This equine love story begins in the suburbs, long before California Chrome's unsuccessful run for the Triple Crown started capturing imaginations.
"My pony was named Frosty, and my horse was named Angel," says Elburn resident Jan Heine, 53, smiling as she recalls her four-legged friends during her childhood in Lisle and St. Charles.
Contact information ( * required )
"My pony was Sgt. Sonny James and my horse was named L.S. Crow," recalls Nancy Brejc, 56, an Earlville resident whose eyes twinkle at the mention of the animals she grew up with in Batavia.
Their mutual love of horses led Heine and Brejc to jobs at stables and racetracks, where they formed a lifelong friendship, fed their passion for horses and developed an obsession with a famous, Depression-era horse named Greyhound, once the world's fastest trotter. When they learned that Greyhound's stable on the old Flanery Farms in Maple Park was about to be bulldozed and the property returned to farmland, Heine and Brejc launched an improbable quest to keep alive the horse's legacy.
Working from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. some days in the chill of winter, their breath visible in the dimly-lit stall, the women disassembled the structure, nail by nail and board by board, even those with Greyhound's tooth marks. They hauled the pieces to Goshen, N.Y., where the stall will be rebuilt as part of the Greyhound display at the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame.
"It's a great story of true passion and dedication beyond the wonderful story of Greyhound," says Janet T. Terhune, director of the museum.
"It was 193 hours over 11 days," says Brejc, recalling how she and Heine had to number each board as if it were a piece in a jigsaw puzzle so it can be put back together in all its detailed glory. The 15-foot-by-30-foot plush stall, on the property of Greyhound trainer Doc Flanery, boasted solid oak, tongue-and-groove paneling, recessed lighting, a huge picture window and a Dutch door so Greyhound could greet fans, who made pilgrimages from all 50 states and 17 foreign nations to wait in the bleached knotty pine sitting room for a chance to see the horse.
"It was like somebody's house," Heine says. "Each and every nail hole was puttied."
About 35 years earlier, the first time they saw that stall, Heine gushed, "Oh my gosh, what horse stays here?" When she was told, "No horse stays here. This was Greyhound's stall," she decided she'd get to know Greyhound.
"You didn't have the Internet back then, so you had to read books," says Heine, who joined Brejc in researching the famed gelding. "We didn't really grasp the significance until we found out the whole story."
Born (horse people say "foaled") in 1932 and purchased by Col. Edward J. Baker of St. Charles, Greyhound became "without question, one of our greatest and best-loved equine heroes," says Terhune, explaining the horse's entry into the harness racing hall of fame. Dubbed the "Grey Ghost" because of his color that turned nearly white with age, Greyhound held 14 world records, won the prestigious Hambletonian race in 1935, set speed marks that lasted three decades and was such a dominant racer that he toured tracks after his retirement just so adoring fans could catch a glimpse of the showy horse, often adorned with a red blanket and red painted hooves. While he lived in Maple Park, Greyhound hosted lavish birthday parties on Baker's Red Gate Farm in St. Charles.
When Greyhound died in 1965, the horse was buried on Red Gate Farm, which, by then, had become the boyhood home of current owner Jim Cooke, who watched the grand burial with a host of onlookers.
"For the first 10 years or so after Greyhound was buried on the farm, we had literally busloads of visitors that would come to view the grave," says Cooke, an attorney, who still lives on the farm with his family. "Time has diminished the memory and numbers of visitors to about one person per summer."
A simple grave marker, near similar markers for other horses and loyal dogs, immortalizes Greyhound as the "world's fastest trotter."
"He was a big deal," says Lori Cooke, Jim's wife, who looks after the horses living on the farm now and has a fondness for her collection of newspaper clippings and photographs of Greyhound in his prime.
"I think it's everybody's dream to get a horse like Greyhound," Brejc says.
Plans for the Greyhound museum exhibit have yet to be finalized, but fundraising has begun. "We want to do it justice," says Rebecca Howard, collections manager for the museum. "This is going to make him a primary focus."
While a few Greyhound items are on display at the St. Charles Heritage Center, a nameplate, some trophies and blankets disappeared from his stall in Maple Park through the decades. Heine and Brejc say they hope publicity about Greyhound will encourage others to donate Greyhound artifacts to the trotters museum.
"It needs to be together and not on someone's mantel," Brejc says. "It will have a great home."
"A forever home," adds Heine, a mother of three, who works with her husband, Dave, in their Dave Heine Construction company. She and Brejc, who recently retired from her career as a heavy equipment operator, certainly are doing all they can to honor Greyhound.
"It is a passion," Heine says. "We feel we were picked to do this."