Authors: Jo Anne Normile
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To my husband, John, and my daughters, Jessica and Rebecca, who gave up so much so I could do what I had to do.
You are, quite simply, the loves of my life.
Many people remember the summer of 1973 as the summer of the Watergate hearings on television that marked the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon's presidency. But horse lovers remember it as the summer a gorgeous chestnut stallion named Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years. Secretariat did for horse racing what Muhammad Ali did for boxing, what Nadia Comaneci did for gymnastics, and what Michael Jordan did for basketball. He recruited millions of new fans by an unprecedented combination of charisma and talent. And though she was completely unaware of it at the time, twenty-five years later, Secretariat's stunning win would set Jo Anne Normile on a trajectory that would establish her as one of the great heroes of the Thoroughbred world.
is a book about what happens when you fall in loveâfirst with horses, then with horse racing, then with one race horse in particular who by an unintended set of circumstances led Jo Anne deep into the heart of racing. Horse crazy since childhood, by her mid-forties Jo Anne's backyard boasted two extraordinary athletes: one, Scarlett, the granddaughter of Secretariat; the other, Baby, Jo Anne's equine soul mate and himself the descendant of a fine racing lineage.
Part of the great charm of this story is reading how Jo Anne hand reared these two superstars with unsurpassed tenderness and love. It is a joy to hang over the fence with her as we watch these two titans grow from fuzzy-furred babies frolicking in their pasture to self-possessed masters of their sport. But it was only as she gradually became an insider with an intimate knowledge of racing that Jo Anne began to see beneath the veneer of this seemingly glamorous sport, and when she did, it forced her to reexamine everything she thought she knew. In the process, Jo Anne embarked on the incredible journey that became her life's work.
might be a love story, but it's a love story in which the love gets redirected into something bigger and more powerful than anything Jo Anne or the horse racing industry itself had ever imagined.
It takes a lot of guts for a woman to make it in the horse racing world, but it takes a lot more for her to try to change it.
is the story of how one woman's love for a Thoroughbred propels her to fight a David-and-Goliath battle to save
Thoroughbreds from the cruel practices of the industry, a battle so stacked against its heroine the reader wonders again and again why she ever took it on in the first place and later, why she didn't just quit. We would have understood if she had. It's hard to imagine where Jo Anne found enough hours in the day to do all she did and to face the opposition she faced. The only possible explanation for why she didn't drop dead from exhaustion is love. Only the deepest love could have kept someone going like thatâan indomitable spirit fueled by the agony and beauty of her cause.
But Jo Anne Normile isn't like most of us. Instead of running away, she converted the knowledge she gained into action, becoming an ex-racehorse owner turned Angel of Mercy who gets down to what is surely her life's calling. If it isn't, one wonders what else this remarkable woman has up her sleeve. What would happen for instance, if she was turned loose on world hunger or the nuclear arms race?
Fortunately for equines, Jo Anne seems firmly rooted in their camp. In
, the reader is privileged to witness how one extraordinary individual can make a profound impact on a multi-billion dollar industry that has proved both inflexible and inviolate. Despite the odds, Jo Anne has managed to positively impact the lives of literally thousands of horses, not just in Michigan where her work began, but across the country as her efforts grew beyond her wildest dreams.
Jo Anne Normile was introduced to me via email by a third person who referred to her as one of the “great people of the world.” I assumed this was polite hyperbole based on the desire of someone for two strangers to like each other in order to form a working alliance. But in reading
I discovered that wasn't the case at all. It's not hyperbole. Jo Anne Normile is one of the great people of the world. And though not a single equine can ever voice his or her side of this remarkable love story, if they could, it would surely be a chorus to fill the heavens.
Chosen by a Horse
It's very quiet in the barn at night, but when a horse is about to have a baby, she'll get restless and start to pace, and I wanted to be able to hear the rustling of the straw as Pat walked back and forth. That's why I started sleeping with my head right next to the video monitor on the coffee table that streamed in the activity from Pat's stall, the volume turned all the way up.
To catch a mare foaling is rare. Horses almost always give birth in the predawn hours, preferring to have their babies away from people, and even other horses. Some will tell you they can time their labors for privacy. But once their contractions begin, they can't hold back. And I needed to be there, as a midwife for Pat as well as for myself.
The first couple of nights, Pat didn't settle in but kept walking and biting at her sidesâa sign of pain. She also swished her tail, yet another sign of discomfort.
Then, one night, some time before sunrise, she went down on her side, nipping at her flank. Her pain had increased significantly. She rose, circled several times, then went down again. Her body gave a heave. “This is it, everybody!” I called out, jumping up from my perch on the family room couch and running to the bottom of the staircase. “Grab your stuff!”
We had very little time. A horse gives only three or four major pushes before birthing her foal. The four of us raced down to the barn. My husband, John, would be on duty with the video cam, while one daughter had a camera for still shots and the other would stand by the barn's wall phone in case there was an improper presentation at birth and the vet needed to be called. Normally a foal is delivered with the front feet coming first, one several inches ahead of the other so that the shoulders, emerging at an angle, can fit through the pelvis. You see the hooves, one before the other, and then the nose laid down on top of the legs. Any other presentation can prove a life-or-death emergency for mare, foal, or both.
We were whooping excitedly, all smiles and eager chatter as we ran from the house, pulling on our coats. We had already seen the baby kick when Pat drank cold water. We loved watching Pat's stomach sway like a pendulum in her last week before delivery. We had placed bets on whether the foal would look like its mother, with her dark coat, or whether it would have any markings. New life now just moments away, it was a giddy anticipation.
We had already seen the baby kick when Pat drank cold water.
When we reached the barn I had to tell everyone to lower their voices to a whisper. “No running,” I said. We needed to tiptoe, contain our excitement, so Pat wouldn't be alarmed or disturbed. The baby's front legs were already out. We could see its knees. We could see the bluish white sac, a filmy casing, enveloping the tiny foal.
By the book, you're not supposed to go into the stall. Birthing is something horses are meant to do by themselves. But Pat and I were already too bonded. The day we met, she had blown out through her nostrils to greet me, as horses do. She let me touch my face to her muzzle and blow directly into her nose so she could become familiar with my scent. And while some Thoroughbreds are very fine boned, Pat was a big, broad-chested mare with a look more like that of a Quarter Horse, which I preferred. More than that, she was such a people horse. Her eyes beamed empathy, intelligence. So of course I couldn't let her go through giving birth alone. I went in, knelt down, and stroked the side of her head as she lay there in labor, then moved closer to where the baby was emerging.
But Pat soon rose and started to walk around. The foal needed repositioning to be properly birthed, and Pat's movement would make it happen. “It's okay, Pat,” I whispered soothingly while stroking her some more. “I'm here. Everything's okay.”
Pat shortly went down again, gave a sigh followed by another heave, and out came the foal's knobby shoulders. They are the widest part of the birth, so we knew we were home free. One more heave, one more sigh, and whoosh, the baby was fully born. It took all of five or six minutes. Elated that we made it in time, we wanted to scream but just kept saying softly, “We have a baby.