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.