Wide-eyed with excitement, the young receptionist paged through the glossy brochures.
Beautiful Thoroughbreds, groomed to perfection like glamorous fashion models, filled the pages she had organized for Centennial Farms.
It was her first job. In some ways, it was one of the happiest times of Elizabeth De Smet’s life. And the work she did, answering phones, chatting with racing officials, and other office duties, might not have seemed like much to an outsider, but to De Smet, it was her ticket in.
“That job sucked me into racing!” she says. “I used to answer phones and made frequent calls to the Racing Secretary’s office. This is where I started talking with jockey Bill Nemeti, who became a friend of mine.”
For a year-and-a-half, De Smet was treated to some red-carpet excitement. During the 1990 Belmont Stakes, she was ferried about with officials who treated her to a tour of the fabled track. And she dined with the wife of Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero.
“One of my best memories was going with Marjorie Cordaro to the Clocker’s Stand and listening to these old race guys talk about the races,” she says. “It was the coolest thing ever!”
Fast-forward a couple of decades.
Now a wife and mother who works for a venture capital firm, De Smet joined Facebook a couple years ago to search for the progeny of that well-loved farm. Race name: Sunny Emblem
Sire: Our Emblem
Dam: Sunny Runner, by Root Boy
Foal date: April 6, 2003And though she did not find any, she discovered much more.
“I befriended Deb Dempsey of Izzy’s Love Equine Rescue, and one day, I saw that she had pulled this beautiful Thoroughbred mare named Sunny Emblem from New Holland in July 2010,” she says.
What it was about the bay brown mare, she couldn’t say for sure. But she was so drawn to Sunny’s photographs that she hopped a flight to Maryland to visit her, and almost instantly, it was love at first ear-rub.
“I don’t know why it is, but every time I meet a horse, I go right for the ears,” she says, admitting that many horses do not like that. But Sunny did! “She just loved it, and Deb commented that she’d never before seen her allow such an intimate touch.”
Despite her caution about riding an ex-racehorse—“I used to be fearless as a child, but at age 48 I have fear”—De Smet threw caution to the wind. She adopted Sunny and settled her into Crystal Farms in Dunstable, Mass., to begin a life of “re-learning” together.
Mostly, De Smet has been learning about Sunny. She discovered her mare once broke her pelvis while breezing as a three-year-old, but recovered well enough to resume racing at age four.
Although her hip doesn’t bother her, a recent bought of Lyme disease set her back a bit. Fortunately, when her attitude turned grumpy, she was tested and diagnosed quickly. “ We caught it early and treated her, and her personality started to improve,” she says.
De Smet also brought in a Reiki massage therapist to help ease any aches and pains she might have, especially after the feisty creature got into an altercation with an Alpha Mare in the paddock. Sunny won, De Smet notes with satisfaction.
All the little interactions, lessons and experiences she’s digested take her back to her first job at the farm, learning about horses.
With her own living, breathing representative of the noble breed she admired for so long, De Smet feels a sense of coming full circle in her life.
It is enough for her to spend time progressing gradually. While Sunny gets regular exercise from an experienced rider at the barn, De Smet is satisfied to ride lightly and to immerse herself in the lifelong learning that comes of owning one’s own horse.
“This has always been my dream, to own my own Thoroughbred,” she says. “So many good horses are going to slaughter, and I lucked out with Sunny. She has a lot of heart and is very smart.”
And Sunny lucked out too, finding a friend on Facebook who will take care of her until the end of her days.