Northbound on I-95 past the Chesapeake House on a cold January night, I listened as my 80-year-old father tried to put into words what a horse meant to him. Not a racehorse or a prized broodmare, a 20-year-old foxhunter who died the day before.
“I’ll miss jumping big fences and going for rides on him but that was slowing down anyway. I’m really just going to miss him. Walking in the barn, opening his door and him coming up to see me the way he did. I’d feed the other horses first, then he’d give me that little nicker…”
Dad called him “Rich” because the horse came from trainer Richard Trimmer, but the nickname became an adjective. Rich made everybody rich, and it had nothing to do with money.
The big, raw, chestnut with one win (a $7,500 maiden claimer at Philadelphia Park in March 1998) in six starts came to my father as a 3-year-old colt. The plan was to keep him for a while, improve him, show him to some people and sell him. Almost 17 years later he died at New Bolton Center and everybody cried–an example of the power of the Thoroughbred.
Get to know one, really let one in, and your life will change.
Rich’s real name was Diversified and, like every Thoroughbred ever, he was destined for greatness at the beginning. Bred in Kentucky by Justice Farm, the son of Marquetry and the Broadway Forli mare Broadway Carnival sold for $42,000 as a 2-year-old at OBS in March 1997. He must have been some 2-year-old because he never really looked all that graceful and coordinated.
Racing for Trimmer and owner Mark Salomone, Diversified made his debut at Delaware Park that fall–and finished last of seven. He broke in the back and stayed there, earning a chart comment of “trailed.” Three subsequent starts weren’t much better and then he somehow won that race at Philadelphia. The racing career finished where it started, last of seven (at 39-1) at Delaware Park in April 1998. This time the chart read “bore out turn” and that was that. Dad had watched him train and was hooked by the big body, the big head, the long stride, the huge girth, the potential.
Back then, Dad scouted, bought and sold steeplechase prospects and trained a few of his own. Maryland Hunt Cup winner Buck Jakes was one and his trainer Charlie Fenwick looked at Rich. Fenwick told my father the horse was too young. So Dad rode him, gelded him, taught him to jump, went hunting with Pennsylvania’s Cheshire Foxhounds, turned down massive offers from half the field and became as much a part of it all as the hound truck.
More than once I heard from people about “the fence your dad and that horse jumped out hunting.” I smiled, and said a silent thank you to the horse gods for putting the two of them together.
Dad and Rich were mainstays in the Landhope Farms team race, and were on the winning fast-time team in 2013 and the winning ideal-time team in 2014. That’s how good Rich was. He could do either.
When he had a barn full of racehorses, my father did not play favorites. But Rich was different. He belonged to my father, only. Along the way, Rich developed a personality. He was spoiled and he knew it–not in a bad way, just in a way that worked for Rich and any human he encountered. He could jump a fourboard fence. He could also spook at a stick on the ground. Both made Dad smile. Of course, Dad dealt with typical horsehealth issues–tender feet, a leg infection that would stubbornly return, the usual this and that.
Last winter, it was a ligament strain. With Rich on the shelf and Dad away for a few days. My job was to hand-walk Rich for an hour every day. He wore a classic white racehorse cooler and a leather halter with his name in brass. Dad suggested putting the shank over Rich’s nose, just to be safe. So I put the shank over the nose of a 19-year-old foxhunter. And we walked, up and down the driveway to stay off the snow. He’d stop to look at the horses in the field, and I could almost hear him tell them he had it better.
“You see my cooler? It’s clean and smells like wood. You see this halter, this shank? This guy next to me? He drove all the way up here to see me. In an hour, I’m going back in the barn where it’s warm. The straw is deep. The hay is sweet. And I get a carrot. The radio is on. I’m going to take a nap.”
I ride sparingly, and not all that well, but because of Rich and Dad got a chance to do it again. I usually rode Simon, another Thoroughbred, and just followed Rich. My son Nolan and his pony (and Rich’s good buddy) Eddie did the same. We walked, trotted, galloped, jumped, crossed streams, went up and down roads, and connected–because of horses, because of Rich.
Nolan got too big for Eddie. Simon has a bad hock. And now Rich is gone. Time, time, time.
The leg infection returned this winter, and the antibiotics nearly beat it but ruined the rest of him.
Rich got sick, was too stoic to show it, went to New Bolton because of a bad blood count, was given a 10-percent chance to make it through the first night, made it anyway, bounced back briefly, then faltered again. Dad said put him down. Hoping to learn something to help other horses, the vets did an autopsy. It might have been easier if he’d never left the farm, if he could have been buried on a hill, but you had to try, right?
But it’s an empty old barn.