It is 2012, and time to think about spring.
As I write this, it’s an absurd 18 degrees outside, and horsemen and women much tougher than me are breaking the ice in water buckets and stripping off the layers as they muck out the barns. There are horses with endearing icicle whiskers and steaming nostrils standing at the frosty gates, daring one another to lick the metal while waiting to be brought in for sweet feed and a blanket adjustment. It’s easy to see that it’s winter.
But as any racing fan will remind you, the Kentucky Derby is just four months away. And what will you be wearing?
Back in September, I wrote about Sally Faith Steinmann, a milliner who creates astonishing hats under the name Maggie Mae Designs. She created a gorgeous tribute to stakes winner Wooden Phone, a permanent retiree at LOPE Texas, for the retirement farm’s annual fundraiser. (Barry Irwin, owner of 2011′s Derby winner Animal Kingdom, bought the hat for $1,000 to honor his old horse Wooden Phone, and to adorn his wife’s head at the 2012 Derby.)
But Wooden Phone’s beautiful hat, designed in every way to represent the horse, from his tiny little snippet of white to the red-and-black silks he wore when famously bringing down Grade 1 winner Tiznow, is not the only piece of Derby couture that Steinmann brings to life for the good of racehorses. In partnership with Old Friends, the well-known retirement foundation for racehorses, Steinmann offers six hats each year, dedicated to a different member of the racehorse retirement farm. Six months of auctions, from November 1st right up to May, offer unique hats that honor, and benefit, some of racing’s great icons, now growing long in the tooth and adorably fuzzy.
Past honorees have included venerable stakes greats like Black Tie Affair, Gulch, Marquetry, as well as that wooly little farm mascot, Little Silver Charm. This month’s horse is Benburb, the stunning gray who was voted Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1992.
Benburb astonished racing when he upset Alydeed (twice) and A.P. Indy in 1992. From the Maggie Mae website, his friends have this to say about this great white horse:
Valerine Mulgrave of the Old Friends Blog writes, “Bennie… is the most easygoing, unassuming, kind-hearted, happy horse in the world. You could leave small children to crawl under, on, and around him and he would take care of them perfectly…. When he looks at you, you realize that he knows everything you know and then some. Nothing fazes him because he understands everything, and therefore nothing is surprising. Had Bennie not been a racehorse, he would have been a wonderful dressage horse or a great trail riding horse or a fine jumper. No matter what his job he’d have been, and is, a terrific friend to have. Even if you just met Benburb, somehow you know he is something a little extra special.”
A silver horse denotes a silver hat, and Benburb’s hat is a shimmer of metallic silvers, grays, and blues, offset by a burst of color for the gold sash and starburst on his racing silks from Knob Hill Stables. Among the many symbolic tributes to Benburb’s ghostly coat and heroic speed, there is a literal one: within the hat trim, strands of his tail hair have been braided and woven in, a physical reminder of the horse himself.
My favorite thing about these hats is the great detail that Steinmann goes to in creating artwork from the physical attributes of the horse. Go to the description by the creator herself for a play-by-play of the hat’s inspiration and careation.
Benburn’s hat is available for bidding until January 11th. If you’ve ever dreamed of a Derby hat, or if you’re actually fortunate enough to need a Derby hat, you cannot do better than to purchase a one-of-a-kind tribute to one of the sport’s great champions. And all proceeds go to Old Friends, who keep our horses safe for the rest of their lives.