Not the first OTTB name, like, from the beginning of time… the first OTTB was probably named something like “John’s Gray Mare” or “Hallingsworth’s Bobtail Bay,” and who wouldn’t love to show a horse named that?
But the first OTTB for this Retired Racehorse Blogger, my dear, sweet, OTTB #1… Amarillo… sigh… Elbert.
Yes, his first name was Amarillo Elbert. And throughout his show career, I never, ever called him that. How could I? How could anyone? Amarillo Elbert. Elbert. It’s animal cruelty. PETA would have been all over me. A trainer once told me I’d give him a complex for nicknaming him “Beast.” Imagine how he would have felt had I announced in public that his name was Amarillo… Elbert.
We went through so many “show names” I can’t remember them all. I settled on Macnas, and you might have seen us go galloping by at Rocking Horse or Canterbury or even Basingstoke under that name. None of them ever fit. Maybe because his name was Amarillo, not any of the titles that I bestowed upon him, hoping something would stick.
Just Rillo and I. Simple Pleasures Farm, Middleburg, MD. July 1997
I’d had Rillo for six years by the time I got to Ocala, his supposed birthplace. I had a copy of his papers which I’d hung on to like a prize pedigree; it was all I had in those days to link him to his racing history. It listed him as a Florida-bred, and it listed his breeders’ name. When I went to work for a vet assistant who seemed to know everyone in the breeding business, I asked her if she knew the name.
“Oh sure,” she said. “He’s right up the road in Williston.”
Right here? I was living a few miles from Rillo’s birthplace? Monumental.
One hot afternoon, lacking anything better to do (or the discipline to actually do something, like ride a horse) I went into the tack room and flipped through the white pages until I found the breeder’s name. There it was, middle initial and everything, with a Williston exchange. I picked up the phone and called him.
“Hi, is this Random Person?”
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Um – yes – do you breed Thoroughbreds?” (Kind of a dumb question. Everyone in Ocala breeds Thoroughbreds. When I bought my truck the sales rep showed me pictures of his new filly the way other people show you pictures of their babies. Much preferable practice, by the way. Foals > babies every time.)
“I do, yes.”
“Did you breed one by Concorde Bound, named Amarillo Elbert?”
“I did! Yes, yes I did!”
And that opened up a nice reminiscing session. I told him that I loved his horse so much, that I’d had him since I was thirteen and the horse was a rescue. He said he was very sorry to hear that he was a rescue, but it didn’t necessarily shock him: he’d warned the young couple who had bought him that the horse’s knees didn’t make him suitable for racing. It was possibly more shocking that Rillo had not only had a decently lengthy career as a claimer, and then made it as preliminary-level event horse, with more than a few six-foot fences under his girth strap.
And then I asked the question.
“Where did he get his name?”
Therein lies a tale, as there are with most horses’ odd names. It turns out the breeding had been a partnership with a man named Elbert… from Amarillo. A cowboy, a literal Marlboro Man (they said he was the original Marlboro Man, although I cannot confirm that), who into his senior years was still the king of the rough n’ready “Willard’s Steakhouse” in Bronson, the sort of cowboy bar that cannot be duplicated outside of true cattle country. And dear little Rillo had been named for him.
I can’t say there wasn’t some hilarity in naming Rillo for a Marlboro Man. A horse who preferred the company of women, he had jumped into mare’s paddocks and then hid in the corner when they tried to beat him up on more than one occasion. He was terrified of miniature horses and suspicious of paints. (I am somewhat the same.) He would jump over picnic tables and round bales if they happened to land in his field of vision, but duck out of water hazards unless ridden hard and given no choice. He was gentle enough for small children to learn to ride on, but would pin his ears and threaten to buck if I played jockey and leaned up his neck during a gallop. And he had the most dainty, elegant trot, courtesy of those crooked knees, that his dressage tests were ballet dances.
No matter how silly his name, it was his name, and I never could strip it from him fully. He was always Rillo or Riller or Rillo-man, or Amarillo if he was being particularly naughty, and all the fancy, frilly names that I tried to drape over him just lay across his back like ill-fitting rugs, as if wearing a plaid Rambo rug implied that he was, in fact, plaid. He wasn’t plaid, he was a plain dark bay, darker in summer, reddish in winter. He was Amarillo, some call Elbert, and that was just who he was.