The saddest donkey in northern Kentucky is a little knock-kneed fellow named Gorgeous George, who is grieving the recent loss of his dearest companion, the famed racehorse Alphabet Soup (1991-2022). At the time of his death, Alphabet Soup—who went by Soupy, Alfie, or, most often, Alphabet—was the oldest living winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He was also one of the more memorable winners of the race: he had been a 19–1 long shot that day, in 1996, and upset the champion, Cigar, who was so heavily favored that some bettors might have napped through the stretch run, assuming that the race was in the bag. A lot of people lost a lot of money that day, making Alphabet Soup something of an Equus non grata, but he was such a likable animal that he ended up being adored.
Alphabet had been a scrawny, scraggly foal who sold for not much as a youngster. It didn’t help that he was pale gray; people in the racing world are famously superstitious, and some of them think that gray horses are bad luck. He did, though, have a fancy ancestry. His mother was the fabulously named Illiterate, and her father was the Hall-of-Fame champion and equally fabulously named Arts and Letters. (The owners obviously had a good time naming them.) Alphabet bloomed slowly. According to his longtime trainer, David Hofmans, he was “a little backwards, a little immature” and not ready to compete in the Kentucky Derby when he hit the requisite age of three. Apparently, even stallions can be babyish. Still, Alphabet Soup was one of those cheerful, upbeat kinds of horses, always in a good mood, never of the mind to bite you or kick you or crush you against the side of his stall, which an average stallion is wont to do. He was a sucker for a carrot and a nose stroking, and the worst he would do when he got tired of being manhandled was go to the back of his stall and give you a view of his butt.
Sometime after he turned four, Alphabet had a revelation. Hofmans was schooling the horse in the paddock one day when Alphabet suddenly looked up and stared at the grandstand. It was as if in that instant something clicked. From that moment on, Alphabet was less of a goofball and more of a yeoman, determined to win. His tenacity and work ethic had him beating horses that were, in terms of size and talent, better than him. “He was a high achiever,” the jockey Chris McCarron said recently. “And he improved with age.” He ran with the lightest possible bit in his mouth, but he was a ferocious competitor. In the 1996 San Antonio Stakes, for instance, Alphabet was running against Burt Bacharach’s horse Soul of the Matter, an odds-on favorite. Soul of the Matter was leading so comfortably that the announcer called the race forty yards from the wire, but in those forty yards Alphabet bulldozed ahead and won. The victory was so valiant and so unexpected that his jockey burst into tears.
Alphabet’s earnings ticked up to almost three million dollars, topped off by that crazy win at the Breeders’ Cup, with McCarron onboard. Alphabet retired the following year and became a stud, siring a generation of horses that included many who were also named after soups, including Egg Drop, Italian Wedding, Bless My Soup, Damascus Soup, Noodle Soup, I’m Just Souper, and No Soup for You. In terms of earnings, Alphabet was not the most successful stud horse in history, but he undoubtedly had a good time trying. In 2015, he hung up his stud spurs and moved into assisted living at Old Friends Farm, a facility for racehorses emeriti in Georgetown, Kentucky. Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends, could have held a grudge against Alphabet—he had bet on Cigar in the Breeders’ Cup—but he actually sought the horse out when he’d heard that he was retiring from stud service. Blowen, a former film critic for the Boston Globe, was certain that Alphabet’s sunny nature would make him a hit at the farm, which has thousands of visitors each year. “These horses have fans other than the people like me who mostly like racing because of the drinking and gambling,” he said recently. “People love the animals and their stories.”
Alphabet, shy at first, soon came into his own as a lazy pensioner. He was so easygoing, Blowen said, that you could lead him around with dental floss. Life got even better in 2020 when, by chance, the farm manager, who had inherited his father’s donkey, put the creature in a paddock adjacent to Alphabet Soup. By all accounts, the two animals locked eyes and sent each other telepathic messages about hanging out together for eternity. From that point on, they were glued to each other, even sleeping in the same stall. Blowen reported that Gorgeous George would make an angry racket if he felt that you were messing around with Alphabet. Out in the field, Blowen said, the gangly horse and the squat donkey looked a little like an outtake from “Man of La Mancha.” The tough old stallion outlived cancer and a series of other ailments until kidney failure undid him, and he was euthanized at the advanced age of thirty-one. George has been bereft since Alphabet’s passing. Blowen recently introduced the donkey to another stallion, named Ide, in hopes that he will find consolation, but he thinks that Alphabet Soup and George were so bonded that the donkey will grieve for a long time. “He’s driving me crazy,” Blowen said, sounding mournful. “He keeps me up at night braying since Alphabet Soup died.”
Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. To propose a subject for The New Yorker to cover in an Afterword piece, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.