Tom Roach personally fed every horse for about 50 of the hundred years history of Parrish Hill Farm in Midway, Kentucky. Even with a large staff and a farm manager, Tom would make regular trips to the feed store and hand-select his special mixture of grain and molasses into red plastic buckets.

He’d stuff the buckets in the front seat of the van he drove workers and a few dogs around the farm in, all the while making notes on small yellow pads. Then he’d toss the pads into the buckets and drive off to the next errand. His friends joked that the buckets were “Tom’s Blackberry.”

Sure, a champion horse breeder, farm owner, dad and racer had better things to do than feed horses. But something in the magic he mixed there led to so many champions. In the grand dining room of the house they had more silver julep cups from winning races than they did wine glasses. So he was glad to do it. And it needed to be done.

Even on my worst days, Tom never treated me like someone who wanted to be a writer. In his mind, and certainly in his mail stack, I had always been one.

“I’ve got a horrible addiction to share with you, Brendan,” he said the last time he picked me up from the airport in Lexington.

I braced for anything. Even at 28 I still remembered how much I was afraid of him the first time we met, over 11 years ago. “I can’t get enough of that popcorn chicken at KFC.”

“Love that stuff,” I smiled. But inside I just rejoiced that Tom—once known as “two-entrée Tom” for the enthusiastic way he liked to order dinner—was hungry again. He’d been sick for a while, and every visit started to feel like it might be our last.

I remember pulling up to the house for the first time when I was 17. The wallpaper in the TV room was made of elephant skin. I remember that much every visit. Each time I came home to Connecticut I would regale everybody with tales of wild Kentucky. Taxidermy on the walls, a log cabin out back, a bearskin rug.

In 1998 I had met and become pen pals with his daughter, a chestnut-haired Kentucky lass with a voice as sweet as wild honey, a beautiful high school poet from Kentucky who liked my jokes and wrote me long, pastoral letters about her family’s horse farm. Big Gone with the Wind style colonnades lined the portico (a new word I’d learned from her letters).

I grew up with excellent, misguided stereotypes about southerners, particularly the southern men. When they weren’t toothless yokels, they were territorial and crass. Not that we didn’t have people that fit such a bill up in New England.

But Tom Roach wasn’t like that at all. Among other things, he was a big part of Three Strides Before the Wire, Elizabeth Mitchell’s stirring book about the unlikely journey of an undervalued horse, Charismatic, to Kentucky Derby (and later Preakness Stakes) glory in 1999. Charismatic had the third-worst odds of any winner in Derby history (20-1). And worse, his tormented jockey had only just gotten out of rehab.

Horse breeders like to put their faith in long shots. And Tom took a long shot on me too. If Charismatic was the “tubby” horse with low odds, I was the bad student with a low GPA who discovered writing a little too late in high school. I spent my twenties on one side of the bar or another. But even on my worst days, Tom never treated me like someone who wanted to be a writer. In his mind, and certainly in his mail stack, I had always been one.

Charismatic is currently living the high life as a stud in Japan. Me? I’ve got my own book out there now. And that just would not have happened without Tom Roach.

I got so comfortable around his house that I often trotted down in college when their daughter was away just to get a slice of home. Real life raises a million questions and for the 17 years, Kentucky has been my go-to answer.

The state sits on a big calcium-fortified chunk of limestone. The calcium-rich water nurtures the three B’s: bourbon, basketball players and beautiful women. It’s pretty good for the horses and one’s state of mind, too.

kentucky-horses

Breakup? Go to Kentucky. Business bad? Go look at horses. Big news? Call the farm.

When my pen pal’s sister got married I flew in for the wedding. “It’s great to have you around here to calm all these women folk,” she said. Like on a lot of farms, Kentucky is mostly female. I often suspect that all the males in Woodford County are drowned at birth or served as veal. In addition to colts and fillies, horse breeding farms often employ a gelding, a castrated horse used to calm the females. And when I’m down South, I don’t mind being the gelding.

Tom had been sick from stress injuries related to the big 1999 win. 10 years later he lived life day-by-day. Sudden hospital visits that seemed final. Each time he revived at the last minute: Nothing could keep him from his first daughter’s wedding.

The rehearsal dinner was among the stone barns of the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Tom seemed a little uneasy on his feet. He took a seat and smiled through dinner. His skin had a slight grey tinge.

After the meal “Two Entrée Tom” took to his feet. The food on his plate tasted but mostly untouched.

Like a lot of Kentucky boys, Tom had his belts stamped with two brass plates. One on the left with your name. One on the right with the name of your farm. Tom’s belt was cinched to the left plate. His farm-weathered pants draped down his legs.

“Tomorrow morning my first daughter is getting married, and Hallie Roach will now be Hallie Lewis,” he said. He thought about it for a second, and then he smiled. “Now that sounds a lot to me like ‘Hallelujah.’ And it feels like it too.”

After supper, Tom didn’t leave the dance floor once.

wedding

My penpal and I never lost touch for over seventeen years. Letters became email, text and the constant drip of Facebook and Instagram. But when I saw her number come up on my phone I knew something was wrong. “It’s Dad,” she said.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in London. The only flight I can find is to Detroit. I’ll have to figure it out from there.”

“I’ll meet you in Detroit.”

A true thoroughbred is a cross between a Wild Kentucky Stallion and a Cold Blooded English Mare. In time, my dear old pen pal reversed the formula and married a British guy.

I came down to Antigua for their wedding, at a sun-soaked colonial church in the local village. For years I’ve loved the strange cultural experience of my adopted Southern family. But something was missing. He may have been quiet, but Tom was the missing centerpiece of that small town and big family.

Moments before game time, though, we realized something really was missing. The bride was ready to walk in. The groom was waiting. But where was her mother?

She’d gone back for something when everyone left the hotel and the guests had taken all of the available cabs on the small island. I felt terrible. For all the gentility and charm of the South that I’d thought rubbed off on me, I should have waited.

I ran outside and squinted into the sun. A dusty trail followed the bumper of a gypsy cab. Inside I could see the pained eyes of the mother of the bride in back. When it pulled up in front of the church I got the door from her and offered her my arm, and she came up the church steps.

“There were zero cars available,” she said. “The hotel couldn’t get me anything.” I couldn’t help thinking that in the countless times she’d imagined her daughter’s wedding day, she must have pictured being beside her husband. Not rushing in on a gypsy cab alone, then being escorted by the bride’s dirtbag penpal who just seems to show up all the time.

I saw something like relief on the faces of the crowd when we walked in. The church was hot and large fans blew hotter air on us and our thick morning suits.

When I walked the mother of the bride to her seat one of the groom’s brothers charged at me. “My father was supposed to walk her down the aisle. We had the whole thing worked out.”

I remember feeling really crushed for a second. Like a bad guest. I went to my seat alone. But I wasn’t. I was in a church and lucky enough to have a whole adopted family surrounding me. I had been raised by this great adopted family and instead of my old, coarse, Yankee ways, I had grown into the only one in my actual family with Southern manners.

Now I wear Tom’s belt. It has extra holes augured into it all the way down to the plate. I keep it as a reminder that life is about what you do with your allotted time. At first it seemed a little weird to wear someone else’s nameplate. But in a way it’s just proof of my surrogate adoption. That might not be the name on my birth certificate, or even my family tree. But the dead exist only in us, and it is ourselves we improve when we take their best qualities and share them with the world.

Tom Roach was a friend, a mentor, a great guy to share a bucket of chicken with. That’s the name on my belt. And Parrish Hill is my farm.

That’s why I’m not embarrassed about walking Tom’s wife down the aisle when he couldn’t be there. That’s what a man does.

Anyway I was glad to do it. And it needed to be done.

kentucky-land