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Posted Tuesday, December 24, 2019
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Posted Sunday, September 8, 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.

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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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