Animal Magnetism
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Horse racing
Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
A DAY'S WORK: Equine vet Richard Meirs '78 makes his rounds. In photo at right, he removes a mare from his hyperbaric chamber, which speeds healing by increasing blood levels of oxygen.

At first Strainer wondered if a college degree was even useful in a business where she kept hearing, "I learned this from my father." But the industry has been evolving. "I carry my iPad constantly," she says, "and I'm always making my own databases and adding entries and notes. Say I have a horse I have to sell for a million dollars. In the past, that might have taken a couple of weeks. Now it takes a couple hours—and the horse might be in Japan." As for those statistics classes she sometimes skipped? "Now I use stats all the time—it's almost like karma."

As director of sales, Strainer still has her hands on the animals—some 100 foals are born at the farm every year and they must be inspected monthly. Most of Denali's sales take place at auctions at nearby Keeneland Racetrack, where one of the biggest customers is Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, known locally as "Sheik Mo," the ruler of Dubai and owner of hundreds of racehorses. Strainer gathers and presents the data needed to advertise the horses, and sometimes she can convince an auctioneer to add some "fluffy selling points" to boost the appeal of a horse who lacks a stellar pedigree.

One such horse was Animal Kingdom, the son of a Brazilian stallion, who sold at auction for the unremarkable price of $100,000 in 2009. Having inspected him as a foal and managed his sale, Strainer still felt a connection to the colt two years later when she bet on him in the Kentucky Derby, even though he was a 21-1 longshot who had never raced on dirt before. Running at the back of the pack for most of the race, the magnificently muscled animal streamed past all the others in the homestretch, winning the race by nearly 3 lengths. Jumping up and down and screaming in front of the TV, Strainer managed to lose her voice in the minute and 55 seconds it took him to reach the finish line.

Horse racingPerry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
Equine vet Richard Meirs '78 does a pregnancy check on a horse.

It has been suggested that the first celebrity athlete in the United States was Dan Patch, a standardbred pacer who not only set world harness-racing records in the early 1900s but augmented his million-dollars-a-year winnings with product endorsements. Tens of thousands of fans thronged to catch a glimpse of the gentle stallion. After he died of an enlarged heart in 1916, his owner died the next day of a heart attack, at 51.

Thoroughbreds grab many more headlines today than standardbreds. But harness racing is still a big business—and one in which the emotional bond between human and horse plays a huge role, as Richard Meirs can attest. After graduating from UNH and earning his doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, Meirs got a taste of training standardbreds and the thrill of driving a sulky. But he concluded that he could be a better veterinarian than trainer and went on to do postgraduate work in both orthopedic surgery and animal reproduction. He joined his father in the business that he owns and runs today, Walnridge Farm and Equine Clinic in Cream Ridge, N.J., where he breeds and boards standardbreds. With two other vets in his practice, he is able to focus on the work that gives him the most satisfaction, mainly related to reproduction and the health of mares and their foals. Meirs, who waited tables and groomed horses to help pay for college, advises young horse lovers to get an education that will prepare them for a niche in the equine world that will be both emotionally and financially rewarding.

With a horse named Oolong, Meirs made what he calls a questionable business decision, but it paid off in both ways. As a filly, Oolong needed throat surgery, and her owner, already indebted to Meirs, asked him to operate on her in exchange for 25 percent interest in the horse. Meirs accepted the offer and helped train the unproven horse. Oolong went on to have a spectacular year as a 3-year-old in 1999, earning $800,000. She won the Hambletonian Oaks and North American Breeders' Crown before being named Horse of the Year. Meirs and her other owners then sold her, and she spent the next year racing in Germany. Today she lives on a farm in Maryland, where she has given birth to foals with names like Orange Pekoe and Tea for Two. Meirs, who traveled all over with Oolong in 1999 and feels a bond with the horse to this day, has arranged to bring her to Walnridge when she retires.

Horse racing
Bill Kostroun

Broad Bahn, bred by Mark Mullen '79, wins the 2011 Hambletonian Stakes, known as the Kentucky Derby of harness racing.

Aside from some horseback riding as a kid, Henry Sullivan '88 never took an interest in horses until about six years ago when his brother- and sister-in-law, George and Lori Hall, started a thoroughbred business called K&G Stables. A political science major at UNH, Sullivan is now the marketing director of a New York investment company, the Clinton Group. But he can be found on many a weekend morning, as early as 6 a.m., at Monmouth Park Racetrack, in an area of New Jersey tucked between New York City and the coastline of "Jersey Shore" fame, where he and Hall participate in the daily routine in a way that is uncommon among racehorse owners.

On a Sunday morning in May, in the maze of shed rows below the track, there is a hum of activity around a long shed that is the summer home to K&G Stables. Outside, horses stand patiently while grooms hose them down, and just inside, between the box stalls and sheltering green awnings, there is a steady parade of horses being "hotwalked" around a sandy track. Sullivan enjoys conferring with trainer Kelly Breen and joining in a game of Left, Right and Center with the jockeys during their morning break. Sometimes he acts as "pony boy"—guiding the racehorses onto the track and into position for their breezes. He does this, he's quick to note, "holding on for dear life" to a Western saddle on a retired racehorse. (He also handles PR for K&G.)

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