The King and His Mare — Dispatches from Lexington
The King of Lower Menands had just paid $20,000 for a 12.5 percent share in a retired race horse named Moonstone and we were on our way to Lexington, KY from Albany, NY to meet the four-year-old mare.
In two days, $49 would come back the King’s way after a roadside negotiation with a pair of hillbillies over a broken windshield and a flying Tupperware lid. We’ll get to that later, but not right now.
“That horse, in just four years of life so far, has won more than $100,000” in prize money, the King said. “And that’s more than I can say for most 4-year-old kids I know.”
We were making terrible time already, having gotten lost in Syracuse where we never should have been. But the King was not worth a damn at the moment, having downed three bottles of wine and a half bottle of whiskey the night before with two neighbors who came to his house to complain about a fence encroachment on their property.
But, like any good lawyer knows, the secret to calming someone down is to lube them up, and the King was happy to oblige. Besides, a nasty hangover is certainly a price worth paying for a favorable legal outcome to a silly but potentially costly property dispute.
The plan was we were supposed to be in Lexington by 6:30 p.m. to meet some men of influence for dinner, including The Counselor. This was the King’s first foray into the horse world and The Counselor was the man directly responsible for bringing him into the game. The Counselor was a successful breeder with a history of appearing in the Winner’s Circle and he had been persuading the King for some two years to buy into a Thoroughbred. The Counselor preceded the King’s arrival in Lexington by a few days to put in the winning bid on Moonstone for the group of investors of which the King was part. Moonstone’s total price came in at more than $160,000.
As for my presence, well, I was just tagging along, figuring a second COVID-19 lockdown was coming soon so why not hit the road while I still had the chance before the nation came to another grinding halt and we all descended further into madness. The day before, in fact, America recorded its highest single-day count of COVID-19 confirmations since the pandemic began. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Less than three hours into the trip, the King gave up hope of arriving on time. In fact, he gave up the keys too, deciding I should drive while he slept off his hangover. The King drove a 2007 SUV, with 127,000 miles, extra-large tires and Montana plates even though the state was 2,138 miles from where he was born, raised, lived and worked in all his life.
“Just so you know, whatever the speedometer says, you’re actually going 5 miles per hour faster,” the King informed me. “The reading is off because of the large tires.”
“Yeah, what’s the point of those things?” I inquired.
“I put them on so I can drive on the beach?”
“But why? Why do you need to drive on the beach?”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” the King replied incredulously. “So I don’t have to carry my cooler of beer that far.”
We didn’t reach our hotel in Lexington until roughly 9:30 p.m. Though we were three hours late, The Counselor was waiting for us in the hotel bar.
“What the hell took you so long?” he asked the King.
From the look on the King’s face, I knew what was coming — a load of carefully crafted bullshit that would soon be waist deep. And, having been in the car with him for 14 hours, I was already covered in bullshit, so I decided to answer for him.
“He got pissed up last night,” I said. “Three bottles of wine and a half-bottle of whiskey. He wasn’t worth a damn on the drive down.”
The King smiled in shame.
“What the fuck did you go and do that for? You knew you had a long day ahead of you,” The Counselor said.
“Look, I had some company over and there were some things that needed to be discussed,” the King replied. “I had some business to handle.”
There was something about The Counselor, whom I had never met previously. He was not a physically imposing man, being somewhat small in stature. He was extremely successful, self-made, gentlemanly, and distinguished. Yet, there was a no-nonsense air about him, and a sense of street. He commanded a certain respect. He was very nice, intelligent and personable, but also gave off a vibe that he didn’t suffer fools and would knock you on your ass without a second thought. I liked him. And he scared me a bit.
After a few drinks at the bar, we headed up to the 6th floor balcony, where The Counselor told us to bring our glasses. He had a bottle of bourbon that he wanted kicked. I wasn’t a bourbon drinker, but I was now. He poured me a healthy glass and before I was finished he poured me another.
Whatever he and the King talked about after that I have no idea. I sat trying to hold up my head as The Counselor discussed the next day’s schedule he arranged, which included visits to a handful of horse farms to inspect stallions for the upcoming breeding season and then to a Thoroughbred auction where The Counselor would be selling a seven-month-old Colt.
All I remember is being told to “meet downstairs tomorrow morning at 10:20. No later.” And so, the next morning, I did as I was told — with the kind of headache that you read about.
“It’s all about selling the sperm.”
Winstar Farms is one of North America’s most renown Thoroughbred, stallion and breeding operations. Set on 2,400 acres of sprawling Kentucky grassland, Winstar’s features include a training center, horse pool and cold-water spa, Thoroughbred track, and hyperbaric chamber allowing horses accelerated recovery all within the farm’s pastoral split-rail setting.
Inside the New Stallion Barn, a small group of about 14 people stand in a semi-circle in a large viewing area, waiting for the first of a handful of horses to be paraded before them for inspection. Some, like The King, are new to the horse game. Others, like one stately older woman in attendance that day who reportedly owns some 200 mares, are veterans of the scene.
Like a fashion show, one by one, the stallions are trotted out. They walk. They stop. They pose. They walk back. They stop. They pose.
Some are calm. Others a bit jittery. They are massive creatures. Beautiful, elegant, powerful and in this setting, some seemingly a tad unpredictable.
“These are all great race horses who have been retired to stud,” The Counselor explained.
The stallions brought before the people in the New Stallion Barn will earn a “stud fee” for each broodmare, or female horse, they breed with. Mare owners will pay anywhere from $12,500 to $150,000 to have their horses impregnated. The better the bloodline and winning history a stallion has, the higher its stud fee will be. Some will even earn far more.
Tapit, for instance, a gorgeous and powerful majestic white stallion who the King visited the next day at Gainesway Farms is considered one of the most influential “breed-shaping” stallions of the last half century. He has sired 31 yearlings which have generated more than one million dollars at auction and more than $160 million in racetrack winnings, according to Gainesway figures. Tapit’s stud fee? $185,000.
All across horse country, the scene at Winstar and other farms like it are played out over and again. Mare owners gather as stallions are trotted out before them for inspection and consideration, the end goal being a successful breed that will produce a foal to be sold or become a high-earning race horse. Such is the plan for Moonstone, which by next year, it is hoped, will birth a successful foal.
“It’s a huge business,” The Counselor said. “It’s all about selling the sperm.”
The Thoroughbred industry is your third-grade girlfriend
The smell of horse dung wafted through the air as a parade of Thoroughbreds slowly pranced around an enclosed dirt oval to the rapid-fire voice of the auctioneer. It was the November sale at Keeneland, the world’s largest and most prominent Thoroughbred auction house. There are four sales held annually here — in January, April, September and November — and thousands from all over the United States and beyond had gathered to buy and/or sell this day.
“It’s a crazy business,” said The Breeder. “I absolutely love it. But, that said, there are times when it occurs to me that I’m selling people something that, in the grand scheme of things, none of them need.
“There’s something about buying a horse,” he added. “The whole bidding process. Going head-to-head against someone else and coming out on top. Buying is where I get my thrill. It’s a rush. Selling? Meh. That’s just what you do to pay the bills.”
There is a lot of talk in the horse game about “the rush” — that feeling of standing with your horse in the Winner’s Circle. Those who have been there never forget the sensation, and never stop chasing the chance to return.
“It’s very hard,” said The Breeder. “It doesn’t just happen. And that’s why this industry, and the sport, appeals to so many wealthy people. So many of these people are used to getting anything they want whenever they want. But horse racing isn’t like that. Winning is hard. It’s not something that’s just going to come to you because you’re rich. So chasing that win — the Winner’s Circle — it keeps them engaged. It keeps them interested.”
The Agent explained “the rush” to me another way.
“It’s the strongest orgasm you’ll ever have in your life, and afterward, you walk around for a whole week with a hard-on. I’ve never done an illegal drug in my life. I’ve never smoked weed. I’ve never done coke. I never did Molly. Nothing. I was an athlete all my life. But standing there, in the Winner’s Circle, there’s nothing like it. So, I can understand what that rush must feel like of getting some great high. I guess I can understand the addiction.”
The Agent was as interesting as he was personable. And, he seemed to operate exclusively at full-throttle, so it’s a good thing he never did coke because had he ever he probably would have either exploded or blasted off straight into orbit. The Agent was welcoming. He was opinionated. He walked fast and talked fast and could cover a wide range of subjects in a narrow span of time. He talked about horses, politics, sex, sports, marriage, and AR-15s, which in Kentucky are not only an easy buy, but are sold with a 30-round magazine which is illegal in New York — a law for which The Agent blamed on “fucking liberals.” From what I could gather, The Agent did not think much of liberals — or as he called them repeatedly, “goddamn libtards” — (of which I am one incidentally). But, I was hardly offended. I was, after all, in Kentucky, home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose ‘Team Mitch — Kentucky Tough’ campaign signs in Lexington were as ubiquitous as the bluegrass and bourbon. The results of the presidential election were not even a week old and people here were hardly excited about the prospect of a Biden administration. Some said they were stocking up on guns because “who the fuck knows what kind of shit Biden’s gonna pull?!”
“Goddamn libtards,” said The Agent.
Though I was a square peg politically in a round Right-Wing hole, most everyone I met was courteous if not gracious. Southern hospitality. And, they were pleased to answer any question I had, about anything. That was a good thing because I had many since I was also a square peg in a round hole culturally, both in Kentucky and the Thoroughbred world.
The auction continued and eventually it was time for The Counselor’s Colt to go up for bid. Leading up to this moment, he had been nervous. The Thoroughbred industry, like the stock market, is volatile and the usual buyers for a horse like the one The Counselor was putting up for sale were not out in force.
The King got up from the table at which we were drinking and walked to the auction room to view the sale. I followed. The Counselor and The Agent remained at the table, choosing to watch the bids on Keeneland’s closed-circuit television.
Bidding did not last long. The Colt sold for $10,000.
“He’s not going to be happy,” the King said of The Counselor, who hoped the horse would go for at least $25,000.
“It’s my own fault,” The Counselor told me later, explaining that he set the “reserve” — the minimum bid — too low. “I tried to play it cheap and I ended up paying for it.”
The Agent shook his head.
“It’s an erratic industry,” he said. “The Thoroughbred industry is like your third-grade girlfriend. One day, she likes you. The next day, she likes Jim. Then on Wednesday, she’s in the corner kissing John. It’s fickle. This industry is fickle.”
It was time to leave the auction. The Counselor drove, but on the way out, he handed the King the keys to his car and opened himself a beer. Then, we stopped and bought a couple bottles of bourbon.
When we arrived back at the hotel, The Counselor told us to meet him in at the bar. The clock on the wall read 4:23 p.m. It had been a long day already.
“So, what?” the King started. “Let’s say we meet about 5 or 5:15?”
The Counselor shook his head ‘no.’
“Make it 4:30.”
The King meets his Mare
It was the big day — the day the King was finally going to meet Moonstone. He was a bit like a new father about to lay eyes on his baby for the first time. We left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and had about a half-hour drive to the farm on which Moonstone is cared for and boarded.
“So, how do you feel?” I asked.
“I’m excited. I get to see the farm and get to see how she’s treated,” the King said through a smile. “I don’t have any kids. This might be the closest I ever get to having a kid, ya know?”
Moonstone was being kept at a gorgeous, tranquil 800-acre farm where horses are bred, boarded, cared for, managed and/or prepared for sale. The farm boasted a storied history, having bred and trained more than a hundred stakes winners, including winners of the Kentucky Derby and the prestigious Breeders Cup — a race in which The Counselor himself appeared in the Winners Circle.
The farm’s supervisor, an aimable and charming Kentuckian with a talent for story-telling, gave us a tour of the farm that morning and brought the King to meet his mare.
“I’m proud of this place,” said the horseman “When I was younger, if I’m being honest, I didn’t plan on going into this myself. You know I went to college and then, well, I wasn’t doing much of anything. But I started watching and learning, and then I decided to go to Ireland (to the famed Irish National Stud Thoroughbred industry training program) and well, here I am. I love what I do. I really couldn’t imagine, now, doing anything else.
Upon reaching Moonstone’s stable, the King looked at me like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh boy,” he said with a grin. The stable workers were expecting us and one of them walked Moonstone out to meet The King. Having just been auctioned and transported, she was bit rambunctious, so rather than approach her, the King stood back as the horseman talked to him about his mare, how she will be cared for, and, prepared for breeding. The plan is for Moonstone to be impregnated sometime in early 2021, hopefully delivering a healthy foal 11 months later.
Still a bit unsettled after a few minutes, Moonstone was brought over to a fenced-in area where she was let go to run with two other horses. You don’t really appreciate just how massive and powerful these creatures truly are until you’re in their presence — and their size and movement, at least to the uninitiated, leaves you both in awe and somewhat on guard.
“She’s just a beautiful mare,” said the horseman. “I’m excited about her.”
The King and the horseman talked some more horse business, and we watched Moonstone run for a few more minutes. Then, it was time for the King and I to hit the road.
As we were leaving the farm, the King could barely contain his excitement.
“That was my horse. Damn,” he said proudly. “She was a lot bigger than I thought she was going to be. She was fantastic.
“You know, it’s weird. When you grow up, you see a horse and you think of it as a pet. But now, doing this, a horse is a commodity. I mean, $160,000 is a lot for a horse.
“I’m just really relieved and happy to see just how well she’s going to be taken care of. Let’s hope she produces a good baby. We’ll see. The future is bright. ”
With the meeting over, we decided to visit a local distillery. While driving, we found ourselves behind an old rundown pickup loaded with all sorts of junky furniture and other loose items, including a Tupperware lid that flew out of the truck’s bed, hitting and leaving a spiderweb crack in the King’s windshield. Though the lid itself weighed probably only a pound, the truck was traveling at around 55 miles per hour, and because of something having to do with velocity and physics that I’m not smart enough to explain, the lid hit the windshield with the force of a boulder.
The King immediately started laying on the horn, trying to get the pickup driver’s attention, to no avail. But at the next red light, the King got out of his SUV and walked up to the truck as I sat there in the passenger seat thinking to myself, “This is Kentucky. You’re going to get shot.”
“Hey, how ya doing?” the King said to the bewildered motorist. “Look, something just flew from your pile here in the back of your truck and just smashed my windshield. What do you say you pull over and we talk about it?”
The light changed and we followed the truck into an empty bank parking lot. Two men exited the rusted-out pickup and walked up to the Jeep to get a look at the damage.
“Oh fuck! Goddamn it!” said the driver, a lanky fellow short on teeth with straggly hair underneath a dirty baseball cap. His passenger, bearing similar features with a cigarette dangling between his lips that was badly in need of an ash, took a gander too.
“Fuck dude. That ain’t good.”
The first man slapped his thigh and dropped another F-bomb. “Oh, goddamn it,” he said.
“Look, I’ve got glass coverage,” the King told them. “But I have a $50 deductible. So, there’s a few ways we can handle this. We can go through insurance. Or, you can just give me $50 and we’ll be on our way.”
The two men huddled for a bit and then started going through their wallets, their pockets, and the truck. By now I had gone back into the SUV, certain the King would soon be shot. A few minutes later, the King got in and turned on the ignition.
“I got $49 from them.”
I started to laugh in disbelief.
“You’re a dick.”
“What? That’s fair.”
“I guess. But why $49?”
“That’s all they had. The one guy said he probably had a dollar in change in the truck, but I said, ‘Ya know what? Just keep the change.’ Thought I’d give him a break, ya know?”
As we got back on the road, there was a gleam in the King’s eye. Not the kind of gleam you get from shaking down two guys from the backwoods of Kentucky on the side of the road for $49, but the kind of gleam you get when you’ve just become a new dad. The King’s mind was off his windshield and back on Moonstone.
“I really do feel like a parent. I’m happy but I’m worried now too. What if something goes wrong? What if she gets hurt, or something happens to her foal?”
He paused for a minute and then smiled.
“You know, Matt Smith, I just want my kid to do well in school, be happy and stay off drugs.”