Ralph Nester: Perils and Joys of it all

Winter storms remind me of the snow days on the farm, trudging through the deep snow to get to the barns that were scattered all over the farm.  In 1970, I remember pushing through snow drifts at Penowa Farm with a pickup; the snow flying over the hood of the truck.  We had to bust the ice off the water tubs and put fresh water out, horses usually stayed in on those days.   It was fun to take the horses out on the days with less snow, turn them out in the pastures and watch them romp and play, especially the mares and newborn foals.


It was a good feeling to bring them inside in the late afternoon from the cold and snow and put them in their stalls in the knee-deep fresh, clean, yellow sweet-smelling straw.  Neatly stacked piles of fresh green alfalfa and timothy hay mixture shook out and stacked in the corner of a stall…we didn’t use hanging hay bags as it’s unnatural for a horse to graze or eat with its head raised; they eat off the ground.  When we brought them in for the evening meal, we had hot bran mash with warm soaked beet pulp, flaxseed, molasses and cooked oats.  We went down the shedrow and scooped the steaming mash into the feed tubs.  The mares and the babies came in a hurry to get the hot steamy meal;  they dove into it readily.  The warm dry stalls let me know they’d be alright for the night, but I did walk through the barns at night and check all of them, all five barns.

We had a night watchman in the broodmare barn during foaling season and I spent a lot of nights and evenings there also waiting for the new babies to arrive in the world; a satisfying thing to do.   I never really called it a job.  I’ll never forget the newborns arriving, and to see them sneeze and draw that first breath is an awesome sight.  Opening their eyes to the world for the first time is an amazing experience, and helping the mare dry them off, shaking their little heads to clear their ears and the soft small nostrils looking for the life-giving oxygen and the wobbly struggle to get to their feet.

While the farm life was so educational and such a great life, there was a restlessness in me that kept getting bigger and bigger as I was exposed to the racing end of the business. Hauling horses to the racetracks and training centers and legging up horses on the farm and the creak of the saddle leather were all pulling me toward another life other than farm life and broodmares, mowing fields, painting fences, treating sick horses and keeping a healthy herd.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrific life.  I had some very exciting experiences.

One time, I was hauling four mares to the Keeneland Breeding Stock Sales in the winter. Only sold one of them, for $500.00.   She later was computer-crossed with a stallion and produced a million dollar winner for prominent trainer Tony Dutrow, a horse called Shimatoree, who made a million dollars and then sold for a million.  His dam a Tudor Minstrel mare out of Girl Buyer by Nearco.

On way back from Keeneland, we were going up Blue Mountain in a new Dodge van with six horses during a blizzard.   I told my co-driver and co-worker, Lou Shellender, that I was going to check the brakes before we topped the mountain; it was a new van.  Well, I pushed down on the brake pedal and it went all way to floor – no brakes.  Strange that I decided to check them.

Someone was looking out for us.             

I stopped on top of the mountain and decided to wait for a snow plow and one finally came by.  I put the van in first gear and low range and followed him, using my emergency brake until it burned it out, about a quarter-mile.  Trailers were wrecked along sides of road along the mountain top and I was creeping down praying for the state road truck not to stop.  I was on a five mile mountain, and it was five miles down.


Restless broodmares were swaying in the van and the wind was howling. The state road truck kept going till we finally, after an eternity of sweating it out, made it down to a town where my van stayed in a garage all night with the horses on the van.   The mountain is near the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania Turnpike. We finally got home the next day about 3 o’clock.

These are the stories you don’t hear about in the thoroughbred racing world..

And someone, somewhere was looking out for us.

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