Evening Stables

By Joe Hickey

Of all the great memories bequeathed to me by my boss, the great breeder E.P. Taylor, none is more special than those of accompanying him on many one-on-one after-hour visits to the Windfields Farm barns during "evening stables."

It has been 15 years since the former Windfields owner died, but the memories of evening stables are as vivid as if the clock was turned back to the days when the farm was standing Northern Dancer and selling well-bred yearlings at the Keeneland summer sale.

An art form as practiced at Newmarket, Chantilly, and Ballydoyle, evening stables is the ritual post-prandial tour of the training yard. Originally, such rounds were made to ensure that all was well in the stable boxes before the master turned in for the night. At times, evening stables became a proud host's show-off-and-tell exercise to entertain patrons and guests between cigars and brandy and the obligatory nightcap.

As practiced by Taylor (1901-1989), whose dominance of Canadian racing and breeding in the '40s and '50s later enriched the international Thoroughbred industry, evening stables was a needed and welcome surcease from the pressures of the boardroom--a time to unwind and pamper his lifelong passion for all things Thoroughbred.

Often depicted in gray topper and formal morning clothes as he hosted royal visitors to Toronto, here he relaxed in corduroys, loafers, and a Donegal cap.

He once confided that of all his ports of call--which included estates or farms in England, the Bahamas, Toronto, and Oshawa, Canada, he came closest to total relaxation while at his Cecil County, Maryland farm, where he had built a flagship 2,600-acre showplace. It was his masterpiece--Northern Dancer's Magic Kingdom, where pilgrims armed with cameras, notebooks, and prayer beads came from such far-away shrines as Hokkaido and Dubai.

A meld of evening stables memories I was privileged to share with Edward Plunket Taylor follows:

"Has Lady Guest arrived at the training barn from Ballydoyle? I'm anxious to see how she has grown and furnished out." Or, "Let's take a look at the foal arrivals since my last visit." On other occasions he would focus on the mares. (Stallions generally were visited in mid-morning, when they weren't working.)

"What do the vets say about Fleur's hind leg?" "Wouldn't you think this young mare (whose muzzle he is scratching) would have shed her winter coat by now?" Another time, "Let's have a look at the Kentucky sales yearlings. I'd like to see them one more time before they ship to Lexington."

One particular evening his attention centered on the training barn:

A haughty mockingbird's medley heralded our arrival. Before the lights are flicked on, and the barn cats come running, the boss pauses at the open doorway, puts a finger to his lips and shushes, "Listen, listen to the night music." Amid scents of molasses, neat's-foot oil, and liniment there is the rattle of a feed tub, soft nickering, an occasional stomp, the protestations of his stout Fell pony's digestive system.

Even silhouetted in moonlight, this man casts a long shadow. He seemed in wide-eyed wonder of the moment--like a young lad chasing fireflies, or licking the cream from between the chocolate layers of an Oreo cookie.

This is the peace he sought. His senses reveled in it.

Approach of the watchman's truck stirred him from his reverie. Aisle-way lights go on and we proceeded down the line of stalls. No dilettante, he knew his horses, seldom reaching for the bloodstock booklet in his breast pocket. He stood before each animal, studying, questioning, or nodding approval. "Seems this fellow wants two turns, eh," or, "How far is this colt away from a race?" All the while, a purring cat begged his attention, brushing its coat on the ribs of his corduroys. Then, after assuring Fell that next time there'll be time for a long hack together, "We must go. I've got a long day tomorrow."

Refreshed, dynamo humming, he would be off.

Renewal is most often found in church; the boss could also find it in a stable.

JOE HICKEY, who lives in Easton, Md., has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.