By Joyce Duriga
LEXINGTON, Ky. — “American Pharoah is on this farm,” Karen said.
“Shut. Up,” I said. “Really? Do you think they’ll let us see him?”
“Nah, he’s probably in a secure area,” she said.
If you don’t know, American Pharoah is a rock star horse who won the Triple Crown in 2015 — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Before American Pharoah, the last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978. Only 12 horses have ever won the Triple Crown in the 147-year history of the three races.
We ended up at the Mass because Karen Callaway, photo editor for the Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper, and I were covering Chicago Auxiliary Bishop John R. Manz’s pastoral visit to migrant workers on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. Every year he makes a trip to some part of the country to meet with workers. This year’s trip focused on those who work in the horse racing industry.
While the bishop did meet with the workers at Ashford, the visit to the stud farm was sort of a perk. The owners of Ashford are Catholic and often donate American Pharaoh’s halters to be auctioned off at Catholic school fundraisers. They, with other local Catholic farm owners, provide scholarships to students in Catholic schools that will follow them all the way through to high school.
So American Pharaoh is used to the attention. You can walk right up to his stall and talk to him. I had a moment with him by myself and I told him we were going to have Mass right there and Jesus would be made present in the Eucharist (Yes, I talk to animals.) His ears moved back and forth as he stared me down.
During Mass he kept sticking his head out of the stall, especially when we were singing, and he and the other two stallions in the pristine and gorgeous barn, whinnied several times. I was convinced the Triple Crown winner was moved by the service and by the Eucharist. Afterward I asked the stallion manager about it.
Nope, the manager said. He was just hungry because we were having Mass during his normal dinner time. Sigh. On the retelling some have said to me that he was hungry for the Eucharist. Maybe.
Karen and I have retold our story of Mass with American Pharoah to many people and their reactions vary. We’ve received some glazed over looks and people asking, “Who?” To “No way!” One guy got so excited when I told him that he pleaded that I text him one of Karen’s photos from Mass. On my way out he put his arm around me and said I was his connection to American Pharaoh. He’s from the South, of course.
Karen, who has photographed major events like papal visits and World Youth Days, says this ranked up in her top three favorite assignments. Number one was shooting St. John Paul II in Central Park in 1995. I agree with Karen. While it doesn’t compare with the heavenly banquet, a barn with Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah was one of coolest settings for a Mass I’ve participated in so far.
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Duriga is editor of the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.