05/24/2012 4:06PM

A lifelong bond with a forgotten champion

Barbara D. Livingston
Danny Perlsweig with Lord Avie, whom he has visited twice a year since the horse retired from racing in 1981. At 34, Lord Avie is the oldest living Eclipse winner.

The ancient stallion spends his days grazing in a spacious paddock at an historic Virginia farm. His back is swayed, his front teeth are missing, and white hairs spread across his dark face like a spiderweb.

Whenever a van rumbles up the old farm road, his long ears pop forward and he breaks into a gallop − in case, perchance, the van is bringing him a date. But those days have long passed.

Years ago he was a champion and the early favorite for the 1981 Kentucky Derby. Now the horse is 34 − nearly unheard of for a Thoroughbred − and few people even know he’s alive. He has no fan club or farm guest book in which visitors scribble reverential remembrances. A Facebook page once created for him sits dormant with two lonely “likes.”

But twice a year, as regular as the seasons, one man remembers. He drives his car up the bumpy farm road bringing a bag of peppermints. His hair is white, and his memory is sharp. He can’t say whether the horse remembers him, but he remembers.

The man is 86. For three decades he has driven miles out of his way to share a few minutes with the horse that brought him his greatest glory. Why does he come? It’s the best horse he ever trained, but it goes deeper than that.

“When I first saw him, I fell in love with him.”

That’s what Danny Perlsweig says about Lord Avie. Perlsweig, a former jockey turned trainer, bought Lord Avie in 1980 at Hialeah, spending $37,000 for a group of clients who called themselves SKS Stable. The colt was an unraced 2-year-old by the then-obscure sire Lord Gaylord. He shared his sire’s long face, dark coat, and unusually brilliant, soulful eyes. 

“He was one of the nicest horses I’ve ever, ever been around, and he loved people,” Perlsweig said. “Once in a while, he’d have some play in him and you’d have to be tied on. But most of the time he galloped like a pony.

“The old groom who rubbed him was named Charlie Butler. Lord Avie would lay down and take a nap, and Charlie would go in there and lay on his belly.”

Lord Avie developed the endearing habit of sticking out his tongue to beg for peppermints. Perlsweig, a soft touch, gave them not only to Lord Avie but to all the horses in his barn. That’s typical Perlsweig. Like Lord Avie, he’s long removed from the spotlight, but he has done so much for racing, especially its backstretch workers, that he is one of the sport’s unsung heroes.

MORE: Livingston's blog: Photos of Perlsweig's visit | Lord Avie's lifetime PP's

Lord Avie broke his maiden at second asking at Monmouth in late June 1980 and, 12 days later, took the Juvenile at Belmont at 12-1. Bettors never enjoyed such odds again. He ran second or third in his next four starts − all stakes − and wrapped up the season with victories in the Cowdin, Champagne, and Young America.

Lord Avie was voted the Eclipse Award in 1980 as outstanding 2-year-old male, ranked the 2-year-old highweight on the Experimental Free Handicap, and declared the winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He was also syndicated for $10 million, with a stipulation that the amount could soar to $20 million based on his 3-year-old season.

He began the year by winning the Hutcheson, just missing in the Fountain of Youth, and then romping in the Florida Derby. But as often happens with classic-bound 3-year-olds, Lord Avie was abruptly sidelined with an injury to his left hind suspensory ligament. He returned a winner in July before running second in the Haskell and third in the Travers. But his suspensory injury flared up again, and the valuable colt was retired to stud.

With an imposing résumé and solid pedigree and conformation, Lord Avie was well received, first at Spendthrift and later at Lane’s End from 1989 through 2002. He never produced a horse as good as himself, but he sired 78 stakes winners and three champions, in France, Puerto Rico, and Peru.

Through it all, one thing remained consistent: Perlsweig visited regularly. He and his wife divided their time between Florida and New Jersey, and on their way back and forth their car found its way to Kentucky. Perlsweig also visited Lord Avie when attending the July and September sales.

Lord Avie was 24 when, in late 2002, Lane’s End announced his pensioning because of advancing age and declining fertility. He was shipped to Blue Ridge Farm in Upperville, Va., a property steeped in tradition. In that tranquil setting, several other Lane’s End pensioners have lived out their days, including Pleasant Colony and Fit to Fight. Lord Avie’s current stablemate – their two-stall stud barn was built in 1903, the year the farm was established – is Miner’s Mark.

So few people realize Lord Avie is alive that, when Chinook Pass died in 2010, trade journals wrote that he had been the oldest living Eclipse Award winner and that Flatterer would assume the role. But Flatterer and Chinook Pass are both younger than Lord Avie by a year.

While Perlsweig’s name will always be linked with Lord Avie, he had attained success years earlier. He was the leading trainer in New Jersey in 1967 and 1968 and in Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1970. His name appeared on the New Jersey top 10 trainers’ list for more than three decades, and he trained multiple-stakes winners such as Mr. Correlation, Noble Michael, Our Gary, and Do It Again Dan.

But Perlsweig’s impact on racing extends to its people as well. He quietly founded Backstretch Appreciation Day at Monmouth and Gulfstream parks and worked tirelessly toward their success. He was inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame and received the Dogwood Dominion Award and the Buddy Raines Award for his contributions to racing.

In 2000, Perlsweig retired from training but has remained in the business as Dandy Dan Equine Consultants, helping clients find horses. And when he’s not working? He visits the track almost daily, either Monmouth or Gulfstream, and spends time with his family − a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. What’s more, Perlsweig is a dancer. He loved to dance with his wife of more than 50 years, Patricia, who died in 2002. After her death, Perlsweig, a natural charmer, spent several years as a ballroom dance instructor on a cruise ship. There, he eventually met a new dance partner.

With Lord Avie now in Virginia, Perlsweig’s visits require less of a detour when traveling between Florida and New Jersey. And so, on April 27, as he has so many times before, Perlsweig traveled to Blue Ridge Farm.

The crisp afternoon is awash with spring color. Split-rail fences and ancient trees frame the timeless scene. Near a large grove of budding trees, in a seemingly endless paddock, a band of broodmares grazes peacefully. In another an eager young foal, his tail swishing with excitement, chases a younger pasture-mate.

In his paddock, Lord Avie grazes, too, enjoying the sweet spring grass that is cut extra long for him. With only one remaining front tooth, he needs the grass longer so he can crop it with his back teeth.  

As morning melts into afternoon, he saunters from his paddock into his adjoining stall door that’s left open. There, he keeps watch over the farm activity – “on stallion duty,” in the words of Patricia Ramey, who watches out for him and does her best to keep him comfortable. In the summer heat, for instance, she furnishes his stall with two fans and, in winter, she prepares him a special warm mash. When he recently lost three teeth, Ramey pressed warm tea bags on his gums to aid in his recovery. And every evening, she itches his favorite spots along his belly, his back, up his neck.

Just after 2:30, a silver Volvo rumbles up the gravel farm road – quickly, considering the speed bumps – and forks off to the right, past a small white-and-blue sign stuck in the grass that reads “LORD AVIE.” The car slows to a stop by a small, white stud barn. The car’s New Jersey license plate reads “DANDDAN,” and its holder indicates the driver is a U.S. Navy veteran. Perlsweig served in the South Pacific during World War II.

Out steps a small, slim, older gentleman wearing a crisp button-down shirt, tidy blue jeans, clean loafers, and a green Monmouth Park jacket. In his hand, a small plastic bag contains peppermints.

Perlsweig says his polite hellos to Ramey and then walks, quietly and purposefully, through the small barn’s aisle to the other side. Lord Avie stands just inside his open door. Perlsweig quickly pulls a peppermint from the bag. Nowadays, the farm staff worries about Lord Avie’s remaining teeth, so the old horse gets peppermints only when Perlsweig visits. But the stallion hasn’t forgotten, and he immediately reaches down for the white-and-red treat. 

Perlsweig gently pushes the mint up into Lord Avie’s mouth – far enough for his back teeth to crunch down on it. Lord Avie chews methodically, contentedly. Perlsweig offers another and pushes it up into place. A couple of times the peppermint falls out of Lord Avie’s mouth because his teeth can’t get hold of it. Each time Perlsweig catches the mint in his cupped hand and pushes it back up again.

Perlsweig steps back to study his old friend. Despite Ramey’s efforts to loosen Lord Avie’s winter coat, the nights have been cold, and hair clings to him in thick reddish patches. His withers look high, in part, because of his swayed back, but his legs are still straight, and he carries good weight.

While he was an unmarked bay in his earlier years, white hairs have sprouted like an actual marking across his timeworn face. Still, his familiar red-brown eyes glow with spirit. His tongue hangs out much of the time because of his missing teeth or perhaps, Ramey says, a minor neurological issue.

Within the ancient horse, Perlsweig can still see his spry 2-year-old colt in his old shed row, sticking his tongue out for peppermints. He says that these visits take him back more than three decades, when Lord Avie was the toast of the racing world. But typically, Perlsweig, although unfailingly polite, doesn’t say much.

He moves a hand down Lord Avie’s neck and slowly across his long back. The horse looks better in autumn, when his winter coat hasn’t fully sprouted, Perlsweig says matter-of-factly. He gently pulls Lord Avie’s lips apart and slips his hand inside to check his teeth. Ever a gentleman, the horse doesn’t protest. Instead, he peers hopefully at Perlsweig in case he offers another mint.

Perlsweig doesn’t pretend to know whether Lord Avie remembers him. Maybe the horse is so friendly, Perlsweig says with a smile, because he recognizes the sound of the mints’ crinkly cellophane. 

After about a half hour, Perlsweig turns and walks out of the stall and back through the barn. He stands near his car and talks with Ramey. Lord Avie emerges from his shelter and strolls toward them along the fence line.

He watches intently, seeming to enjoy their company, and Perlsweig steps over to pet him one last time. Then he walks back to his car, climbs in, and slowly turns it around on the narrow dirt driveway. It rumbles back up the road, over a crest in a hill and out of sight.

Lord Avie, the old champion, drops his head back down to graze.