03/21/2013 1:19PM

Turkoman, at 31, still spry - and not forgotten

Barbara D. Livingston
Turkoman’s physique is still impressive, with strong shoulders and solid hindquarters. When a visitor approaches, he does not hesitate in picking up his stride.

Like Blanche DuBois, the champion Turkoman depends on the kindness of strangers.

I’m a diehard Turkoman fan – as are countless others smitten more than a quarter-century ago by his pedigree, thrilling out-of-the-clouds running style, and magnificent, oversized physique. And so I recently made the trek to Turkoman’s home, the 1,000-acre E. A. Ranches in Ramona, Calif.

When stallion manager Roberto Mejia led Turkoman to his paddock, the classy stallion strode confidently, with only a slight hitch in his giddy-up. His thick, dark coat, damp from a bath, was a rich mixture of reds, browns, and black. His long, sun-bleached mane bounced in rhythm with his gait, and his large, expressive eyes took in his familiar view.

He was much slimmer than the last time I’d seen him, in 2004, but there’s a big difference between a 22- and a 31-year-old stallion (Flatterer, 34, is believed to be the oldest living Eclipse champion). Turkoman’s frame was still impressive, with strong shoulders, a crest to his neck, and solid hindquarters. He moved with the grace and interest of a much younger horse.

[MORE: Barbara Livingston's Turkoman photo gallery]

His head, which when he was younger may have been considered coarse or plain, is more refined and truly handsome. Perhaps it is the look of character that only old age can provide.

We entered his long-time paddock and, when he was released, Turkoman broke into a relaxed canter before shifting into an enviable extended trot. He circled us a few times, slowed to a walk, bowed his neck, and considered whether we might have treats. Yes, he decided, we might (we did). He moseyed over for a friendly visit. Turkoman loves attention.

It’s been 27 years since Turkoman, then called “the strongest finisher in the country,” earned the 1986 Eclipse Award for champion older horse. He won the Marlboro Cup that year, with his familiar fast-closing style, and the Widener, Tallahasse, and Oaklawn handicaps. Had he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, too – rather than run second to longshot Skywalker – he may also have earned the gold Eclipse.

Part of Turkoman’s charm, no doubt, was his pedigree, as the strapping dark bay was by Alydar and out of an Argentinian champion named Taba. Turkoman retired to Kentucky’s Darby Dan Farm but, eventually, despite siring stakes winners consistently, he left the Bluegrass State for the Golden one. In California, he stood first at Circle H Ranch and then Mira Loma Thoroughbreds before being shipped to E. A. Ranches in 2005.

While he has sired 33 stakes winners, he is perhaps best known for being the sire of Turko’s Turn, dam of Point Given.

By 2008, Turkoman’s hind end became too weak to support his weight during breeding and was quietly pensioned at 26.

Not all of his shareholders agreed to continue paying toward his care in his retirement, and a cheaper option was chosen. That summer, Turkoman was again on his way to a new home.

It was then that Turkoman’s life took an unusual – and heart-warming – turn. The E. A. Ranch farm manager, Marguerite Eliasson, said she received a call from a woman at the new farm who said Turkoman was fretting, losing weight, pacing his fence line all day long. It had been several months, but he was still not settling in.

Eliasson decided she had to get Turkoman back. She would give a monthly payment toward his keep, and a die-hard Turkoman fan named Sandy Smith, a 77-year-old Michigan woman, readily agreed to make regular payments as well.

Enter also the Our Mims Retirement Haven near Paris, Ky., owned by another angel-on-earth named Jeanne Mirabito. Turkoman’s dam, Taba, had lived out her days at the haven, dying with dignity at age 32 in 2005. And a half-sister to Turkoman, Taba Dance, now resides at OMRH, occupying the same stall Taba did.

When Mirabito learned of Turkoman’s situation she felt compelled to help, and the OMRH website soon offered T-shirts, mugs and other items with Turkoman’s likeness. There is a donate button as well.

The daughter and granddaughter of Turkoman’s owners when he raced − Corbin and Wilhelmina Robertson − also provide assistance. When Carroll Robertson Ray and Rose Hochner learned of their old champion’s plight, they were proud to step in. When they began sending payments, Hochner said, “My grandmother was still alive…and she was very touched to know that the family was continuing to help take care of him.”

In October 2008, Turkoman took one more van ride - back to his E. A. Ranches home.

“He was skin and bones when he arrived,” Eliasson said. “We didn’t mess around with him, or try another pen, because old stallions are creatures of habit and don’t handle that well. He just went right back into his old field, and he was in heaven.

“He’ll be here forever.”

And so, Turkoman, supported in part by the kindness of strangers, lives his days in comfort. He gets baths regularly, which he loves, and visits from the farrier and equine dentist. He’s usually outdoors 24-7, watching his fellow stallions and picking up his head when cars drive by. He eats some senior feed, quality grain, sweet feed, crimped oats, rice bran, and the best alfalfa but, still, they have trouble keeping weight on him. Eliasson rides her bike on the farm and stops by his paddock to give him cookies. To ease his aches and pains, Turkoman is given a small amount of Bute daily.

The ancient champion still gets occasional visitors and can prance like a show horse when brought out, at fans’ request, during the farm’s stallion shows.

This Turkoman fan owns two Turkoman T-shirts, including one used as a nightshirt. Beneath a regal portrait, the shirt’s message simply reads: “TURKOMAN...because he’s family.”