12/15/2017 10:12AM

Personal Merit and Beth Cramer, BFFs

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Personal Merit and Beth Cramer, BFFs

Personal Merit

(1991 ch.g. by Turkoman - Siggebo, by Air Forbes Won)

Beth Cramer had long dreamed of owning her own horse - what young girl doesn't? - and at 15 she decided she wanted an off-the-track Thoroughbred. After all, everyone in the New Jersey barn where she rode seemed to have one.

Her parents decided to find her one, and family friend Oliver “Ollie” Keelan suggested a nearby chestnut gelding.  They went to take a look.

Beth’s mom was a sucker for a red coat.  In addition, the horse in question was attractive, smart, tall, athletic, and he’d been very successful on-track. In other words, he was a dream horse!

Almost.

“My parents weren’t horse people,” Beth says with a laugh, 18 years later.  “They were like, “It’s a great horse for a kid!” 

And I mean, he really was!  But he was really tough.”

Personal Merit, the racehorse, ran 28 times over 4 seasons for owner Daffodil Hill Farm.  The son of Turkoman inherited not just his sire’s size – he’s an inch shy of Turkoman’s 17 hands – but also his compelling eyes and, much more importantly, his competitive nature.

Although not as accomplished as Turkoman, Personal Merit was no slouch.  His PPs boast of his connections’ faith….races like the Widener, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Baltimore Breeders’ Cup, Excelsior, Saratoga Cup, Paterson Handicap, Meadowlands Cup, New Hampshire Sweepstakes, and more.

The chestnut gelding’s biggest win was the Paterson Handicap (G3), and he placed in quite a few others. But he’s perhaps best known for running second in the 1996 Massachusetts Handicap - 2 ¼ lengths behind the great Cigar.

Personal Merit retired in late 1996 with a record of 28-6-6-4 and earnings of $478,452. 

Above/below: Personal Merit at Saratoga in 1996, above, and at Suffolk Downs in 1995, below

Above:  Personal Merit runs second to Cigar in the 1996 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs; whereas in 1995 in the same race (below), also against Cigar, he was fourth (At left. Cigar, not surprisingly, was out of frame by then

Before long into his new life, his new friend Beth climbed aboard. And what was that like?

“Well, they’d ridden him a bit after he retired, but it was kind of like he didn’t really know what my legs were for,” Beth remembers. “And he wasn’t necessarily the greatest at steering. He wasn’t hot or reactive or willful - but he bucked me off a lot. He was super-athletic.

“I learned how to sit a buck like a cowgirl," she laughs.  "So now, when people say their horse bucks?  I say, “No, that’s not a buck.””

Bucks or no bucks, Beth loved Personal Merit - she continued using his Jockey Club name - from the get-go.  When she moved around for the East Coast for years, as people often do at that stage in life, her handsome buddy moved along with her – to Penn State, Maryland, south Jersey, north Jersey, back to Pennsylvania.  Along the way, she always loved it when folks remembered Personal Merit from his previous lifetime.

The duo hacked around a lot and, although he kept Beth on her toes, they both loved trail riding.  Personal Merit eventually even learned how to jump properly – “properly” meaning he figured out he should go over the fences, Beth says, not through or around them.  He learned how to jump up to 4 feet, he competed in a puissance jumper derby, and he was once a reserve champion at a show - a minor show, but a show nonetheless.

“But we never won the jumper derby or anything like that,” Beth says, smiling. “We were choke artists. He wasn’t really fast as a jumper but he was pretty honest and pretty powerful. He was sort of slow, though – he had no one to chase!”

Personal Merit is a few weeks from 27 now and Beth, 33, has two children.  Both her son and daughter have been on Personal Merit but, when they’re aboard, Beth pays close attention.  Her beloved old chestnut, after all, has quite a few bucks left in him.

Friend Sarah K. Andrew and I visited Personal Merit recently at his Allentown, PA home, and the old boy looks grand.  He’s still oversized, of course, and still handsome, a good mover, attentive, fun-loving, and quite willing.  Beth still rides him regularly.

His teeth aren’t the greatest and he gets senior feed and soaked hay cubes.  He has a minor cataract that Beth thinks he uses as an excuse to sometimes not do quite what he’s told (which, of course, he'd do with or without the cataract).

He colicked once when she shipped him somewhere, and she freely admits it was her fault.  She'd messed with his routine, fussed over him, cleaned him up and left him inside that day - clearly not what he was used to.

“So now I sneak attack him when I’m going to have to put him on a trailer,” she laughs, patting his shoulder.

He wears front shoes and his left hind leg bears a scar from a losing battle with a fence over a decade ago. He already had an old racing injury on the same leg, so it bears watching. 

Beth has her own old injury, too, courtesy of her BFF, that happened many years ago in Maryland. 

“It was raining and he gave me warnings, and I was oblivious, and he got me good," she says.  "I think he bucked twice, and I just landed wrong. So now I’ve got some hardware in my right wrist, so I can always remember him by it.”

Beth brought him out for photos for us, and her pride in him was apparent.  She laughed as he eagerly pulled on and occasionally bounced off of her on their way up a hill. He was fine with the photography idea, because he's an agreeable sort, and it was sunny, and not too cold, and he had three admiring women to spoil him. 

But when we tried standing him for a formal portrait, no, he didn’t want to stop moving, thank you very much.  He inched closer to Beth, pushed at her, pulled her over to a grassy area and dropped his head.  We tried again and again with fair-to-middlin’ results, and finally gave up.  As we said, no need for perfection - it's not like we were shooting him for the next stallion register!

Beth then led him into a small outdoor arena, where he then didn’t want to start moving, thank you very much.  She coaxed him, clucked at him, shushed him away.  He stared at her, probably wondering why his buddy had turned weird, and readily jogged off – likely not because she wanted him to but because he just found her silly. 

He moved comfortably around the enclosure a few times, peering over the fence to nearby horses, suddenly not quite as thrilled with his human companionship with its odd requests.  Still, he was good-natured about his suddenly-unusual day and when Beth goaded him on one more time, he picked up the pace, letting out a relaxed but impressive buck while cantering into the last patch of late-day sun.

He stopped near the gate and, when Beth approached, he greeted her kindly.  She smiled and hopped aboard her old friend for a few minutes, sans bridle or halter, the soft rope shank looped gently around his neck. Personal Merit willingly went wherever his friend directed him – or, well, pretty much wherever she wanted. 

By then, the last afternoon sun glowed brilliantly off his copper coat, his nostrils were distended from the few trips around the ring, and his eyes were downright glowing. Beth was glowing, too. He was happy, they were happy.

He looked nowhere near his 26 years and nor, for that matter, did Beth look near her 33.

She dismounted and slowly led him back to the stable, chatting along the way.  And as the duo relaxedly walked back into the barn, through that fading light, past the stable's Christmas decorations and into the darkened aisleway, the scene was timeless.

They looked just as they might have 5 years ago, or 10, or 18. They looked like girls and their horses have always looked, forever.  Beth and Personal Merit were a dream come true.

Above, Personal Merit with Beth Cramer in Allentown, PA, on December 3, 2017

Above: When Personal Merit made it clear he wasn't going to stand still for his friend Beth, Sarah K. Andrew gave it a try.  And it worked for a minute or so.