Why Own a Racehorse? Santa Claus Delivers For a Grownup! First Kiss Gets First Win

(First Kiss in the paddock at Churchill Downs before running on KY Oaks Day / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

(Another one / by Holly M. Smith)

(First Kiss’ most beautiful eye / Photo by Gene McLean)

(First Kiss and her groom / Photo by Gene McLean)

Santa Claus always delivers.

On Wednesday night, the Big Man himself — still weary from his all day and night travels just 24 hours before — dropped off his biggest package for the McLeans up at Turfway Park.

On Wednesday night, our 4-year-old filly, First Kiss won her first race in a Maiden Special Weight at the Northern Kentucky racetrack.

On Wednesday night, we celebrated with lots of fun and cheer — just as we were 4-year-olds ourselves and running down the steps to look under the Christmas Tree.

And, sure enough, the packages were there. Glistening. Beautifully decorated. With a beautiful bow on top — in the winner’s circle.

Wednesday was the day our family got to celebrate our Christmas with my 88-year-old mother in her home in Midway, KY. My sister — and nearly all of her family — joined in the festivities. My family — all accounted for — were there with Christmas magic — even if it was 24 hours after the “Big Day.” And, we ate, laughed, joked and shared about all the fun that we could for about 4 or 5 hours.

At about 7:30 p.m. ET, though, the party started to disband. Gifts were collected. To-go boxes were packed. (They are a must. Mom makes the best Christmas candy.) All the good-bye hugs and greetings were shared.

Just in the nick of time for my own version of St. Nick. At 8:10 p.m., it was post time at Turfway Park. And, our own First Kiss — who will share with partners Mike Schnell and trainer Stephen Lyster — was adorned in her best “Turfway Park” silks. Some how, some way, all of our trainer’s silks were given to another trainer. So, there we were, in all our Christmas glory with a pair of borrowed silks.

Never mind.

It was race time.

And, with three scratches in the race, there were only 6 horses lined up and ready to go in the starting gate. Could this be the night?

Mom sat in her kerchief, and me in my cap. Leigh Ann and both my sister and brother-in-law were both ready for a long winter’s nap. But I insisted that they hold off until TVG could switch over to Turfway Park for a quick snap.

As soon as the horses broke, our jockey John McKee settled our beautiful filly as the front-runners tore for the lead. My mom, bless her heart, could not even find our steed.

My sister, always the educator, found her alright. Our filly was, as my sister said, “next to last,” even though she tried with all her might.

Still hoping for the best, I uttered an oath:

“They normally come from off the pace on this artificial stuff.”

As the leaders ramped up their speed into the final turn, our filly disappeared from the screen, and all seemed to lose hope. But, not to fear, as I jumped to my feet. I could see her and rider starting to cope.

First Kiss and John moved five wide into the turn. First Kiss’ legs and John’s little arms were beginning to churn.

They were fourth, then third, and — with a burst of speed — moved up to second. We were not about to be deterred.

Mom jumped to her feet and started to scream. Sis and Arthur were dancing a jig. And, beautiful LA was shouting something to Prancer, and Dancer, that I could not make out. All I could see was First Kiss looking more like a light beam.

We rolled to the front, and hit the wire first. My heart; my soul; my eyes felt like they were about to burst.

Santa had dropped off his last toy. And, oh my goodness, what a joy.

High fives all around. Laughs and giggles abound.

The calls started rolling in. All were greetings of glad tidings, and I didn’t know where to begin.

But as First Kiss strolled into that winner’s circle, I just knew that it was a Christmas miracle.

My dad, gone for a couple of years ago now, surely would have been happy and proud. After all, First Kiss won her first race before his favorite crowd.




The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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