"Here's my girl," trainer Carla Gaines beams as she breaks a carrot in half and places it into the mouth of Nashoba's Gold, a giant 3-year-old filly whose gentle, loving demeanor and athletic, powerful stride has helped create an almost therapeutic energy for her handlers.
"She's an amazing horse," Gaines says.
Nashoba's Gold has won three of her four races, all on turf, and the last two were stakes at 11/8 miles. She might be the best 3-year-old based in Southern California not named California Chrome. She's scheduled to compete in her first Grade I race, the $350,000 American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles on turf Saturday at Santa Anita.
To understand how a gray animal almost 16 hands tall can affect so profoundly the psyche of those taking care of her requires going back in time.
It was 2007 when Nashoba's Gold's half sister, Nashoba's Key, burst onto the racing scene as an unknown Cal-bred and started producing Zenyatta-like performances. She won her first seven starts until a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
She gave Gaines, owner Warren Williamson and her then 17-year-old jockey, Joe Talamo, their first Grade I victories. She won eight of 10 races, had three Grade I victories and was gearing up for another Breeders' Cup appearance as a 5-year-old when tragedy struck.
Early on the morning of May 28, 2008, at Hollywood Park, Nashoba's Key kicked the padded wall in her stall, fracturing her hind leg. She was known for her fiery personality. Gaines called her a "viper" and a "warrior." It was that same stubborn, aggressive personality that made her so tough to beat in racing but also led to her death. She had to be euthanized.
Gaines was in Alabama burying her brother, Martin, who had died at the age of 56. She received a phone call about Nashoba's Key. It added more sorrow to perhaps the most dismal week in her life.
"I was hoping she could breathe life in me again, and she was gone before I could see her," Gaines recalled.
Nashoba's Key was the first horse produced by her dam, Nashoba. The father was Silver Hawk, who died at the age of 29 just eight days after Nashoba's Key.
In the breeding world, it's very difficult to "catch lightening in a bottle twice," as Gaines puts it. The owners of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, have been producing full brothers but none have come close to Barbaro's ability.
Nashoba was bred to Cees Tizzy, In Excess, Artie Schiller and Dynaformer after Silver Hawk. None of the foals came close to Nashoba's Key. Then, three years ago, Nashoba was bred to Smart Strike, the stallion that produced Horse of the Year Curlin. Williamson named her Nashoba's Gold and from the moment she arrived as a 2-year-old, there were hints of her ability.
"She had shown a lot of class and talent early," Gaines said.
Gaines entered Nashoba's Gold in a maiden turf race on Feb. 8 at the challenging distance of 11/8 miles for her racing debut at Santa Anita. The distance didn't bother Nashoba's Gold one bit. She rallied under Talamo to win. And emotions were plentiful in the winner's circle.
"She's a blessing to all of us and we definitely cherish her," Gaines said.
Henry Williamson, the son of the 85-year-old breeder-owner, tried to explain the impact Nashoba's Gold is having.
"I don't think there is any question there is a connection with a horse like this and it is most definitely therapeutic," he said. "All my father said after the first meeting with Nashoba's Gold was, 'She's the one. She's special.' "
For Gaines, each time after Nashoba's Gold runs, her emotions become raw. There's excitement but also reflection. She thinks of her brother's passing and of the fleeting brilliance of Nashoba's Key.
"I feel relieved, exuberant, happy and think about the past," Gaines said.