01/20/2011 2:54PM

Clark's words and actions deserving of spotlight


ARCADIA, Calif. – A little after 6:30 last Monday evening, in her modest home in the shadow of the Tehachapi Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, Priscilla Clark was pulling a pizza out of her oven when the phones began to ring, her cell and then her hard line. Her first thought was the same first thought that occurs to anyone living in a deeply rural outpost, far from ready access to the services the rest of us take for granted.

“I thought the neighbor’s house was on fire,” Clark said, the neighbor in this isolated ’hood being a mile or so distant.

As it turned out, it was Clark’s closest friends trying to get through – texts and messages soon piling up – to ask her if she was watching the TVG broadcast of the Eclipse Awards Dinner in Miami Beach, where it had just been announced that Zenyatta was Horse of the Year, and could she believe what that guy Jerry Moss was doing?

With only basic cable on the box, Clark had to plead ignorance. Probably just as well. Had she been watching, the pizza would have burned, sacrificed to the sight of Moss, imbued with the emotion of the moment, reading the words Clark had written two months earlier in the spasm of heartache that immediately followed Zenyatta’s narrow loss to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Like all writers worth their keystrokes, Clark at the time was pushing a deadline. In this case, it was for delivery of the introductory text to accompany the 2011 calendar “In the Presence of Champions” published by Tranquility Farm, the equine retirement facility that Clark has operated for the past 13 years on property purchased and maintained through the primary support racing patrons as Gary Biszantz and John Amerman.

Tranquility Farm has appeared in this space on a number of occasions, always accompanied by the disclaimer that the writer has been an active supporter of its efforts for many years and, in fact, serves on the Tranquility Farm board of directors. This, of course, makes me deeply prejudiced. I can deal with that.

But when Moss pulled a card from his tuxedo pocket near the end of his comprehensive acceptance speech and began to read from Clark’s calendar text, Tranquility Farm became news. Moss even apologized for the display of hubris in bringing to the party a reading appropriate to the occasion if Zenyatta’s name was in the envelope. Add to that the fact Moss had opportunities earlier in the evening to offer Clark’s words when Zenyatta was honored with a Special Eclipse Award and then later the award for champion older mare, her third straight.

After a half-century in the music business, Moss knows what works when, which is why he waited, fingers crossed, for the opportunity to deliver the message on the card in his pocket. A message that went like this:

“If you love Thoroughbred horses, you go through life hoping that you can see just one more in whose presence the clouds fall away to reveal the mountaintop,” Moss began, embracing Clark’s words. “It can take a generation or infinitely longer for such a horse to arrive, a horse that is capable of carrying the human heart. For the last one hundred years we know them all by name, but Zenyatta brought to us a beauty that was a tonic for the soul. She allowed us to believe in the impossible, and it was the light of her being as much as the thrill of her races that got us dancing. Zenyatta was transformative.”

Clark has been a teacher, a trainer, an owner, and a breeder, and for the past 13 years her life has been dedicated to the horses of Tranquility Farm and the property they call home. On that November evening, however, in the hours after watching Zenyatta lose the only race of her career, the passionate writer in Clark roared to life.

“I felt she was being treated like just another good horse who had lost a close race,” Clark said. “Those of us who had followed her knew she was so much more than that. I was devastated and infuriated.”

And so she wrote from her heart, words that ended up two months later being read into the record at the Eclipse Awards where, as far as Zenyatta’s fans were concerned, everything turned out okay.

Last Tuesday morning dawned no differently than any other day at Tranquility Farm, home to the most accomplished concentration of former race horses this side of Old Friends in Kentucky. Here’s a sampling of the gang out there in the pastures surrounding Priscilla Clark’s place:

◗ Buddy Gil, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and more than $800,000.

◗ Full Moon Madness, winner of the Kerlan Memorial and more than $1.2 million.

◗ Publication, winner of the Arlington-Washington Futurity and nearly $600,000.

◗ Mananan McLir, winner of the American Derby and more than a half-million dollars.

◗ Geronimo, winner of the Morvich Handicap and more than $450,000.

◗ Southern Wish, winner of the Citation Handicap and more than a half-million.

◗ Areyoutalkintome, winner of the California Cup Sprint and nearly a million dollars.

◗ Snipledo, winner of the Longacres Mile and more than $400,000.

◗ Marvin’s Faith, winner of the La Jolla, the Bay Meadows Derby, and more than $300,000.

◗ I Love Silver, good enough to finish third in the Santa Anita Derby and third in the Malibu Stakes.

In a herd numbering nearly 100, the former stakes performers mix happily with such blue-collar retirees as Winthorp Joe (86 starts), Naked Way (80 starts), Skylaunch (75 starts), Fistylee (79 starts), Really Ready (69 starts), and Do You Mind (54 starts).

Their Tranquility Farm digs are of high quality for an equine retirement community, in keeping with standards familiar to those who have visited East Coast and Kentucky facilities of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation or Old Friends, among others. Clark’s challenge is pasture grass, which is not a naturally occurring resource at the 4,000-foot, high desert altitude of the neaby town of Tehachapi.

Whether or not Clark’s unexpected 15 minutes of fame will translate into positive results remains to be seen. Still, it was no surprise that the Tranquility Farm calendar fell into Jerry Moss’s hands. After all, Zenyatta has been the cover girl the past two years, courtesy of her owners’ sponsorship. Ann and Jerry Moss have been on record for some time now as fervent supporters, in both word and deed, of dignified retirement for all Thoroughbred race horses. They are not alone, but neither are they enough.

With very few exceptions, the retirees of Tranquility have arrived over the years without sponsorship. Clark steers away from such pejorative terms as “dumped” or “abandoned,” but that’s what happens as reasonably well meaning owners and trainers simply make a call and then walk away, figuring they’ve done right by the horse in sending them to a place like Tranquility Farm.

They have, and have not. The retirees have been campaigned hard. The will never be adopted, because they have no shot at alternate disciplines in the pleasure horse world. They are healthy old geldings with blown knees and bad ankles who deserve some quality of life after being emptied at the racetrack.

Like so many other retirement outfits, Tranquility Farm is always on the financial ropes. Clark is pretty much a one-woman show, relying on occasional part-time help and her own sturdy health – knock wood – to feed and care for the animals. Private donations come as lifelines and funding from the CARMA program of the Thoroughbred Owners of California has been a help. But so far long-range security has been a pipe dream.

In recent years the issue of dignified retirement for former race horses has escaped the back burner of industry priorities to gain at least conversational traction, but serious solutions have yet to be addressed. Many owners already take responsibility for the lives of their racehorses beyond the track, but many, many more do not, clinging to the justification that, especially in the claiming world, they may only have a horse for a race or two before they move on.

The image of a retired Zenyatta romping in a field at the showplace Lane’s End Farm, where she will probably reign to the end of her days, is both reassuring and frustrating. If you need to be a Zenyatta, or a well-bred stud colt to earn such an afterlife, then what chance do 99 percent of the racehorses out there have? In sharing Clark’s tribute last Monday night, Moss at least provided a connective tissue between the two realities.