“He’s never done anything famous. We didn’t show him. But he’s a solid citizen and a good-huntin’ horse.”
At first asking, Jimmy Paxson’s assessment of Valay Pass seems rather perfunctory. But get him talking about Duncan Patterson’s 21-year-old son of Carnivalay and the Assault Landing mare Winged Passage, and the yarns begin to spin.
Paxson, joint MFH of River Hills Foxhounds in Kirkwood, Pa., had everything to do with the gelding’s transformation after his retirement from racing. And it wasn’t exactly a walk to the paddock.
“Jimmy said he was one of the tougher horses he ever had, initially,” said Patterson, a Delaware Racing Commissioner and former amateur steeplechase jockey. “He turned out great. Jimmy hunted hounds off of him. Gregory, Jimmy’s nephew, whipped off of him, and I led the field with him for 10 years. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful horse with a lot of personality.”
Bred in Pennsylvania by Stud Aire Farms, Valay Pass spent his entire flat career at Mid-Atlantic tracks. Trained by Andrea Morris, he ran for his breeders from his 2-year-old season in 1996 through the end of 2000, picking up some allowance wins and a stakes placing along the way.
When Stud Aire closed and dispersed its horses, Patterson’s daughter Bitsy Peyton bought Valay Pass. After several months off, he came back and made three starts for Peyton and trainer Chuck Lawrence in 2001. One was an edition of the “Gray Ghost Handicap” for gray or roan horses at The Meadowlands a few days before Halloween. He finished seventh, fifth and fourth, respectively.
Six months later, 8-year-old Valay Pass re-emerged, re-invented as a steeplechase horse for Duncan Patterson and trainer Ricky Hendriks. Teamed with jockey David Bentley, Valay Pass broke his maiden in his second start over fences at High Hope in Lexington, Ky., in May 2002. He finished third twice at Saratoga that summer, then won at Parx Racing before missing more than a year with a suspensory.
“We brought him back to our place and turned him out and then sent him back to Ricky to run over timber,” said Patterson. “He won down at Middleburg [in 2004] but unfortunately he went bad at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup.”
Taken home to Patterson’s Rockland Hill Farms just north of Wilmington, Del., Valay Pass decompressed during a bit of downtime before being sent to Paxson at River Hills. After a racing career that spanned eight years–and essentially three jobs–he retired with a record of 64-7-14-14 and $242,498 earned.
“We’ve had yearlings here as part of the Delaware Certified Program and he’s a great babysitter for them,” Patterson said.
Paxson originally recruited “VP” to fulfill a vacancy in his well-known string of gray Thoroughbreds which serve as outriders’ mounts for many of the jump meets in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
“It took us about two years to get him so Duncan could hunt him-but he’s a pretty nice horse,” Paxson said. “He was a handful when we first got him. He’d take a hold of you and run off. And he was a terrible shyer. It took awhile to get all that out of him. Now you can drop the reins and go. He’s really good with hounds, he’s good with other horses. He covers a lot of ground; when you push the button on him you go. But it took us those first two years just to get him where he could be with other horses. The first time we outrode with him, Gregory must have ridden him for 45 minutes before the races started just to get the edge off him. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but VP is still lot of horse.”
Patterson, himself a former joint MFH of River Hills, rode VP before retiring from hunting after 60 years in the field. Professional obligations kept him on the road and seriously curtailed his time in the saddle.
“I was chairman of the Racing Commissioners International, and I also teach real-estate classes around the country,” Patterson said. “Between those two things I was gone for about eight out of 10 weekends, so I wasn’t getting to hunt. And I realized I didn’t miss it. So I thought, ‘If I don’t miss it, what am I doing it for?’ ”
VP, however, clearly shows no interest in slowing down. He still hunts with Paxson two or three times each week and is always called upon to outride. Even among the pack of grays, VP is easy to spot due to his “Soldier’s Blood” marking.
There are different schools of thought regarding the distinctive discoloration, a rarity exclusive to gray horses. One theory states that it harkens back to a Bedouin chieftain named Ahmed whose prized possession was his stunning gray Arabian mare, widely regarded as the fleetest and most beautiful horse in the world. Searching for the perfect mate for her, Ahmed bred the mare to the premiere stallion in the sultan’s stable.
While out riding one day, Ahmed was spotted by a group of Bedouin thieves. Fearing for his life and that of his heavily pregnant mare-whom he believed could never outrun their pursuers-he raced back toward his tents. And as if she innately sensed the grave danger, his mare dug down and managed to widen the gap between them as the thieves continued to fire shots at the pair. Nearly to safety, one bullet pierced Ahmed’s heart. He slumped over his beloved mare, who never slowed down until she delivered her fallen master safely back to their tents.
When Ahmed’s people removed his body from the back of the horse, his blood was found to have stained her shoulder, the desert heat turning her gray coat a dark reddish brown. That night in Ahmed’s tent, his cherished mare delivered her foal. The colt was immediately acclaimed as the perfect specimen of the Arabian breed, and his shoulder bore the same bloody stain as his dam. From that point on, every horse delivered from Ahmed’s mare carried the mark of the bloody shoulder, which was highly prized among desert horsemen.
Paxson prefers to subscribe to a more contemporary version of the same lore.
“Soldier’s Blood had a lot do with the Civil War. The marking is a liver chestnut color, like a soldier was shot or wounded and dying on the horse and the blood poured down its neck and shoulder-that’s exactly what it looks like,” Paxson explained. “I have always wanted to get a Civil War uniform, go to Seminary Ridge, unload the horse and ride him through town . . . And you’d do that on Halloween when they’re having the Ghost Tour. Halloween Night in Gettysburg is a lot of fun; it’s supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the United States because of the war. I keep saying I’m gonna do that one year.”
Valay Pass would be game.