Springtime is horse racing's time.
Promise is heavy in the air as talented youngsters set out on the Kentucky Derby trail and old favorites kick off their latest campaigns. Meanwhile, back on the farms, mares are delivering foals that in a few years time will hopefully be garnering the headlines themselves.
As such, springtime is also an incredibly busy time for all those in the industry. There are races to train for, mares to foal, and matings to plan. Patience is a required virtue since the only thing that happens quickly in horse racing is a race itself. The sport requires you to plan weeks, months, even years in advance.
Although racing is a game that demands its participants constantly look forward, sometimes it is also important to take a look back.
On March 13, Hill 'n' Dale Farms, a major breeding operation in Lexington, did just that. Employees from across the farm took some time out of their busy schedules to attend a birthday party for a horse. While on the surface that might sound a bit odd, it is important to note that it wasn't just any horse and it wasn't just any birthday.
While it is true all registered thoroughbreds officially have their birthdays on Jan. 1 each year, March 13 was champion Theatrical's actual 30th birthday.
"He is the first horse we have gotten to 30," said stallion manager Aidan O'Meara. "It is a special thing to get a horse to that age, something to celebrate. Lots of them get to 20, not too many of them make it to 30."
The fact that it is Theatrical who reached the milestone makes it even more special. The handsome but sometimes temperamental stallion has demanded and deserved respect for decades.
In 1987, Theatrical won an eye-popping six Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Turf, for owners Bertram Firestone and Allen Paulson before retiring with earnings just shy of $3 million. Not surprisingly he was named that year's champion turf male.
Time makes it easy to forget that his Breeders' Cup victory was the first for his trainer, Bill Mott, and he was also the trainer's first champion. Now a Hall of Famer, Mott is best known for training two-time Horse of the Year Cigar but has plenty of other accolades on his resume, including pulling off an impressive double last year when he won the Breeders' Cup Classic with Drosselmeyer and the Ladies' Classic with Royal Delta.
Theatrical started his stallion career at Paulson's Brookside Farm. Paulson died in 2000, and in 2001, Theatrical was moved to Hill 'n' Dale. He was pensioned in the fall of 2009, but it was made clear he would call the farm home for the remainder of his days.
He came and stood for $100,000. He took our whole operation, the breeding side and the farm along with it, to the next level.
”-- Aidan O'Meara, Hill 'n' Dale Farms
"He did for us as a breeding operation something kind of similar to what he did for Bill Mott as a trainer," said O'Meara. "He was the big-time horse that took him to the next level as a trainer, and he was the big-time horse that stepped us up as a breeding operation and in a lot of ways validated us as a breeding operation.
"Back in the day when he came here, our best stallion was a $7,500 stallion. He came and stood for $100,000. He took our whole operation, the breeding side and the farm along with it, to the next level."
As a stallion, Theatrical achieved success internationally, siring more than 20 Grade/Group 1 winners, multiple millionaires, and several champions. He has also achieved success as a broodmare sire through horses like champion English Channel and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Rail Link.
Beyond his resume, Theatrical also means a great deal to O'Meara on a personal level.
"For me, he was one of those first horses that really made you take your own horsemanship to another level," said the stallion manager. "He was a very high strung, temperamental type, and I was a 23-year-old kid when we got him. I learned a lot from him. From Day 1 we had to work around him and not the other way around because he had his own way of doing things.
"When I went to catch him for the very first time, he squealed and kicked at the door about as hard as Mike Tyson punched in his heyday. He had some intent in it, and it gave me a pretty good idea to take him very seriously, very quickly. He was always a nice horse to be around, you just had to watch yourself especially around breeding time."
Although those who work with Theatrical know to keep an eye out for his right front leg -- the stallion's trademark maneuver when he is displeased -- the stallion has mellowed significantly with age. These days, he spends his afternoons in his paddock and the rest of the time at the main stallion barn.
"He is pretty low maintenance," said O'Meara. "He wouldn't be a horse you could turn out full time and leave out over night like they do with some retired stallions. He would stress himself out too much. An hour and a half out there, and he is walking the fence looking to come back in."
Because the bright-eyed stallion has become more laid-back in his golden years, Hill 'n' Dale arranged for a local bakery to bake a cake to celebrate the big 3-0. The tips of carrots were broken off and stuck in the cake in place of candles.
Theatrical got a crack at the cake before his human companions, but he was not impressed his carrots came with extra flavoring. The still handsome bay wiggled his lips when he got icing on them and made it clear he preferred his carrots neat, no icing.
"He breeds better than he eats cake," joked O'Meara about Theatrical's reaction. "Back in the day if we pulled him out for a cake, he would have taken one look at it, squealed, and been screaming to head over to the shed. He has come a long way from those days."
Here's hoping Theatrical has many more days in front of him. For while keeping an ever-steady eye on the future is a requirement in the horse business, it is also important to respect the horses that have done everything we have asked of them, every step of the way.
Even if all that is being asked of them these days is to pose for a picture with a birthday cake.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at email@example.com.