At the time, I didn't know enough to be scared, but the horse was flying. His hooves pounded the rich, sandy soil beneath us as we charged through a freshly plowed, Wisconsin field. I stood in the irons and pulled back on my rubberized reins, hoping to regain control of my horse. Brahma Fear, a grandson of Secretariat, had no intention of slowing down.
He pressed against the smooth, snaffle bit in his mouth and continued to uncoil his powerful stride, the same stride that had allowed him to finish in the money in 17 races.
His nostrils flared as we picked up speed. I could hear the air bellowing efficiently in and out of his lungs. A full mile into our winged gallop and my exceedingly fit Thoroughbred wasn't close to tiring. I looked up and saw a tangle of shrubs and scrub grass approaching. Brahma saw it too, but made no attempt to change course. I felt him collect himself beneath me without slowing a bit. I gave him his head and Brahma launched himself over the twisted hedge, branches and weeds below, drawing his front legs up as though we were in the show ring.
Any of my riding instructors would have screamed at me if they'd seen me go over a jump in such a stance. I was up on my tiptoes and leaning too far to one side when we hit the ground forcefully. I lost my left stirrup. I kicked off my right stirrup in an attempt to even things out and dropped my butt onto my Zaldi saddle.
We may have slowed down momentarily, but within a few strides Brahma was again accelerating. The empty stirrups bounced wildly against Brahma's flanks. I squeezed my legs to stay on-board, but within moments I bounced off helplessly.
My head took a lot of the impact and I saw a big chunk of sod, knocked loose by the brim of my helmet, fly past me. I rolled to my left and felt a rush of pain shoot through my rib cage all the way to my left shoulder.
I knew immediately that I'd suffered a concussion, because when I sat up and spit the dirt out of my mouth, I vomited. It would be weeks, though, before my doctor determined I also had broken five ribs.
I first met Brahma Fear a little more than five years before our harrowing ride. I was working for a Philadelphia television station during a streak of standout Philly-based colts on the Triple Crown trail. In 2004 I had covered Smarty Jones. In the spring of 2005, I was fully immersed in my coverage of Afleet Alex .
On the second day of spring that year, Committee Boat, by Secretariat, foaled a little bay colt at March Walsh's foaling operation in Chester County, Pa.
Dr. Scott McManus, the veterinarian at Delaware Park and owner of Committee Boat, had bred the 25-year-old mare to Brahms. For weeks leading up to the birth, Scott kept me up-to-date on his mare. He suggested the arrival of a Secretariat mare's colt in the Philadelphia suburbs would make a good feature story at a time when Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex had fully ignited Philadelphia's interest in horse racing.
When photographer George Roach and I arrived at Walsh's Fernwood Farm in Coatesville, Pa., the April sun shone down on the rolling paddock where tiny Brahma and the big broodmare were happily cantering through the thick grass along the fence line.
"Oh he's a lovely little foal," Walsh said as she stood beside the fence watching the horses. "Cutest little ears."
After we had done our television interviews, Walsh put Committee Boat on a lead line so I could shoot my reporter standup. She instructed me to hold the line firmly so the horse would stay in place. This was nearly a year before I took up riding. Wholly inexperienced in handling a horse, I failed miserably in keeping the horse under control.
The big mare circled, passing between the camera and me. Brahma scampered along happily on the outside.
"Give that line a tug," March yelled. I did and the horse halted, but Brahma continued to trot. Perhaps he was momentarily confused by his mother's sudden stop, but Brahma ducked to the inside passing between Committee Boat and me. He stopped directly beside me and pressed his full weight against my leg.
"Oh look at that!" March said with a laugh. "He feels safe beside you."
I reached down and scratched the circular, white star between the horse's eyes and he let out a faint snort. I was done. I felt an immediate protective instinct about this amiable, little foal.
The Thoroughbreds that end up as hunter jumpers and show horses all have stories. Sometimes those stories are about a horse that excelled on the racetrack but, more often, the stories are about a horse who was afraid of the gate, failed to fire, or bucked a jock in the post parade. When Brahma began training at Laurel Park, though, he took to his job with enthusiasm.
"I do know he showed speed," recalled his first jock, Eric Camacho when I met him at Laurel Park on a spring morning last year. "He was fast. I remember that. He was a sensible type of horse."
"I do remember him being one of the first ones OK'd from the gate and being ready early," said trainer Tim Salzman as he stood on the rail at Laurel watching one of his young horses turn in a blistering work. "I remember he had a big end on him. When we buy a horse, that's kind of what we look at because it's usually a speed horse. They run downhill. If their rear is higher than their front end,they're usually speed horses."
Brahma was indeed a speed horse. He secured a maiden special win in his second start at Pimlico Race Course in April 2007. Camacho snapped his whip in half as Brahma held off a horse named Stick Pony. That didn't matter. Brahma was easily the best horse that day and didn't need much pushing to show it.
On July 29, 2007, Brahma shipped to Colonial Downs for the black type Chenery Stakes. According to Salzman, the fact the race was named for Penny Chenery and Salzman had a horse that was one quarter Secretariat played no role in his decision to enter. "The horse needed a race," recalled Salzman. "It was time."
The race went badly for the young bay colt. He ran along the rail of the turf test before Camacho swung him out wide hoping he'd flash some of the speed he'd shown at Pimlico. Brahma never fired and finished fifth out of five as a 17-1 longshot.
"Well it was on the grass," Camacho said with a shrug. "So it was a different surface. He could have just not liked the grass." Unlike his famous grandfather, Brahma was burdened with tiny feet. "The good turf horses usually have huge feet," Camacho explained.
After his lone stakes appearance, Brahma finished third in a 4 1/2-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races followed by a last-lace finish in a mile long allowance test at Laurel. After a runner-up finish in an allowance race in November, Brahma would only run in claiming races, but he acquitted himself well from Philadelphia Park to Delaware Park to Charles Town. He was nearly always competitive, often vying for the lead before settling for second-place.
By the time Brahma was 4, this reporter had become fully immersed in riding. I was jumping a big appendix quarter horse named Jenkins and doing an occasional show at a farm in Fredonia, Wisc. In May 2009, Jenkins and I won a blue ribbon going over an eight-jump course in the Appy Orse Acres annual spring show. The event convinced me I was ready to adopt a Thoroughbred racehorse.
It was actually months before our blue ribbon that I first reached out to Anthony Carone, the Charles Town trainer who had snatched Brahma in a claiming race and was enjoying the collection of at least show money nearly every time Brahma joined a race. Early in August 2009 Carone told me he'd be willing to sell Brahma if the horse didn't get into the money in his next race, a claimer scheduled for late that month.
Brahma never even started that race. The track veterinarian at Charles Town determined the horse was lame and scratched him. I was on vacation in North Carolina at the time. I called Carone and then drove seven hours from Atlantic Beach, N.C. to Charles Town with my checkbook in hand. On Aug. 27, I bought the grandson of Secretariat for less than I'd paid for a laptop computer a few months earlier.
My goal was to eventually get the horse to Milwaukee where I was working for the NBC affiliate television station. I was advised, however, by countless horse people that the horse would do best if he were given an opportunity to decompress a little bit before training for his new job. Brookledge horse transport picked Brahma up Aug. 28, 2009 at Charles Town and delivered him to Wendy and Travis Kinnamon's Break Away Farm in Kirkwood, Pa.
The Kinnamons are experts at starting horses. They get young Thoroughbreds under saddle and take them on long trail rides through the many unspoiled acres surrounding their training facility. "That way they can get a job taking tourists to the Grand Canyon if they don't take to racing," Travis had quipped years before I purchased Brahma.
"I remember we were thinking that he was going to be very small for you," Travis said when I visited Break Away again last spring. "But, when you came out and got on him, he didn't seem that small anymore. We thought he had to pick up some weight, but that didn't surprise us, being raced 39 times in two years."
"I thought it was going to be a little while before you were ready to get on him," recalled Wendy Kinnamon. "You weren't quite ready for him there, but it wasn't long. I thought it was cool that you kept tabs on him his entire career. You were determined to get him. I thought it was great."
Within a month, Brahma was calmed down from his racing days and was able to go out on training sets with the babies. He took to his job well, serving at times as a lead pony for the babies the Kinnamons readied for some of the top Mid-Atlantic horsemen.
"He went out there," said Brittany Trimble Russell, who was galloping horses for the Kinnamons before launching her successful training career at Laurel Park. "He did everything we asked of him right from the beginning."
My first few rides on my horse took place on late summer mornings in 2009. I don't think I ever had more fun on a horse before that point or, for that matter, since. Brahma and I joined Brittany, Amy Mullen (now an exercise rider for Todd Pletcher) and either Wendy or Travis on long training sets on sun splashed Pennsylvania mornings. We galloped up hillsides, jumped fallen trees and occasionally dismounted to coax a reluctant Brahma across the creeks we encountered on our rides.
By the spring of 2010, Brahma Fear was ready to ship to Kathleen Caya's training facility in Waukesha, Wisc. I knew after our first lesson that Kathleen was the perfect person to teach Brahma.
Brahma embarked on lessons in the ring with little difficulty. He had an annoying habit of doing imperceptible, flying lead changes when going over jumps and surprising me by going left after a jump when I wanted to go right. I went out the side door and ate dirt more often than I'd care to admit. The shortcomings were mine, though, not Brahma's.
By that summer, Brahma and I became reasonably comfortable together. He would revert back to racehorse mode from time to time on the trails. The most devastating example was the thundering gallop that resulted in my five broken ribs, but he proved to be a reliable, intelligent partner during lessons and really took to jumping in the ring.
The horse became my equine alter ego. When I covered Smarty Jones, I once asked John Servis if he talked to his horse. Servis paused as my fellow scribes rolled their eyes in reaction to my question. Then, though, Servis said that he did, that he told the horse how much "he has changed my life." During my years with Brahma, talking to my buddy became the most consistent thing about our regimen. Even when he was unable to work because he either had an abscess or had torn off a shoe in the mud, I spent time with my horse. I'd brush him, comb his thick, black mane and tell him what was happening in my life.
It was a great comfort the morning I told Brahma I'd been fired by my Milwaukee employers and he reacted by just staring back at me calmly licking and chewing before pressing his head into my chest as if to tell me things would be OK.
In early 2011, I took a job at the NBC station in Burlington, VT and Plattsburgh, NY. By spring, I was able to ship Brahma cross country again to join me. I boarded him at a Quarter Horse farm where we were able to take lessons together and where Brahma quickly established himself as one of the calmest horses in the barn (full of Quarter Horses).
On March 21, 2012, another "colt" came into this world. Fittingly, Colton Mallet was born on the same day Brahma Fear had been foaled, seven years later. By the time Colton was 2, his mother, Rachael Jurek, was happily trotting Brahma in the indoor arena at Shauna Gilligan's farm in West Chazy, N.Y. with a helmeted Colton in the saddle too.
As the demands of work and fatherhood limited my time riding, I began seeking other outlets for my athletic steed. In the summer of 2014, I loaned Brahma to eventing trainer Julie Edwards at Willow Hill Farm in Keeseville, N.Y. There, Brahma was able to show off his outsize talent on the cross-country jumping courses. Two of the European eventing riders Julie trained that summer thanked me personally for allowing them to ride my horse.
The next summer, I leased Brahma to a talented young rider, Morgan Murphy. Morgan had been riding a mature Thoroughbred mare named Approver, but was eager to ride a more athletic horse as she pursued her eventing dreams.
Just weeks after collecting Brahma, Morgan took him to New York's Essex County Fair where the two picked up dozens of ribbons in a wide range of classes. They even won a costume class (Morgan dressed Brahma as a monster truck which turned out to be a crowd pleaser.) Keep in mind; the horse had never done a show of any kind. I was more than a little proud of the way he and Morgan competed that weekend.
In the spring of 2016, the TV station in Milwaukee asked me to return as the primary evening anchor. I visited Brahma at Becky Hance's Westport, N.Y. farm where Morgan had him boarded. I fed him a few peppermints when I told him I thought he should stay in New York with Morgan. The horse was nonplussed by this news, even though his owner's lower lip was trembling during the conversation. He licked my neck like a big Labrador and, as usual, pressed his head into my chest as I wrapped my arms around his well-muscled neck.
I scratched the little star on his forehead as I had when he was a foal.
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