The Horse Doc: Prescription for Happiness

Anyone with a stressful day job knows the value of finding a good way to relax. Columnist Greg Kelly recalls how owning and riding horses proved to be a key stress-reliever for his physician-father.

“There's nothing better for the inside of a person than the outside of a horse.”

—Ronald Reagan

My dad was a happy doctor, fundamentally, because he knew how to have fun. He could separate work from life. That was how he endured in the very demanding medical profession.

One of the ways he had a bunch of fun was through his love of horses. He road them, bet on them, read about them, owned them, and appreciated their majestic beauty and raw ability. Above all, he instilled a love of horses in his own children (starting with my sister Alice who was champion rider as a teen).

A devoted rider himself, Dad called it exercise on a grand scale. For many years (along with my uncle) he would ride twice a week and mount up most weekends in the summer. He told of a real boost from the equine experience and even won a few area Hunter Pace trials—and at a time when he wasn’t a young sawbones.

Naturally, he felt the urge to own a horse. But he didn’t go the racehorse route (though he loved the sport), he wanted a horse to ride for himself and one that he could use to teach his family to ride and respect.

So one day in Holmdel (Bruce Springsteen’s birthplace) he and my Uncle Billy (a former “gentleman jockey”) bought one, an old gelding who they named Ballybunion. The horse was named after the famous Irish golf club (in County Kerry). Dad played the links (the Old Course) several times and fell in love with it.

When I asked dad what he paid for the horse, he replied: “a hundred bucks and blanket.” Furthermore, dad explained that Ballybunion wasn’t the greatest riding and jumping horse—or the “smartest.” I have minor recollections of Ballybunion—touching and brushing him, riding in a sleigh he pulled at Christmas time—really by the time I came along dad was on to something else.

A true appreciation for horses should include watching and betting on thoroughbreds. My dad looked very comfortable at the track. He liked to read the Daily Racing Form and was a determined horse race handicapper. “Breeding, Gregory, breeding,” he would tell me. “That’s where you find the most winners.”

An area favorite for me and dad was Monmouth Park Racetrack in our home county. I got to make a few trips with my father to this Jersey Shore jewel. Racing in the area dates to 1870 and the meet will host its marquee race next month, the $1 Million Haskell Invitational (they’re hoping to get 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah to run).

But going to the racetrack is a lot more than gambling. At most tracks the place presents as a rarified atmosphere, a heady mix of leisure and adventure. And I continue to be awed just by the pure strength and splendor of thoroughbreds.

Sadly, the sport is suffering today—most racetracks struggle to break even. Too many other distractions for customers and keeping a racehorse isn’t cheap. So to help the horse cause and detach from the physician grind, spend a day at the track with your family this summer. They’re all over America. See here.