The Magazine

The Red and the Black

Lee Smith, Strong Horse Backer

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By LEE SMITH
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On the first Saturday in May, when I hear the opening strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” my thoughts turn not to the Bluegrass State, but to the island my mother came from. The one time I went to the Kentucky Derby, in 1976, it was because my grandfather had entered a horse from his stable in Puerto Rico, and our family went to Louisville to watch him run.

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My grandfather’s father had been a taxi driver, and in the early 1900s a cab was a horse-drawn carriage. His son pitied the ragged beasts and resolved that if he ever got rich he’d fill whole fields with horses. Fittingly, it was the horse’s replacement, the automobile, that was the engine of my grandfather’s success. He owned the island’s first Dodge dealership, and the money it made him funded his childhood passion. Before long, he was making a twice yearly pilgrimage to Kentucky for the yearling sales in Lexington. 

His horses were competitive, and his stable—named after his hometown, Ponce—several times won top honors on the island. He named a foal after each of his six grandchildren and wrote us regularly to keep us up to date on our horse and on his champions, especially Caribbean Lad. A large dark colt with a white star on his head, Caribbean Lad was a hero at the local track, El Comandante, and the picture of equine glamour. 

It was Caribbean Lad who first taught me that talent and generosity of spirit are not always paired. Hot-tempered and at the same time cool and detached, he regarded the rest of the animals around him, horse and man alike, as little more than lackeys to attend to his physical and emotional needs. Of course, that’s what most three-year-old thoroughbreds are like: awkward, self-dramatizing teenagers just becoming aware of the powerful machines at their disposal, themselves.

Bold Forbes was much less physically striking. A small dark bay colt out of Irish Castle (his grandsire was the great Bold Ruler), Bold Forbes was a relative bargain at Keeneland for $15,200, and he surprised everyone by handily dispatching his competition in Puerto Rico. Even so, no one could be sure how far he’d go. Horsemen know full well the role that luck plays in the enterprise. It can’t be otherwise when fame and money—thousands, sometimes millions of dollars—rest on four thin legs trained to drive a half-ton animal to dangerous extremes. You never know what you have until the horse proves himself under pressure. You allow yourself some hope, and then you see what happens. My grandfather sent Bold Forbes north to the States to find out what he had. 

Bold Forbes finished the year with two stakes wins in New York, where he rested for the winter, grew, and trained for the spring season, the grueling three-year-old campaign. He won his first two races of the year, including the Wood Memorial, a testing ground of sorts for Derby candidates. Bold Forbes was going to Louisville.

At my mother’s urging, my grandfather and the horse’s trainer, a Cuban émigré named Laz Barrera, selected a new jockey, Angel Cordero. Junior, as he was known, was already one of the top riders in the world, a future hall of famer who, as a teenager in Puerto Rico, had been given his first rides by my grandfather. The gathering at Churchill Downs that Derby afternoon would have been a family reunion—with Junior wearing the Ponce colors, red and black, after the town’s famous Parque de Bombas, a 19th-century Moorish-style firehouse painted in red and black stripes—except that my grandfather had suffered a heart attack and never made it to Kentucky. His doctor advised him to avoid excitement. He had to settle for watching the race on TV.

There’s a sound you can make by flapping your hand and letting the thumb hit the index finger, and Puerto Ricans do this, while shouting the cheer “Wepa!” at sporting events. I was thankful for the general din that afternoon in Louisville so the fine ladies of Kentucky and their handsome beaux weren’t put off by a boxful of teenagers and their parents shaking their hands frantically and screaming “Wepa!” for exactly two minutes, one second, and a fraction, which is how long it took Bold Forbes to go wire to wire for the victory. 

Looking up from the winner’s circle, I saw what seemed like all of Kentucky regarding us, stunned and awkward with happiness—all of us, that is, but the horse. The blanket of roses was superfluous, for Bold Forbes knew exactly what he’d done, what thoroughbreds are bred for—to outrun them all.

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