looked undersized for the stall and overwhelmed by the surroundings.

Now, here stood a dappled bay filly with rounding rump and sturdy hip, who looked right at home and looked like she had filled both out and up.

Gone was the shy, tender and nervous girl who seemed to spook at the mention of her name.

Now, here stood a steady young lady, firm from withers to the ground, who cast an eye toward the racetrack with a glimmer of hope and anticipation.

Gone was the baby that I had left in the care of my friend and trainer Stephen Lyster, wrapped in leg bandages and a horse blanket that served as her swaddling clothes.

Now, here — standing just inches in front of me — was a racehorse. Developing still, to be sure. But developing, for sure.

In the blink of an eye, and a single notch of the stopwatch, right before my eyes it seems, Miss Jacqueline looked as if she started this life’s breeze with a burp and a diaper change and finished it with a snort and a snout.

In other words?

My little girl is growing up. My little girl is growing into a racehorse.

(Miss J getting tacked up / Photo by Gene McLean)

For a second or three, the two of us stood at stall’s door and just looked at each other. No words spoken. None needed. Eye to eye. Our only introduction on this morning was no introduction at all.

I took her in. She checked me out.

I dug out a peppermint. She sucked it in her mouth and swished it around like a jigger of mouthwash.

I gently grabbed her halter and inched her towards me. She gently grabbed my sear-sucker Orvis shirt in-between cheek and gum and nibbled as if it was pouch of Copenhagen dip.

Finally, I uttered a few words to her.

“It that you, little girl?” I seemed to ask, already knowing the answer and not expecting an acknowledgment. “Man, have you grown up. Man, you have grown up. Man, you really have grown up. 

“You miss me?”

Without so much a nicker, she seemed to understand every word and hang on every sentence. She dropped her head over into my chest and gave me a horse hug — as warm and tender as a bear’s hug, without the arms, mind you. And, then she slowly moved back. A step back. And, then another.

Then, Miss Jacqueline stopped and posed for a camera shot, as if to say:

“What do you think of me now?”

(Halter adjustment / Photo by Gene McLean)

Have to admit, I laughed a bit. Out loud, too.

She looked so good. She looked so strong. She looked like a different horse altogether.

The filly that I had left in Stephen’s care was a little under 15 hands. Weedy and wirey. A bit too small. A bit too light. A bit too shy. A bit too sly. And, a far cry from being something that would catch your eye when she walked out of a stall.

The filly that I had now was 15.2 or 15.3 hands tall, with all the appearances of making it to 16 some day.

Her back hip was starting to muscle up, and take shape. Her rump — her engine — was tuning up. Bigger than before. Stronger than ever.

Her withers now catching up to the back end.

The shoulder catching up to the front end.

The neck, pretty and lean, equally balanced with the tunnel scope of her body.

Her cannon bones and pasterns strong and tight.

Balance. She had symmetrical balance on her feet and in her body.

Eye. She had the eye of a competitor, and the look of a willing winner.

Bone. Structure and foundation.

She looked so darn good.

And, you know what?

Strange as it may sound or read?

Miss Jacqueline seemed to know it.

(Ready for action / Photo by Gene McLean)

When Miss Jacqueline was saddled up in the stall, she kept one eye on me the entire time. When she exited the stall, she bowed her head and pranced a little dance. When Miss Jacqueline left the barn and headed to the track, she was on her toes — if horses had them. When Miss Jacqueline reached the sandy surface, she was fully on her game.

Miss Jacqueline was ready for her first four-furlong breeze that was coming up. But more than that, she was ready to show me what she could do now on the racetrack, too.

So, we both got a thrill this Friday morning.

(Ready to go / Photo by Gene McLean)

Miss Jacqueline, with the rider on her back, jogged over to the front side and gazed once at both Stephen and I before turning on a dime, and header off in the right direction. The jog turned into a slow gallop. The slow gallop turned into a stronger one. At the half-mile pole, the rider asked her to pick it up. She delivered.

First quarter went in 12 & change.

Second quarter in nearly 12 flat.

Third quarter in 12 & change.

The final quarter in 13 & change.

First time going a half mile, she got a little winded. A little tired.

But she did it easy enough to impress both me and her trainer.

“That is a good work,” said Stephen. “I’m very happy with it. If she comes out of it good, we will do it again next week with company. I’m happy.”

With that, I smiled a racehorse owner’s smile.

See, in this sport, you take your victories whenever you can get them. And Friday marked a victory. I took it and, ran.

All the way back to the barn to catch Miss Jacqueline cool out, get her bath, and her daily reward of hay and fescue. She did so good today that she even got to graze awhile outside while I took her picture. Over. And. Over.

Before I left, I went to her stall one last time to say goodbye. I had one more peppermint to share.

Miss Jacqueline looked up from her pile of hay — that she spread all over the stall floor, just like a messy teenager dropping her clothes in all directions and leaving them their for someone else to pick up. She ambled over and took her candy surprise.

“I’ll be back soon,” I told her, as I gave her a smooch on the forehead.

I swear I think she said, “I know.”

Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2019

As soon as she saw me, Miss Jacqueline raised her head and let out a heart-felt giggle.

Seriously. It was a giggle.

The kind of giggle that you expect from a 2-year-old: unashamed. Yet, a bit bashful.

A quiet laugh, almost to herself. But I am sure it was meant for me to both hear and appreciate.

It was high-pitched, but not a squeal.

It was a giggle.

A “Happy to See You” giggle.

A “Welcome Back” giggle.

A “Where In The Heck Have You Been” giggle.

A “Loving” giggle.

As soon as she saw me, Miss Jacqueline turned in her stall and headed to the webbing that blocked the entrance and the exit to her stall. Quickly, she was slipping her head right over the obstacle and right onto my shoulder.

Where it rested. Comfortably. Perfectly. Lovingly.

And, then she did it again.

A giggle.

It made me laugh. Right out loud, to be honest. But it made me love Miss Jacqueline even more than I do already.

I draped by left arm around her neck and leaned up to whisper in her left ear. Told her I missed her. Told her I loved her. Told her that she was looking good. Told her that she was going to be something special.

Miss Jacqueline stood stoically and acted as if she heard every single word. Most importantly, she acted as if she understood every single word. And, for those quiet moments, she acted as if she enjoyed the exchange as much as I did.

Reunion. Friendship. A special connection.

She may not know it, but Miss Jacqueline is already something special to me.

Ever since she was born on May 23, 2017, the filly has been a personality. When you would go to the paddock, she was the first to the gate. When you dropped the sweet feed into the bucket, she was the first to partake. When you walked into the field to commingle, she was the first to grab your shirt with a tug of her teeth, and grab your attention with her style.

She wanted attention.

She demanded attention.

And, she got my attention.

You see, Miss Jacqueline is my 2-year-old filly by Jack Milton, and a daughter out of the late Diamond Seeker — a filly that I owned and raced years ago before breeding.

In the spring of 2018, after delivering her third foal, Diamond Seeker contracted a severe case of colic. She didn’t make it. Try as she might, she couldn’t overcome the biggest obstacle of her life.

But her daughters — Miss Jacqueline and her yearling Diamond Solitaire — do appear to have inherited one or two traits from their talented, yet star-crossed mom.

They both, it seems, are personable. They like being around people.

They both, it seems, are tough. As nails. They have both overcome an obstacle or two, just to get a running start. They have guts.

And, they both, it seems, are doers. They do what you ask. They do what you want. They do.

(Miss Jacqueline is bubbling over / Photo by Gene McLean)

Miss Jacqueline arrived at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington about two months ago and got lodging in the barn of young trainer Stephen Lyster. She had some schooling at the farm, but she was far from experienced or learned in the ways of the racing world. As they say, she was green as a June tomato.

But since she has been in the care of one of the most talented young horsemen I have ever seen, Miss Jacqueline has made a lot of strides. Forward. Onward. And, let’s hope, upward.

No longer does she toss her head around and fight the rider for control of the reins.

No longer does she veer in the turns, wanting to get away from the rail and other horses.

No longer does she snort at, and eyeball, everything that moves in the 859 area code.

No longer do I worry that Miss Jacqueline will make it.

Just two months after her racetrack debut, she now gets tacked up, as calm as can be. She gets a rider up without a hair raised. And she heads to the track like she has been there before.

Now she jogs around to the front side and slowly rolls to a stop. She stands as still as a church mouse until she is asked for more. A picture of health, and a pose worthy of photographs.

Now, she gallops off with a sense of style and grace. Slowly, when asked, she will drop her head and grab into the bit. Quickly, she settles into a stride and goes about her daily chores with meaning and purpose.

Now, she is starting to look like a racehorse.

I didn’t get to see her breeze last week. She skipped a week to let her shins tighten and toughen. But I did get to see her, and she got to see me. And, I got to see what I wanted to see.

Miss Jacqueline is getting better. Miss Jacqueline is getting ready. Miss Jacqueline is getting closer.

On the way back to the barn after Miss Jacqueline’s morning gallop, I strode a little quicker, and a little more upright. I walked a little faster, and a little lighter. I was a lot happier.

On the way back to the barn, Miss Jacqueline’s morning gallop, the filly strode a little brisker. She walked with a little dance. She seemed very proud.

And then, as she prepared to enter the barn, she seemed to giggle.

As if she was happy with me. As if she was happy with herself.

As if she was happy I was there to see it.

And I was.

After we said our goodbyes, I climbed up in the Toyota 4Runner and headed out onto Paris Pike. As I did, I found myself giggling. Inside. And, a little bit, out in the open.

I knew it right then and there: It’s the reason I own a racehorse.

Posted Friday, June 28, 2019
Because, as Gene McLean writes, it's like watching your kids grow up -- again.
Posted Wednesday, June 12, 2019
As Gene McLean writes, they're miraculous, and they're ours.
Posted Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Got my fix on Tuesday morning. Got it good.

Woke up at 5:30 a.m. in my cozy Louisville bedroom and hustled to put on my “work clothes.” Blue jeans. Golf shirt. Baseball hat. Boots. Just a tip: Put on the boots after you have the blue jeans pulled high. Easier that way.

Hustled down the stairs, avoiding three dogs and three cats along the way — like a barrel racer in the county fair finals. Hustled to the office to grab my computer and binoculars. Hustled out the door to the car. Hustled out the driveway. And then hustled all the way to Lexington, making the trip to the Thoroughbred Center in about an hour.

If you know anything about me, you know that I can stay up till 5:30 a.m. easier than I can get up at 5:30 a.m. Late nights have always been easier than early mornings. Hustling in the a.m. does not come naturally. Unless it is a midnight bathroom call.

But on this morn, I looked more like Pete Rose motoring around third base and headed to home plate with the winning run than my normal Weeble-Wobble, teeter-totter stroll. My stride resembled Zenyatta in the final furlong. My attitude was more Piglet than Eeyore.

And why not?

After all, I was on my way to the racetrack.

I was on my way to see my newest addition to the racing stable.

(Miss Jacqueline has a perfect “diamond” on her nose. In tribute, perhaps, to her mom, Diamond Seeker / Photo by Gene McLean)

I was headed to see Miss Jacqueline, a fancy 2-year-old filly by Jack Milton and the latest arrival to the barn of trainer Stephen Lyster. I was on my way to see Miss Jacqueline, a filly born to my very own Diamond Seeker — who I had raced and loved. A filly that I had carefully and meticulously chose her breeding and dreamed of foaling. A filly that I had helped raise and watched grow from infant to potential runner over the last two, long years.

I was headed to my Happy Place.

(Miss Jacqueline takes in the sights and sounds of the racetrack / Photo by Gene McLean)

On Tuesday morn, bright and early, I rolled into the Training Center in Lexington; headed to Barn No. 9; and right up to the first stall — the new home room for Miss Jacqueline. The gal arrived here for the first time, oh, about three weeks ago, after spending all of her young life with her primary caregivers at Legacy Springs Farm just a few miles down the road.

The transition has been a bit of a culture shock.

Gone is her comfortable, quiet stall. Gone is the still of the farm life. Quiet bird chatter has been replaced by the signing of barn workers. Fun time outside has given way to work time every morning.

Gone are her human friends that fed her and kept her every day since she was foaled about two years ago. The ones that she knew by the sound of their voices and the patter of their hard boots have been replaced by new friends, who pick her feet and comb her hair. And, most of all, make her behave.

Gone are her horse buddies that she loved to bully and nicker. No more horse play in the field. Replaced by horse work on the track.

Arrived, now, is her new life.

This was the first time I had gotten the chance to see the filly in her digs. This was the first time I had the chance to see her at the racetrack. This was the first day I got to see her get up, eat a little breakfast, and head off to elementary school.

It was just like going to the first school play to watch your own kids perform for the first time in public. Anxiously, you arrive and sit in your seat — wondering if your child knew their lines and the choreography of the songs. Nervously, you await to see if your child can walk in line with the others; stand correctly; listen attentively; and perform accordingly. Excitedly, you look to see if your baby is learning; can do what the other students are doing; is growing.

As soon as I saw her in her stall, Miss Jacqueline looked up from her feed tub and caught my eye. Quickly, she spun around and headed to the stall door. She draped her head over the webbing and snuggled my neck. She smelled my hair, and nibbled on my shoulder.

She seemed happy to see me, for sure.

I was darn happy to see her. Ever since Seek N Justice — Miss Jacqueline’s half brother — was claimed off of us at the Fair Grounds on March 9, I haven’t had a horse at the racetrack, or in training. I haven’t had a buddy to go see at the barns. I haven’t had a friend to go see. I didn’t have my fix. It was withdrawal. And, I didn’t like it.

On Tuesday morn, we both got our fix. There were smiles all around. Especially on my face. And, I think,  even on Miss Jacqueline’s face, too.

(Miss Jacqueline on the inside / Photo by Gene McLean)

A few minutes later, Miss Jacqueline’s groom came to prepare her for her new morning routine. He crawled under the webbing and picked her feet. He rubbed the night sleep from her eyes, and the hay strings from her mane. He wrapped her legs with bandages. And, he carefully positioned her saddle cloth on her back. Then, he wrapped the saddle on and tightened her girth.

All the while, Miss Jacqueline never moved a muscle. She stood still as a church mouse on a Sunday celebration. She looked at me the whole while, as if to say, “Look Daddy. I can be good. I can be really good.”

Dad smiled.

A few minutes later, the groom came to get Miss Jacqueline. It was time for her trip to the track. Just like a young teenager ready for her first prom date, she pranced out of the stall and into the shedrow. Looking like a grownup. All dressed up and nowhere to go.

The rider came and got a leg up. A couple of trips around the barn, and then they popped out into the sunlight. Miss Jacqueline walked the entire runway to the racetrack as if the spotlight was on her. Just on her. Only on her.

Head held high. Hooves clicking light. It was showtime.

Right behind her, watching all the way, was both Stephen and me.

It was just a slow gallop around the training track. One mile. And, then nearly two. The whole time, Miss Jacqueline was inside another 2-year-old filly, who was bigger and stronger and farther along in her studies. The “other” filly acted as her bumper. Her coach. Her partner. Her buddy. And, her mentor. Together, they galloped along.

Nothing to get excited about, in the normal, day-to-day life of being a horse in training. Nothing to get revved up over if you are a horse trainer that has done this with hundreds of horses. Nothing to shout about. Just another day at the office. Just another day of math lessons and art classes. Just another routine.

But for me? And Miss Jacqueline?

It was everything. It was every reason to be excited. It was all the reasons to get revved up and shout. It was so much fun.

For me, to be sure.

For the filly? I want to think so, too.

She seemed so proud to show what she had learned in just a few short weeks. She seemed so proud to show me what she now can do.

She didn’t duck and weave, as she had done previously. She didn’t kick and buck, as she had been used to. She didn’t act scared or frightened by the horses galloping to her outside, and breezing to her inside.

She just galloped along — nice and easy. And — to me and for me — she seemed to smile. Especially when she pulled up. Stood for a stoic second or two to observe the others. And, then slowly made her way back to the barn for a bath and a walk.

She was proud. So was I.

(Miss Jacqueline exits the racetrack / Photo by Gene McLean)

It’s still a long, long, long way to go for Miss Jacqueline. She has many more miles to gallop and lessons to learn. She has to be schooled in the starting gate. She has to be taught how to change leads. She has to go from a jog and a gallop to a breeze. And, after that, from a breeze to a race.

There are many days ahead. There are many lessons to be learned, and challenges to overcome. Such is horse racing, especially with 2-year-olds and youngsters.

I know. I have been here before. Ain’t my first rodeo, as they like to say and write. There will be disappoints and setbacks. There will be tough times and question marks. There will be hopes dashed, and dreams crashed. Such is the life of a horse owner.

But for this day? This one day?

It was all sunshine and rainbows. It was the first day for the school play. And, my damn kid nailed it.

Nailed it.

Can’t wait to be back. Just can’t wait.

And, that’s the reason I own a racehorse. They fix a lot of things. One of them, quite honestly, is me.

Posted Monday, June 03, 2019

On March 21, 2019, The Pressbox first reported that Ellis Park — which was purchased in whole by the Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group just about a year ago, buying out former partner Ron Geary — was for sale again.

Now, we've learned that another a sale is about to come to fruition.

According to a source, on June 18, 15 days from now, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission may hear and consider the sale of Ellis Park, located in Henderson, Ky., to the Laguna Development Corporation, which is located in Pueblo, N.M., near Albuquerque.

Laguna — which operates the Dancing Eagle Casino in Western New Mexico; the Route 66 Casino Hotel in Albuquerque; and entities known as the 66 Pit Stops and the Route 66 Travel Centers — has been the most persistent and consistent potential buyer of the Ellis Park properties and licenses.

The Dancing Eagle Casino was the company’s first gaming enterprise when opened in 2000. It sits about 22 miles east of Grants, N.M.. That casino operates more than 500 slot machines, video poker machines, keno slots and a full service restaurant that seats more than 160 guests and visitors.

(Dancing Eagle Casino is currently operated by the Laguna Development Corporation / Photo Courtesy of the LDC website)

If the company purchases Ellis Park and gains the final approval of the Kentucky Racing Commission, it will be the first racetrack operation that the company will own and operate. But, according to the company’s website, the corporation is entering an aggressive phase where it is looking to add properties both in New Mexico and other states.

The website’s “Business Development” link includes the following:

“Laguna Development Corporation has recently embarked on an aggressive, focused and innovative strategy to expand and develop the company both within and outside the state of New Mexico. The company recently completed a management restructuring to strengthen the oversight of daily operations while at the same time allowing a veteran team of gaming, food & beverage retail, hospitality and entertainment executives to spend a majority of their time exploring, developing and opening new business ventures. With an excellent credit rating, a solid history of meeting financial objectives and a significant equity investment from the Pueblo of Laguna, LDC is well positioned to grow and expand in the near term while mapping an expansion strategy for the future.”

In addition, the LDC touts its expertise in the gaming industry:

“LDC is currently the third largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. With operations that include casinos, travel centers, convenience stores, restaurants a grocery store and hotel the company enjoys revenues of more than $200 million annually. The company currently has more than 1,100 employees.”

One of the reasons that Laguna may be interested in Ellis Park — which seems to be a lifetime away from New Mexico — is the fact that the company’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer is Kevin Greer.

Greer came to LDC from the Belterra Casino Resort in Florence, Ind. Belterra is located just a couple of hours away from Henderson and on the same Ohio River that borders the racetrack to its southwest and a riverboat casino operation in Evansville, Ind.

Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group — which first purchased a 30 percent minority share in Ellis Park in 2012 — bought the remainder of the track and its assets from Geary last July. The racing commission voted unanimously to approve the sale on July 17, just a couple of weeks into the track’s live Thoroughbred meet last summer.

Ellis Park also owns and operates a simulcast facility and a gaming area that houses Historic Racing Machines. HRM is a pari-mutuel, electronic wagering system that is based on the results of former races, and has become a lucrative addition to the revenue stream at Kentucky Downs, Churchill Downs and a joint operation created by both Red Mile and Keeneland.

Stay tuned. More developments soon.

Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Columnist Gene McLean sticks up for stewards' suspension of jockey Luis Saez.
Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Gene McLean on why he returned Game Winner to No. 1 in his Derby rankings.
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Meet Gene McLean

The Pressbox is your source for news, handicapping and interviews with the industry's biggest stars. Gene McLean is the Founder of The Pressbox and The Louisville Thoroughbred Society. No one in this industry has more talent in reviewing, forecasting and handicapping.




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