PARIS, Ky. -- Please, let's not dwell in fairy tales here. Let's not drown in mush. Let's keep this straightforward.
Bradley Purcell arrived at 5:30 a.m. on February 24, 2010, for his job at Claiborne Farm, surely one of the most beautiful places on earth, a place in which green seems to reach its zenith, a place . . .
First thing that Wednesday, Purcell eyed a freshly born foal, one of the 27,233 live foals reported to The Jockey Club that year. The birth had been uneventful; nobody had dialed Purcell for help. Many a foal looks gawky; this one looked solid. Fine. Good.
"Newborns are hard to look at sometimes," said Purcell, Claiborne's farm manager. "They're anywhere from 100 to 140 pounds at birth, and their legs may go every which way during the first week. But he was dead-on from day one. He was attractive."
Yeah, he looked pretty supple, and as he settled in across the months at Stall 1 over at Barn 2 over at the part of the farm called Cherry Valley, he did seem strong. Nice. "When you walk into the stall, his head's shot up in the air, and he wasn't intimidated by you, a lot of presence about him," Purcell said. "That's kind of what we're talking about: standing there and looking at you like, 'I'm somebody.'"
He stood a while in one gorgeous field with his beleaguered mare, Lady Liberty, along with seven other mares and foals. He, of course, remained oblivious to the fact that one of Lady Liberty's two owners had wished to sell her.
"Well, this mare had a difficult sort of production history," co-owner Stuart Janney said, "and maybe one colt that really was pretty much a disaster, and then a decent horse but not really a top horse. And so Dinny" -- Phipps, his cousin, the other owner -- "was a little bit impatient about what was going on."
Phipps: "I wanted to sell her."
They didn't, largely because the Claiborne owner Seth Hancock thought Lady Liberty warranted more chances, having come from Unbridled, so Lady Liberty's fourth foal roamed that pasture over there at Claiborne, frolicking and jostling in the usual equine crowd of eight-to-10. "He was always well-mannered," Purcell said. "Always a gentleman. The grooms didn't have any trouble with him."
Said Purcell, "Our biggest thing here is to get the mares in foal, to get the foals on the ground, to make sure the foals are healthy and then let Mother Nature do the rest."
All right. All pretty conventional here.
* * *
Unbridled, grandsire of the foal, had been a darling at Claiborne in his later years. "He was a great horse, and he was a friend," said Joe Peel, the stallion foreman and tour-guide extraordinaire. "He would stick his tongue out for you and he would flap his tongue for a peppermint candy."
So when Unbridled developed colon problems at age 14 in autumn 2001, and when the veterinarian said, "It's not good, Joe," and when Unbridled's misery and life had to cease, Peel could not look. "I went in the barn and I cried like a baby," he said.
That's not a common posture for a 50-year-old man who grew up milking jerseys here in Bourbon County, who as a teen once held on throughout as his pony toppled backward then recovered, and who just on March 8 took a kick from a mare that left him reluctantly on the disabled list for two months.
Yet he believes to his core that he carries wisdom he gleaned from Unbridled and, as Purcell puts it, "You're out here seven days a week and these horses become your family. You actually see them more than your family, so . . ."
So, that kind of feeling courses through Claiborne as through many a horse farm. The late Secretariat lies here, still receiving flowers. There's the tombstone of the phenomenal sire Mr. Prospector, of hefty names such as Gallant Fox, Johnstown, Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Swale, Unbridled.
In a room in the barn where so many equine bright lights have lived, Peel shows the photos on the walls and notes that of the 11 Triple Crown winners, six were conceived at Claiborne: Omaha, Gallant Fox (sire of Omaha), Count Fleet, Whirlaway, Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
Peel can tell you how Danzig never hesitated doing his business as a stallion, and can say with utmost knowledge, "You don't want these horses that kind of just jack around, hee-haw around, keep the mare twitching."
Hancock's grandfather, Arthur Boyd Hancock, founded the farm in 1910 after co-owning the Preakness winner Knight of Ellerslie in --get this -- 1884. Purcell's father worked at Claiborne for 40 years before retiring in 2012, managed the farm, served as groom for the great filly Ruffian. Purcell grew up on the farm.
"That's where I live," he said, pointing from where that strong foal ran in the field. "It's long, hard days," he said. "You get up. There's some kind of therapy. Seeing the sun rise and the birds chirp and the foals kicking and playing with their buddies, there's some therapy to that."
OK, so the people who work with horses often feel it in their vessels, but we all know that. There's always business to run. The four-and-one-half-month breeding season goes to the breeding shed every day at 8 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The foal left for Florida in June 2011.
Purcell has not seen him in person -- in horse -- since.
"I hope he comes back here as a stallion," he said.
* * *
It's just a regular story, then, nothing too sappy here, strong-looking foal, confident, well-mannered, never gave the grooms any trouble, one of the 27,233 from 2010.
Except that on May 4, Purcell and his 66-year-old father and their family went to the Keeneland track just over in Lexington to watch the 139th Kentucky Derby. And Purcell followed that foal all the way around the track on the TV monitor until the NBC aerial caught him galloping past horses in bunches toward the stretch.
And everybody started yelling, "C'mon Orb! C'mon Orb!"
And Orb blasted through atop the stretch so that Purcell recalled, "That stretch drive, you just couldn't believe this is happening."
And that foal from 5:30 a.m. three February 24s ago, by now age 3, reached mid-stretch barreling into the lead such that Purcell said, "When he was about halfway down the stretch and you realized he was going to win it was like, 'This is unbelievable.'"
And the light "seemed to go on" in Purcell's three daughters -- "I was living right around a Kentucky Derby winner when he was a baby" -- such that the 13-year-old asked to go look at Stall 1 that night.
And Purcell's father, did he cry? "He did."
And Orb headlines the Preakness coming Saturday.
And the completion of that quotation above about the bond with the horses goes like this: "You actually see them more than your family. So it's like one of your kids winning the national championship."
And on the ensuing week, the mare stood in her stall with a new foal beneath and a newspaper front page -- "Orb Shines Bright" - pinned to her door and a new image, as Purcell put it: "Now that it's happened you look at that mare, you're, 'We knew you had that in you.'"
And, I'm sorry, but that's just really rather touching, almost a fairy tale, maybe even something a little bit like magic.