(Owner / Trainer / Hot Walker Stephen Lyster at Churchill Downs on Thursday / Photo by Ed DeRosa)
(Churchill Downs at dusk / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
Sometimes, it just feels good to feel good.
Sometimes, things work out the way you really think they should.
Sometimes, even when it is overcast, gloomy and dark, the sun still shines bright.
Sometimes, just when you are about to give in to despair, everything just works out right.
Sometimes, my friends, it just feels good to feel good.
Today is one of those days.
Tomorrow should be, too.
And, tomorrow’s tomorrow should be, also.
No doubt, it’s been some time for the Thoroughbred Industry.
Without a doubt, 2019 has been a troubled year for Thoroughbred racing.
There’s been the countless woes associated with Santa Anita, one of the world’s most scenic and historic racing venues in all the world that has suddenly been turned into a quagmire of missteps by both horse and (wo)man. Seems as if Belinda Stronach and her team of merry marauders can’t get out of their own way long enough to go the right way.
There’s the continuing saga of first disqualification for racing interference in the 145-year history of the sport’s most majestic and greatest race — the Kentucky Derby. Seems as if owners Gary and Mary West still cannot accept the fact that their horse and rider nearly created havoc and tragedy all rolled into one heaping mess on the First Saturday of this past May.
There’s the constant plague of locust that some call PETA. Seems as if this group of lunatics will never stop until they have devoured and destroyed everything in its’ tunnel vision, and leave nothing but tragedy in its’ turbulent wake. Yet, this despicable organization has a history of ugly deceit, and should never be trusted. Ever. Time for us to reveal.
But as we round the final turn on yet another week in our lives and head into the home stretch of fun that we like to call “the weekend,” there are reasons to smile.
There are reasons to be optimistic.
There are reasons to cherish the greatest sport ever created.
There are reasons to get up, get going, and get it on.
Let me just count some of the ways. Just a few examples.
(Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery talked on Monday of the creation of a new alliance of industry leaders to concentrate on safety issues / Photo by Gene McLean)
On Thursday, I got up early and journeyed over to Churchill Downs, the most iconic racing venue in all the world. As I pulled my car into the track’s main entrance, I was greeted by one of the most jolly people in the entire world. His white beard may have been a little lacking in places, but his smile was unmistakable. If it wasn’t Santa himself, disguised just enough to prevent the world from knowing his true identity, it certainly had to be an elder, man-sized elf.
He was humming a tune in his heart and directing traffic with his hands. “Good morning, my friend,” he bellowed from a sizable belly. “How can I help such a distinguished young man?”
He had me from hello. After all, I’m 63 years young and a furlong away from 64. Been awhile since I was referred to as “young.” And, distinguished? Only in my mind’s Hall of Fame. But, all of a sudden, I felt like a young, 2-year-old filly on race day. World? Here I come.
A few minutes later, I got a chance to renew my friendship with Churchill Downs’ President Kevin Flanery and his truly remarkable assistant, Patty Frazier. Two of the kindest professionals you will ever have a chance to shake hands with and share ideas amongst.
Don’t know if we will ultimately agree on how to move forward on our conversation, but I left with a sense of both accomplishment and reward. That’s just what friends do, you know. They talk. They try to help. They work together. Damn. How did we lose that concept in today’s world?
It was smiling time as I walked to the car. Sometimes it just feels good to feel good.
As soon as I left the front side, I headed to the backstretch of Churchill Downs. Saw some new barns going up. Saw some horses being shod. Saw some workers raking the shed row. Saw some others hauling off the muck. Saw the Chapel, and pulled up to the door.
The back of the Forerunner was full of clothes that Leigh Ann, my beautiful wife, and I had cleaned out of our respective closets. Good clothes. Sturdy clothes. Handsome clothes. Warm clothes. Clean clothes. Clothes that needed a new home.
(Miss Jacqueline and her groom on the backside of Churchill Downs / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
The front of the church building was full of people. They were there in search of and need of clothes. Good clothes. Sturdy clothes. Handsome clothes. Warm clothes. Clean clothes. Clothes that needed a new body.
As we carried the bags and a huge tub — all filled to the brim with coats, pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes and scarfs — into the church building, I saw the real church. It was a group of volunteers. A lady sorting. A man hauling. A young gal hanging. A older lady singing, while she worked. Chaplin Joseph J Del Rosario was meeting with some children.
People there on a mission from God. People there to help. People not like PETA’s people. These people had a heart, and were willing to share it.
The backstretch workers were waiting. In line. Patiently. Just for a chance to pick out some new clothes. As I was ready to leave, a Hispanic lady grabbed my arm and squeezed it tight. “Gracias,” she said. That was all. That was all that was needed.
Tears welled. But it was smiling time as I walked to the car. Sometimes it just feels good to feel good.
(Trainer/Owner/Hot Walker Stephen Lyster and his special filly, Stolen Beauty / Photos by Ed DeRosa)
As I got back to my office, I clicked on the TV. TVG, which is programmed to pop up first, flickered to life. It was just 14 minutes to post time for the 2nd race at Churchill Downs. I looked up and saw my great friend and horse trainer, Stephen Lyster, walking his own horse around the paddock. The smock that reveals the horse’s post position was wrapped over his sport’s coat. And, there was a smile as big as a Twin Spire on his face.
I giggled at first. Then, I smiled. Typical Stephen, who just so happens to train a filly for me, too. The young man works. Every single day. Up early. Stays late. Treats his horses — every single one of them — as if they are members of the family. Wouldn’t ask a single person who works for him to do something that he, himself, is not afraid to do, himself.
And, on Thursday, he was not only the trainer. He was the groom. The hot walker. And, the owner. And, just the headline on one of the world of Thoroughbred racing’s greatest stories of 2019.
You see, Stephen Lyster used to train this filly, Stolen Beauty, for a man named David Purcell, who was the managing partner of a racing syndicate known as Blue Checker Thoroughbreds. The problem was, though, Mr. Purcell and Blue Checker apparently didn’t pay the monthly bills. And, they mounted. And, they mounted. And, they mounted.
Finally, after numerous attempts to collect, Stephen Lyster finally had to hire an attorney and get an “Agister’s Lien” and file a lawsuit in a lengthy and expensive attempt just to collect the money that he was due. More money. Out the window.
Yet, most importantly, Stephen adopted the orphaned filly in question — Stolen Beauty.
Out of his own pocket, Stephen made sure she was fed. He made sure she was cared for just like all of his other horses. He made sure that she was healthy, happy, and loved. That’s just the way Stephen Lyster treats his horses. All of them. Even the ones that have cost him money. Not made him money.
On Thursday, Stephen Lyster saddled, and then walked Stolen Beauty in the paddock. He gave a leg up to rider Julien Leparoux (who just so happened to be wearing our silks). Then, as the filly moved towards the racetrack, Stephen removed his “Hot Walker Smock” and became the owner, with his sports coat fully pressed.
And, it was awesome to watch Stolen Beauty romp to a spectacular win by nearly 8 lengths.
(Stolen Beauty returns after winning at Churchill Downs on Thursday / Photo by Gene McLean off the TwinSpires.com feed)
As soon as rider and horse returned to the winner’s circle, there was Stephen standing in the wet dirt. He grabbed Leparoux’s hand, and the horse’s reins at the same time. Then, Stephen leaned over and planted a kiss right on the filly’s forehead. Right there. In front of the winner’s circle and in front of God and all His Glory.
Stolen Beauty, winner for the first time in her life, seemed to bow. As if she was showing her appreciation and love to the man who loved her most.
This year, David Purcell — who has managed to keep his owner’s license and continue to race horses in the Commonwealth — has had 15 horses run under his name, according to statistics compiled by Equibase. He has 1 win and 2 seconds. He has earned a total of $20,368 in purses.
On Thursday, Stephen Lyster and Stolen Beauty won $25,200 in purse money.
But they won so much more than that, too. They won the day. They won what was right. They won some justice.
Some times, friends, it just feels good to feel good.
And, no matter what, we should remember that feeling.
Today. Tomorrow. Forever.
Because it is that feeling that sets up apart from all the other sports; all the other critics; all the other crap.
It is that feeling that makes this game special.
On Monday, the Thoroughbred industry united and created a new group to concentrate on the issues of safety for all the sport’s athletes. A great day.
On Thursday, the California Horse Racing Authority named the distinguished Gregory Ferraro as the new Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. A man of integrity, character and stamina. A great day.
On Thursday, the parking lot attendant at Churchill Downs got to sing a song. The backside workers got some new clothes. And, Stephen Lyster got his day, er, in court and on the court. A great day.
Sometimes is just feels good to feel good.