Thursday, January 21, 2010
When Punk was three he was at Pimlico Racetrack. One day JK said Bobby Adams had a horse he wanted to sell. This horse was by Dancing Count. I loved/love Dancing Counts, but I was just an exercise rider and at that time I didn’t have a dollar or a dime. Still, a Dancing Count, I’d love to have him. He was unraced and Bobby thought he had chips in a knee. JK had the vet take radiographs. No chips, good knees, but he was way overdue for shoeing, especially behind. The vet suspected that was the reason he was off. Bobby said he was hard to shoe. Now I owed money to the vet and I was going to find a way to buy this horse.
A price of $500 was decided. I was so poor, I had to pay him off in payments. Bobby kept him while I managed. JK started galloping him at Pimlico. Punkie had been in training at the track for six months, but was no picnic to gallop. He didn’t want other horses anywhere near him. I was working the farm, so I wasn’t there the day Punkie flipped over the rail to get away from other horses. It was decided that he should come to the farm and be rebroken. The first order of business was to put him between horses and make him go. We also had a daily ritual of picking up his feet, and handling them a lot so when the blacksmith came again, he’d be schooled. It was going great. It was easy to pick up his feet.
Dave Smoot came to the farm to do Punk. I decided to call him Punk instead of Spunky, because well — he was a little Punk. I told Dave that he was really bad about being shod but we had been working with him and he was doing great. Dave was a big guy who had a ton of patience. Still he left with a broken toe and Punkie was now missing a shoe. We decided that we would talk to the vet and get tranquilizers if this Punk was to be shod.
Dave came back two days later and I had the acepromazine ready. Punk received an IV shot and we were ready to start. Dave left the farm that day unscathed, but we were smarter and didn’t try so hard. All that schooling we had done made Punk great for us, but it was clear that he hated blacksmiths.
I talked to my vet and he made a tranquilizer cocktail and guaranteed that we’d be able to get him shod, if he could stand up. In fact if he wasn’t gelded, we could have done that while we were at it. He said we would probably be able to wean Punkie to acepromazine after a few positive experiences with shoeing. The good news is the next time Dave came to the farm, Punkie got four shoes and Dave left unscathed.
We had to TQ Punkie to shoe him for his entire racing career. I don’t know what happened to him, but it must have been bad, because even today, the blacksmith is not his favorite person.
Punk progressed with his training and learned to go between horses. We took him back to the track, where incidentally he loved to be. He had fans, everyone loved him and he loved to be there. He was quite a ham. One day a hotwalker was walking around the barn looking for the powdered donuts he’d had in his pocket. On the ground in front of Punk’s stall was the wrapper and on his face was incriminating powdered sugar. From that day, he always shared his donuts with the Punk.
I loved to ride Punkie at the track. He wasn’t hard to ride, but he carried on constantly and looked tough and menacing. He liked to romp and play, but always stayed under me. He was one of those horses that made you look good because people thought he was tough, but in reality, he was a pussy cat to ride. JK and I were excited. Punkie was ready to run and we needed to find a race. Marlboro Racetrack still had a two day meet at that time. We entered him there. I’d never been there, but I liked the “fair like” atmosphere. JK would be Punkie’s jockey. Our strategy was easy to find. We knew that Punkie hated other horses around him, so a clean break was imperative. He was fast out of the gate and we had blinkers on him to help keep is attention on running, not the other horses. The field was full and Punkie had drawn the outside post. This was not good because the tractor was running and it distracted him. My friend Ann Merryman was standing with me when they broke and I said, “Where’s Punkie?” A moment later he came out of the gate, far behind everyone else. I knew we didn’t have a prayer. There was no way he would catch them and weave within traffic to get a piece of it. Besides it was four furlongs so there would be no time to make it up. Just then, Ann said, “Look at your horse, he’s coming.” I’m wasn’t as good at watching races so it took a moment for me to locate my horse. The race was ending, and there was Punkie between horses, fighting to get a piece of it. I couldn’t believe that little horse was so brave. Then I asked Ann, “Where’s the wire, where did he end up?” Punk was picking off horses until the very end. He was a racehorse for sure. That Punk ended up 5th that day. He got a check! It was a few hundred dollars, but when you’re as poor as I was, that was monumental. JK was beaming. He said “This is a racehorse!!”
Punkie’s career was not long. He raced only seven times, but he never missed a check. He supported me through one of the toughest times in my life financially. He set me up in the breaking business by providing me the funds to get established with a clientele. I told him often that I would keep him forever. I adored him and I think, he adored me. He loved his life and and loved to race. By far his favorite day was race day. He knew by the way we were acting that it was race day and he’d start to wind up. He’d couldn’t get on the trailer fast enough. Once in the receiving barn he’d prance and rear in the stall, but never touch a wall. On the way to the paddock he’d bow his neck and prance but never pull on the shank. Once he had the saddle and rider, he was ready. I think Punkie thought he was a Stake horse. After all his jockey, was also the person who cleaned his stall and took care of him. JK is the only jockey Punkie ever had.
Except for the first race, Punkie was always the first horse from the gate. All of his races began with “And it’s Dancing Spunky” He got a call in every point of the race because he was always in the hunt. He never won a race, but he never missed a check. He made $23K the hard way. I sold half of him to a friend of my dad’s, but kept controlling interest.
In his last race, Punk got the first call as usual. He finished third and pulled up on the track. Something was wrong. JK was jumping off of him. I ran out and Punkie had broken down. He got a ride in the horse ambulance back to the receiving barn. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never had a horse injured in a race. An old groom came over and assisted me. The vets came and x-rayed Punk. He had a catastrophic fracture of his sesamoid bone. Okay, how much time? You don’t understand, that will never heal, even with surgery. He’ll founder in the other foot and die a painful death. It’s best to put him down now. I looked at Punk, he was fine. He was lame, but he was fine. “I’m not doing that, I’m taking him home. I’ll put him down if I have to, but not until then.” They said he must have four months stall rest and then if it healed he could be turned out, but they did not expect it to heal. Even if it does heal, he’ll never be sound. “I don’t care, I’m keeping him forever.”
JK was beside himself with guilt. He had felt it snap in the first part of the race, but had been unable to pull Punk up. Punkie wasn’t going to let those horses get away from him. That’s just who he was. About a month into Punk’s recovery, the partner came along and said he wanted Punkie as a riding horse for his girlfriend. I informed him, Punk would likely never be sound, but if he did heal, he could bring his girlfriend over any time to ride him. I knew that he had befriended another trainer who wanted Punkie for racing if he did heal.
Punkie missed the track, but he was a perfect patient and didn’t have any problem staying in the stall for the four months. I transitioned him to turn out in a big field with a gorgeous turn out shed. Back then my theory was that if they lived outside, they wouldn’t get excited and run when turned out each day. Punkie waited at the gate and waited at the gate and waited at the gate. He wanted in. He didn’t care how nice that turn out shed was. He was a racehorse and he deserved a stall. I’m much smarter now, and I did bring Punkie in. He’s had his own stall ever since. After a year’s time I got on him and he wasn’t sound so I abandoned the idea of riding him. In the meantime, we moved our breaking operation to Sagamore Farm and of course, Punkie moved with us.
We had the 90 stall training barn with the indoor gallop. I hated it. It was too big and too much responsibility. I wanted to ride and train not run a barn. The hours were long and the expenses were high. JK and I were going to have to cut down the number of our “personal horses”. Now mind you, we only had two. Bo, the pony we used to break the baby horses and Punkie. I had gotten on Punkie a few times recently and he was sound. Of course there was no guarantee he’d stay that way. Besides, he acted just like a racehorse and nothing like a pony. Dancing and prancing, carrying on. JK pointed out that we needed a pony for the breaking business. I told him we’d teach Punk. JK laughed at me and said that horse would never make a pony. I responded that he’d just have to because I was keeping him forever.
Punkie decided I had lost my mind. What sort of race training was this? “I’m not leading that other horse anywhere. Oh and another thing, “I’m not standing here waiting around either.” In the beginning JK looked at me everyday and thought I was stupid. One day while schooling him to stand, Punkie got so mad he flipped. It wasn’t easy breaking the babies without a pony either. We were spoiled and used to relying on the pony. After a few months Punkie finally became good company for the babies, even if he would not allow them to touch him.
It took about a year, but Punk was becoming a great pony. He was staying sound and we could even take him to the gate at the track with the babies. After all, they would go anywhere with him and relied on him to tell them what to do. We got a really big client from New York and we got this great idea that we would use Punkie to get their gate cards. Punk broke nine times with nine different babies, straight as a string and on the money every time. He was the best horse in the world.
Another year went by and Punk was a good pony, but he did snap at the babies a lot.
No matter how much I corrected him, he persisted. He also would bump them with his butt to get them to stop leaning on him. One day I was ponying a colt who started trying to mount us from the side. He pushed us into a corner. (it was my fault, I shouldn’t have let him get us in this position). As he started to come down on us, Punkie bowed down and backed out of there, the colt landing beside us and my hand still on the pony strap. I asked JK if he’d seen it. Punkie had saved me. He would save me many times in the years to come. He’d save JK even more.
Not long after that day, we were heading to the training track ponying a baby. Punkie was snapping at the baby and bumping him when he’d lag behind. When you pony a horse, their head should be at the pony’s shoulder. If they get ahead, they get loose and if the suck back they get loose. I looked at JK and I said, Punkie is making this baby stay where he’s supposed to be. Punkie knows what to do, all I have to do is hold the strap. “Thank you, stupid human. I’ve been trying to take care of you for months and you keep telling me to cut it out.” I never corrected Punk again for snapping a baby. Incidentally, they take correction from another horse much better than they do from us humans.
This entry is long enough and I can’t tell you how many times Punkie saved our lives, but he did. He never let us down, not even once. We used to have a third person lead the baby out of the stall and hand them to me for few days and then just ride the baby out once they got the idea. One day the ground person was leading the baby out and they stumbled. The baby spooked and they let her go. I was sitting on Punkie sideways across the shedrow. This baby was coming at us full tilt. She was scared and JK was in big trouble. There was no time to think, let alone come up with a plan. As the baby approached, Punk turned and accelerated, I looked down and the grabbed the rein and Punkie slowed down and pulled us up. JK was thanking me telling me I was the best rider in the world. I didn’t do anything. There was no time for me to tell Punk what to do. The only thing I had done was reach down and grab the rein. What a wonderful horse. After that day, we knew there was no better pony than Punk.
No matter how stupid the request, Punkie always came through. He taught people to ride, was the company for weaning babies. He was the companion for bad shippers, rock solid in the race paddock when a horse was nervous and resisting being saddled. Punkie helped JK get quite a few dates who were interested in learning to ride.
Punk never had a lame day since we gave him the two years off. When he was 16, I was breaking a horse off to breeze at Pimlico. When you do this you lead the horse with a pony strap and accelerate to breezing speed. You let the strap slip and pull the pony up. When I told Punk to go, he said, “Now you’re talking”, and started to pull ahead. I couldn’t get him pulled up right away. The clocker called me and wanted to know who the gray horse was. He did the first quarter in .22. That’s smoking. That was the last time he breezed. He was 16 years old and if he didn’t have the good sense to protect himself, I would do it for him. I don’t think Punkie has ever realized he’s not a racehorse. He just thinks I’m too dumb to find him a race.
These days, he still breaks a few horses a year. His main job it to keep Graycie company. He’s the only horse that can stand her. She’s hard to take. I’ve bred her and she’s due in June. JK and I can’t wait. Punkie will love the baby. He’s weaned four babies and been their company until they are broken. Punkie plays with them and brings them up properly. It’s a snap to break them, because they already trust and depend on him. We’re so looking forward to it. Then I got to thinking. It seems like just yesterday Punkie was a four year old. I blinked and eye and he’s 25. He’ll be 27 when it’s time to break the new baby. Sure, he’s in great shape, we still ride him every day, but I just can’t believe it, he’s 25.
I’ve been so lucky to have the best horse in the world. I’ve learned more from Punk thank I can ever express. He really is the best horse I ever did see.