Lavish hats are just as much a part of the Kentucky Derby culture as the horses themselves, and thanks to a collaborative effort, some select pieces are helping to raise money for retired racehorses long past their glory days.
This is the fifth year the horses of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement have benefited from a six-month auction featuring different hats crafted by acclaimed milliner Sally Faith Steinmann's Maggie Mae Designs. However, this year, they were also aided by one of the most recognizable names in the game: leading jockey Rosie Napravnik.
Blowen founded Old Friends in 2003, and the retirement facility is now home to more than 100 horses. One of the things that makes Old Friends unique is that it takes in stallions when their racing and breeding careers come to an end. The farm attracts nearly 20,000 tourists annually who can get up close and personal with the likes of Belmont Stakes winner Sarava and Breeders' Cup champion Gulch.
Obviously, such an endeavor is not a cheap one, and Old Friends is always looking for fun ways to raise money for its horses. When they were approached by Steinmann several years ago about an idea she had, they knew it was a winner.
Steinmann's work can be see internationally from Royal Ascot to the Dubai World Cup and has even been worn in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby. However, the first hat she made because she was inspired by a specific horse was done in tribute to ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
"I was an artist, a milliner, and I felt compelled that I had to create a hat to honor him and celebrate him," the lifelong horse lover said. "I had never done anything like that before, and I didn't want to sell it. I just wanted to share it."
The response she received from her tribute is eventually what led to her create hats to raise money and awareness for Old Friends. To date, this unique fundraiser has raised more than $20,000 for the facility.
From November through April, one hat a month is offered during an online auction, dubbed Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby. Each of the one-of-a-kind handcrafted chapeaus is named for an Old Friends resident, and Steinmann takes her inspiration from the horse's personality and efforts on the racetrack. When Napravnik joined the board of directors of Old Friends in 2013, it made the hat maker's wheels start to turn.
"I am an idea machine, I can't help myself," said Steinmann. "I had seen Rosie in the news, and anyone who follows horse racing knows her. I had heard she had come on the board, and I thought, 'I know this is a real long shot, but I wonder if she would ever be interested in helping with kicking off the auction?' One thing led to another, and she thought it was a great idea."
After modeling the first hat of this season's auction, The Sean Avery, Napravnik agreed to show off all the hats created for this year's fundraiser. The other Old Friends residents honored this year were Patton, Afternoon Deelites, Ball Four, Silver Ray and Geri.
"To have Rosie come and model them is really great," Blowen. "She is such a trooper. She gets hardly any days off, and she spends one of them to come over and model these hats with the horses they are named after. It meant a lot because she is a superstar."
I loved the idea of helping with this auction because I think it is a great way to raise money for the horses, and I also had so much fun modeling with them.
"-- Jockey Rosie Napravnik
Because of the chaotic schedule involved for all the parties working together on the auction, the last five hats were all created ahead of time so a single day of photo shoots could be arranged. Granted, that single day involved Napravnik swapping out hats, outfits and equine models.
For her, both one horse and the hat made in his honor stood out.
"I think Patton was my favorite horse to work with because he was so cooperative and handsome," Napravnik said. "We were inside the barn on that freezing cold day as opposed to outside by some of the others' paddocks. The hat was also different from the rest, and I love the way the picture came out."
Contributing to the team effort were Matt and Wendy Wooley of EquiSport Photos, who were on hand to document all the excitement, and the Lexington boutique Bella Rose, which supplied all of Napravnik's dresses. The weather was not the best, but it didn't stop the day from being a successful one.
"It was so cold," said Napravnik. "Unfortunately, you can see that in my face in some of the pictures, especially the later ones, but it was fun interacting with the horses. They acted like horses. They didn't necessarily all want to stand and pose, and I was thinking that it would have been very difficult for a non-horse person to do the shoot, freezing her behind off and standing in heels! So I felt very useful."
Thanks to the Wooleys, there is video footage from that day showing everyone's effort to make the shoot happen.
"To get the video footage Wendy has gotten makes it even more tangible for people," said Steinmann. "They can see the horses moving with Rosie. They can see them interacting and the playfulness of it, especially when the horses want to eat the hat.
"Rosie is such an amazing horsewoman, and she never seemed flustered by it. She just rolled with it. She was the horsewoman there, but she looked like a model with the hat and the dress, even with the wind. What a natural."
For those wondering about horses nibbling on hats, fear not. Steinmann checked over each one after the photo shoot to make sure they were in pristine condition for their future owners.
"It was such an amazing opportunity to get everybody in the same place at the same time," said Steinmann. "I was creating each hat to honor the horse, but I also couldn't help but think it was going to be worn by Rosie. It was amazing to create these hats knowing she was going to wear them because of her passion for horse racing and the retired racehorses. It couldn't have been more special."
This year's final auction is underway and features The Geri, named for the multiple graded stakes winner and millionaire. A homebred raced by Allen E. Paulson, Geri entered stud in Kentucky, but eventually left for Japan and then Italy before returning from overseas last year. The 22-year-old chestnut stallion was retired to Old Friends in August 2013, becoming the sixth North American-bred stallion repatriated from stud duty overseas to retire at the facility.
"It's not like Sally is throwing something together to put on your head," said Blowen. "She really puts a great deal of thought into these. It is tough calling them hats -- they are really works of art. There are certain ones you can look at and you can see the personality of the horse coming out of the hat. For instance, there is something really regal about The Geri.
"It is a great tribute to Sally and her talents because if they were crummy little hats, I have a feeling Rosie wouldn't drive 150 miles to put a hat on her head. You can really see how much goes in to it."
The auction for The Geri runs through April 11. Anyone interested in bidding on the very hat Napravnik posed with can go to the Old Friends website and follow the link to participate in the auction.
"I still can't believe how fortunate we have been to have Rosie join the team," said Steinmann. "It was this convergence of people and horses and hats, and it all just came together in the most amazing way."
Of course, this year, the hat on Napravnik's head on the first Saturday in May will be a jockey's helmet, not a fancy chapeau, as she is the regular rider for Louisiana Derby winner Vicar's in Trouble. She will also be busy the day before the Run for the Roses, as she rides Untapable, the likely favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. Napravnik became the first female rider to win the Oaks when she won with Believe You Can in 2012.
"The pressure was in the prep races," said Napravnik. "With the new points system, it was crucial for both Untapable and Vicar's in Trouble to run well, and they certainly impressed. Now is the time to get excited.
"I've never been more excited about the first weekend in May than I am this year. I will be riding the likely favorite in the Kentucky Oaks, and my husband, Joe Sharp, is the assistant trainer of Vicar's in Trouble. He has been hands-on with him since before he ever ran. The fact that we are going to be running for the roses together is incredible."
What is also incredible is the amount of time Napravnik gives back to the sport she loves. One has only to look at the pictures of her posing with horses years removed from their racetrack days to see that.