REPRIEVE: THE IMPROBABLE TALE OF NANCY HEIL
It all started when Cobby died. That’s how Nancy Heil tells it. For two years, practically, she’d given up horse training to attend his needs. Then the cancer finally took him in 2014, right there in the house they’d shared nearly 50 years, on the farm that praised his name. She lost her horse-loving, horse-foaling, horse-raising husband, and look what happened.
“Isn’t it somethin’?” Nancy asked and declared of the implausible aftermath. “You wouldn’t believe it all. It’s just so crazy.”
At 78, she finished that and other quotes with a lilting giggle, a conversational ribbon that bundled points glum, upbeat and downright surreal to a bittersweet melodrama yet unfolding.
Cobby, born Calvert Heil, had served as a policeman for Maryland’s Montgomery County, retired a lieutenant but declined a pension, a discovery Nancy said she made after his death. By the time Nancy returned to her Laurel Park barn, trusted longtime clients Herb and Arlene Kushner had pared their stable as age and rotten luck instructed.
Lyme disease stirred the knee and shoulder pain gifted Nancy from seven decades on horseback; she hired seasoned horseman Herb Butts to manage the barn, and what few runners lingered. Out in her five-acre backyard at Cobby Horse Farm in Germantown, Md., time and circumstance swallowed every broodmare but one, Susan Karan, a gray pasture ornament Nancy lacked the means to breed.
“You couldn’t make this up,” Butts said. “This is like a ‘Rocky’ script.”
In 2016, against all cost-cutting wisdom, Heil took a $3,500 live-foal flier and sent Susan Karan to the stallion Great Notion. Her ensuing gray homebred, with a big white star dripping narrow, arrived at Northview Stallion Station Maryland the following May.
“When he was born, his front legs were spread out in front of him, but they looked like they were 6 feet long,” Heil said, the assessment gleaned from a photograph. “He looked like a spider. I foaled horses for 30 years. I never saw legs that long.”
For all the dreaded vacancies in her once-overbooked life, Heil held to hope, kept her spark, spied a fuse.
“Like, two or three days after this horse was born, Nancy came into the barn to watch her horses, and she had a picture of him standin’, nursin’ his mother,” Butts said of Karan’s Notion. “And she handed it to me and said, ‘See that? He’s gonna save the farm.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Okay, Nancy.'”
Drawing from stud and dam, she named him Karan’s Notion even as inequities swirled about. As the colt grew in scope, so, too, did Heil’s financial challenges. Loan officers from her mortgage holder contacted her about debt-to-equity imbalances, which brought little surprise: From 2012 through 2017, she had managed no more than 40 starters and two victories any year.
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How, the loan officers inquired, do you run farm, home and stable on $500 a month in social security and meager outside income? (They didn’t cite the costs to board Susan Karan and her foal at Northview.) Ever persuasive, “honey” and “darlin'” probably sweetening her words, Heil managed to refinance home and acreage. Twice. And still the cash fled.
A year-and-a-half at Northview, Karan’s Notion made his way to Diana McClure’s Berryville, Va., farm for breaking. McClure called Heil “my dearest friend, my most fabulous mentor,” even after Karan’s Notion’s notorious arrival.
The trip to Northview had foretold the odyssey. Karan’s Notion refused to leave the field herd, McClure learned, so all his paddock mates escorted him to McClure’s farmhands. She wasn’t sure how they’d gotten the yearling colt on the stock trailer, for no one could get him off.
“We used my quarter-horse lead pony and put him up on the trailer with him and tried to get him to follow that pony,” McClure said. “This took hours. We backed the trailer into the [mare-and-foal] barn. We finally got him off and into a stall. We couldn’t get him to eat for a couple of days; we were trying to put, like, some ace[promazine] syrup into the feed so that we could catch him. I mean, it was a rodeo. He was not bad; he was just not handled. And he was scared.”
A week or so in, McClure said, Karan’s Notion followed the lead pony to the breaking barn. Metaphorical baby steps, it turned out: His near-nine-month stay evinced the ongoing trials, she noted, and Heil’s willingness to wait.
“I will say that it has made us much braver,” McClure said of the Karan’s Notion experience. “We learned a lot from it. If it hadn’t been Nancy’s horse, we wouldn’t have been as inspired to make it work. . . He was one of our toughest challenges.”
Karan’s Notion got to Barn 6 at Laurel in the spring of 2019, stoking glee and unease. Heil, who had seen him only in pictures, rejoiced at her ability, finally, to put her hands on him. Others in the barn fretted that very act.
Butts, 69, praised McClure’s work and marveled at her ability to break the horse at all. “Countin’ my grandfather back when I was in my 20s, I’ve been around a ton of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds,” he said. “And this horse was as wild and as scared of everything as any one of ’em. And the thing about him is, he’s big, and he’s an athlete. I didn’t know if we were gonna get him to the races or not.”
He and Heil agreed: They needed an exercise rider with the guts, strength and manner to move Karan’s Notion forward. Someone like Renzo Barrientos.
“He’s the one that made this horse,” said Heil, who also lauded pony girl Emily McCluen and stall man Tyrone Johnson for teaching her homebred to coexist. Heil began making plans to breeze him when jockey Yomar Ortiz happened into the barn.
“He came down there hustlin’, lookin’ for mounts,” Heil said. “I said, ‘Look, if you wanna stay with me, this horse is gonna be a stake horse’ — I’m sure he didn’t believe me — ‘and if you wanna come and work with me, he’s yours.'”
Over time, Karan’s Notion’s spiritual evolution and trust in humankind became certified: He had a gate card, and something more. A wicked turn of foot.
Last March, Heil again heard from bank representatives. No, they told her, she could not renegotiate the loan and would have to make a “substantial” payment to prevent foreclosure. In all her effervescence, Heil finessed a three-month extension, a comfortable cushion with Karan’s Notion’s fruitful racing debut at hand.
Within days, the calculated risk went bust. The Covid-19 outbreak shuttered Laurel Park after its March 15 program; other Mid-Atlantic racetracks followed. Heil had a ready racehorse, now a 3-year-old gelding, and nowhere to go.
The clock ticked. She worked to keep Karan’s Notion fit, hoping the track would revive, write and fill a maiden sprint before her payment deadline, hoping she and her crew would dodge the virus, hoping she could keep the horse sharp, sound and sane. March and April passed, most all of May, before Laurel Park restarted.
The track advertised a six-furlong, $40,000 waiver-maiden claimer on June 8. Given pent-up demand across the backstretch, Heil expected a robust, high-octane field. No matter. The mortgage obligation set the terms: Win a big purse now or lose the farm two weeks later.
“There was no way out,” she said.
Heil waived the claiming tag, considered the $50,952 purse, did the math: Karan’s Notion would have to run first or second to save the day. As 13 horses lolled behind the gate that Monday afternoon, bettors assessed that prospect: Karan’s Notion, 61-1, stood the longest shot.
At a TV outside the Laurel paddock, Heil awaited the start with peculiar calm. Maybe for all the work from all the dedicated horsemen who’d gotten him there. Maybe for all the blessings that kept her and her people virus-free. Maybe for the simple chance to rescue Cobby Horse Farm at last. Maybe for what she held as true.
“I knew I had never, ever, ever, let this horse give me all he had in training,” she said. “I reserved all of that for the race.”
Hence her prerace words to Ortiz: Let him go.
Butts, with less conviction, watched the high-stakes maiden sprint on his home computer. “Look — I knew that horse could fly,” he said. “But I didn’t know if he would ever get in the gate and do it because he was as wild as they come.”
From post 12, Karan’s Notion revved more a sedan than a roadster. The ground seemed to crumble behind him at sendoff, and he rather flailed his way into stride. But he advanced nonetheless, cleared the pack of chasers near the far turn and shadowed front-running Sugar Daddy nearly halfway through the six furlongs. He did it, more notably, amid Ortiz’s quiet rein.
Heil’s daring dreams had conjured visions of Karan’s Notion alone and ahead through the turn, a confident Ortiz peeking back, beneath his right arm, at a horde of desperate chasers. And so it happened. When Ortiz first raised his stick right-handed in midstretch, barely a furlong left, Karan’s Notion had a two-length lead that looked secure. But from midpack, Russeldoingthings advanced on his left lead, passed Karan’s Notion seven strides before the wire and won in 1:10.91.
Even so, Karan’s Notion had delivered his real-life run for the money. Holding second by a length, he earned $9,009 and celebrated status in Cobby Horse Farm lore. Heil thrillingly paid the tab.
“It was very, very emotional,” she said, letting out a cackle. “To have it all come to fruition was, like, surreal, because of the struggle to get him to the races and everything riding on him.”
Could the story get any better? Well, sure, she said, after Karan’s Notion had broken his maiden in a showy runaway two starts later. He could win the Maryland Million.
For all the stakes-caliber horses she’d trained for the Kushners — 1990 Preakness entrant Fighting Notion, Aaron’s Concorde and daughter Rhoda Elaine, Aaron’s Halo — Heil hadn’t saddled a Maryland Million starter. She wanted ink on the ledger, mostly for her noble gray.
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“I describe Nancy as the 9-year-old little girl that gets Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, reads those books and starts this undying passion for horses,” McClure said. “It’s a fire that never stops burning. It never, ever dims.”
Which explains a lot. In 1965, married and two courses shy of a University of Maryland degree for social work, Nancy took a new course. Her dad, United Mine Workers executive George Rothwell, had put her on horseback at 5 and driven her to any of the riding stables that embellished Montgomery County then. (Nancy first glimpsed Cobby, astride and 15 years older, at one of them.) Her collegiate run in deep stretch, Nancy got a chance to buy a racehorse, 31-start maiden Lawyer Calhoun, for $200.
Her first thought: Well, I can’t ruin him.
Still, the Heils needed Cobby’s police partner and his wife to make the purchase. “It’s hysterical,” Nancy said, “that we needed a partner.”
The Heils bought the farm in Germantown and christened it. Cobby built a barn. Nancy galloped Lawyer Calhoun up and down the back hill. They rented a trailer to get him to Laurel to breeze and Charles Town to race. Nancy drove. Lawyer Calhoun won and won again.
Twenty years later, her sudden connection with the Kushners rang an even stranger prologue. Roger Cochran, a contractor remodeling the Kushners’ Rockville home, stopped work on March 11, 1985, for a reason most justified: His racehorse, Princess Pipit, was entered at Pimlico. He invited Herb, then 50.
“It was a rainy day,” Kushner said. “I told him, ‘I don’t go to horse races.’ I’m not sure I’d been to a thoroughbred track by that time. But he talked me into going.”
Princess Pipit left Heil’s barn and splashed home first, her only win in 23 career starts.
Kushner called Cochran “an impatient guy” who looked to unload Princess Pipit when she bucked shins weeks later. Kushner bought her — “I had the bug” — and kept her with Heil.
That September at Keeneland, Herb Kushner bought three yearlings for more than $150,000. Aaron’s Concorde stood the prize catch at $100,000; fillies Elegant Edythe and Fat Lady Sings he planned to race and breed. Thus the odd payoff: Because of a contractor, Heil’s barn stood prepped for a decided makeover.
The union of Aaron’s Concorde and Elegant Edythe produced Rhoda Elaine, who produced the Waquoit-sired Susan Karan. When the Kushners retired her in 2010 after a three-win, $80,435 career, they gave her to Heil to breed. The mare presented eventual winner Tizadoozi (by Bullsbay) in 2012 and nothing more until Karan’s Notion.
After Karan’s Notion won a Maryland-bred allowance sprint last August, Heil remained fixed on the Maryland Million Sprint Handicap two months later. Assistant Butts did his best to sway her. Among his reasons: A single 3-year-old had won the previous 18 runnings.
“Oh, Herbie,” Heil laughed.
At 16-1, Karan’s Notion shot to the lead and took the Sprint Handicap in 1:09.15. In a patron-less pandemic, the turnabout excited a joyous winner’s circle celebration by peers and racetrack workers.
There was a reason, McClure said. “She roots for everybody. Her love and genuine passion for horses, for people and the sport is truer than any person I’ve ever met in my life. And if you meet her, and you know her, you can’t help but see it, hear it and feel it.”
“Nancy — that’s the nicest woman that ever came down the pike, now,” Butts said. “There can’t be anybody nicer than her. She loves everybody. And we saw pretty clear how they feel about her.”
He paused. “And there you go. I woulda been winnin’ the damn a-other-than [allowance] instead of winnin’ the stake.”
On Jan. 16, Karan’s Notion finished fifth in his first open stakes try, the Fire Plug, bumping his purse haul to $176,131; past $200,000 adding breeder bonuses.
About the windfall, Heil laughed: “I’m just gettin’ outta debt, darlin’.”
Lately, she said, she’s been looking after an 88-year-old friend in poor health. This spring, she might try to breed 18-year-old Susan Karan one last time. And that gray redeemer in Barn 6 has just gotten so happy and docile.
“I’m not sure where this story’ll take us,” Heil said, a giggle to come. “I’m just glad to be turnin’ the pages.”