Remembering Allen Murray

Allen Murray, who died Aug. 13 at age 80, got interested in horses growing up in Havre de Grace during the heyday of its race track. (Baltimore Sun archives, The Baltimore Sun / August 22, 2013)

Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and a two-time Eclipse Award winning writer, shares his remarks delivered at Monday's funeral in Havre de Grace for his fellow horseman and Harford County resident Allen Murray.

It's been told to me by Allen's best friends that he hoped no one would stand up at his funeral and go on about what a great guy he was. That is so understandable considering the man. But Audrey sensed that something about her husband's character was so intertwined with his love for horses that it overrode his humility. Maybe there was a lesson in his life, untold.

So we'll respect his wishes, and not list his many accomplishments (among them his tireless services to the Maryland Horse Breeders Association), but by describing what he was – a born horseman, not by family, but by temperament, by circumstance.

The romance of a life with horses often begins when you are young, and first exposed to those agreeable animals. It's like Sherwood Anderson wrote in his 1918 short story "I Want to Know Why.":

"If you've never been crazy about Thoroughbreds it's because you've never been around where they are much and don't know any better. There isn't anything so lovely and clean and full of spunk and honest and everything as some horses. It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs. If my throat hurts and it's hard for me to swallow, that's him."

If you grew up in the town of Havre de Grace in the first half of the last century, you caught the fever at the famous racetrack at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. Racing here wasn't a backwater. It was the headwaters of the national season. It flowed from here to the Preakness at Pimlico, and the tide came back every fall for the Autumn meet. Man o' War stabled here in the 1920s. Citation ran here in 1948.

If you've seen an aerial photograph of Havre de Grace from those days, the town was separated from the track by a mile of farmland. I see a young boy walking across those pastures to the track, as some ancestral tug to the land first stirs in him.

You couldn't help but feel a kinship to the land and to the horses on it, and you would be drawn into a quilted community of breeders and horsemen, of jockeys and trainers.

An "ethic" towards that community would be forming in the mind of the young man. A code of conduct. He could have been influenced by a popular book of that time, about a Maryland farm, in Humphrey Finney's "A Stud Farm Diary."

Finney wrote: "It is a good thing, to my mind, for any lad to get started at the beginning of all horses' lives, the farms. If a boy finds that the farm, rather than the race course, is his natural bent, then there is plenty of opportunity for him to get advancement...It is a long grind, but the satisfaction coming from the production of a real horse makes it well worth while."

The Lesson: Work hard. Finish school. Earn money. Take risks. Follow dreams. The Gods will notice.

So you buy a mare, then another. You have a day job, and you can't leave work to get your mares bred, and that's when you recognize that you are in a community of like-minded horse farmers. One of them says: "Bring your mares over to my stallions after work. My kids will meet you at the loading chute."

You discover this informal "co-operative," surrounded by individuals who share your passion.

Everyone eats dinner late in this world you've joined. It's okay. You think they are all a little crazy, but in a nice way. It's a loose club with an honor code. Play fair. Don't talk bad about another man's horse.

You watched Citation win the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont. You begin dreaming of your own Preakness winner. You look into the blinking eyes of every foal you pull from every mare on those exciting nights in your foaling barn, thinking like Sherwood Anderson: "That's him!"

You live delicately close to the Chesapeake Bay, where Capt. John Smith was so enthralled that he named it: "The land of pleasant living." The beer you drank at crab feasts told you so, right on the can.

To anyone who lives here, it is a land of milk and honey, and you are drawn into stewardship of it. You buy one farm, and the Racing Gods smile on you, so you trade up, and buy another farm. You sail into your old age watching the sun come up over your fields of mares and foals.

But then the Breeding Gods quit smiling. You helplessly stand by and watch 4 out of 5 mares ship out like the Baltimore Colts did, vans taking them to greener pastures, greener checkbooks. Hell with it, you say, unable to give up. You build a racetrack of your own, and recapture lost horses. But it's not like breeding, not like the stallion game.

You live long enough to see the vans turning around and coming back. Your heart is bursting with hope. And then your great long life with horses suddenly ends. In a snap. No demise. You die with your boots on, thinking about the future. What a great deal!

Now your spirit lives here, on the banks of the Susquehanna River, where the great spirits of the Susquehannock Indians float over the waters, their images carved in rocks, in petroglyphs. You carved out a legacy in rocks and soil as well.

The world below moves on, wind over water, your wave of energy calm now, a gentle wake.

It was everything you ever wanted, and you earned it, and you played fair, with an ethic for the land and for the horses, and above all, for your family, who will carry on your lesson.

Who could ask for more out of life?