Crack. Simmer. Splash. Steam escapes from a stainless steel cauldron in the corner of the feed room. The gas burner hums. The sweet, earthy, slightly musty smell of oats cooking fills the air.
Around the corner, Richard Valentine unfurls a wool New Market rug before placing it atop a chestnut gelding. Valentine and owner Molly Ohrstrom chat while he adjusts the rug.
“Good morning,” Valentine says and introduces me to Ohrstrom. “That’s Hank, he just showed up on the farm one day,” he says, gesturing toward the black-and-white Border Collie mix who’d escorted me into the barn.
Valentine and his team are halfway through their morning routine in the racing barn at Whitewood Farm in The Plains, Va. He begins every day by watching each horse jog up before they’re turned out in the paddock.
“We start at 7 this time of year,” Valentine explains. “I send the first set out at 9 – the gallops need to have some sun on them before we ride out.”
Across the aisle, rider Chris Gracie tacks up his mount, Flaming Sword, for the 10 o’clock set. Valentine shows me to Arch My Boy in an adjacent stall. The lanky dark bay pricks his ears and cranes his neck over the yellow stall guard.
“Take care of the boys,” Ohrstrom says, smiling, before walking out of the barn.
Arch My Boy, a British-bred son of Archipenko broke his maiden on the flat at Nottingham in October 2018 before switching codes and winning his first two hurdle starts by a combined 39 lengths. Valentine bought him for Jacqueline Ohrstrom at Goff’s UK Spring Sale in 2019. Stateside, Arch My Boy posted consecutive seconds in Saratoga’s Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes and Belmont’s William Entenmann Memorial Novice Stakes. Sidelined by a tendon injury for 2020 but now on the mend, Valentine hopes that Arch My Boy will anchor his string of hurdlers this season.
I jump up and join Valentine and Gracie in front of the gray clapboard barn. Valentine rides Maggie Bryant’s homebred Sea Mast.
“He should break his maiden this year,” Valentine says of the 5-year-old gelding. “We’ll take him to some point-to-points and go from there.”
We head out for the gallops. The front fields of Whitewood Farm are a checkerboard: snow in the shade and muddy, slushy, tacky earth in the sun. Cross the creek, jog through the next field, stop, open the wooden hand gate. Traffic speeds by on Halfway Road. A rusty pickup with farm tags stops. Valentine waves and we cross.
“We haven’t been to the long gallops on this side of the road in a while,” Valentine says. “Today is our best shot to give these horses a nice long canter before more weather comes in.”
Arch My Boy and Sea Mast stand quietly but attentively as Gracie leans down to open another gate.
On the far side of the field, the long gallop is cordoned off with electric tape. Valentine explains that he’ll take it down in the spring, but, at the moment, it’s the only line of defense from the herd of cattle that share the field with his carefully managed turf.
The narrow creek crossing that lies between us and the bottom of the gallop is the site of bovine water cooler conversation. A hunt country traffic jam. Ear tag 16 stands her ground as the others clear out of our way. She grumbles and groans, feet firmly planted in the muck. Arch My Boy pays her no attention as Gracie and I squeeze through the gap between number 16 and the fence.
Sea Mast considers his options, eyes wide. Valentine cajoles. They make it through. A good racehorse knows how to use a gap.
“Stay in Chris’s tracks about 3 lengths behind,” Valentine instructs, “So we don’t tear up too much of the turf.”
I bridge the reins and switch my stick to the left. Arch My Boy fidgets with the bit and shakes his head as we jog off behind Gracie. I squeeze my calves and ask for a gallop. He settles in to a steady work. Flaming Sword kicks up snowballs that whizz by like artillery shells. I take one to the cheek.
Up the long, steady grade of the hillside and through a pair of columns in a stone wall, then around a sharp turn and through an unexpected snowbank. The ground flattens out and Arch My Boy swaps leads. He sees an opportunity to overtake Flaming Sword. I convince him otherwise. We slow to a jog and then to a walk.
Breath visibly rises as the horses’ nostrils open and shut like trap doors. Cobbler Mountain and its knobby companions command attention to the southwest in the Blue Ridge panorama that unfolds at the top of the gallop. A squirrel scurries across our path onto a snow-covered round bale.
On the hack back to the barn, we talk timber. Valentine’s specialty.
“I have one for the Maryland Hunt Cup this year,” he says, “Chris has the ride – unless he gets a better offer.”
Valentine smirks. Gracie chuckles.
Valentine will saddle Just Wait And See (left, waiting for a treat) for the 4-mile, 22 fence mother-of-all-timber-races on April 24. Valentine bought the son of Acambaro for American jump racing juggernaut Kinross Corporation during a trip to Ireland in 2018. The plan, Valentine says, is to use Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds point-to-point on March 28 as a prep race. Valentine hopes to repeat his wins in the 2013 and 2009 Maryland Hunt Cups this year with the laid-back dark bay gelding.
“He’s just a dude,” Valentine says of the 2019 allowance winner at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. “You can do anything with him.”
Arch My Boy asks to stretch and I let the reins slide through my fingers. The concussion – percussion – of his aluminum shoes on the asphalt driveway lays down a four-beat loop. Sea Mast and Flaming Sword play interceding rhythms. We make our way past the main house, a stacked stone Georgian beauty fortified by ancient boxwoods.
Back to the barn. Duck into the stall. Hop down, rub down. A groom takes Arch My Boy and the others off to wash their legs. Valentine, Gracie and I clean our tack.
Valentine and I sit down and go through his stable roster in a part office, part tack room, part trophy room. Varnished mahogany paneling gleams. A floor board squeaks.
This time of year, the stable’s nine jumpers and six flat horses are split between home base at Whitewood Farm and Springdale Racecourse in Camden, S.C. Assistant trainer Laird George heads up the Camden contingent.
“It’s the first time in probably 20 years that I’ve stayed home for the winter,” Valentine says. “It’s been a nice change until the weather turned on us.”
He’ll make the trip down I-95 later this week to check up on hurdlers Mr. Bridger and Air Lift, who are slated to run in early-season point-to-points.
Australian shepherd Violet catches a dog biscuit and joins me on a tack trunk.
“I just want them to enjoy their work,” Valentine says when asked to sum up his training philosophy. He thinks for a moment, swiveling his office chair around as he replaces the dog biscuit jar on the shelf.
“Our operation is a little bit smaller this year than it’s been in the past,” he adds. “I’m not good at posting on social media and I hate being pushy with owners. I guess I could hustle more, but I’m happy with what we have in the barn right now.”
A picture of the big horse battling through brush hangs next to Valentine’s desk. The big horse for Valentine. The big horse for American jump racing in the past decade.
“He’s the kindest horse you’d ever want to be around,” Valentine says of the 2014 Eclipse Award winner Demonstrative. “He gets ridden regularly – he’s just kind of my hack horse.”
Hank scratches at the door. A timer goes off.
“I think the oats are finished,” Valentine says.