My heart was already upbeat, being that it was the first time in the new year that I was going to look for candidates for the MMSC’s spring class. But to have the first call of the year come from NORMANDY FARM! That was a God thing.
As a three year old living in New York, I began expressing an interest in horses. My parents claimed it was my Kentucky genes because my father was born in Lexington. Who knew that I would live there someday?
I was 14 the first time I went to Normandy Farm. I’ll never forget passing through the stone pillars and seeing at the end of the entrance a farmhouse with triangular dormers and windows with shudders. White plank fences framed the drive on either side, beyond which were fields with horses, large and small.
E. Barry Ryan, the owner, met us at the front door: A big man with a comfortable belly, his chestnut and silver mane slicked back part-less from his forehead, his handshake was firm, his hug encompassing. His voice boomed and when he laughed you could see the gap between his protruding front teeth. He wore a crest ring and his initials-E.R.B.- were monogrammed on his cuffs. He was a trainer and a breeder of Thoroughbreds.
All of us are given angels in our lives: people who understand us, even though we may not understand ourselves, people who believe in us when we have little or no faith in ourselves, people who open windows for us when doors are closed. Barry Ryan was such a person for me, and the angelic realm from which he operated was Normandy Farm. Over the next ten years, I went back to Normandy twice more, the last time being in 1983 when I decided to move to Kentucky to live my dream: a life with horses.
So it’s January 2013, and here I was again, driving through those pillars, down that drive, passing the white farm house, to the famous “Normandy” barn with a central rounded clock tower, flanked by stalls with Dutch doors. The roof, like so many castles in France is tiled with slate, and along the rise and ridge of it, animals--fox, cats, roosters--made of porcelain in a factory in France, cavorted here and there. Joseph E. Widener, owner of Elmendorf Farm from which Normandy was split off, had built the barn in 1927. According to legend, Mr. Widener was downed as a pilot in enemy territory in France during the first World War and hid for three days and nights in the clock tower of a barn. Counting each hourly strike, he swore, should he ever go free, he would build a replica of that barn on his farm in Kentucky.
On this windy, unseasonably warm January day, Mrs. Nancy Polk, the current owner of Normandy stood by that barn that Mr. Widener built. Beside her was farm manager J.R. .Sebastian and a Mexican groom who held a beautifully turned out 16.2, 8 year old dark bay gelding named PromiseI’llbeHome.
Mrs. Polk, a former resident from Michigan, got into racing some twenty years ago, Recently retired at the time, and a fan of the sport who regularly came to the races in Lexington, she thought that maybe she ought to buy a farm. She saw Normandy in 1997, and that was it. She has loved it and been its steward every since. She bred, raised and raced Promise as she has done with so many of her horses. A year ago, she thought he had had enough. “I brought him home, and turned him out,” she told me, “And I would keep him here forever, but he is sound and I think he would be so much happier if he had a job.”
A brief look over at this well proportioned, elegant horse made me think that she was right.
“OOOO!!! Tall, dark, handsome fellow!” I told Promise as I stepped beside him and stroked his soft, elegant neck. Conformation, feet, joints, back, hindquarters, eyes, teeth, movement, and “horsenality,” all passed my assessment with flying colors.
“I think he is a fine candidate for the MMSC, I told Mrs. Polk. “We will welcome him in mid February.”
Before leaving, I had one more thing I wanted to do: Have a moment to myself at the horse cemetery, which Mrs. Polk graciously granted me. I had always loved paying my respects to the long gone Thoroughbreds there, lingering a little longer over the ones Barry had raced, and standing in respectful silence before the pink granite slab that covers Mahubah, dam of Man O‘War.
As I turned to get back in my car, a band of yearlings bounded to the fence directly across from the cemetery. Bucking and colliding. skidding to a stop, mud-riddled, they shook their tousled manes at me, nostrils flaring, curious eyes wide upon me.
I laughed and greeted them all. How time passes yet remains the same! At Normandy Farm, once again, I had come full circle.