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Reflections on 30 years of the King of Stallions
By Mary Simon
It was dead winter in Kentucky, that February afternoon I chose to visit one of the great sires of the modern era. I had planned to pay homage to Storm Cat, to acknowledge his impending 30th birthday, to gaze upon a living masterpiece of equine art before it was too late. But how badly did I want that?
As I navigated a sleety Tates Creek Road in my daughter’s castoff 1998 Camry, hands locked in a 10 o’clock-2 o’clock death grip, I pondered the question. I’ve been in Kentucky since Storm Cat was a baby, but the California in me still insists that if asphalt’s not bone dry, then hell is probably waiting to happen.
I nevertheless arrived safely at the late W.T. Young’s famed Overbrook Farm – famed largely because of the horse I was there to see. As the driveway gate opened, I spotted longtime stallion operations manager Ric Waldman, bundled up in a car, motioning me to follow. Within moments we reached our destination. If I’d been expecting architectural grandeur, I’d have been disappointed. It was just a barn – simple, clean, no ostentation whatsoever considering the treasure housed within.
There he was
Storm Cat lounged lazily in a bright, airy stall, nibbling hay, minding his own business, whatever that business might be these days. His groom, Armando Reyes, interrupted his reverie by snapping on a shank and leading him out to a square of dormant grass as the skies spat out a miserable mix of wet flakes and tiny ice-daggers. Again I reflected on what a criminy-awful day I’d picked for a visit.
Waldman and former Overbrook stallion manager Eduardo Terrazas followed him out into the winter, Storm Cat walking on slightly stiff knees. Then he stopped and struck a pose, as he’d surely done a hundred times before, as if Barbara D. Livingston or Tony Leonard had suddenly materialized to record his image, rather than this bumbling woman with a pocket camera. He stood like a statue in the slicing slant of intensifying snow-drizzle, seemingly oblivious – to the weather, to the pacing, head-tossing chestnut across the way, to the men eyeing him fondly, to the groom at his head. Certainly, he ignored the “photographer” mincing about, looking for just the perfect blurry shot. (She got it. More than one, in fact.)
At some point I stopped acting the fool and began savoring the moment: Here I was, in the presence of one of the most influential Thoroughbred sires of my lifetime, a horse with a genetic signature as distinctive as the flourish of John Hancock’s pen, and whose name will surely resonate through the ages alongside those of Bold Ruler, Mr. Prospector, and his own paternal grandsire, Northern Dancer. Before me stood a premier American sire, an incomparable juvenile sire, a leading broodmare sire, the progenitor of 180 stakes winners, 27 percent stakes horses from starters, and more seven-figure auction yearlings (93) than any stallion who ever lived, whose sons and grandsons top global sire lists, and whose daughters are priceless.
Storm Cat’s dark coat was winter-thick but well groomed, his back slightly dipped, eyes bold and clear, hindquarters still round and powerful, neck crested but not grossly so, firm legs distinguished by the most famous pair of offset knees in the business. He looked hale, healthy, quite wonderful for a horse of his years, who were he human, would be pushing 87.
Later, in the warmth of the office, Waldman and Terrazas reflected on the horse who has meant so much to them, and to the industry.
“Stormy and I, we’re buddies,” said Terrazas, who visits every day, often with treats. “I don’t say to him, ‘Look what you’ve done!’ When you have a relationship with someone, you want them to be good – sky’s the limit. Did he go above that? Definitely. Did I expect that? No.”
As someone who worked with Storm Cat for years, Terrazas seemed like the guy to ask about the stallion’s rumored temper.
“I’d heard those stories,” he said. “But it didn’t take long to figure out that Stormy just liked to be first – in everything. He had to be the first turned out in the morning and he wanted all the mares for himself. If we brought a mare for another stallion, all the way to the breeding shed we’d hear him kicking in his stall. I told [then-farm manager] Jim Cannon: ‘I’m afraid he’s going to get hurt. If you don’t mind, I’d like to breed him straight from the field.’ We tried it and it worked. It was the safest thing for Storm Cat.
“But,” Terrazas insisted, “he’s never been mean. He’ll give little love bites when you mess with him, but overall we’ve never had a problem.”
Waldman interjected a somewhat contradictory story of his own, recalling the time a local television newsman backed too close to the fence-line while setting up a shot. Storm Cat cruised up silently from behind and gave him a bruising “love-throttle” to the neck, an experience the traumatized reporter would never forget.
Storm Cat was foaled at Overbrook on Feb. 27, 1983. Young initially intended to offer the son of champion Storm Bird and superstar Terlingua (by Secretariat) at Keeneland’s 1984 July sale, but withdrew him after he tested positive for equine viral arteritis (EVA).
That was Young’s good fortune, for Storm Cat would prove the kind of dream horse one only stumbles across through random blind luck or planetary alignment of the highest order.
Future Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, noted particularly at that time for his work with steeplechasers, developed Storm Cat into a stellar 2-year-old – a Grade 1 winner and tenacious runner-up by a nose in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. On the 1985 Experimental Free Handicap, only Tasso and Ogygian were rated as “better.”
A tendon issue forced Storm Cat off the Triple Crown trail and when he returned he was not the same, which begs the question: What kind of classicist might he have been? Waldman has a theory.
“I think he’d have been prominent in the preps, but would he have gone the Derby distance?” he said. “I don’t know. His running style was reminiscent of Northern Dancer’s, but there was so much speed on the female side.”
Storm Cat retired to Overbrook in 1988 with four wins and three seconds in eight starts and earnings of $570,610. At $30,000, he proved a tough sell. According to Waldman, breeders dissed him for those offset knees – a gift from Northern Dancer himself – the short, thick neck, the abbreviated race record.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to suffer through that first season,” he recalled. “I came his third year, and even then he was absolutely a hard sell. Those first three books . . . some were farm mares, others were there through Mr. Young’s arm-twisting.”
Young bred some of his finest mares to Storm Cat and partnered with others whom he’d strong-armed or guilt-tripped. The result? Forty-four foals of 1989, 39 eventual starters, 33 winners, eight stakes winners (including Grade 1 winners Harlan and November Snow), seven stakes-placed, and earners of nearly $3.5 million. It’s worth noting that at least 12 of the 20 colts from Storm Cat’s first crop were gelded.
“Mr. Young [who died in 2004] experienced almost his entire stud career. He loved it and got to where any horse with the name ‘Cat’ in it, he took credit for,” Waldman said with a smile.
Certainly, some of Young’s best homebreds carried that term in their names – Tabasco Cat, Cat Thief, Mountain Cat.
In hindsight, Waldman believes Storm Cat’s success was almost inevitable.
“He was the king, he’s always acted like a king, and he passed on a lot of that intestinal fortitude,” Waldman said. “I remember Wayne Lukas saying the first Storm Cats he trained didn’t show him much until they raced. But when they bellied down in the stretch, they almost always got there first. That heart and desire has impressed anyone who’s ever had a Storm Cat.”
Terrazas acknowledged that, like their sire, the Storm Cats “have an attitude.”
Basically, you don’t fight them,” he said. “You just kiss their butt and go on.”
So, what makes a stallion like Storm Cat, Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector? Where do they come from, how and why? It is an unanswerable mystery, according to Waldman, and one that should remain unsolved.
“Can you imagine how boring it would be [if breeding was predictable]?” he said. “The person with the most money would own the game. The inexactness is beautiful. It’s what keeps people thinking about it, poring over it, theorizing.
“Who would have known that Storm Cat was going to make it? We had no indication by the support he got early on; no indication from the looks of his foals. His first yearlings averaged about $50,000, and that was after we did all we could to keep the bad ones out of the sales. But when they started running, we knew.”
Before long, foreign princes and Wall Street capitalists were locked in fierce bidding wars for Storm Cat yearlings, and those who’d once shunned him now ponied up as much as $500,000 for a single season.
Most of Storm Cat’s contemporaries are long gone – Tasso to the Middle East, Danzig Connection to Italy, Mogambo to the Orient. Broad Brush, Meadowlake, and Roy gallop through celestial pastures, along with Snow Chief, Groovy, and Ferdinand. Only Ogygian and Storm Cat remain, separated by the 22 country miles between Old Friends retirement facility in Georgetown, Ky., and Overbrook.
Last I saw Ogygian, the one-eyed stallion was still cantankerous, contorting every which way in an effort to bite me over the fence. But Storm Cat? He has mellowed like a fine wine: No more kicking of walls, terrorizing of reporters, or dragging of hapless handlers while lunging through a stall door.
The competitive fire may still burn but is no longer visible. What is the old fellow thinking in the eventide of his life as he ambles daily to the far end of his field? Does he race exuberantly across memory’s landscape, refusing to give an inch as a phantom finish line looms, or prance merrily toward a breeding shed? Or is he simply seeking to distance himself from Clock Stopper, his anxious Grade 2-winning neighbor so annoyingly dependent upon him?
Storm Cat’s fan base has dwindled, which is fine with Waldman. Overbrook no longer has the personnel to handle an adoring public. But he is far from forgotten. Dr. Robert Copelan continues to check on him every week, and Terrazas drops by daily. Each Christmas, Sheppard sends him a bag of apples.
And in the end
Storm Cat has inherited some impressive longevity genes. His dam and grandam both died at 32, and earlier this year his 29-year-old half-sister, Chapel of Dreams, was reported alive and well. Northern Dancer himself succumbed six weeks short of his 30th milestone. From appearances, Storm Cat himself has no intention of going anywhere anytime soon, other than from stall to paddock and back.
But inevitably his day will come and when it does, a special place awaits him.
Along a picturesque lane at Overbrook stands a life-sized bronze by renowned sculptor Gwen Reardon. No need to ask of whom – it is a perfect likeness of Storm Cat in his prime. This marks the Overbrook cemetery, where all other gravestones lie flush to the ground. Here is Terlingua, there Carson City, and over there, the dam of Young’s 1996 Kentucky Derby winner, Grindstone. Epsom Derby winner The Minstrel sleeps nearby; so, too, does Grand Canyon, a 1:33 juvenile miler who could have been anything – until a blood vessel ruptured. All rest in peace, silently waiting for the best of them all.
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