It’s going on 5 months since the Steeplechase community said goodbye to the horse that has meant the most to me in my 20 years of dealing with horses. The funny thing is, I didn’t own him, he was not mine in any way shape or form. He was in the barn from the time I started working for Jonathan Sheppard in 2009, and became my daily partner for the last 3 years. Three years isn’t that long, really, I’ve owned horses longer than that. But it didn’t take long to admire and just plain love this horse, he was unlike any other horse I’ve ever had the privilege of being around. Divine Fortune was and is my once in a lifetime horse.
I have grieved a lot of different losses in my life. Friends, family, pets, horses I worked with, horses I didn’t know, but this was a loss different than any other loss I have had to deal with. It hasn’t been until the New Year that I felt ready and comfortable enough to remember and talk about my time with Fortune and come to peace with the loss of him. I am not writing this for me, though, I am writing this for Fortune and for all of his fans and followers. I want everyone to know just how loved and cherished this horse was, because the one thing that is really misunderstood with horse racing in general is the level of care and pampering these animals recieve on a daily basis. They are part of the family, and Divine Fortune was no exception.
When I became Jonathan’s assistant trainer the end of 2011, I became responsible for a mix of flat and steeplechase horses, and in that group was Divine Fortune. We legged him up jogging roads in 2012 before sending him to Camden under the care of our assistant at the time and one of his other biggest fans, Jill Waterman, where he won his prep race at Stoneybrook easily before going to the Iroquois and finished a closing 2nd to our other horse Arcadius. After Nashville, he came back to the farm, and I guess you could say that’s when “we hit it off”.
That was also around the time his front running style began. He was always known as the easy gallop in the barn, and one day I took a hold of his mouth and he grabbed a hold back, and we were off. Ears pricked, not a care in the world, but I had no brakes! Every day he got a little stronger, more eager to train, and his whole demeanor had somewhat changed. He was getting older and becoming more of a staying type, his turn of foot had diminished a bit but could still go all day, at a very high cruising speed. Other people could get on him and he would lope around, but everytime I got in the tack he was jigging and ready to go. It was the joke of the barn how fast I would work for 5/8 after the initial 5/8 work on the track, it would literally take me a full turn to get him pulled up. He was 2nd at Far Hills and the Colonial Cup the end of 2012.
And it wasn’t until 2013 after being 2nd in FIVE Grade 1 stakes races that he finally won his first Grade 1 at Far Hills in the Grand National.
That win in the Grand National capped off an Eclipse Award winning year in 2013 for Divine Fortune. What a year it was! Divine Fortune was TEN years old for his 2013 campaign, and became a 10 year old Eclipse Award winner that year as well! Darren Nagle, his jockey, and I were privileged enough to be invited along to Florida for the Eclipse Awards, and it was an incredible experience. I met Jerry Bailey, Johnny V, Joel Rosario, Javier Castellano, and Darren and I bumped into a random guy smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer outside that turned out to be Gary Stevens. I remember thinking that night that I wish there was a way I could repay Divine Fortune, for all of the amazing experiences I have been able to be a part of because of his accomplishments.
At age 11, he wasn’t done. We went to Nashville and he smoked them, he won easy with Willie McCarthy in the irons as Darren was out with a broken leg. I don’t cry, but that day I ran up the course (I was standing at the last fence) after he crossed the wire, and I was bawling like a baby.
Not for me, or for anyone else, but for Divine Fortune. He put on such a jumping display that day, just as they started to catch him he would leave two strides out and quickly be ahead by 3-4 lengths. He led from start to finish and it was an incredible performance.
That win was then followed by a pull up and then a fall at Saratoga and Belmont. People started questioning if he was getting older and just not at that level anymore, that maybe it was time he be retired. Joe Clancy came out to see him for himself a few days before the Grand National that year, and he rode out with me and saw that he still had it. Fortune was jigging, doing his signature head toss/ twitch that really can’t be put into words, and not showing any signs of aging. He was pulling me right along just like every other day. Sure enough, he ran a good second at Far Hills and followed up with a HUGE 9 length victory in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup.
And once again, I bawled like a baby. What a horse, just when you thought he was done, there he was again. With that bold jumping style that set him apart from any other horse, with such confidence and such power, he was incredible to watch. He loved what he did.
Little did I know, the Colonial Cup would be the last time I stood in the winners circle with Divine Fortune. He started off 2015 slow, and the same kind of talk started, about his age, about retiring him. He came back to the farm after an honest 5th place finished being beaten only 4 lengths in the AP Smithwick, which at only 2 1/16th miles, was too short for him at that age. He came back to the farm full of life, and even better than he went into the race. He had an awesome work before the Turf Writers, and I just had a feeling that he was sitting on a big one, and he was going to surprise people next time out. So we headed to Saratoga.
He came out ready to show people he hadn’t lost a beat. He took the lead and never looked back. He turned for home still cruising in front as many other horses were already fading. I rememeber looking at my co-worker, Theresa, as they turned for the last and screaming he was going to win it. There was one horse coming to him though, and as that horse loomed in sight Fortune did what he was known to do, and that was take a serious gamble. His jumping was amazing, but it also got him in trouble. He would leave strides out and take off outside the wing.
He wanted to win that race, and he wasn’t going to let the other horse get by him. With that being said, he dove at the fence, there was nothing his pilot could have done, you were at the mercy of whatever Divine Fortune wanted to do in a race, you were just a passenger. Fortune was wrong this time, and when he didn’t get right up, I knew there wasn’t going to be a good outcome.
I ran to him as fast I could. He was still down when I got to him, and I put his head on my lap and I sat there with him. After a few minutes, he was able to scramble to his feet. The false hope that he was okay was quickly slashed away when we saw his shoulder. No one had to say anything, we knew. I have never felt so defeted and empty as I did as I walked away from him that day, that was not the way it was supposed to end. The amount of concerned texts for the horse I recieved right after the fall was actually amazing.
I had over 40 text messages asking if he was okay. Over FORTY people cared about Divine Fortune and followed him that closely. After the news of his passing, I had over 100 messages between text and facebook. He touched so many lives, and it is just absolutely incredible that a horse can have that much of an impact on so many people.
It took some time to really reflect, and everyone definitely has their own opinion. But I do not think it was a mistake choosing to race him that day. He loved what he did, he went out doing the thing he loved the most. He jumped the final fence in one of America’s biggest Grade 1 stakes in front at twelve years old, that is something special. I am glad that I was there that day, that I was able to be there for him in his final moments. But more than anything I am glad that he was brought into my life. No other horse has ever made me laugh, cry, and stress as much as he did in our time together. He had so much personality, such a love of life and his job, and was such an athlete.
My point of sharing about my time with Divine Fortune is not only for his fans, but to future fans of the sport, to fans that are on the fence about our sport, and even for the people that have terrible things to say about our sports and the falls. Yes, a fall killed Divine Fortune. No, that is not the way we wanted him to go out. BUT, he did not want to retire to a field, at least not yet. He went out doing the one thing he loved more anything and isn’t that what we ask for ourselves? That we’d like to go out doing something we love? What’s so different about that happening for a horse?
No matter how you feel, it’s important to know how attached people in the steeplechase community become to their horses, and how much they are loved and how well they are treated. This is not a cruel sport, we are not cruel people. I was lucky enough to share three awesome years with a horse who has changed my life in many ways. He taught me so much about training and racing and that age doesn’t necessarily mean a thing.
On Christmas Eve, we spread some of his ashes on the track by the wire, where he always finished his works in front. We buried the rest of his ashes on the hill overlooking the track and his turnout field. He has a nice headstone where his ashes were buried and he will always be at Ashwell with us, which is very comforting. I just hope he knows how much I appreciated him and our time together.
Divine Fortune is my once in a lifetime horse.