The stately gray OTTB who pranced last month alongside 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator, looking every inch the well-turned-out pony and the spitting image of his champion Dad Holy Bull, was once a ragamuffin living in a wintry Maryland field just waiting for his luck to change.
Charolais led a humble life after his race career ended with a sixth-place finish at Laurel Park in 2004, recalls Kimberly Godwin Clark of Leighton Farm in Maryland.
Somewhat rough around the edges with a patchy coat, Charolais looked to Clark like an animal in need of immediate TLC when their paths crossed sometime in the winter of 2009. She bought him on the spot over a decade ago much to the amazement of her husband who asked, “What are you doing buying horses like that?”
Barn name: Charles
Sire: Holy Bull
Dam: Mismatch, by Polish Navy
Foal: May 13, 1999But over the course of eight months, the once unimpressive looking gelding proved to be made of much finer stuff than his initial appearance would suggest, she says.
“He always walked like nothing could beat him down,” Clark says. “And when I got him to my barn, and he got all the food he could eat, warm blankets and care, it was like he seemed to say, ‘Were in fat city now, let’s enjoy it!’ ”
The attitude, and an indefinable “it” quality was what attracted Pimlico outrider Lisa McKlveen; a woman who holds the distinction of being the first female outrider during afternoon races at the track, and the first female outrider to pony a Preakness winner.
The first time McKlveen spotted the gray, she approached Clark, pointed at the Charolais, and declared, “That’s my next pony!”
“I remember the first time I saw him. I was sitting watching the track and I see Kim had this gray with really long hair and I could see his ribs. He just caught my eye as they walked around the track. After I told her he was my next track pony, I kept an eye on him. I think she thought she’d bring him back to be a racehorse, but then one day she asked if I still wanted her gray horse, and my heart dropped,” McKlveen says. “I told her yeah, yeah, I want him. I said I’d be over in 10 minutes, and that’s how I got Charles.”
But their success on Pimlico didn’t happen over night.
At first Charles was leery of his new owner. He didn’t trust her. He didn’t want her in his stall. And he wouldn’t do anything she asked. “One day he even pushed me against the wall, trying to squish me,” she recalls. But she believed in her new horse, and never gave in to his shenanigans.
Then one day while out on an impromptu foxhunt, the trust he’d been withholding was offered up.
“We were about halfway through our ride and taking a break with the other horses when he did a complete 180. He turned and looked at me in the saddle and that was the moment he said, ‘OK lady, maybe you’re not so bad. From that day forward, the love just grew.”
Throughout the years ponying together at Pimlico, Charles has surefootedly carried her after riderless, runaway racehorses. And together they have built their track record to the point of being selected to pony the Preakness winner this year.
“Last year was the first time I’d ponied the Preakness winner. I took a different horse, and ponied Triple Crown winner Pharoah. This year was Charles’s first time. He’s now my most senior outriding pony and when the time came, he did everything with his usual perfectness,” she says. “He does goof off from time to time. But when he has a horse with him, he’s amazing. These pony horses give their life for you. As a rider, you try to keep them out of trouble, and they trust you for it. And you trust them to get you out of something bad when it happens.
“There’ve been many times I should have wound up on the ground, but he saved me.”
Walking alongside Exaggerator after the Preakness, Charles pricked his ears, tucked his head, and looked like a schoolmaster.
“His story of where he is now, and where he was, is incredible,” McKlveen says. “Some gait people remember him as a racehorse, and he was not a nice horse. But Today, he’s a very regal horse, and that’s why his name is Charles, never Charlie.”
She was so thrilled with the way he handled his Preakness duties that McKlveen emailed Clark the photo of the little ragamuffin, resplendent now, back among his kind.
Says Clark, “It’s an amazing story for him to go from where he was to ponying Exaggerator. Charles has such a cool look on his face in that photo. He ponied him to the post and picked him up after. No matter what this horse does, to this day, he enjoys every day. There’s probably a lesson in that for all of us.”