As a tremendous wall of horses surged toward the 2006 Kentucky Derby finish line, each powerful animal and tightly coiled jockey fighting for the honor of winning the fabled blanket of roses, it was one of the losers that day whose life would become, like lyrics to a song, a “promised rose garden.”
Though the gorgeous gray stallion Steppenwolfer was trounced by Barbaro and Bluegrass Cat, he finished a respectful third in racing’s most widely watched contest, but yet, in the contest for quality of life, eventually won the Triple Crown.
After his owners had the stallion gelded, they agreed to sell him with the promise that Steppenwolfer would never be sold after that, says Gail Thayer, a Pennsylvania horseman who was more than willing to welcome Steppenwolfer into her family of avid foxhunters.
“We were looking for another horse, and we heard that there was a horse for sale, but that there was this stipulation that he had to go to a good home, and that the people who took him had to promise never to get rid of him. Can you imagine?
“Well, my friend Sean Clancy told them, ‘Do I have the person for you!’ He knew I never sell my horses.”
In 2009, the somewhat aloof, thoroughly beautiful animal who Thayer had watched in the Derby, arrived Steppenwolfer
Foal date: March 16, 2003
Earnings: $653,459at her Unionville home, where neighbors include Barbaro’s famous trainer Michael Matz and Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Shepherd.
“The Derby is a family and a neighborhood event, so I knew who Steppenwolfer was, and when we found out he was available, we just went for it,” she says.
He took to her farm and grass like somebody really had “promised him a rose garden,” and in time his aloof demeanor softened to reveal that he is really a softie for forehead rubs and cookies, and often gets quite cuddly to cajole those rewards.
When asked to bring a family member on a trail ride or foxhunt, he is an absolute pleasure, she says. Although he still clearly remembers his race days when moving out across a field with a pack of horses, Thayer says. “He can get really strong when the field starts to move on, and it’s like he says, ‘Wait a minute. I have to follow them?’ ”
Although he was entered in some point-to-point races last year, and his mind was willing, his body was just a little weaker as some minor arthritis had set in. “Right before a race, he got lame,” she says, noting that Steppenwolfer is very communicative these days on what he wants and does not want.
And as the family’s treasured pet, they are only too willing to comply with his wishes.
Breakfast arrives promptly, everyday, between 7 and 7:30 a.m. After which, he takes a stroll to the top of the Thayer family’s beautiful field, and hangs out all day with a pasture buddy. At around 3 p.m., he strolls back and has supper.
Some days, Thayer takes him out for a hack along the picturesque pastures that surround her neighborhood, including the famous Cheshire Foxhound property, with a panorama of rolling hills and post-and-rail fences.
Although the blanket of roses was not in the cards for Steppenwolfer, when it’s lights out in the barn, and the great racehorse settles in for the evening, he is with a family who loves him.
“He’s really just another member of our family,” Thayer says. “His owners wanted to make sure he wound up with someone who really cared for him, and that he would always be safe. And he is. We’ll always have him, until the end of his days.”