I had heard the legend from the time I was a young colt, barely able to stand on wobbly legs. As I drank her soothing mother’s milk, Mama would whisper the legend in my ear.
Somewhere there is a golden pasture where old champions live in freedom. They never again feel the heavy weight of a man on their backs or feel the sting of a whip against their flesh. A crystal stream flows through the glittering field and the horses eat apples from the hands of angels. Run, Ferdinand, run. Run as fast as you can toward that golden pasture.
Late at night, in the quiet stillness of my stall, I would dream of the golden pasture. I tried to imagine the horses standing in the shimmering grass, the sweet taste of sugar on their tongues. Who were they? They had familiar names like Seabiscuit, Man o’ War and Secretariat. Great champions who had once lived at the same farm that I called home. They were legends themselves. How had they become victorious? What made them run? Like me, had they been running toward the golden pasture?
In the harsh light of day, becoming a winner was tiring and difficult. Still, I tried my hardest. I ran until I thought I would fall over. My body heaved with sweat and foam fell from my mouth. But, it was working. Every day my hooves carried me faster and faster.
I could hear the people talking about me. They used words like contender and Derby. But, the word they used most often was money. The faster I ran, the more they talked.
Racing was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. The other horses were nervous and jumpy. This made me want to run away from them even faster. The man on my back hit me hard with a whip and I galloped as quickly as my racer’s legs would carry me. Although I was not placing first, I began finishing “in the money” nearly every race. My people grew more and more hopeful until one day they decided I was ready for the ride of my life.
For most racehorses, the Run for the Roses is just an elusive dream. Just by competing in the Derby, I would prove myself as a thoroughbred. No one expected me to actually win. I was a long shot, but I knew I could do it. From the moment the trumpet blared that morning, I knew it would be my day to shine. As soon as I heard the starting bell, I ran like I had never run before. My legs seemed to float beneath me. While the other horses grew tired and weary, I became stronger and faster. I crossed the wire that day and became a champion.
I will never forget the feeling that beautiful Kentucky morning when they placed a blanket of red roses around my neck. As I breathed in the rosy smell of victory, my people posed for pictures. Champagne flowed like a river and the bubbly liquid danced on the tips of my ears. My people were thrilled. I had made them rich beyond their wildest dreams.
After I won the Derby, I continued winning. By the time I retired, I had earned $3,777,878 in prize money. I looked forward to my future as a champion grazing in the fields of the golden pasture.
But, that was not to be. After my racing days were over, I found myself in a faraway land filled with strangers who spoke a language I didn’t understand. I was treated cruelly and forced to live in cramped stalls with mangy, forlorn horses who had become wild from neglect.
Every day I asked myself, “How much? How much more prize money would it have taken to get to the golden pasture? One more dollar, a hundred more, a million more?”
I had given racing everything I had and once I was no longer bringing in the money, I was abandoned by my people. They did not send me to live in the golden pasture, but to give the only thing I had left: my life. Perhaps it would take arms greater than man’s to carry me to that glittering field. On my last and final day, I did not struggle as the other horses did. I quietly lay down my great chestnut head and waited for the end, all the while dreaming of eating apples from the hands of angels.
This story was inspired by Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Horse of the Year. Ferdinand, known for his calm and gentle demeanor, earned $3,777,878 in prize money over the course of his career. After retirement, he was sent to Japan where he was slaughtered for human consumption in 2002.
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