War Eagle’s Love might never run in a Breeders’ Cup race — she might always race in the lower levels, as she cost only $2,700 at the Keeneland September Sale. But when the filly ran and won for the first time ever Friday, with Anthony Stephen riding her at Keeneland, she stood as proof that if you do good deeds, good things might come back to you.
Her owner is Bryan Waldridge of Georgetown who never sends a bill for his veterinary services at Old Friends Equine: the retirement home for old Thoroughbreds near Georgetown. The filly’s trainer is Tim Wilson, farm manager at Old Friends. A number of the nearly 40 people who crowded the winner’s circle for the filly’s win were staff and volunteers at Old Friends: even those who mow the pastures and repair broken fences or barns. Michael Blowen, founder and president of the facility, gave them all time off to go to Keeneland for the race and gave each one a $10 voucher to bet on War Eagle’s Love. Her win payoff was $34.80.
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“Some of them had never been to a race,” Wilson said at The Thoroughbred Center, where the filly is stabled. “I think they came out altogether winning $900 or something. … They probably think it happens every time. Everybody had dinner on Birdie.”
Birdie is the nickname the filly came with from Gainesway Farm when Waldridge bought her at auction last year. The filly also came with a card from her breeder and seller, Marylou Whitney. The note informed whoever purchased the filly that if she didn’t work out, Whitney would buy her back. The note was enclosed with the filly’s registration papers and was evocative of a note sent with a child making an airplane trip alone, the parents’ instructions pinned to his or her shirt.
Many horse owners make these notations on their horses’ registration papers, so the animals won’t wind up on dinner tables outside the United States. But not every yearling comes with a note from the office of Whitney, whose late husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, financed the company that became Pan American World Airways, financed the 1939 classic film “Gone with the Wind” and operated one of the most prestigious racing stables anywhere in the world.
“I’m keeping this note. I love it,” Waldridge said. And most likely he’ll never send this filly back. Birdie has found a home among people who think of her as a special animal even in a world where the American Pharoahs and Secretariats get all the attention.
Horsemen don’t like pig eyes. When they see a lot of white surrounding the darker center, their thought is the horse might be temperamental and difficult to train. You want to look in a horse’s eye and see its soul, not its inner pig.
The “Birdie” reference is to the filly’s sire, Birdstone, winner of the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Whitney graciously apologized to Smarty Jones’ owners for spoiling their Triple Crown bid when Birdstone defeated Smarty by a length. But she basked in winning the Belmont Stakes, as any horse owner would.
Waldridge knows just how she felt, even though his filly’s win came at the sport’s other end of the spectrum. She ran in a race where all the fillies were eligible to be “claimed,” or sold for $30,000. All were maidens, or non-winners. War Eagle’s Love is nominated for the Breeders’ Cup races but whether her career takes her higher out of the claiming race level is the biggest question facing any young horse. A few make it out; most don’t.
Sales price is not always an indicator of which horses will make it to the top. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew sold for only $17,500 at auction. On Sunday at Keeneland, a $400,000 yearling purchase, Shankly Heights, raced unplaced in a maiden race and has yet to win after five attempts. The moral: You never know where a winner might come from.
Waldridge said he was pleasantly surprised to acquire War Eagle’s Love for $2,700. He was specifically searching for an offspring of Birdstone at the September sale last year. Two physical features that might have caused other buyers to cross her off included a white streak on a hind leg, something he believes is a scar from possibly a pasture accident. The other was her right eye, which kindly can be described only as a “pig eye.”
Horsemen don’t like pig eyes. When they see a lot of white surrounding the darker center, their thought is the horse might be temperamental and difficult to train. You want to look in a horse’s eye and see its soul, not its inner pig. But one pig eye out of two surely can’t be all that bad, Waldridge told himself.
What he got with half a pair of pig eyes was a halfway temperamental horse. It could have been worse.
“If she was human she’d be a goth,” the veterinarian said. “She’d be wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘I hate my parents.’”
If she was human she’d be a Goth. She’d be wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘I hate my parents.’
Bryan Waldridge, owner of War Eagle’s Love
She jumps around a bit on her lead shank but she’s really more a goth wannabe. Her tantrums are all bluff. When Birdie goes out on the track she calms down and apparently knows what to do, as her winning margin Friday in the 1 1/16 -mile race was 2 1/4 lengths over fillies who’d already had racing experience. And this was a race around two turns: a difficult task for a first-time starter.
Waldridge came back down from the heights of happy horse owner to that of workaday veterinarian over the weekend (he’s a specialist in internal medicine), back to reality at Park Equine Hospital at Woodford, where Dr. John Park also is a huge supporter of Old Friends. And Waldridge is back to writing on his Facebook page, Dr. B’s Bluegrass, where he gives viewers a taste of his veterinary rounds throughout Central Kentucky.
Meantime, all eyes in this one-horse stable (pig eye included) are on the next event: most likely a race at Churchill Downs. And who knows, maybe someday the Breeders’ Cup. One can always dream, even with a $2,700 horse. At Old Friends Equine, they’re calling this great karma.