Thursday, September 3, 2015

Secret Lives of Horses

Lunch on the Hill: Polo Machine
By Pam Gleason

Lunch on the Hill has it pretty easy these days. The black Thoroughbred mare lives in Aiken at Hilltop Farm, her owner Karen Reese’s 80-acre polo training facility. She shares her 30-acre pasture with 12 other retired ponies as well as a pair of weanlings. At 23, she still looks strong and fit, her back only slightly swayed thanks to her age and the fact that she has had four foals. Sometimes the herd goes into another pasture with a pond, where all the horses enjoy soaking their legs in the water. On hot days, they cool off by rolling in it. The other old horses stick together, but Lunch looks after the babies.

“She knows she’s retired,” says Karen. “But she thinks the foals are hers and she mothers them. When I throw hay out, she and the two babies eat together and the other old horses eat separately.”

But if an observer were to mistake Lunch’s calm demeanor for quietness, or were to assume that her age and experience had made her laid back and easy going, they would be in for a surprise. Lunch has always been both a top athlete and a quirky horse who is not shy abut letting her rider know that she is the one who is ultimately in charge.

“If I saddled her up right now, she’d throw an NFR [National Finals Rodeo] show,” says Karen with a laugh. “She’s still a snort. She could probably still be playing polo under a young person but I couldn’t do it because every time you turn her out and bring her back in you had better be prepared, because the old lady can buck.”

Lunch on the Hill was bred in Midland, Texas by Bart Evans, a former 8-goal international player, trainer and breeder who is in the National Museum of Polo Hall of Fame. The Evans family breeds horse for the racetrack as well as the polo field, and Lunch on the Hill was originally destined to be a racehorse. She is out of a mare called Dining Out by State Dinner. Her sire, Worthingtonhills by Mr. Prospector, never amounted to much on the racetrack himself, but he was so well bred and well put together that he sold for $180,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland in 1984.

As a young horse, Lunch on the Hill was an athletic beauty with a gleaming black coat and a distinctive white blaze, but you could not add the word “tractable” to her list of attributes. When it was time for her to learn to be a racehorse, she let everyone know she was having none of it.

“They broke her at the ranch and she was such a bronc, they tell me she bucked out of a 9-foot round pen,” says Karen. “She didn’t jump it. She bucked so high she went up on one side of the fence and came down on the other side.”

Miguel Silverstre, a well known polo pony trainer who worked for Bart at the time, eventually helped Lunch decide to allow people to ride her, and she had her first polo lessons under him. Before long, she was playing in practices with the Evans family. They played her in Texas, and they brought her to Florida where Robert Evans, Bart’s son, played her at South Forty, a private polo club in Wellington. It was there that Karen first saw her.

“I was making horses for Julie and Tommy Boyle at the time and I was playing against her and seeing her every day,” says Karen. “She was absolutely stunningly beautiful. She was this super shiny black thing with a white face and she could fly. She was pretty sassy to ride in the beginning of the season and very powerful and forward. I loved everything about her. I was always saying to everyone, ‘I love that mare.’”

Lunch on the Hill was for sale, but she was definitely a big ticket item with a serious price tag. Aside from being a little difficult early in the season, however, she also had a tendency to hit herself when she was running. As a consequence of hitting herself, she would damage a tendon, and need months of rest and rehabilitation. This happened more than once. About two years after Karen first saw her, Robert gave her a call.

"Do you still want that mare?” He asked.

“Absolutely,” Karen replied. “I want you to know she has a fresh bow,” he said.

“I don’t care,” said Karen.

And so Lunch on the Hill came to Aiken, a gift to Karen from the Evans family. Originally, the idea was that she was to be a broodmare, but Karen got her late in the season and was unable to get her into foal immediately. Looking at her feet and her legs, she thought that she could return the mare to soundness, and so she called Robert to ask him if he would mind if she tried to fix the tendon and play the horse. He told her he didn’t mind and so Karen began a careful rehabilitation program.

And it worked. Lunch stopped hitting herself, stayed sound and proved to be everything that Karen had dreamt of and more: fast, handy, beautiful and strong, with a great mouth and an exceptional sense of the game.

“She’s a really competitive horse,” says Karen. “She was one of those horses that really loves polo and knows the game. There were no holes in her game and she could pretty much play without you. She could play with anyone and she played unbelievably under any kind of rider. She could read the play better than most people!”

Lunch knew the game so well, she would always take you to the next play very quickly, whether you knew what that next play was or not. If you hit a neckshot, she knew how to stay on the line of the ball. She even knew when a game was important and when it wasn’t, playing her heart out for a tournament game, but only giving a small percentage in a practice. She loved to run, and she was fast as the wind. But after a goal was scored, and it was time to go back to the throw-in, it would be at a leisurely canter back and she couldn’t be persuaded to to pick up her pace.

“It cracked me up. It was like she was saving herself. When the ball got thrown in, it was game on. But from the goal to the throw-in: hand canter. You could urge her on and even whip her, but she never went any faster.”

Lunch on the Hill played every kind of polo and excelled on every field and in every arena, winning 11 Best Playing Pony awards in her career. She was so much fun to play, Karen often loaned her to visiting players, including women who came for the Aiken Ladies Invitational tournament, and players who participated in an annual 30-goal exhibition that was played in Aiken during the late 1990s and early 2000s. People who rode her included the 10-goal player Memo Gracida and Lesley Ann Masterson Fong-Yee from Jamaica.

“I think I only played Lunch once,” says Lesley Ann. “She was indeed a great pony. I knew her better with Karen playing her in so many of the tournaments we played together. Karen has had many very good horses pass through her hands but when she got on Lunch on the Hill, her handicap literally went up a goal. She had so much confidence in her that she would go for and make plays that she wouldn’t attempt on other horses. It would give the entire team a boost to know that Karen was coming out on Lunch next. If we were behind it was a chance to catch up, if ahead consolidate!”

In 2002, Lunch went to Saratoga, where she was BPP in the women’s tournament under Karen, as well as BPP in the 22-goal and the 8-goal, playing under Justin Pimsner, who was married to Karen at the time. It was the height of her playing career: she was a 10-year-old powerhouse: fast, strong and living up to her full potential on the field.

And then tragedy struck. In August, Justin packed up the trailer and headed home from Saratoga. As he drove down route 87, his truck tire blew out and he lost control of the rig. The truck and trailer went off the road and turned over. Justin was trapped in the cab for several hours and was badly injured. Six of the 10 horses on board were killed or euthanized on the scene. Four, including Lunch on the Hill, were transported to Saratoga Equine Clinic. Lunch was badly injured with deep lacerations, contusions and scrapes. One of her hooves was mostly torn off and her right hip was sliced through. But, with the help of the veterinarians and a device that the farrier Randy Greer made to support her injured hoof, she began to recover. She was the only one of the ten horses on the trailer that day who would not ultimately die from her injuries.

“It was terribly traumatic for all of us,” says Karen. “I try not to think about it.”

After five weeks at the clinic and another few months recovering at a farm in New York, Lunch came back to Hilltop to begin her new life as a broodmare at long last.

“For me, the biggest thing after the wreck was her stepping back on a trailer,” says Karen. “She walked right on. To me, that just said, I trust you to get me home.”

For the next four years, Lunch had babies sired by Hilltop’s stallion Toga: Picnic in the Shade, Table for Two, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Yum Yum. Her foals inherited their mother’s quirkiness, proving themselves difficult to break and almost as “bronc-y” as their mother. But once they submitted to training, they were exceptional polo ponies. Today, Breakfast at Tiffany’s plays in Aiken under Paul Shealy. Yum Yum found her way into Adolfo Cambiaso’s string. Adolfo, 10 goals and usually considered the best player in the world, rode Yum Yum to the Gaucho Best Playing Pony award at the 22-goal Coronation Cup in England in 2014.

After Yum Yum, Karen felt that she didn’t need to break any more broncos, and so she decided to see if Lunch could come back to work as a polo pony. She saddled her up, endured the expected rodeo episode, and then legged her up for polo. Karen’s plan was to allow her daughter Tess, now 16, to ride the mare, who had so much to teach a young player. For the first year, Karen made sure she played conservatively, which was not to Lunch’s liking. But the second year, the mare seemed to realize that she wasn’t a high goal horse any more and things were going to be a little easier.

“When I brought her back the second year, she turned into a completely different horse. She used to be a freight train. But when she realized it was just going to be Tess and I, she turned into a push ride. I played her and Tess played her. She really helped Tess step up her game.” And she wasn’t done winning Best Playing Pony awards either: she won her last one at 18 in a 4-goal at Aiken Polo Club in 2011.

Today, Lunch is fully retired – the days of polo and having babies are behind her, as is the trauma of the catastrophic accident that nearly took her life.

“The Evans family gave her to me, and in return, I promised her safe haven for the rest of her life,” says Karen, whose business is buying and selling horses. “I have never had her for sale, and I would never sell her. She has been a horse of a lifetime for me.”

Of all the horses that Karen has owned and ridden, where does Lunch on the Hill stand? Karen does not take long to answer.

“She’s at the top. She’s at the top for one reason and it’s that she had a heart that would never say die. She had a core of steel and she was a bottomless pit of “try.” She could fly; she was super handy, had a great mouth, and she was super fun to play. She’s a one of a kind horse. They don’t make them like her anymore.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.