Author Laura Hillenbrand recalls fondly watching her first Kentucky Derby, cheering in front of a television in her Bethesda home as a 3-year old filly named Genuine Risk tore around the racetrack in 1980. Genuine Risk was the first filly in 65 years to win the Derby, and a 12-year old Hillenbrand began decorating her bedroom walls with newspaper clippings of her new four-legged hero.
“I’ve always felt connected to her,” Hillenbrand said. “She’s always been special to me. She was just so rugged; she wasn’t an elegant-looking horse. She was a tough girl. She was not intimidated.”
Hillenbrand, who wrote the best-selling books “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken,” followed the filly’s career closely — second-place finishes at the Preakness and the Belmont in 1980 and then a difficult, luckless life trying to produce offspring. Recently, Hillenbrand was stunned to come across a Craigslist posting listing one of them for sale. Just the horse’s name — Genuine Reward — took Hillenbrand back to her youth and stirred the childhood wonder of watching that fearless filly kick up dirt.
“We haven’t used him for a few years,” the ad read, “so we’re looking for a retirement home for him. Asking $500obo.”
The seller didn’t realize that $500 figure represents a magic number of sorts for “killer buyers” looking for cheap horses to send to slaughter houses. Hillenbrand immediately reached out to Old Friends Farm in Georgetown, Ky. The farm was founded more than 11 years ago and operates as a nonprofit retirement home for thoroughbreds. More than 150 horses are under the farm’s care, including Silver Charm, the 1997 Kentucky Derby winner.
“I was scared that I was too late,” Hillenbrand said.
Old Friends Farm was already aware of Genuine Reward, and Hillenbrand wanted to help in any way she could. She immediately cut a check for $5,000, hoping it would cover any costs associated with buying and shipping the horse. She has made donations in the past and says she feels indebted to the animals that have given her so much.
“I want to see that they are rewarded with happy, peaceful lives,” she said. “Some of them are not, and that’s a terrible thing.”
It took a few days to reach the seller in Wyoming — she was on a cattle drive — but the two sides finally worked out the logistics: The seller didn’t need payment, and shipping ran about $2,000. Genuine Reward was loaded onto a trailer in Sheridan, Wyo., and last week arrived at Old Friends.
“He’s here, and he’s beautiful,” Michael Blowen, the farm’s founder and president, said in an interview Monday morning. “He looks just like his mother.”
Blowen said the farm will shoulder the costs of Genuine Reward’s continued care. He says the horse is adjusting well to his new surroundings and counts this as a pleasant late chapter for a horse that had such an auspicious start.
In 18 years of breeding, Genuine Risk produced just two colts. In 1983, she was paired with Secretariat, a much-discussed celebrity mating between perhaps the best racehorse ever and just the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby. But their first try resulted in a stillbirth, and the second produced nothing.
Genuine Risk was matched with other sires, but for the next decade, the results always ended in misfortune or miscarriage. Finally in 1993, she gave birth to foal, a chestnut colt sired by the Rahy. The long-awaited birth was celebrated in headlines and nightly newscasts across the country.
“This is a one-of-a-kind item, a work of art,” Dan Rosenberg, then the general manager at Three Chimneys Farm, told USA Today at the time. “There will never be another one like this.”
But Genuine Reward never made it the racetrack. And if Hillenbrand and Old Friends Farm didn’t step in, his story could’ve taken a tragic turn.
Hillenbrand is a Fairfax native who grew up riding horses in Maryland. She published “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” in 2001, and the story of the underdog thoroughbred was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film two years later.
“You could tell from reading Seabiscuit, she understands the sport and all of its ramifications,” Blowen said. “It's not just about how much the horse wins. She understands all the dimension of what a horse means to all the people around him.”
Hillenbrand, 48, has battled chronic fatigue syndrome since college and says she hasn’t left the Washington area since 1990. But she’s planning a road trip to Kentucky in October to visit Genuine Reward and Old Friends Farm.
“I feel the deepest gratitude to these creatures for all they give,” Hillenbrand said. “I find their performances thrilling and courageous. I feel they’ve given me a gift by performing, and I feel like I owe them something. I feel like we all do.”