by Marion Altieri
CAPTAIN is a wonderful social services organization that serves many good people in Saratoga County, New York, every year. Their main fund-raiser is an annual Gala, which we on the Committee dubbed, An Unbridled Affair because the Gala happened every Summer during the Saratoga (Thoroughbred) race meet. In 2014, I was still on the Committee, and suggested that we honor Mucho Macho Man and Wise Dan, two of the sport’s biggest equine stars. Both equines are millionaire rock stars, with thousands of devoted fans. No doubt, many of those fans would be thrilled to attend the Gala, and schmooze with the horses’ human connections.
Of course we’d invited all the connections of both Horses. Patti and Dean Reeves, Mucho Macho Man’s Owners, were so gracious. (They attended: came early, stayed for the whole shebang and tore up the dance floor. The Reeves own Reeves Young, a major Georgia construction company. That’s their business, but their horses are their shared passion.)
Moton Fink a Chicago-area businessman, was a savvy investor—but his most rewarding moves came when he began his career as a Thoroughbred breeder and owner. Introduced to the sport when he was young, he found his greatest joys in the barns and at the track rails at the beloved Arlington Park. Mr. Fink was so delighted about our plan to fête his Champion that he bought an entire table for his crew. He told Trainer, Charles LoPresti and his team, so they’d know to wear their best-bibs-and-tuckers. (God bless him, Mr. Fink gave our regional social services organization the same support he’d given the Eclipse Awards’ planners.)
We’d mailed invitations to Mr. Fink and to Mr. LoPresti at the only address we had for them. Time went by, and two days before the Gala, we’d still not received any RSVPs from Wise Dan’s people who were in Saratoga. (We surmised that, since Mr. Fink had bought a table, doing the formal RSVP wasn’t necessary. Not an unreasonable assumption, but we needed to know things, like meal choices – any vegans in the crowd? – etc.)
Ergo, two days before the soiree on July 24th, I hot-footed it to the backstretch, to the barn where the magnificent Wise Dan was enjoying his Spa Summer. I didn’t go near the Horse, or anywhere in the barn’s perimeter. (Not my Horse, not my barn. Unwritten rules of Equine Etiquette.)
I hung out in my car, pondering where I might be able to leave a few of the beautiful paper invitations, along with my biz card and a note, without actually invading the legend’s space, or breaching the barn’s borders. I was deep in thought when Mr. LoPresti came whizzing up in a golf cart. Such a friendly soul, he smiled broadly and asked if he could help me. (Charles LoPresti is no stranger to Saratoga, or to the winner’s circle: a man who loves the horses in his care, he works from his homebase, his farm outside Lexington Kentucky. He gives his horses time off in the Winter, and4 does not race year-round. Obviously, his underlying theory is, less is more – and it works.)
I introduced myself quickly, thrusting the invitations into his hand. He apologized, said that he’d intended to RSVP on behalf of everyone, and thanked me for making the trip to the barn. He asked if I’d petted Wise Dan yet; I blurted that, OMG, he’s not my horse, I’d NEVER touch a horse without permission –especially a millionaire Champion!
I asked if I might kiss Dan’s nose. Good Lord, YES, he said, give him big hugs and kisses – that, on the track he was a beast with his rivals – but that, off the oval and with humans, he loved lovin.’ Waving me off, he told me to have fun, and he’d see me on Thursday. (He left me alone with the Champ -- a Groom was around, somewhere. But what trust!)
I approached Dan, offering my fist so he could sniff and assess me. I told him that I loved him, and was honored to meet him. He raised his head. Placing his lips on the top of my pate, slowly and deliberately, he worked his way down my forehead, nose, and –when he got to my mouth—he kissed me full on the lips. No, really. I kid not. (You know the sound made by al bacio [“chef’s kiss”]: fingers to lips, then releasing wih a lip-smack? Not the overused, “Mwah” popularized by pop culture: al bacio has more aural punch, a veritable exclamation mark.) Dan ended his exploration of my face with that lip-smack; I was astounded, and felt blessed.
Then, the imp turned his head sharply to his right, and wrapped his big mouth around my bare, left forearm! I was amused, not scared. He didn’t chomp down, it didn’t hurt. His left eye grinned at me. He said,
“I COULD tear off your arm, IF I wanted to. I don’t want to.”
He backed up, smiled and lay down for a nap.
Totally wired in the wake of our Love Fest, I went straight to our backstretch picnic table near the Morning Line Café. I posted on my Facebook wall, “OMG, Wise Dan just kissed me!”
Immediately, one of my sharp-witted FB pals countered, “Remember, it can’t go anywhere – he’s a gelding.” Gaffaw.
The moral of this story is NOT that gelded horses are superior.
Wise Dan is not just a retired, 2x Horse of the Year. He’s a Champion because he ran his eight-pound heart out; he ran like the wind because he could. In great measure, his prowess was genetic: he’s descended from all three of the Foundation Sires, including the otherworldly superhorse, the Byerley Turk. (The Turk was battle-tested, literally: the favored mount of his Owner, Capain Byerley, the Turk saved the Captain’s life during the Battle of the Boyne . Captain Byerley avoided capture due to “…the superior speed of [his] horse.”)
[Interesting Note: Jess Stonestreet Jackson was the billionaire Founder of Kendall Jackson, the vineyard. He owned megawatt Thoroughbred stars, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, two of the greatest of the 21st Century. And in 2008, he spent Preakness week in South America, looking for Byerley Turk stallions. Maybe it was his interest in growing extraordinary grapes, to make lively new wines. Whatever piqued his interest: Jess was also an insightful breeding scientist of sorts – I don’t know how he fared south of the border, but his intention was to bring that strain back to the States, to strengthen future generations of American Thoroughbreds. Brilliant, and noble.
This Writer met Mr. Jackson in 2007, at the Keeneland September Sales. I was trucking down a wide hallway toward the café, to meet my friend, Clay. Jess Jackson –a tall, ruggedly handsome, gentleman in denim Oxford-collared shirt and jeans – passed me going the opposite way, toward the Sales Pavilion. He smiled and said a congenial but rushed, “Hi!”
I was 3’ behind him when I realized who’d howdi’d me; I turned on my heel and yelped, “MR JACKSON!”
He stopped, and turned.
“I LOVE CURLIN!” I gushed, tears in my eyes.
At this, the great man stopped, stock-still. Putting his hand over his heart, he lowered his voice, confiding in me, “I love him, too. I mean, I LOVE him, so much. I promise you and all his fans: I have no plans to rip him off the track, and stick him in a breeding shed. He loves to run, he loves racing. Curlin will tell me when he wants to retire.”
I cried as he took my hand and shook it. We could hear the hip numbers, and the gray horse he hoped to buy was next up. Apologizing for rushing off, the legend took my leave. I made it to Clay’s table. We had lunch and amazed that such a genuine man still existed in horse racing.]
Too often, Americans write off Turf Horses: unlike everywhere-else-on-Earth, there’s an unwarranted bias against Turf Horses, as if running on grass is an EASY thing.
Patently ridiculous: Some of the world's greatest and oldest races are run on good, old, green grass. A partial list of great Thoroughbreds who took top honors for turf racing include Fourstardave (the Sultan of Saratoga), (LeRoy Jolley-trained) Manila, John Henry, Gio Ponti, English Channel, Leroidesanimaux and yes, even the mighty Secretariat – all among the stars who took top honors for American turf racing. And every single one of them traces their speed back through their pedigrees’ bottom lines (dam side) to the Byerley Turk.
In spite of being a Grass Horse in a dirt-crazy country, Wise Dan became a rock star. He did so in great measure because his genes called on 400 years of Byerley Turk speed. That speed was informed by 5,000 years of toughening, as the Arabian breed ran like Hell on dunes comprised of hot desert sands.
Native Horses were part of the food chain for the peoples who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula before the development of Bedouin culture – nomadic entrepeneurs – realized that the region’s Horses would be far-more useful as transportation, battle companions and family members. The Bedouins loved their horses. This mutually-loving and respectful relationship is the main, documentable reason why the breed has thrived for over 50 centuries.) *
Arabian horses were the warhorses of their Bedouin owners, charging headlong into battle, fearlessly. (Note that desert warriors preferred older Mares for battle: they were calmer, less excitable and singularly-focused.) **
You see, not only did the Bedouins take their steeds into war, the horses followed their people right into family tents. The enlightened Arabian people prized horses above other spoils of war. Horses became companions: valued, loved, members of the family. Arabian Horses slept in the tents with the adults and children in their nomadic families: it was entirely too hot to leave them outside during the day, and ferociously cold at night.
Wise Dan conquered his rivals with the ferocity and focus of an Arabian, because he was genetically historically programmed.
But the moral of the story is this: with all that science in his cells could very-well have misfired, had he not been truly loved. As we know, horses are prey animals. The journey to earning a horse’s Trust is long, requiring patience and sincerity. (Humans, eyes forward, are a predatory species.) Once trust is established, love can be exchanged. The great Wise Dan was respected and loved by Morton Fink, Charles LoPresti, their team and their families. Love made all the difference in getting him to the track, all the way into the Hall of Fame. (I witnessed this love, with my own forward-facing eyes.)
(Mr. LoPresti could not have issued the invitation to me – to love on his horse – if he didn’t know that Wise Dan had the capacity to love, and to receive Love. Morton Fink made and loved his beautiful Horse; then, he entrusted him to the man whom he knew would give Dan all the essentials in Life, including the feeding of his beautiful horse's soul.)
No amount of Sweet Timothy could make up for lack of genuine affection in the molding of a species that survives on instinct, and craves the protection and security of Family, kindness and Love.
Wise Dan was loved from his conception, through his wild ride of a career, then to his retirement in 2014. He’s living the Good Life on Charles LoPresti’s Kentucky farm, sharing a 20-acre field with his brother, Successful Dan. Especially in retirement, it’s good to be with kin.
A history of the Arabian Horse
A history of the Arabian Horse, condensed beautifully in 2:44 -- the official promo video, Dubai World Cup 2014. Of course I ask you to check it out, I'm still quite proud of it.
Visionary Producer/Director: Fadi Izzaldin
Voiceover Script: M.E. Altieri / Fadi Izzaldin
Arabian Horse history references:
* ** *** "The Purebred Arabian Horses of Iraq: Myths and Realities" 2012, Dr. Mohammad Al-Nujaifi, Author / M.E. Altieri, Ed.
© 2022, Marion Altieri