12/15/2011 4:40PM

Christmas cards bring to life passion for horses

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Lou Lepper Christmas cards

There were perhaps a half dozen of them, old Christmas cards featuring etchings of racehorses done from photographs. The horses’ names were unfamiliar – Appealing, Off-Islander, Chronoflite – but the cards were so lovingly produced, maybe even hand-made, they drew me in. And the best part? They beckoned to me from eBay, begging me to bid. By the time the auction ended, I owned them all, and, after conversing with the seller, I bought another half-dozen or so.

The man who created the cards was Lou Lepper, and, like the horses, his name was unfamiliar. But soon I stepped into a life, Lepper’s life, one that ended more than a half-century ago.

Louis J. Lepper, as I later discovered while researching the man, was a highly successful insurance executive from Detroit. Born in 1884, he loved golf and curling. But it was a passion for his horses, modest though they were, that led him to create such glorified and beautiful cards, even during the dark years of World War II.

They honored his horses by chronicling their exploits and personalities – often in the horses’ voice – with humorous anecdotes and touching sentiments. You’d think they were Seabiscuit and Gallorette.

The cards were of top-quality, often colorful multi-layered paper. They featured cloth ribbons, metallic ink, translucent paper, embossing, seals, and photos. Yet it was the words – and the cards did not lack for those – that set these cards apart from anything I’d ever seen.

America Fore: “There must be some cat blood in me, because I sure hate the dampness under foot. If Lou wants me to run in the mud, he’ll have to buy me some rubber boots, and, what with things like that rationed, it might take him years to get enough points for two pairs of boots.”

Off-Islander: “I hope all you good people had a bet on me that day in July 1946, when I won at Jamaica and paid $214 to win $96.60 to place and $62.60 to show. You didn’t? Lou must have forgotten to tell you I was going to put one over that afternoon. I’m afraid he almost forgot to tell himself, because almost all the money he bet on me was in the books, instead of in the mutuels. Kinda tough to get paid on 15 to 1 when the mutuel odds were 106 to 1, eh what!”

Slammuring: “They say I have a Roman nose, which isn’t supposed to be pretty. But I’d just as soon have an elephant’s trunk if I could keep on getting it under the wire ahead of the horses with classic features. It isn’t the shape of your nose that counts in racing: It’s where you put it.”

I grew to love Opera Bouffe, who went blind in 1935 but was sweet and an excellent mother; and Appealing, who, forced to retire after a broken leg, had three winners from his first four 2-year-olds; and Chronolite, who boasted “four long white stockings – genuine nylon that I grew all by myself.”

I greatly admired Lepper’s articulate, good-natured stories and heartfelt sentiments. I worried for him in 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, and smiled when, in 1945, Lou noted, “The war is over and the boys are coming home.”

On March 1, 1951, Lepper died of a heart attack at 66. He had no children, which perhaps helped explain his love for his horses.

His Blood-Horse obituary reported: “Mr. Lepper was an enthusiastic patron of racing and had participated both as a breeder and owner on a small scale. . . . The Detroiter’s fondness for racing led him to create many unusual Christmas cards, reflecting an aspect of the sport, which he mailed to a wide list of friends.”

From the Detroit News: “His Christmas cards became collector’s items. They were steel engravings of one or more of his stable of horses with the verse on it purportedly being the horse’s version of the season’s top performance of the Lepper’s stable. He annually mailed out more than a thousand of them.”

While his horses’ names slipped from racing’s memory long ago, Lepper’s cards brought them to life – the mudder, the blind, the roman-nosed. And although Lepper has been gone more than 60 years now, he, too, lives on through his cards – like the ending to this, his last, featuring two weanlings of 1950:

“I sincerely hope that Santa Claus brings you something that will please you as much as these two little weanlings please me, and that in 1951 every post will be a winning post for you, whatever the distance you run or the weight you carry.”

The Lou Lepper Christmas cards

Click images for a closer look at each card and to read Lepper's Christmas messages. All Christmas card images by Barbara D. Livingston from her collection.

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A very special thank you to Tom Hall, a writer, editor and researcher, for finding information about the various horses represented on the above cards.  Tom, who works at The Blood-Horse, goes by 'lordatwar' on Twitter and has a strong knowledge of - and interest in - pedigrees. His tweets often feature the up-to-the-moment exploits of international runners.

Mike More than 1 year ago
Only Barbara Livingston could write a column like this - Should be an Eclipse Nominee IMO!
Diana Heerdt More than 1 year ago
A wonderful Christmas story filled with the love of a man for his horses. How wonderful he left his beautiful cards as a tribute, and Barbara was able to acquire them!
Esther Cottrell More than 1 year ago
Why cant I find a man like this? I don't think they make them like him anymore. These were so touching and bittersweet, I found myself choking back tears. Thanks for taking the time to share them.
Mike More than 1 year ago
Esther you will find a man like this!
Linda More than 1 year ago
Barbara, lovely lovely story about a man's love for his horses. His insight into the horse's mind is especially what makes Mr. Lepper real to me and it is this revelation of what his horses did for his heart that is most touching. He was not afraid to share what they meant to him with those he cared about. The world of racing needs more Lou Lepper's and The Christmas Cards speak for themselves in a couple of words, Admiration and Love. Thank you Mr. Lepper for sharing your memories, where ever you are. And thank you Barbara, you are awesome and your photos are one of a kind. Merry Christmas.
Dianna Salgado More than 1 year ago
Barbara, any thought of having these reproduced, either in their original form as a card or in a small book? I'd love to have copies - photos and words. I was so touched! Thank you for sharing.
Laura Peterson More than 1 year ago
A very sweet Christmas story by one of the very best (maybe the best) equine photographer. Thanks, Barbara!
John Boyes More than 1 year ago
It would be nice to be able to buy sets of these cards for Christmas, and have some of the money go to the old warriors who are retired and on the farms. Id love to send out cards like this wishing my friends Merry Christmas and Happy New Years! Great story, I still enjoy the story about "Bulldogger" If these cards become available for sale, please let us all know !
Kim More than 1 year ago
Fabulous story! William Woodward, Sr. also sent out Christmas cards that featured his horses, including Gallant Fox and Omaha. Billy Woodward continued the tradition by sending a card that featured the great Nashua. How I would love to get my hands on one of those cards, just to see one in person!
Kim More than 1 year ago
Fabulous story! William Woodward, Sr. also sent out Christmas cards that featured his horses, including Gallant Fox and Omaha. Billy Woodward continued the tradition by sending a card that featured the great Nashua. How I would love to get my hands on one of those cards, just to see one in person!
an ole railbird More than 1 year ago
thanks barbara, for a touching story, that was well researched,& very well presented. readers could feel the passion that you have for this story. this story touched the heart strings of the old & hard hearted. thats the kind of human interest storys that are good for the industry. thanks again, an ole railbird