Why own a racehorse? For memories worth photographing

January 10, 2020 11:10am
Why own a racehorse? For memories worth photographing
Photo: Courtesy of Gene McLean

I just love photographs.

I am not very good at taking them, mind you. But I am a professional when it comes to looking at them and admiring them.

I also now have a cell phone full of them.

On my desk, there are dozens. Some of the grandkids. Some of the kids. Some of my most beautiful wife and her amazing smile.

And more than “some” of horses. Some are my horses. Some are horses that used to be mine. And, some more are just horses that will run like the wind forever in my mind — like the great Secretariat and the Triple Crown winner Affirmed.

In my office, there is a box full of prints.

In the garage, there are two boxes full of old, yellowed, tarnished memories.

At the Lake House, there is at least a dozen photo albums that are filled — cover to cover — with pictures of nearly everything in sight, everything in nature, and just plain anything and everything.

The photos are as much a part of me as the stories I like to recall, or the memories I choose to hit the refresh button on and allow to replay in my mind.

Every time I look at one of the images, preserved forever, I see something that makes me remember; that makes me see something new; that makes me smile and shed a tear at the same time; that makes me warm inside and brings chills to the arm hair; that makes me laugh out loud and cry a bit on the inside.

I just love photos.

So when I went to Lexington, Ky., this week to see my newly turned 3-year-old filly — Miss Jacqueline — it did not take long and it did not surprise anyone before and when I pulled the iPhone from the coat pocket, shed the gloves, and began to click away. In fact, Miss J has become so accustomed to our routine that she now stands and poses — just like a model on the runway of life. She gives a profile, and then turns her head slightly to give you a better look of her preferred side. She flicks the ears forward to show off her polish, and then immediately pins them back to show her “moody” side. She will give you “a look” with one eye, or she can nuzzle and cuddle and give you her love with two of the kindest eyes.

I am a sucker. I can’t get enough. I click one after another. After another. None of them are focused, or professionally mastered. But all of them are just perfect to me.

As soon as I got back to the office, and sat at the desk, I pulled the photos up and transferred them over to my home computer. I put them in my “Miss Jacqueline Photo Book.” And I began to scroll through them all. It didn’t take me long to motor through the latest collection, and soon I found myself lost in the ones from the past.

I scrolled on to the 2019 collection. Her first race photos. Her winner’s circle photo. And, some of the best pictures from my great friend Holly M. Smith — who got to the track just in time to capture the second she sprung from the starting gate and made her way toward the lead.

(Miss Jacqueline’s first start was a winning one. / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

I moved into the yearling year of 2018. I sifted through the weanling and foal year of 2017.

For the first time in a long time, I saw photos of Miss Jacqueline’s mom, Diamond Seeker.



(Diamond Seeker.)

For the first time in a long time, I saw photos of Miss Jacqueline taking her first steps and making her first public appearance.

For the first time in a long time, I saw my most favorite photo of Miss Jacqueline — ever. Her caregiver, Tory, caught her scurrying around a field of snow as a yearling. As the sun was beginning to set, Miss Jacqueline went running over the hillside. She was feeling her oats before she got her full scoop of oats. She was feeling spry and spunky just like a yearling is supposed to feel and act. She was in full stride. All four feet off the ground. In full flight. And, her shadow on the ground was looking right back at her. The perfect balance. The perfect setting. The perfect photo.

(Three years ago, I had a weanling filly that just loved to play and prance in the snow. Her shadow was the only thing that could keep up with her in a field of study.)

I stopped and looked at it over, and over, and over.

Don’t know how long I got lost in that moment.

But it was well worth the journey of time.

For the longest of pauses, I couldn’t decide if I loved the image of the chunky little filly the best, or the painting on the snow that reflected her spirit the most.

Finally, I just decoded that I loved both of the images the same. Both of horse and the shadow were just perfect unison. One of them reflected the realistic. The now. One of them reflected the mystic. The (s)now, for sure. But the future, too.

Then I started to flip back and forth between some of the past photos and the ones I took today.

And, I started to realize how much the filly has grown, and just how much Miss Jacqueline has changed.

All the while, too, I could still see that gangly little filly that I chose to love, and who, by just fate of nature, has turned out to love me back.

I could see the frisky runner. I could see the shadow, too.

(As a baby, the “diamond” stamped by her mother — Diamond Seeker — was already taking shape on Miss Jacqueline’s nose.)

(Today, her diamond seemingly sparkled in the sunlight at the Training Center in Lexington.)

On Thursday, I could see that amazing star-shaped “diamond” on her nose that reminds me of Miss J’s mother — Diamond Seeker. Diamond Seeker was forever star-crossed. She was born to run, and blessed with amazing talent. In her first career start, she ran her heart out before fading to fifth at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. She was beaten less than fourth lengths that day by a filly that would go on to win Graded Stakes and eventually would run in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2018 at Churchill Downs — Chanteline. Yet, in her second career start, Diamond Seeker was injured. Her knee so severely hurt that she never was able to make another start.

Despite the odds and the expenses, I decided to keep Diamond Seeker and make her a broodmare. I thought she might have a runner to do what she was not able.

The future will decide if I was right or not. Miss Jacqueline will decide if the risk was worth the effort.

But I can still see the star on the nose. Some day, I hope to see the star in the horse.

(As a yearling, Miss Jacqueline loved to impress you with her talent.)

(As a 3-year-old now, Miss Jacqueline still loves her meal time.)

On Thursday, I could still see the balance and the fluid, effortless gliding way that she used to run through the paddocks of home. Ever since she was a baby, she found a way to out-run her mom and the other babies to the feed tub. She figured out then that it was first-come, first-serve and to the victor belonged the biggest scoop. Her stay in the bucket didn’t always last long. Mom had a way of pinching her back to reality. But Miss Jacqueline knew early on that there was a reward for being first. And, she was spunky enough to try. Every time.

And on Thursday, I got to see a bigger version of the same talent. Miss J has now grown to almost 15.1 or 15.2 hands. Her chest is wider. Her rump broader and rounder. Her cannon bones thicker and stronger. Her withers more stern and powerful. But as soon as she was led out of the barn and onto the racetrack, she bounced her head and pranced in perfect unison. She jogged a few times around the track. Each one stronger than the one before. She was happy as a lark. Just like her days in the field. Ready to roll. Ready to impress. Ready to win.

After winning in her career debut at Churchill Downs by nearly six lengths, Miss Jacqueline’s trainer — Stephen Lyster — and I decided to give her a little time off. After all, she had been in training steadily for about a year. And, she was a late May foal. We thought time would do her good. We thought a rest could be her friend. We thought that she could use a short time off — to swim, eat, grow and mature.

We hope we thought right. And, now she is just about ready to return to galloping and training seriously again.

With some pace to her steps.

(As a baby, Miss Jacqueline always had a rather large set of ears. We used to joke that she could win by an “ear” and not by a nose.)

(The ears are still always moving. Sometimes erratically. Sometimes they are picture perfect. And, sometimes they are not.)

On Thursday, I could see that my baby was growing up. I could see her body change, and her mental approach were far more mature. I could see her stride was stronger. I could see her attitude was tougher. I could see a racehorse, while still developing, is nearing completion. I could sense that my little girl was now ready for more.

Yet, on Thursday, I could still see the sweet angel that always loved to see me when I came to her side. She knew who I was then. She knew who I was now. And she knew to still beg for her peppermints that are always in my coat pocket.

I could see her growth underneath that winter coat and warming blanket. Yet, I could still see the twitch of her ear and the whack of the tail when I called her name.

I could still see her experience, as she prepared and went through every morning ritual without hesitation or question. Yet, I could see see what I thought was a smile on her face when I rubbed her head and combed her mane.

I could see she was growing up fast. I could hope that she was growing up to be fast.

So, with a kiss on the head and a pat on the neck, I said my goodbyes.

Miss Jacqueline stuck her head over her stall webbing and nodded on her way to the feed tub.

The real thing is even better than a photograph. Sometimes. But, on some days, the photographs just have to do.

And, that is why I own a racehorse.

For the real times.

For the memories of them.


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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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