By Frances J. Karon
Nureyev's empty stall echoes the emptiness in the hearts of those of us who knew him. From his birth on May 2, 1977, the Thoroughbred world had many ambitious expectations of Nureyev to which he responded with a resounding affirmation of our faith. Nureyev inspired and fulfilled the dreams of everyone whose lives he touched, from his $1.3-million yearling sale price to his undefeated classic-winning racecourse success and his amazing achievements at stud. If one could fault how the reality unfolded it was in the stewards demoting Nureyev from his English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) victory.
The premature retirement of Nureyev, who never raced after the Guineas disqualification, prompted one Turf writer to dub the colt a "namby-pamby little runt who would not come out to play." But what a giant he proved to be! His tally of 130 stakes winners equates to 18% of his foals, and the day before his Oct. 29 death saw another milestone surpassed with his 100th stakes winner as a broodmare sire.
The ultimate test of Nureyev's spirit came when he broke his hock in a May 5, 1987, paddock accident. Life would never be the same for the horse and the key people involved with him. If the adage "to know him is to love him" has any credence, it certainly applied to Nureyev. Those who cared for him followed the example set by his indomitable will to survive and refused to let him die throughout eight months of hardship of biblical proportions. The December day in 1987 when Nureyev was welcomed home to Walmac from Hagyard-Davidson-McGee marked a tremendous triumph of strength of character, not only Nureyev's but of the team of people who had devoted themselves to getting the horse through this ordeal.
Nureyev never possessed good fertility. Every single foal sired by Nureyev goes down to the efforts of Dr. J.D. Howard, who checked mares around the clock and bred them as close to ovulation as possible, regardless of whether it was 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., and did so without complaint with the support of an excellent crew. Every in-foal mare was a gift, every Miesque and Soviet Star a collaboration of horse and man. Peintre Celebre's sensational Arc win; the classics won by Spinning World, Reams of Verse, and Mehthaaf; the breathtakingly fast Stravinsky; 2001 grade/group I winners Skimming, Senure, King Charlemagne, and Black Hawk -- each one a bonus after Nureyev's long-odds recovery.
J.D. and Nureyev's groom, Kenny Aubrey, were there when Nureyev first arrived at Walmac in 1981, and that the stallion flourished after his injury is a testimonial to the remarkable quality of the horse and to the doting attention of those who saw to his well-being on a daily basis. Spending the night beside Nureyev's stall, missing the kids' baseball games, or coming into work on a day off was less a sacrifice than a way of life for J.D. and Kenny. After 20 years they will be lost without him.
Nureyev had a wonderful personality, the perfect blend of aristocratic bearing and unaffected faithfulness. It was a treat to watch J.D. and Nureyev play together, as they often did, the mutual affection obvious. You could see it in the horse's eye that Nureyev knew he was born a champion--no one ever questioned his intelligence--and he reminded us of that every day for 24 years. He taught us about valor in the face of adversity; few other horses could have survived, let alone thrived as he did.
Walmac didn't merely lose its foundation sire when Nureyev died. As Johnny Jones put it, Nureyev was "almost human" and as such a respected member of the family. Nureyev was a special horse and any one of us would have done anything for him. When Nureyev needed one final kindness it was the most difficult decision, made out of all the respect in the world for a beloved friend.
We will all be lost without Nureyev. We weren't ready to lose him, but in the end the love behind the desperate hope that he would pull through helped us accept that it was time to let go. It was an honor and my privilege to be associated with such an individual, who was great in all aspects of the word.
Nureyev will forever remain the consummate champion in our memories.FRANCES J. KARON has worked at Walmac since 1990 to be near her equine idol, Nureyev.