Into the foal at Walnut Green Farm04/07/2021 11:39AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
On a recent early Spring afternoon, burnished by the sun and numbed by the cold, the newborn filly at the 100-acre Walnut Green Farm in Unionville was choreographing an extraordinary dance that seemed to celebrate the fact that it was now one week old.
Her legs, spindly and unsure, kicked and careened in the mud of the paddock and her burgundy brown coat glistened, and when it came time for her to pause from her exuberant gallop, she nuzzled beside her mother.
Leaning on a fence nearby, Walnut Green owner Mark Reid watched the dance of the young horse, just like he has done thousands of times since 1973, when he entered the world of raising horses that would go on to join the horse racing industry as competitive thoroughbreds.
To Reid, there here is something phenomenal in witnessing the birth of a new filly or colt.
“I’ve had my horses in a lot of major races and I’ve done a lot of things, and there is nothing like the act of seeing a new life arriving on the planet,” said Reid, who has co-owned and operated Walnut Green since 2005. “It often happens on a cold winter night, and I see the opening of the newborn’s eyes, and the first couple of shaky steps and then how it nurses beside its mother.”
The recent foaling of the newborn filly, however, was a moment not just seen by Reid, Walnut Green Farm Manager Kirsten Fletcher and other attendants. For the past three years, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association (PRHA), three cameras have been placed inside stalls at Walnut Green, where events like the birth of the filly just a week before are being seen on home computers from the United States to Sweden to England to Australia.
In addition to Walnut Green, the PHRA has turned on 24-7 foal cams at the Diamond Creek Farm in Wellsville. Between the two farms, 52 expectant mares will be giving birth now until the end of May.
For the hundreds of viewers who tune in, they will not only get to experience the foaling process, but capture the sight of mares in their stalls and out in the pasture as they anticipate the arrivals of their fillies and colts, as well as the day-to-day interactions between the mares and their caregivers.
‘These cameras reflect the time and care
we put into these horses’
“The intention of our foal cams is to be able to bring people into our industry without having them come out to a race track or physically come to the farms, and instead, have it accessible on the computer in their homes,” said PHRA Marketing Director Ashley Eisenbeil. “Mark was the first to allow me to do this, and as a means of showing what goes into the breeding of horses. This is a complicated process, and over the course of an 11-month pregnancy, you invest so much in a mare and a foal. These cameras reflect the time and care we put into these horses.”
The PHRA was created in 2018 with the goal of promoting horse racing in Pennsylvania and attracting new fans to an industry that contributes $1.6 billion to the state’s economy, employs more than 23,000 people, and is responsible for the preservation of tens of thousands of acres of open space.
The addition of the foal cams is another notch in the association’s commitment to educating the public about a world most only know through occasional glances at a major horse racing event on television, such as the Kentucky Derby. The PHRA website contains information about breeding, a glossary of horse racing terms, and even how to understand a racing program.
“Having an interactive tutorial was something I really wanted to include on our website,” Eisenbeil said. “Simply by scrolling through, it tells what all those numbers mean on a program. One the hardest things for someone who is in the early stages of learning about the industry to do is learn the language of horse racing. It can be very intimidating, but having those resources on our site are every helpful.”
For those horse lovers who haven’t been able to get out to a farm or a racetrack during COVID-19, foal cams are a way of keeping them in the loop.
“As we continue to find new ways to keep ourselves entertained and learning virtually, we are thrilled to give horse racing enthusiasts and new fans the opportunity to get a glimpse into the life of these magnificent creatures, and the beauty of a foal being born, which is truly an awesome sight,” said PHRA President Pete Peterson. “We hope that families will tune in and learn about this exciting time we call foaling season.”
Viewers who have tuned in to the foal cams at Walnut Green over the past few months have likely seen Fletcher’s work as the farm’s official doula, a role that places her in the responsibility of supervising all foaling operations.
“I make sure that everything is going right,” she said. “I’m there to call the vet if I think something is not going right. I am the first person to make contact with the newborns. I make sure they stand in the right time, and that they nurse in the right time.
The three foal cams positioned at the farm’s stalls allow Fletcher to check on the status of pregnant mares from her personal phone.
“We have someone on staff who watches the mares at night, and if anything to her seems suspicious, she’ll text me, and I can just pull up my phone and look at the mare and determine if anything may be happening,” she said. “If I know a mare is close to giving birth, I have that sense of peace that I always have my eyes on her.”
‘Are you the one?’
Throughout Reid’s nearly 50 years in the horse racing industry, he has often been touched with the good fortune of success. He purchased Medaglia D’Oro, who went on to become one of America’s top three-year-olds in 2002 and top four-year-olds the next year. He managed Saint Liam, who was voted Horse of the Year in 2005 after a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Bred, born and raised at Walnut Green, Plum Pretty became the 2011 winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Apple Blossom and Cotillion races.
Whenever Reid looks at a newborn horse galloping around the pastures at Walnut Green, the cycle begins all over again in his mind. He imagines their future life as an athlete – a fully-trained and conditioned machine – eventually thundering around the last turn at tracks in Pennsylvania, and beyond.
“With every birth I have seen, I look at them and wonder, ‘Are you the one?’” Reid said. “For the first year and a half, we let them just be horses. For the first few weeks, they will remain near their mother’s hip, and then all of a sudden, they drift off with their buddies and they will race up and down the paddocks here. That’s where they develop their competitive spirit.
“I want them to grow up rough, because they are athletes,” he added. “They want to go out and run and compete against each other. Until I know it’s time, I keep human contact to a minimum. Horse racing is a tough business, and in order to succeed, you need a tough horse, and the only way to do that is by not interfering, and giving them a chance to become a tough horse.”
To view the foal cams at Walnut Green and Diamond Creek farms, or to know more about the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association, visit PennHorseRacing.com.
To learn more about Walnut Green Farm, visit www.walnutgreen.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].