It was an overcast, chilly January day in Lexington when I left the campsite with camera in hand and followed the paved road that meanders through the KHP.
Spread out over 1200 acres of pasture, polo fields, barns, event centers, museums and shedrows, this horsey wonderland entertains about a million visitors annually.
As I walked the equine version of a celebrity “red carpet,” I had an unsettling feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be there, that I had wandered “backstage” without permission and would be confronted by the mounted police unit, and then banished from this unique horsey wonderland.
I knew that the winter would be a slow time for the usual tourist invasion, but I never expected to be the only visitor.
Occasionally, an official looking pickup truck or golf cart would whizz by, and I’d smile, make eye contact for a split second and give a friendly n
wave in the drivers’ direction. Each smile or wave in return provided reassurance that I was welcome.od or
In my years of intently focused (some might say suspicious-looking) wanderings around public areas with binoculars or a camera, (which may or may not include hiding behind trees or crouching low to the ground), I’ve come to realize the necessity of non-verbal communication. It’s a language that the horse has known all along.
The language they are born knowing is expressed in the glint of the eye, the swish of a tail, the wrinkling of a nostril, the subtle, near imperceptible shifting of attention that is easy to miss, but always precedes “unpredictable” behavior.
Walking along the equivalent of a “red carpet” for horse fans, I continued down the path leading to the open and airy barn known as the “Hall of Champions.”
Bordering the path and set flush against the grass were stone slabs that marked the final resting place of past residents of the Hall. I stopped to bear witness to the horses who had spent their final days being adored by fans and visitors, and were now forever remembered on this Memorial Walk of Champions.
Even though the horses interred here accrued winnings in the tens of millions of dollars, it was their accessibility to racing fans that firmly cemented each individual’s place in immortality.
I read the epitaphs of Forego, Bold Forbes, Kona Gold. . . all remarkable individuals that earned this place of honor. Their epitaphs were sweet and succinct, with no mention of the number of dollars they amassed.
I stepped across the threshold and entered the barn feeling that same sort of anxious reverence that is usually reserved for visits to temples, war memorials and natural wonders of the world.
I found myself standing in the exact spot where I had “met” and photographed John Henry when he was a cantankerous but obliging 28 year old. Nine years had passed, and so had he, stubbornly succumbing to the infirmities of old age on Oct 8 2007, at the age of 32.
With a personality, heart and
tenacity that has been described in countless stories, books and documentaries, his memorial stands at the beginning of the path leading to the front
entrance of the Hall, where his carefully crafted likeness stands in bronze.
It’s clear that the sculptor took great pains to capture the one physical attribute that refused to soften with age, the part of every horse that communicates without words, and says more than any epitaph could. Even in bronze, John Henry’s eye communicated his greatness.