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Stories about your favorite retired racehorses. For archived stories, click here.

For most people in racing, the spring and summer of American Pharoah in 2015 was unforgettable. For Rosella Hunter, it was Legendary (GB).

Hunter and her former husband, trainer Niall Saville, had a bona fide stable star in Walter Swinburn’s accomplished son of Australian champion sprinter Exceed and Excel and the Irish-bred Polar Falcon mare Red Carnation. The association came by chance when Saville and Hunter tried to buy a horse at a Tattersalls horses in training sale in England. When their selection ended up with a high reserve, they passed. Entirely at random, Swinburn reached out to make a connection.

“Are you interested in a horse?” he asked. “We can make something happen.”

Former Irish champion jockey Walter “Wally” Swinburn is a respected breeder and owner of Genesis Green Stud in England. His son, the late Walter Swinburn, achieved fame as the jockey of, among others, All Along (Fr), Shareef Dancer, Shergar, whom he rode to victory in the 1981 Epsom Derby-G1. Then just 19, Walter Swinburn replaced Lester Piggott on the colt. The pair won by a record-breaking 10 lengths. 

Wally Swinburn kept his word, shipping a horse to Saville’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland in 2013. 

“The very first horse came over in partnership to sort of test the waters, I guess,” Hunter said. “Then Legendary followed shortly after with a couple others. He won two races in England before he came here. He was always very difficult to settle; he’s always been a very emotional and nervous sort, so they brought him home and gelded him right before he came over here. And honestly, that was probably part of the making of him.”

Hunter’s connection to Legendary was immediate and profound.

“There are some horses you just fall in love with, and I was so smitten with him from the first time I laid eyes on him,” she said. “He’s just the most gentle, kind and very thoughtful sort of horse. And he’s exquisite to look at. I didn’t know anything about him before he came. He just showed up in the barn, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s my dream man.’ ”

Then 5, Legendary made his first start for Saville in a 1 1⁄2-mile turf allowance at Keeneland April 17, 2014 and finished second. He won his next two starts, at Belmont Park, followed by his first North American stakes appearance in Saratoga’s Lure. He dead-heated for third.

Back in Maryland at Laurel Park in September, Legendary won the Japan Racing Association Stakes to begin a successful collaboration with jockey Sheldon Russell. Legendary’s one major quirk was a strong dislike of being passed on the outside. His head came up, and from that point on his race was over. 

“Sheldon was really his go-to,” Hunter said. “He’s such a natural horseman and a kind and gentle rider. He did a fantastic job of always making sure that the horse was in the right spot and clear of other horses and had some breathing room.”

Saville and Swinburn sent the horse back to Belmont the following month for the Knickerbocker Stakes-G3. He won by 11⁄4 lengths over Canadian champion Up With the Birds and Mshawish and finished 2014 with four wins in seven American starts. 

His 2015 campaign began with a fourth in the Maker’s 46 Mile-G1 at Keeneland April 10 and included seven stakes tries, six graded. His schedule dovetailed with American Pharoah’s Triple Crown quest with starts on the Preakness and Belmont Stakes undercards. He finished fifth in Pimlico’s Dixie-G2, just before the thunderstorm that blackened Baltimore as the Preakness neared. 

“Running on Preakness Day was really something,” Hunter said. “And for a horse that doesn’t like loud noises or crowds, it was very interesting to try to get to the paddock. I remember we had asked for special permission to saddle out on the track but they said no. So we ended up saddling inside and he held it together. We had that tremendous rainstorm right after he ran. We walked back to the barn to cool out and it just let loose. We were soaking wet.”

Belmont Day three weeks later was much kinder, and dryer. Legendary finished third behind Slumber (GB) and Big Blue Kitten in the Manhattan-G1. Swinburn and his wife were on hand to enjoy what became a day for the history books. 

“The crowd was just incredible, and it’s a fantastic day to take your owner racing between the food, the service – everything is so nice,” Hunter said. “We had a nice table upstairs overlooking the track. I remember the race kicked off and we stood there at the window watching it. When [American Pharoah] crossed the wire, the whole grandstand shook. I’ve never heard anything like it; the crowds went wild. We promptly ran down to the barn area and had to get a glimpse of American Pharoah walking back to the test barn. We were stabled one barn over. It was really pretty special.”

Legendary continued to run into his 7-year-old season in 2016 but didn’t reach the winner’s circle again after the Knickerbocker. Never risked for a claiming tag, he finished fourth in his career finale at Belmont July 8, 2016.

“After he won the Knickerbocker, they had an offer for him to go to Japan to be sold for quite a lot of money,” Hunter said. “I was in tears over it, and I remember Wally said to me ‘Don’t worry, I’ll never sell your horse. I love this horse too and he’s not going anywhere.’ ”

Retirement brought two options. 

“We sat down with Wally, and he said the horse could stay here with us or he could go back to England,” Hunter said. “He said, ‘I’d really like him to stay with you and you look after him.’ So I promised him I would, and I have.”

Legendary headed into retirement with a record of 31-6-6-3 

and $508,219. At 15, he lives on Hunter’s farm a few miles from Fair Hill with 16-year-old Cranky, the lead pony who accompanied him to all his American races. A Pennsylvania-bred by Action This Day, Cranky lost all 12 starts, the last five over hurdles. 

“Cranky is Legendary’s right-hand man,” Hunter said. “He’s sort of the eyes and ears of the situation and Legendary is the brains. Cranky’s brains are not his strong point. He did run, but he just wasn’t much. He wanted to go really long and slow. And it’s the same thing – he’s just kind and genuine.”

Hunter planned a second career for Legendary, envisioning him as “the most beautiful show hunter.” In reality, he was no more settled or relaxed in that environment than he had been on the racetrack. She took him to a few small Thoroughbred shows, jumping courses and earning ribbons, but it was even less enjoyable for her than it was for the horse. 

“We’d have to spend an hour and a half in the warm-up ring just to go do a hack class,” she said. “I had always loved showing, but it wasn’t adding up for us together so I’m very happy just brushing him, petting him and seeing him happy out in the field.”

You might question why Hunter, or anyone really, would keep and support a healthy, able-bodied horse who serves no real purpose. Hunter doesn’t hesitate.

“During their careers, you’re living off that high of a horse who’s thriving and enjoying their job, and you find the key to them and watch them shine,” she said. “It was so much fun for the whole stable. I’ve had plenty of people ask, ‘Why would you pay to feed a horse that doesn’t have a job?’ Because he’s my friend. He enriches my life, and that’s what it’s about. He’s doing fantastic, and I hope he lives to be 100.”


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