Jan 09, 2024, 06:24AM

Farewell, Toby

Toby, the Thoroughbred assigned to me after my return to riding lessons at Southmowing Stables in Guilford, Vermont, died in October 2023.

Secretariat hancock 56a4da855f9b58b7d0d98806.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Before I paused my lessons at the end of 2022, I’d ridden Merlin, a huge paint rescue with draft horse somewhere in his indeterminate ancestry. He is 1800 pounds of muscle and attitude, with a pastime of nipping at nearby humans. His other riders were inexplicably fond of him. I found grooming Merlin an exercise in moving the brushes while keeping my arms and hands beyond the range of his teeth. When I gave a carrot to another horse, Merlin seized my upper left thigh from behind to pull me to the ground. Then he stomped off in a jealous rage. The bruises lasted a month. He disliked leaving his paddock for lesson work with me. He once expressed his disagreement by swinging his massive head into my torso, knocking me some twelve feet through a wire fence.

For my part, I’d treated him as I do all animals, with patience and kindness. Even Merlin’s an innocent creature of God, but Merlin apparently had no use for me. And I came to cordially dislike him.

So, I’d had enough. On my return, my instructor, Dorothy Crosby, reassigned me to Toby, a 15.2 hand Thoroughbred. Hand, when used in measuring a horse’s height, meant the breadth of the palm, including the thumb. Human hands vary in size. This led to misunderstandings. King Henry VIII standardized the measure at exactly four inches. He was the kind of guy who could make that ruling stick. Hence, from the ground to the withers (the flat area of his vertebrae atop his shoulders), Toby stood 60.8 inches tall, a shade over five feet.

Toby was a barn name, an informal affectionate diminutive. As a Thoroughbred, he also had a magnificent Jockey Club Registry name, derived from those of his sire, Vicksburg, and dam, Noble Dream Maker: Noble Victory.

The Jockey Club in America was founded by Leonard Jerome, who made, lost, and made several fortunes as a swashbuckling Gilded Age speculator and financier. He loved horse racing and modeled his Jockey Club after its English namesake.

Jerome Park; Jerome Avenue in The Bronx; Jerome Avenue in Brooklyn; and the Jerome Stakes, run every January at Aqueduct Racetrack, were named for him. Leonard’s daughter, Jennie, married Lord Randolph Churchill. His eldest grandson was Winston S. Churchill, who proclaimed his pride in being half-American.

One traces Toby’s ancestry through the Equibase spreadsheets, studded with half-remembered names of once-renowned horses, to Eclipse, an 18th-century racehorse who was undefeated in his 18 races, and from him to the three Arabian stallions from whom descend all Thoroughbreds: the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerley Turk. The last was named for Colonel Byerley, an Irish mercenary fighting for the Habsburgs during the last Turkish invasion of Europe in 1689, when, during the Siege of Vienna, he took the horse in battle, sword in hand.

Born in 1994, Toby was three generations removed from his ancestors, the great racehorses Nashua and Native Dancer. Nashua, “the greatest horse who never won the Kentucky Derby,” started in 30 races. He won 22, ran second in four, and came in third in one. He ran fourth in the other three. He was the second American horse to bring home over $1 million in prize money.

Native Dancer, “the Grey Ghost,” won 21 of 22 starts. Though the United States Horse of the Year for 1954, he too never won the Kentucky Derby. Both horses had great speed, stamina, and courage. Native Dancer also had attitude: his groom once finished a day’s work a finger short.

Native Dancer’s nippiness is reminiscent of the impossible English Thoroughbred Ubedizzy, whose riders and grooms called him many names that perhaps ought not be uttered in mixed company. He was a high-class sprinter, winning eight times in Britain. In 1978, he took second place in the Abernant Stakes at Newmarket. Once in the unsaddling enclosure, Ubedizzy knocked over his groom. The horse pinned him to the ground with his knees. Although Ubedizzy was muzzled, he then tried to bite the groom. Some journalists suggested the horse considered the muzzle an appetizer before the main course. The press got great photographs of Ubedizzy’s attempt to feast on human flesh.

He’d done it before. Ubedizzy had already left his regular jockey, Andrew Crook, with one finger shorter than it should be. Crook had chosen not to ride him at Newmarket that day. Yet another journalist speculated that the jockey would’ve really, really loved to ride but had to wash his hair.

Anyway, the Newmarket temper tantrum was one bite too many for the Jockey Club. Barred from Anglo-Irish racing, Ubedizzy went to the Continent and eventually became Champion Sprinter of Sweden. He was successful at stud and passed his athletic gifts, not his personality, to his offspring.

Years later, Crook said of Ubedizzy, “If I was offered £1,000 a week to do him now, I wouldn’t do it. The times I used to come out of his box with a leg missing off my trousers or my shirt torn to bits…” Another jockey said that Ubedizzy should have ended up in meat cans.

By contrast, Toby was a gentle soul. He was patient, well-trained, athletic, elegant in his movements, and strikingly handsome.

Toby had raced six times in the late-1990s under another name: no wins, places, or shows. His best performance was on July 3, 1998, when he came in fourth out of eight in the fifth race at the now closed and demolished Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. The weather was clear and the track fast. Equibase described his performance as “failed to menace, rail.” In other words, he ran near the rear of the field, along the rail, and was never in serious contention. That day, he won $220, over a third of his lifetime winnings of $646.

All of Toby’s races were maiden claiming races: for horses who had not yet won a race. They must be offered for sale at auction after the race if someone wants to bid. No one bid for Toby. His other performances were similar. As often as not, the commentary was “tired.”

Toby was then retired and passed through the hands of several owners before he came to Dorothy 22 years ago. 


As she came to know Toby, Dorothy concluded he lacked motivation to race. He had better things to do, particularly helping humans learn to ride.

Communication between humans and horses is entirely physical. It demands balance from the rider as part of communicating clear intent. For the moment, my balance is impaired. So, I began working with Toby from the ground with a lunge line, which allowed him to walk or trot in a circle about me in response to my directions.

He was cooperative and obedient. I enjoyed working with him. As he saw me only once a week for an hour or so, I was no more than one of the many humans who blurred through his life. He was always polite, though not affectionate. But he loved Dorothy even more than he loved carrots.

One day he stopped eating. After the second day, Dorothy called the vet, who couldn't find out what was wrong. She noticed that the other horses in his paddock had begun keeping him steady company. They knew he was unwell.

Toby, like most horses, was stoic by instinct. In the wild, horses are prey animals. Any sign of weakness is an invitation to a predator. So, when Toby began showing signs of pain, the vet was called back. Her diagnosis was colic, which is a symptom rather than a specific illness. Unless the horse gets over it on his own, colic is untreatable without expensive and potentially lethal diagnostic surgery: you must open him up to examine his guts. At the age of 29, Toby had outlived most horses and nearly all racehorses. Dorothy, who loved him, understood Toby now desired no more than ease for pain. She reluctantly called the vet again. Toby died peacefully, surrounded by the horses and humans who loved him.

A crude, unkind person (see, e.g., Donald Trump) might dismiss Toby as a loser merely because he never won a race. Toby was that rare and lovely thing, truly a noble victory: a good horse. 


Register or Login to leave a comment