"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Horse Lovers

Fresh direct from the vault, here’s the original manuscript version of a story that Pat Jordan did for TV Guide in 1988.

The Horse Lovers

By Pat Jordan


The movie is “Bluegrass,” a four-hour, CBS-TV mini-series. The actors are Cheryl Ladd, Brian Kerwin, Anthony Andrews, Mickey Rooney, and Wayne Rodgers. The setting is Lexington, Kentucky, Bluegrass Country, where thoroughbred racehorses are bred and trained on rolling pastureland that is zoned strictly for horse farms. The time is late fall. The grassland is turning brown. The leaves on the trees have faded from bright orange to the color of mud. The horses graze quietly in the pasture until another horse intrudes on their meal. They twitch, rear up, and gallop after the intruder, snorting out their hot breath into the damp, cold air. They curl back their lips, baring teeth, and nip the intruder on the flanks before slowing finally and then stopping to graze again.

The fictional plot concerns the efforts of Maude Sage Breen (Ladd) to fulfill her dream of breeding a Triple-Crown thoroughbred. She is thwarted at every turn by her ruthless neighbor, Lowell Shipleigh (Rodgers) and aided by her recovering alcoholic trainer, Dancy Cutler (Kerwin). It is Dancy who wins Maude’s love in a romantic joust with the mysterious Anglo-Irishman, Michael Fitzgerald (Andrews). What unites them all, however, hero, heroine, and villains alike, is that they are all horse lovers.

Scene One

A cold, blustery day at Crestwood Farms outside of Lexington, Ky. Brian Kerwin and Charles Cooper, a black actor from Cincinnati, are huddled in the equipment barn trying to keep warm while waiting for their cue from the Broodmare Barn up the hill where, today, history will be made. The birth of a foal will be filmed for national television. Kerwin and Cooper sip coffee from Styrofoam cups while speaking in hushed reverential tones as if they were expectant fathers in a hospital waiting room.

“Oh, shucks, Miss Scarlett,” says Kerwin, smiling, “I don’t know nuthin’ bout birthn’ horses.” Kerwin, with a veterinarian’s help off camera, is expected to aid in the birth of the foal. “They told me that if it’s a breech birth I have to reach up my hand into the mare and turn the foal’s head around,” he says. He shakes his head at the mystery of what he is about to partake in. Cooper tries to reassure him.

“I aided at my wife’s delivery of our son,” Cooper says. “It was a Caesarian birth. All I could do was stroke her forehead.” He flutters his long eyelashes. “It was a beautiful experience.”

Kerwin nods with admiration. Both men look down at the dirt floor, shuffle their feet. Kerwin begins to talk about the breeding sequence he was involved in filming a few days ago. He had to help a stallion insert his penis in a mare while the crew filmed the scene. “It was all very tastefully done,” He says. Cooper nods in perfect understanding.

Just then, a woman enters the barn. “It’s time,” she says to Kerwin. He crumples up his coffee cup and discards it in a trash barrel. Then he smoothes the sides of his reddish hair. His lean face is bruised and cut. Make-up applied today, after last night’s flight sequence staged at a roadside tavern.

Scene Two

Flashback to midnight of the night before. “Little Jim’s Tavern” out on Georgetown Road next to “The Slumber Inn Motel.” The dirt parking lot, which is usually crowded with rusted Chevys and battered pick-up trucks, is dominated this night by the huge vans of the film crew. Two police cars, their lights blinking, guard the road as if for intruders.

Inside, the small, cave-like, drinking man’s bar is strangely lighted by colorful neon signs that the crew has placed on the bar’s usually blank, concrete walls. The middle of the small room is dominated by three cameras and their crews and bright spotlights aimed toward a corner of the bar where the fight sequence will be staged. The actors are settling into their places for last minute instructions.

At the other end of the bar, in darkness, the bar’s regulars, farm hands, construction workers, and long-haul truck drivers, are loitering around, drinking beer and bourbon, smoking cigarettes, and shooting a few games of pool with Jimalou, the bar’s regular, plump, blonde waitress. “My father owns this place,” she says, as she leans over the pool table and sights the eight ball. “He always wanted a boy.”

Bonnie, the regular barmaid, is pouring drinks for the regulars as she is expected to do for the actors when the scene begins. Bonnie has short, dark hair, lots of blue eye-make-up, and she talks out of the side of her mouth, just as one would expect a barmaid in a roadside tavern to talk. Bonnie is a barmaid. Tough, funny, caustic.

“What’s the difference between being a barmaid and playing a barmaid?” she says. “Simple. I get it right the first time.”

“Bonnie’s the reason we come her,” says Marshall, a regular. “She makes us feel at home.”

“Sure does,” says D.B., tilting back his cowboy hat. “Abuses us just like our wives.” Everyone laughs out loud. One of the film crew looks back at the laughing regulars as if they were misbehaving third graders. He is a very short, bald, finicky-looking man with a red beard. He puts his hands on his hips.

“Quiet, puhleeeze!” he says. Then he turns toward a man who is smoking a cigar. “An no cigar smoke in here,” he adds.

“You’re kidding?” says the man. “In a bar?”

“No cigar smoke in this bar!” says the red-bearded man. Just then one of the crew turns on the smoke machine. Smoke billows into the bar until visibility is zero. Bonnie fakes a few coughs and flaps her hands at the smoke.

“It’s never been this smoky in here,” she says.

“And we never had a fight in here·, either,” adds Jimalou.

The second assistant director, a woman, begins to wave her clipboard wildly in the smoke to get the extras’ attention. “Everyone, everyone, to their places, please!” she calls out. “Have we had everyone?”

Scene Three

The following day at Crestwood Farms. Cheryl Ladd, chewing gum, is standing in the cold outside the Broodmare Barn, waiting for her cue to go inside and assist Kerwin with the birth of the foal. She is a petite woman dressed in worn· jeans and scuffed cowboy boots and she might actually pass for a farm woman if not for her vividly bleached, yellow hair. She is biding her time by telling a small group of people about her love for horses which goes back to her childhood days in Huron, South Dakota, when she was Cheryl Stopelmoor. She has six horses of her own, now, and a Scottish husband and two children, all of whom also love horses. She tells a story about one of her horses who almost lost a hoof when he got it caught in a barbed wire fence. The others scrunch up their faces in pain at that story, but Cheryl’s face remains impassive, her voice flat and uninflected, as befits someone who is used to pain and suffering and even death on a farm.

“We saved the hoof,” she says, snapping her gum. “Of course he walks a little funny now.” The others smile and nod with relief. Cheryl offers around some sugarless gum just as two real farm hands walk by.

“How many broodmares you seen foal?” says one farmhand.

“Thousands,” says the other. “But I never seen sucha fuss as this.”

Scene Four

Inside the Broodmare Barn. An empty stall, littered with yellow hay, is brightly lighted. The camera crew has aimed two cameras at the empty stall. Technicians are making last minute adjustments, fluffing up the straw. In another stall, in darkness, the Broodmare’s big belly sways pendulously as she waits, unsuspecting.

Scene Five

Outside the barn. Everyone is hushed, reverential, expectant. The second assistant director; Cheryl’s stand-in; a CBS female executive; and another woman, are all standing close to the closed barn door. Their ears are pressed against the door, waiting for word of the birth of the foal. Their faces have that rapt, maternal look of expectant mothers.

Arthur Fellows, the. co-producer of this movie, is standing a little apart from the women with a smile on his face. He is a short, tanned, man with a ring of white, friar’s tuft around his bald head. Arthur is a horse lover, a too. He owns 36 horses, he says. He breeds them, trains them, and races them, which is why he is so excited about this movie.

“I told CBS about the breeding sequence,” Fellows says. “They got a bit worried. I tried to reassure them it was all done very tastefully. After all, what could we do? The stallion was all worked up. We couldn’t just pull him off the mare and yell ‘cut’ as if he was an actor?” Fellows goes on to say that it was very difficult to find a mare in foal at this time of year. Most quality horses foal in the spring, he says. Only “cheap” horses, who mate in the pasture, foal in the late fall. Still, he was able to find three mares in foal. Two of the three had their foals unexpectedly, before this birth scene was scheduled to be shot. This is the crew’s last chance to film this historic event, the birth of a foal, and so there is an element of nervousness, coupled with excitement on the set. “It’s going to be a beautiful scene,” says Fellows, smiling.

Suddenly, the veterinarian bursts out of the barn and hurries to his car. He returns with a syringe. “The mare’s not ready yet.” The vet says to Fellows. “I’m gonna induce labor.” Fellows nods and the vet disappears into the barn, where all the actors and crew have taken their places.

The group of women presses their ears again against the barn door. Fellows smiles at them, and says, “Women have this thing about horses.” He quotes a line from the script of “Bluegrass,” which says that all true lovers of horses are 14-year-old females who want to delay their sexuality.

Scene Six

The newly-born foal, pink-eyed and breathing erratically, is lying on the straw in the stall while Cheryl Ladd, kneeling beside it, lovingly strokes its flanks, still coated with its mother’s blood, and the camera crew films the scene. The hushed silence is broken only by Cheryl’s flat, uninflected voice, “Is the camera rolling?”

“Yes, Cheryl,” says Simon Wincer, the Australian director. Simon, too, is a lover of horses. He made his reputation with a horse film called ‘Phar Lap,’ and then made another called “The Lighthorsemen,” and now he is making “Bluegrass.”

“I’ve done my share of horse movies,” Wincer says. “You have to have great patience with horses. Sometimes it’s hair-raising. Stallions can be moody and impossible some days. You just have to try and try again.” He smiles. “After all, you can’t just write them threatening letters as if they were actors.”

Wincer turns to the vet and asks him if the foal is a male or female. The vet goes over to the foal and examines it.

“lt’s a filly,” he says. Everyone smiles. The foal was supposed to be a colt for the purposes of the movie plot. That fact seems not to bother anyone on the set, however, for everyone continually refers to the foal as “he,” and not “she.” What does bother Wincer, however, is the fact that the foal has not stood up yet.

“I thought they stood up right away,” Wincer says to the vet.

The vet shakes his head. “Usually within an hour,” he tells Wincer. “But this foal is very emaciated. I don’t know whether he’s gonna make it.”

The foal is still breathing erratically. Her limbs twitch in spasms, and its pink-rimmed eyes keep closing as if longing for an endless sleep. Cheryl continues to stroke its flanks, while looking at it lovingly. Someone suggests that she try to help the foal stand. Cheryl gets up, straddles the foal, and tries to pull it to its feet. The foals spindly legs stick out at odd angles, and the moment Cheryl lets go, it collapses on its side again. Cheryl looks at her hands. They are coated with blood. Someone throws her a towel and she wipes off the blood. Then she kneels beside the foal again.

Everyone waits in silence for the foal to stand. Endless moments pass. The crew keeps filming. Cheryl keeps smiling at the foal. Behind the cameras, the vet says, in a stage whisper, “We weren’t really sure when the foal was conceived. You can’t tell with these cheap horses. We may have been off quite a .pit on the mare’s due date.”

Finally, Wincer decides that too much film time has been wasted waiting for the foal to stand. He decides to play the next scene without the foal. The vet and a crew member pick up the foal by her legs and carry her, upside down, like a side of beef, to a darkened stall at the end of the barn. They lay the foal on the straw next to her standing mother. The mare nips at her foal’s flanks, a mother’s instinct to make the foal stand and suckle. But the foal is too weak. She twitches at her mother’s nip and then slides back into sleep.

In the brightly lighted stall, Cheryl is still half-lying on the straw, staring, lovingly, down at the patch of bloody straw where the foal had been. Kerwin is kneeling beside her, staring at the empty place, too. The cameras are filming them only from the shoulders up. They begin to recite their lines. They comment on how healthy the little foal looks, how sturdy he is, how someday he’s going to win the Triple Crown, and as they do, the real foal, who was born prematurely so that her birth could be filmed for this movie, lies twitching and gasping for breath in her darkened stall.

Scene Seven

Outside the Broodmare Barn. People are milling around, waiting for the day’s shooting to end inside the barn. Suddenly there is a thunderous applause from inside the barn. One of the women rushes inside and asks if the foal has finally stood. “No,” says a crew member. “We were just applauding because we’re breaking for lunch.”

“Oh,” says the woman. She goes over to the darkened stall where the foal is lying, her belly heaving and collapsing as she struggles for breath.

Cheryl Ladd walks behind the woman and says, “He’d be all right if everyone would just stop staring at him. He just wants to get some sleep.”

Cheryl steps outside and is greeted by a beaming Fellows. “Wasn’t that a great shot of the foal’s birth?” he says. “A great shot.”


Later that night, the actors and crew returned to the Broodmare Barn in another attempt to film the foal standing. They got the foal to its feet for a brief moment and filmed the scene. Then they returned her to her stall. She lay on her side on the straw. Someone threw a blanket over her to keep her shivering body from freezing in the cold, night air. Late that night, the vet returned and fed her intravenously. The next day the foal was taken to a hospital, where she died.


1 Larry Herold   ~  Jan 3, 2012 4:30 pm

Great stuff, Alex.

2 Yankee Mama   ~  Jan 3, 2012 7:56 pm

Shees! Just shees!

3 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 3, 2012 8:28 pm

Yeah, that one was a beaut. Good ol' Patty.

4 Yankee Mama   ~  Jan 3, 2012 9:24 pm

No kidding. I would've loved to see the face of the TV Guide editor when that piece came upon his desk. Did it publish that way? My guess is na'ah.

5 Yankee Mama   ~  Jan 3, 2012 9:25 pm

Loved it, though.

6 Ara Just Fair   ~  Jan 3, 2012 9:37 pm

D'oh! I was going to send this to my horse loving sister until I got to the end. She's had a shitty year and couldn't handle this. I was hoping for a happy ending. And so it goes....

7 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 4, 2012 11:48 am

4) It wasn't much different. I'll have to check that and let you know...

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver