Meeting the Princess
By Dana Steidle
Almost every little girl dreams of meeting their favorite princess. Every little kid dreams of meeting their hero or favorite sports star. It’s very seldom that they get to meet all three of them in one day and it’s even more seldom that all of these things are wrapped up into one living creature. I got the chance to meet my favorite Princess, my hero, and my favorite sport star on October 10: Princess of Sylmar.
For those of you who don’t know the story of how I fell in love with the champion mare, this is a short recap: I have a form of Muscular Dystrophy (MD) called Charcot Marie Tooth, or CMT for short. CMT affects the nerves in my hands and legs causing weakness and sometimes a great amount of pain. Most days I wear leg braces and on the not so good days I use my wheelchair. To me, my disability isn’t anything new since I was diagnosed when I was younger, but in 2013 my cycles of pain were more frequent and more extreme, leaving me unable to move on my own and often times very sick.
The day that I first saw Princess I had left school early because my legs were in another cycle of fatigue. I was resting upstairs when I got a text from one of my friends, an avid horse racing fan, asking me to watch the 2013 Kentucky Oaks for her and to let her know who won. At the time, I wasn’t a huge racing fan. I was the kind who only watched the big races when they were on TV – since I didn’t know anything at all -but I agreed to watch the Oaks because I was curious. I was just in time for the post parade when I noticed a filly named Princess of Sylmar. The first thing I noticed was how beautiful she was – absolutely gorgeous! The second thing I noticed was the jockey who was riding, Mike Smith. He was the first jockey I had ever seen race. I had watched as he won on Zenyatta in her first Breeder’s Cup win. During that race, I picked her as the best based off of my amateur handicapping. In the Oaks, I focused on Princess of Sylmar from the time the gate opened to the moment I saw she was powering down the stretch to win. I was impressed. But didn’t think much about her until months after the race, that is until she was running in the Alabama Stakes.
I saw that race by pure chance. At a hotel and flipping through the channels I heard a familiar name being called out on my screen. Princess of Sylmar. She won that race, too. That’s when I knew I needed to learn more about her. When I got home I did research like I was a scouting agent and by that evening I had set up a fan page on Facebook. Every time Princess ran I made sure I had some way of finding out how she did. I would check Twitter every morning to make sure that she was healthy and happy and, after every race, my first thought was to check to see if she came out of the race in one piece. Fast forward to the end of the year, my page had bloomed with the help of great friends sharing it and the awesome fans that would soon become friends of mine. I had the chance to talk with Ed Stanco (Princess of Sylmar’s owner) and other members of his family through Twitter and my page. I started to feel like I was part of Princess’s inner circle.
Princess of Sylmar came to the scene when I needed something positive in my life. She became the positive influence that I needed on nights when I couldn’t sleep because my pain was too great or when I was up again throwing up because my body was so tense. She had a way of presenting herself that made her great to watch. She was so calm off the track but as soon as she set foot on the dirt she became a queen. When she didn’t win the Eclipse Award, I was upset, but to me she was a Champion with or without the official title. I did my best to raise money to watch her run but by the time I raised enough by selling bracelets she had been retired. While I was glad she was retired in perfect condition I wondered if I would ever get the chance to meet the racehorse that changed my life.
So I messaged Ed Stanco over Twitter and asked him where she would be residing until the Fasig-Tipton sale in November and asked if there was a way I could go to meet her. When he replied and told me she was in Kentucky (a 900 mile drive from my home in Texas) I was over the moon with excitement. That night my parent’s had agreed that I could meet her in a few weeks. That night I cried myself to sleep with happy tears.
In the days to come, we began planning where and what we would be doing during my three day stay in Kentucky. We knew that we would want to go visit Keeneland, the first race track I would ever visit, and I also knew that I would want to visit Ashford to see Majestic Warrior (sire to Princess of Sylmar).
Amidst all the planning, we discovered that almost every hotel within the area was booked for the days we were going to be in Kentucky. But when Adrian Wallace (with Ashford Stud nomination sales) heard about our struggle to find a place, he offered us the guest house on the farm free of charge, making our many blessings overflow! Our plans very quickly formulated and before we knew it we were packing for Kentucky. We would leave Texas on Wednesday (the 9th) afternoon after school and stop in Arkansas on that night, then Thursday we would drive all the way to Kentucky to Ashford where we’d be staying. Friday was the day we’d see the horses at the Ashford farm and after lunch at Taylor Made, Hunter Houlihan (farm account manager) had arranged for me to finally meet the Princess. Along the way, we got a call from Winstar inviting us to visit them! I had never thought in a million years that I would have a farm calling and asking for me to come visit them.
The drive was 18 hours long broken up into two days. I didn’t mind a single moment of seeing the trees that were changing colors or the beautiful hills, or the wide open sky. I only started to mind the scenery when we were about 20 minutes away from our destination! That overwhelming, antsy feeling of excitement and claustrophobia that seemed so strong I felt like I was going to burst if I didn’t get out of our car in front of Ashford Stud right then and there!
Well, those 20 minutes, eventually passed, and by late Thursday evening (sorry about that Adrian…) we were all set up in the most beautiful guest house I had ever seen in my life. We had food provided for us for our breakfasts and beautiful rooms ready. Needless to say, that night I had a very hard time falling asleep. I thought of all the things I would be doing the next day and all the memories that I would be making.
I was up on Friday at 8:30, ready for the day to begin. As I waited anxiously for my mom to finish getting ready, I stepped outside and, for the first time, took in the surroundings of my home for the next couple days. Acres and acres of green pastures, beautifully built buildings and barns, the sweet smell of wet grass, the brisk air, and the distant sounds of horses. By 9:30 we had started the tour of the farm, a personal tour give to us by Adrian Wallace.
First, we drove up to the yearling barn to see a horse with a lot of promise, or so Adrian said as he was keeping the yearling’s bloodlines a surprise. As we walked into the barn, actually every barn we went to, we were greeted by some of the nicest workers who were more then happy to show me around. Then, they brought out one of the biggest yearlings I had seen. He looked familiar in coloring and stature but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Curiously, I looked to Adrian for the answer: I learned that he was Zenyatta’s full brother. I was speechless. He was a big colt for being so young and well built with similar color to his sister and very well mannered. Even without a name, he had a big personality and knew he was something special.
After a picture and the chance to pet him we moved on to the broodmares when I got to see the famous mare Take Charge Lady, the mother to Take Charge Indy and Will Take Charge, who was very curious about my service dog. She was a beautiful mare with the gentle eyes of a woman who was quite used to being spoiled.
We also got to see a couple of the weanlings and then we moved on to the three stallions that were at the farm, (the others were in South America and over in Europe for breeding but would return later): Giant’s Causeway, Thunder Gulch, and the one I was most excited to see, Majestic Warrior. How would I describe him? Simple: tall, dark, and handsome! Now, I haven’t seen many stallions up close and personal but I can honestly say, without a doubt, that Majestic Warrior is flat out gorgeous. And he was as well mannered as he was good looking. All of the stallions were tolerant of my tentative touch and awestruck demeanor. We took tons of pictures and a video of Majestic Warrior’s stride, and before we knew it the time had flown by and it was time for the main event of the day. We headed for lunch at Taylor Made and a meeting the Princess.
Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes to the stallions, after getting permission to come down and visit them later if we wanted, we made our way back to our car. This is when my heart started to pound and my mind started to race. Would I connect with her as much as I had thought I would? Would she like me? How was this going to turn out? Was it going to turn out like I had envisioned? By the time I had pulled myself out of my thoughts, we had made it to Taylor Made farms.
We were greeted by Hunter Houlihan, one of the first people we had been in contact with and who helped make the whole trip possible. Only arriving a few minutes after us, he had brought lunch for my mom, him, and I to share and have a good conversation over. Entering the main office we were brought into a room to settle down and eat lunch. Already set up at the table were gift bags for my mom and me.
As we ate, we were introduced to several great people who worked at Taylor Made, all of whom were the nicest and most open people I’d ever met. I was treated as if I were a normal human being, something that doesn’t always happen with people I just met. But the bond over horses and Princess made the perfect conversation piece. I was able to share a bit about how I got into the sport and why I had latched on so closely to the Princess. And that’s one thing I’m not shy sharing about with anyone.
After we had finished, it was time to head to the stables to meet my girl. By now my stomach was full of butterflies and I was pretty quiet the whole ride up to there, something my mom would say is a rare sight. The front area of the yearling barn, where they were keeping the mares that were going to sell at the Fasig Tipton sale in November, had some pretty important people standing in front of it. There was a photographer from Bloodhorse magazine, Matt and Wendy Wooley from EquiSport Photos, and John Hall, the yearling manager. As they prepared to bring Princess out, Mr. Hall and I were able to talk a bit about my trip so far but the only thing I could really think was, “Wow… is this really happening?”… And then, THERE SHE WAS!
Princess’s groom led her out of the barn in all her glory and had her stand center stage, just where she likes to be, for our meeting. Tall, regal, and glimmering she stood inspecting the audience in front of her with great curiosity. The cameras snapped pictures and she held her neck even higher and turned her face so that they could get her best side. While she posed and soaked in all the media’s attention, I stood in silence taking in the beautiful horse in front of me with open mouth. Mr. Hall smiled at me and led me up to where she was standing, my legs were shaking, and I was glad to be wearing my leg braces. I slowly held out my hand for Princess of Sylmar to sniff before placing the other gently on the side of her withers. We both stood there a moment looking at each other, her big brown eyes looking at me with a gentle curiosity and me looking at her with awe. Gently, I began a soft stroking of the Princess’s copper coat, my eyes never leaving her face even after her face had turned away from me to look at the rest of the press. But as soon as my hand reached into my pocket for a peppermint, I had all her attention. Though she didn’t quite care for the peppermints, spitting them onto the gravel, she did eat all the carrots I had brought as back up in case the mints didn’t live up to her approval. That’s when I remember leaning into her and giving her a gentle hug, my head rested on her side. It was something I had wanted to do for a quite a long time.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Hunter had called Ed Stanco for me, and for the first time we talked over the phone. I’m not sure if I said very much because my jaw was on the floor as I tried to process what was going on around me. But I do remember what he said to me and I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was a special moment for me indeed. And though I’d like to share his words, for now they are for just me and my mom to know. That conversation is something I treasure greatly.
Once I had returned the phone to Hunter, all of us walked into the barn where I was allowed to co-lead Princess up and down the walkway. As we did so, I was in silence watching her long legs move gracefully and the rhythmic sway of her body and head. And one could tell that she wasn’t something just thrown together in an accident, every part of her was shaped and molded perfectly to create a masterpiece.
We returned Princess to her stall to brush her off and give her some more attention. That’s when I got a one on one lesson on how to groom a horse and how to find a horse’s soft spot from Mr. Hall himself. And then, all too soon, the visit with the Princess was over. After seeing a couple other horses who were stabled there, My Miss Sophia and Egg Drop, it was time to leave for the day. But Mr. Hall assured us that we were welcome to come back any time that week to feed the Princess some more carrots and give her some more attention. We would return the in the morning before we left Kentucky to say goodbye.
But our day wasn’t over as we had been invited by Winstar to come and see some of the stallions that were there. Inside we were greeted and given a tour by Giulia Mattarello, bloodstock assistant and Stablemates coordinator at the farm. She took us around the farm to see some of the horses that were in training and then led us to see some of the great stallions that resided there. Unfortunately, many of them were out in pasture but some were close enough that we could see them a little ways off. After getting snubbed by the mighty Tiznow and feeding a peppermint to Speightstown we returned to the main office to say our goodbyes and thank yous.
Once back at the guest house at Ashford my mom and I finally sat down to catch our breath and it was then that it registered that I had finally met Princess of Sylmar. I was all smiles as I flipped through the pictures that my mom had taken of me with the Princess. Only when she asked me to come into the dining room did I look away. While we had been out we had received flowers from Ed and his wife Ina. And they were the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. It was then my mother said what we had been saying all day long: How incredibly blessed are we! That night I had a hard time falling asleep because I was so wired with memories and excitement from all of that day’s activities. Like a movie, I kept rewinding everything in my mind, replaying the most magical moments. Eventually, I fell asleep.
The next day was going to be another busy day in Kentucky as we were going to Keeneland for a day at the track. I had never been to a race track before and I honestly couldn’t believe that the first track I would be going to was Keeneland. I had only heard stories about how beautiful it was and I couldn’t wait to see it in person. Adrian and his wife arrived with our tickets and a special pass that would allow us to sit in Ashford’s corporate box. Grinning, I glanced from the tickets to my mom and then back to Adrian and thanked him 100 times over again. He would meet us there, he said, and so my mom and I set off for our day at Keeneland. It was overcast that morning, casting a gray shadow over everything but the moods of the people walking through the gates charged the air with energy. My mom and I followed the crowd of people and after asking for directions my mom began to push my wheelchair towards the elevator to the box where we would be sitting. As she pushed I took in my surroundings with wide eyes and a racing heart (excuse my pun). It was a busy day as the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup was going to be run that day, along with another major race. And the buzz from the growing crowd sent a rumbling through the ground and filled the air. I turned to look at my mom who had been watching my reaction and she smiled at me.
We got settled in the corporate box and I immediately went to sit by the window to watch the post parade for the second race on that day’s card. I looked through the program to pick out the horses that I thought may win in each race. I read over each card looking at each horse when I noticed that two of my favorite jockeys would be racing that day. I smiled to myself and told my mom that I wanted to meet some of the jockeys before the day was over. Just as I finished picking out a few horses from the first four races, they had all been loaded into the gate and were just about to break. My heart was pounding as I watched them break and take off down the track. It’s one thing to watch race after race on television but to see the horses running in person was something else completely.
Adrian arrived and sat down to help me handicap the races and even took me to place my first bet. Though we didn’t end up winning that one it was just the excitement that made me happy. Together, we watched the races and waited for the QEII Challenge Cup, a race that Ashford had a horse running in. Then, as race 8 ended and the QEII preparations began, Adrian presented my mom and I with two paddock passes. I hadn’t expected to get that close to the horses and I fought the urge to jump up and down.
We walked down to the paddock to watch their horse, Minorette, get ready for her race. She’s a gorgeous filly and well mannered. I began to inspect the other horses that were there and noticed one filly that looked very familiar. She was a tall filly with a darker coat but there was something there that had me thinking I had seen her before. So I glanced down at the card and finally put two and two together. It was Crown Queen, half sister to Royal Delta, a horse that had been amazing on the track, and a horse that my Princess had raced against and won. That was the icing on the cake, I thought, as we followed the horses down the tunnel and then stood in the winner’s circle waiting for the horses to be loaded.
I was as close to the rail as I possibly could be, my arms resting on it and my attention focused on the gate. And just like that the race had begun. The crowd got louder as the horses came down the stretch and pretty soon I was urging the horses under my breath. Crown Queen won it under John Velazquez. I now knew why so many people loved coming to the track. The thrill of watching the horses cross the wire in person surely beats watching it through a screen. The crowd’s energy and the sounds of the hooves thundering on the track added to the excitement and the atmosphere to create something truly special.
As soon as we decided to stay by the rail it began to rain and, like the unprepared tourists we were, my mom and I had forgotten an umbrella. Luckily, we were saved by one of the workers who had a spare and he and I began talking about our trip and the races. Though I can’t remember his name, he was one of the sweetest people I had met on my trip. He had such a warm smile and great heart. We spoke about the upcoming race and what horses I had picked to come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd.
Just after we shared our picks the race began and, as the horses crossed the wire, we all laughed. Of course the race I hadn’t bet in, I ended up having a perfect trifecta. By the end of the day I had been able to meet both Irad Ortiz Jr. and John Velazquez, two of my all time favorite jockeys, and gotten a picture and autograph.
The day at Keeneland came to an end just as the rain began to start. Saying goodbye to Adrian and to the rest of the Ashford team that had sat with us in the box, my mom and I drove out for dinner and returned to the guest house for our last night. That night the exhaustion took over, but not before I dreaded the next day when we would have to leave. Once again I fell asleep thinking about all the blessings that had taken place that day.
We had packed and were pulling out of Ashford around 10:00 am the next morning and took the familiar route back to Taylor Made to say goodbye to my Princess, the horse that had made my whole trip possible.
This time as she was brought out, the air was still and the only sounds were that of the other horses out in the pasture playing around. There was a moment between Princess and I that I won’t forget. It was a quiet and peaceful meeting this time. I was able to just stroke her and thank her for everything that she had done for me and gotten me through the previous year. She ate a couple more carrots and I gave her one last hug and kissed her nose before she was returned to her stall.
It was a bittersweet goodbye. Sweet in knowing that my dream had come true and that I had been able to thank her for everything, that I had been able to see the horse that had changed my life so drastically. But bitter because I knew she would be sold the next month and I knew that I probably wouldn’t see her again.
As my mom and I began our long drive back home, I kept thinking about what people had been saying to me: Once you visit Kentucky you’ll never want to leave. And I can say that’s one hundred percent true. I’m counting down the days until I can come back.
We learned that the Taylor Made team had put together a collection to help offset the cost of our trip, resulting in $640 dollars for us, much more then we spent on our trip. That money will be used to help fund my next Kentucky trip so I can attend the Breeders’ Cup, which will be held at Keeneland next year.
Following the Princess and the world of horse racing has changed my life so much. Not just in the opportunities it’s given me, but in the way it’s changed who I am as a person. I want to pursue a career in horse racing and I know that I want to be as involved in the sport as I possibly can. For now that’s going to be running my Princess of Sylmar fan page on Facebook and updating the fans on Princess’s new life at Shadai farms in Japan and bringing them the latest news of what’s going on in the sport.
Until next time,
~~My thank yous~~
Thank you to Ed Stanco, his amazing family, and all of those at King of Prussia for everything that they do for the sport and for making me a part of their family and their stable. Thank you, Ed, for helping make my dream come true.
Thank you to Hunter and everyone at TaylorMade for inviting me to come and for allowing me to see the Princess, and for the amazing gift that you gave us. You truly blessed us beyond anything we could have imagined.
Thank you to Adrian and those at Ashford for hosting us and for everything that you did for us when we were there. Thank you for making us a part of your life for the days we were there and for taking such great care of us.
Thank you to Giulia Mattarello and Winstar for inviting us to come see your farm and for the gifts you gave us. We’re incredibly thankful.