I’m not a blueblood.
At least not in the racing industry.
My father was not a famous trainer. My mother did not own Secretariat. My brother has never tacked up a horse, and my sister couldn’t tell you who Chris McCarron is. But 9 years ago I moved to Lexington, KY, and with 2 cents and a broken heart I was hired on as a groom at a thoroughbred breeding farm. Lost in the world after recently losing my father—a father who hated horses and his daughter riding them—I decided to forge my way into this industry.
To prove to myself that I could. To prove to the industry that a tiny blonde from Meadville, PA, could. Perhaps in the back of my mind and my heart I was trying to prove to my father that I could. Maybe horses and financial stability could co-exist. Maybe it would lead to something great; most importantly, something happy.
So here I am, nine years later, preparing for a day at the Breeders’ Cup–the World Championships of horse racing. I received a text message from my mother–a woman who had no desire to attend the racetrack just a decade ago, asking when to tune in and who to cheer for. As I rambled off times, race names and the horses I love I started to realize how special today truly is. Because today these races, and these magnificent horses competing in them, are full of stories of hope; of try; and the ability to turn those things into greatness.
I met Dawn Mellen at the Clocker’s Corner the other morning, her arms full of Breeders’ Cup hats and bright purple one proudly adorned on her own head. My friend Tara introduced me to her, proudly stating how Dawn not only had a horse in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but that she was also passionate about aftercare. Naturally, I struck up a conversation with Dawn, fascinated by what brought her into this industry and her own humble beginnings.
She spoke so proudly of her gelding, Ashleyluvssugar, and of his own humble upbringing; a California bred by Game Plan, an unraced stallion who is since deceased but stood for a mere $2,500. But Ashleyluvssugar was special. She had bred him herself and he was named by her young niece. His journey had been special to her thus far having come off of back to back graded stakes wins to put his career earnings to almost $1 million.
And while Ashleyluvssugar prepared for the toughest race of his life, Dawn was running around the backside collecting hats. Her charity, After the Finish Line, would be auctioning off these hats in order to gift funds to the aftercare organizations that helped find homes and second careers for horses like Ashley when he’s finished racing.
— AftertheFinishLine (@AfterFinishLine) November 2, 2016
Although Dawn was very excited about this upcoming race, her enthusiasm only grew when speaking about After the Finish Line. Her hobby is horse racing but her passion is in helping secure a safe landing for all racehorses. While Ashley will be up against a stacked field of international talent in the Turf (which airs on NBC at 6:20 ET), I will be cheering for Ashley and Dawn.
Then we have the Breeders’ Cup Mile, which will immediately precede The Classic. In this one are a pair girls I love with equal passion, Tepin and Miss Temple City. Both are taking on the boys in a battle of the sexes. Tepin was bred by one of the fiercest females in this industry, Carrie Brogden of Machmer Hall. Miss Temple City bred by the father/son duo Bob and Sean Feld, who named her after wife/mother, Cassandra McLaughlin.
These talented females are hardly underdogs, but their beginnings and careers continue to prove gender has no impact on ability or earnings.
— John Wilkinson (@hnracing) November 3, 2016
And last but certainly not least, there is California Chrome. The horse who stole America’s heart in winning the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Bred for a bargain by a couple of equine newbies from California, and yet he still found his way to the winners’ circle on that first Saturday in May. Chrome continues to show that where you come from means nothing. Setbacks and road blocks are just there so you can prove to to the world ability what you are capable of. Unlike many Derby champions, Chrome was not retired to stud immediately after his 3-year-old season. And now, at the age of 5, he is the best horse in the world.
So no matter where you are in your life, today’s races are for the history books, and your heart. In a lot of ways, the stories underlying each race mimic what we see in the world. Women’s rights? Check. Humble beginnings with minimal opportunities? Check. Retirement plans and finding your next step? Check, check. Watching the indescribable splendor of 1200lb. animals running down the homestretch with their ears perked forward and their connections screaming, jumping and crying? I can only hope.
So run on, Ashleyluvssugar. Run on Tepin and Miss Temple City. And run on Chrome. Do it for the fans, your connections, and yourselves.
About the Author
Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.