My deep connection to the Thoroughbred has been but a mystery to me, throughout the thirty years of my life. While love affairs can develop in the most unexpected of instances, my passion for horse racing is more than a hobby—more than a pastime. It is an affection deeply rooted in the depths of my being—one for which, for decades, there was no explanation.
Though thoroughly close to the immediate family I call my own, within me was a missing link. I was so deeply bound to something no one close to me understood, let alone shared. It wasn’t until recently that I learnt of my familial connection to the animal which has so inspired every aspect of my life—of the Great Uncle I never knew, and how he may have given me the greatest gift of all.
It began with the photograph of a solemn soldier— it’s edges rough and worn from years tucked quietly away in a weathered chest, nearly forgotten amongst its many neighboring trinkets, each one equally dusty and aged as the next. Upon discovering it, I gingerly slid out the middle drawer to look closely at my findings— the overwhelming scent of old cedar daring to transport me to another place and time, far away. I focused heavily on the image for which my hands reached, knowing all the while there was something incredibly special about it.
The Soldier I found at my fingertips in the withered photograph was tall and slender. Though the aged image provided only a limited view of the man’s face, I felt instantaneously, that he was deep in thought. Knee propped comfortably atop the railing of an old ship, slouched over a cigarette dangling from his fingertips, he stared silently before him. I remember thinking, “Who is he, and what is the story behind this moment?”
Later that evening, I asked my mother who the soldier in the photo was.
“Him? Oh, he’s my Uncle, Albert Russo. I only met him once. What a nice man, he was.”
And that was simply it. Other than his name, my mother knew as little about him as I did. That night, I placed the photo of Albert in the drawer beside my bed, with an overwhelming need to know more about his origin—and who my Great Uncle was.
With coaxing over coffee the following morning, I was able to retrieve the names of Albert’s children and grandchildren from my mother’s address book. Within an hour, I was on the phone with his daughter, Rose, in Massachusetts —it was a call I will never forget.
As it turns out, Albert Russo served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. It was a tour which left him missing in action for more than three months’ time. His family, fearing the worst in an unfathomable grief no family should have to feel, stumbled one morning upon the same photograph I held nervously in the palm of my hand, in a newspaper in the Summer of 1943. The, at the time, young brother and son who was feared lost, was once again found—if only from across the world.
There was more, however, to the tale Rose regaled to me over the telephone. She spoke with unbridled wonder, when telling the story of her long-gone father’s time overseas. I pictured on the other end of the line, a woman whose weathered smile reached upward to her deep mahogany eyes, as she spoke about the father of whom she was clearly proud—the one she dearly missed.
“You know, Nicole, what kept my father going, when it seemed all was lost at sea? It was his love of the big red horse, Man O’ War. You’ve probably never heard his name, but believe you me, that horse was something special.”
My own eyes welled with tears, a sense of both relief and familiarity rushing throughout my belly. There it was, my link—the one which made this lifelong love affair make sense. The more she spoke, the more I realized when I found my way to horse racing, I wasn’t navigating a new world at all—I was, instead, coming home. It was where I was destined to be—it was what I was destined to love.
It turns out, through the many months lost at sea—the days of fallout, the nights of sleeplessness, the loss of countless brothers—Uncle Albert, a mere boy at the time, clung to the bedtime stories his own father told him as a child of the legendary Man O’ War. He was the unbreakable horse. Both fiercely determined and ever perseverant, Man O’ War became the center of Albert’s thoughts, during his cold nights on deck.
He used to say “He was my very own North Star in an otherwise dark sky—the light guiding me home when home seemed so far away.”
Cut off from the rest of the world in a place where communication existed only through telegraph, it was nearly impossible for Albert to reach the family he missed. There were times in which it seemed he may never again set foot on the land he knew—that he may never have another chance to hug his parents—that he may never again see New England in the fall, ripe with vibrant foliage.
It was all too easy to be swept away in the solemn thoughts which overcame a solider at sea, and so instead of the loneliness he felt when thinking of those closest to his heart, he remembered the stories of Man O’ War—the ones he learnt as a boy:
He would begin with Man O’War’s loss to Upset, for good measure. Being the darkest point of the big red horse’s career, the stories grew uplifting and inspirational, afterward.
He would then think of the great 100 length romp—the one which made his heart race as a child—the exact opposite of what any parent wishes for at bedtime; as this story in particular made him feel larger than life, just like Man O’ War himself.
There were countless stories he recalled on those dark, quiet nights on the open water, and he always ended with the unparalleled friendship between Man O’ War and his groom, Will; for it was a story of love and hardship, and above all, brotherhood— something he had learnt so much about, in his months away from home.
In the end, when all was said and done and his tour abroad was through, Great Uncle Albert once again set foot on the land he knew. He hugged his parents. He visited New England in the Fall, ripe with vibrant foliage.
He fell in love and married a woman named Marion, and from that marriage came a daughter named Rose, a son named Albert Jr., and from them came a house full of laughing grandchildren at Christmastime in Massachusetts.
It was a life Albert, for a time, never imagined he would live to see–and when he grew old and weary at the age of ninety-one, he lay still in his bed, surrounded by those he knew well. He thanked them all for their part in his story;
and then lastly, he thanked his beloved Man O’ War—for bringing him home to the life he dreamed of having—to the life he thoroughly deserved.
With a final sigh, Great Uncle Albert’s soft Brown eyes closed forever.
At the conclusion of our phone call, both Rose and I were silent—tears streaming down our cheeks. For her, it was an overwhelming grief for her father—one which had not subsided in the years of his absence.
For me, it was an overwhelming sense of gratitude—of belonging; knowing that I had been “home” all along.
Horse Racing was part of me—slowly brewing in my heart before I ever knew—a predestined strand in the very makeup of who I am.
Though I never knew my Great Uncle Albert, I am forever thankful for his having lived. It was a life filled with love for his family; service toward his country.
I wholeheartedly hope he was met at the gates of Heaven, by his very own North Star, Man O’War.
We would like to thank The Keeneland Library for the photo of Man O’ War from The Keeneland Library Cook Collection.