Commentary: Spring Colors

-By Terese Karmel

Several years ago, I heard one of the finest speeches at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame inductions when trainer D. Wayne Lukas reminisced about that year’s horse nominee, Winning Colors. He used what stuffy English teachers like myself call an extended analogy, comparing his initial association with the filly to a shy teenager at a high school dance.

Lukas was the silent courtier, while dozens of young swains swarmed around her, wooing her for their stables. He hung back and finally, through the generosity of the late Eugene V. Klein, landed the Scarlett O’Hara of fillies for $575,000 at the 1986 Keeneland July yearling sale.

It was a curious analogy for a horse I never considered a beauty queen and certainly not very feminine, even by equine standards. She was big, she was kind of dappled, and she had a blurry shock of white down her face. But though she might not have won pageants, she came in first when it mattered and her dowry was healthy—more than $1 million in 19 starts.

My own encounter with Winning Colors occurred several years ago during a trip to Kentucky for the Derby. On the Thursday before the race, a friend and I toured some horse farms. We went to Claiborne, where as I have recounted in this magazine before, I was given a mane hair from Coronado’s Quest, a terror on the track but a pussycat at stud.

After Claiborne, my friend, who had made some connection at Gainesway, suggested we meander over there to see Cozzene, Broad Brush, and the other stallions. I had no idea who else was retired there.

We walked through the stallion barn (I remember Cozzene nipping at us as we tried to stroke him) and then my friend’s connection, I believe he was a gardener, said he had a surprise.

We loaded into a golf cart and cruised through green hills, past his handiwork bursting with spring colors, to what I guess in country club language would be the “back nine.”

We stopped before a white fence; there was a large tree in the field on the other side, as I recall. Everything was in bloom. It was stunning.

“Look over there,” our host commanded, his arm extended over the fence and up a hill of an enormous field. “Here comes ‘Colas.’ ” His Kentucky accent was so thick, I wasn’t sure who or what he was talking about. But of course I looked.

The vision that appeared over the crest of that hill is as vivid today as it was then.

Racing toward us as if she was going to attack was a gray horse—I swear—the size of an elephant. As she approached the fence, she pulled up sharply under the tree, stopped, grazed a moment or two, and then picked up her head and stared us down. Her demeanor demanded reverence, and we gladly obliged. And there was silence for what seemed like forever. I wonder now if even the birds stopped chirping when she was among them.

By then I had put it together: “Colas” was Winning Colors very much in foal, our host was to inform us, to Broad Brush. A monster of a mare already, by this point, she was nothing short of massive.
And now she is gone. When I close my eyes, I can see her as clearly as I did that sunny afternoon when a pair of devoted Thoroughbred fans were taken off the beaten path to see a special horse.

I never learned if the foal made it to the track, although now, reading her obituaries, I know that she wasn’t too successful in that department.

No matter.

She was a knockout. The belle of the ball.

Terese Karmel is a Connecticut journalist and college instructor