Foaling in Love Again–Raising Million Dollar Babies, like American Pharoah’s foal
It is a bitterly cold February day. The skies threaten snow, the fields have yet to turn from brown to green, and the cherry and oak trees lining the paths at Sunnyfield Farm are still not close to budding. John Grau, the ebullient farm manager and overseer of Joanne Nielsen’s thoroughbred breeding program here is crouched in a stall, knee-deep in hay. He is playing with a one-week-old foal named Tyrion. All legs and fluffy coat, the foal is nuzzling, nipping, and licking at Grau, playful, friendly, and inquisitive. The foal’s mother, a thoroughbred celebrity named Party Silks looks on, relaxed and sleepy. She is used to Grau’s presence; this is the sixth baby she’s birthed here.
Last year, Silks gave birth to a colt called Hip 62. The father was American Pharaoh, the first horse ever to win the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing. Within a week, racing addicts and horse lovers—some who had driven all the way from Kentucky—descended on Sunnyfield to catch a glimpse of this newborn celebrity. Not long after, the foal was sold for a record one million dollars. While spring—the season of new beginnings—has yet to arrive in Bedford, in the horse community, late winter is peak foal season and brings much excitement—thanks to the blueblood horses who live at Sunnyfield. “It’s a way of life,” Grau says of the 40 years he has been working with foals and the 13 years working for the Nielsen family. On spring and summer evenings, he and his wife are often alone on the farm watching over the horses. “It’s peaceful and beautiful,” he says.
Five foals have been born so far this year, with two more expected. All of the babies will have significant name recognition in the racing world. Two were born within hours of each other last week. Grau, who lives on the property with his wife, got home at 2:30 am but still couldn’t rest. “I just had a baby,” I said to my wife. “I am all pumped, I can’t sleep.”
Grau points to a gelding grazing in another field. He was born two months premature in 2013 and was given a close-to-zero chance of surviving. “But we pumped life into him. He will always be too weak to race or to breed, so we keep him here. He’s a very expensive lawn ornament.”
The newest five foals spend their days with their mothers, mostly outside. They wear tiny insulated blankets since they can’t regulate their body temperature yet. It’s during this time that Grau and his team handle the foals as much as possible. The horses will have careers in which they will have to interact with dozens of people, so being skittish or alarmed by humans would prove a problem.
The foals at Sunnyfield are mollycoddled and pampered, says Grau. They stay with their mothers for the first five and a half months of their lives, as is standard. Then, as yearlings (that is, when they enter the year in which they turn one), they live with their own age group.
Sunnyfield has five yearling fillies in a pasture nearby, who are playing, showing off, and vying for attention when Grau comes by. “As yearlings we try to have them at their highest peak of health and fitness, and that is when they are up for sale. The intention is that they go on to race. We hope that the fillies run and that they have a good career and go on to be brood mares. A horse like Upstart (a Nielsen-bred rival to American Pharaoh) will go on after racing to have a stallion career and help the industry.”
It’s not common for most breeders, but Nielsen and her team will follow their horses throughout their racing career. “I have a huge passion for animals, and I enjoy the spirit of horseracing,” says Nielsen, who was introduced to the horse world when her four children became avid riders, more than 40 years ago. “I am always with my horses wherever they are, I am cheering for them, and I am running with them.”
“Mrs Nielsen feels that she puts these horses on earth,” adds Grau, “and she has a lifetime responsibility for them.”