By Kathleen Adams
-- My heart sank. An incredible feeling of sadness came over me as my eyes focused on the headline "Hal's Hope dies." A brief story recounted how the 5-year-old horse died from complications of intestinal surgery. It also mentioned that Hal, the 2000 Florida Derby winner, finished 16th in that year's Kentucky Derby and went on to amass more than $1 million in career earnings.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I get teary-eyed whenever I hear that a horse has passed away. Whether it's one I've personally known from my days on the racetrack as a hotwalker, or one I've written about for an equine publication, it doesn't matter. I cry.
My sympathies generally are extended to the horse and its immediate connections. But whenever I think about Hal's death, I get a nagging sense something is different this time.
While I understand his passing is a personal blow to owner/breeder/trainer Harold Rose, I also believe it's a huge loss for the sport of horse racing. In my opinion, Hal's Hope epitomized everything that is right with racing.
For one thing, he was a former Derby horse who was still running past the age of four. Unfortunately, a rarity in racing these days. Most of the horses Hal ran against in the Derby have long-since retired to the breeding shed. But Rose decided to keep the dark bay colt with the heart-shaped splotch on his forehead where he belonged, on the racetrack. Rose's faith in Hal was rewarded when earlier this year, the horse won the Gulfstream Park Handicap. His last start was in the Memorial Day Handicap at Calder, where he finished third.
Many people sum up a racehorse's life by statistics. They look at the number of starts versus earnings. They stress fractions and bullet workouts. But others know the power these animals have to transform lives. That's the human side of horse racing.
For as accomplished as he was on the racetrack, Hal's Hope also had a gift when it came to humans. He seemed to sense what they needed. I learned this firsthand when I followed Hal, Rose, and jockey Roger Velez through their final Derby preparations for The Backstretch magazine.
At the time, Rose was 88 and the sentimental favorite to win the Derby. Velez was forty-something. He was also a recovering alcoholic. Nonetheless, Velez won Rose's trust and became Hal's rider.
The first time I met Rose, I was struck by how frail looking he was. I knew he had overcome a serious illness to bring his namesake to the Derby, and privately wondered if he had the stamina necessary to get Hal to the starting gate. Whatever doubts I had about Rose disappeared the first time I stood beside him as he watched Hal gallop at Keeneland before the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. The nearly black horse was wearing hot pink racing bandages on his back legs, and when he saw Hal's Hope come around the track, Rose smiled, pointed at Hal, and said, "There he goes."
No matter how many times he watched Hal cover the track in those early morning workouts, the look on Rose's face was always the same. It was pure joy.
During those early mornings, I would observe Hal in his stall before Rose arrived at the barn. Most of the time, Hal was full of himself and would try to bite anyone who walked past him. But he always seemed to calm down when he saw Rose. Perhaps it was because Hal knew it wouldn't be long before Rose reached down into his coat pocket and pulled out an oatmeal cookie.
You learn a lot about people when you spend the predawn hours with them day after day. From one of Rose's sons I learned the family believed that Hal motivated Rose to overcome his earlier illness.
"That horse keeps Dad alive," said Randy Rose.
From Patty Velez, I learned that when no other trainer would hire her husband to exercise horses, Rose was willing to overlook Roger's past and gave the struggling jockey a chance. Even after Hal won the Florida Derby and Rose could have gotten a big name jockey to ride the horse, Rose stuck with Roger. That is integrity.
There's no doubt Hal's Hope will be missed by those closest to him. But hopefully, his lessons will remain with horse racing for a long time to come. Kathleen Adams is a freelance writer and stable assistant at the Kentucky Derby Museum.