I arrived at Jonabell Farm/Darley America already in awe. The rolling hills, blooming trees and flowers, fence-lined pastures, grazing horses, the fresh green of spring, barns that are architectural masterpieces and the magnificent homes of the area beg you to slow the car way down and look around. I really just wanted to get out, set up a lawn chair and spend the morning on a hilltop roadside looking out over horse country. I drove as slow as great grandma trying to see as much as possible, but the drivers sharing my road were clearly annoyed at my snail’s pace. I was equally irritated at their presence in my utopia.
I pulled up to the gated main entrance of Jonabell Farm and spoke with a gentleman at the guard house. In a truly southern fashion he addressed me as Miss Davis and phoned the office to let them know I had arrived. Being called Miss Davis is a delight for me, and on a bad day I might consider hopping in the car and driving south just for that genteel experience. He opened the gates and kindly instructed me to proceed up the drive, park in front of the office and enter through the glass doors.
At about the midway point up the drive, my eyes welled up with tears. I am very fortunate to have been to many exciting and interesting places and on a fairly frequent basis, but I have rarely been so taken aback upon arrival anywhere. The setting was as close to perfection as I can imagine and strangely, it didn’t seem surreal—I was really there.
I parked the car and went into the office, as I had been directed to do. I was welcomed and pleasantries were exchanged. It was immediately obvious that I had walked through the big glass doors of the capital of refinement and sophistication, not the type of place where I normally spend much time. I nervously asked if I could wear regular shoes or should change into the boots I had left in the car. I was told that my shoes would be fine. I explained that I was there because I wanted to see Midshipman, and asked if it would be possible. They assured me that I would be able to see Midshipman.
We started at the trophy case. The display of trophies re-established the feeling that I was in someplace special. I got goosebumps while we talked about the horses and races where they won the trophies. Midshipman’s Eclipse Award and Breeder’s Cup trophy were both in the display. I really wanted to hold them, but I resisted the temptation to ask. I felt like a restrained child whose mother had forewarned me of severe consequences if my behavior was not exemplary.
Even though I read about the farm and their stallions prior to my visit, it didn’t register with me until I was standing in front of this case that the horse who had brought me here was still something of a small fish in this big, fancy pond. While he was a champion, his career was short and his first crop will just begin racing this summer. As a sire he is unproven but living with some of the greatest race horses and proven sires of champions in the industry.
The level at which I was seeing the thoroughbred industry hit me even harder as we walked and talked ourselves to the paddocks of Animal Kingdom and Street Sense, where a pair of Kentucky Derby winners were standing right in front of me. At this point I realized that I am involved in a sport that allows me to come visit the celebrities without the line, the crowd, the paparazzi or any real interest outside real horse racing fans. Standing in this spot was the equivalent of coming by a big, empty gymnasium, walking in and finding Magic Johnson and Larry Bird sitting on the bleachers just hanging out.
We stopped next at the paddocks of Street Cry and Medaglia d’Oro, and it was like my tour guide smacked me in the back of the head with his words like my mom used to do with her hand when I wasn’t understanding the significance of a situation. I silently said to myself, “Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore” while trying to listen to everything he was telling me about these horses. I was so far away from my Breeders’ Cup and Kentucky Derby cheap seats, claiming a horse at the Fairgrounds, and being in the winners’ circle at Churchill Downs, my previous horse racing encounters with the “big time”, that I could no longer believe I wasn’t dreaming.
We toured the breeding shed, and the operation was explained using delicate and scientific terminology. I mostly suppressed my remarks and giggling and took it all in. We walked through the immaculate barns with stalls the size of my living room and an elegance that I do not have the words to describe. My main attraction was up next.
I saw the three white socks and knew it was him. Midshipman was standing in his paddock, grazing, looking as happy as a horse can look. I am certain he smiled at me as we walked up. My interest in Midshipman was cultivated through the purchase of a colt he sired in 2012. Last fall we became the colt’s owner, named him Avery Glenn and are eagerly awaiting his racing days. Meeting Midshipman was very much like the replay you often hear when a fan meets their favorite sports star. I could easily hear myself saying ”He was very down to earth” or “I really enjoyed talking to him” or “He just seemed like a regular horse.” But there was more to the experience. It was also like meeting a long, lost friend or maybe the father of the child you adopted. I instantly adored him and wanted to throw my arms around his big neck as if we had known each other for years. Some farm planner had the good sense to make the fences as tall as me so that it wasn’t possible for me to hug the big guy without going over the fence.
My tour guide was a bit lenient and let me pet Midshipman. The farm has strict rules stating that their visitors must stay on the paved paths which are not close enough to the horses for touching. I let Midshipman chew on my arm, making my guide a bit nervous. Apparently, when you are a sheik and have a collection of multi-million dollar horses on a bazillion dollar farm, you become a lawsuit target. I don’t even know how to grasp the complexity of such a concept.
My guide had the sensitivity to know how important this moment was to me. This was as close as I have ever been to a champion, unless you count the 2008 Indiana High School South Central Regional Women’s Soccer team captain. He indulged my desire to take pictures and answered all of my very elementary questions as if I was going to bring a full stable of mares to the farm for breeding.
On our way back to the office we talked about the Triple Crown, and we stopped at Affirmed’s burial site, an exclamation point on a morning that was already monumental. When I left through those same glass doors, I had to remind myself to walk to my car. I wanted to skip. I am not sure I can dream Darley big, but it is certainly scalable. We will continue to watch Avery Glenn grow and learn to be a race horse. The next few months will pass quickly, and we will soon know if he is a chip off the ol’ Midshipman block!
When I emailed Darley America to ask if it would be possible for me to come to Jonabell Farm to see Midshipman, I didn’t realize that stud farms offer tours that you can schedule regardless of whether or not you intend to use their services. Jonabell/Darley is no exception and with a bit of planning, you can take a tour of this operation. I also learned that the stud farms are organizing a touring program much like the bourbon distilleries have put in place and that it will be rolled out this fall.