Her first horse should have been dog food: a broken-down nag saved from the grinder by a 15-year-old with a soft spot for losers. Nancy Alberts rescued the animal, nurtured him and rode him regularly in point-to-point races.
Such was the start of a lifelong equine reclamation project. Forty-one years later, Alberts continues to recycle racing rejects, combing through thoroughbred trash in search of would-be treasures.
That's how she found Jazema, the crippled mare who bore Magic Weisner, her gelding who ran second in last month's Preakness Stakes and is a top contender in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Twelve years ago, Alberts bought Jazema for $1, deformities and all.
"Her legs were so crooked, she'd step on you when she'd walk," said Alberts, 56, a Laurel-based owner/breeder/trainer from Jessup. She pauses, smiles, then delivers the kicker: "People said, `You're a crazy bitch to want to breed that mare.' "
It's a tale she likes to tell, less for self-aggrandizement than to combat bias against breeding ugly horses. That Magic Weisner came from humble roots, from a mare with four left feet, validates what Alberts has been doing since she was a youngster. Do you believe in Magic? In a young girl's heart?
"I didn't play with dolls; it was always toy horses," Alberts says of her childhood in West Chester, Pa. "And if someone gave me blocks, I'd always build a barn."
She has been riding since her feet touched the stirrups. Alberts has always had irons in her blood. Her foals are her family; she names them after colleagues at Laurel Race Course - a paddock judge, a groom, a veterinarian - and posts their baby pictures on the wall of her tack room at the track.
See the snapshot of the skinny young colt with the spidery legs? He nearly won the Preakness this year. "What a sweet baby he was, so kind," Alberts says of Magic Weisner. "He would nibble kids' hair when they petted him over the fence. Even as a 2-year-old, he was all legs. His hind end was so big, he looked like he was going downhill."
She waited. He blossomed. After his last outing, Alberts received an offer of $1 million for the gelding. She turned it down. "I wouldn't know what to do if I couldn't be with my horses," she says.
She rises at 4 a.m., arrives at her barn at Laurel at 5 and begins a string of chores unbefitting the owner/trainer of a Triple Crown entrant. Does Prince Ahmed bin Salman, War Emblem's owner, muck out stalls? Does Bob Baffert, his trainer, gallop horses?
By 7:30 a.m., Alberts has fed and fussed over her charges, cleaned their rooms and put them through their paces. A television news crew captures her astride Magic, who pounds around the track, easily passing other horses and scattering flocks of sparrows pecking for seeds in the morning sun.
To and from the track, grooms and exercise riders greet them with a warmth and affection seldom seen in this hard-bitten bunch. "Hiya, Miss Nancy," a rider says as she passes. "Hey, movie star!" hoots another. Then it's back to the barn for a nice bath. For horse, not rider.
"I wish someone would give me a bath like this every day," says Alberts, sponging Magic Weisner with a citronella mix, to repel flies.
The gelding shakes his head, sniffs her hair - equine talk for peppermint, please. Alberts fishes one from her pocket. He licks the cellophane. "Wait until the paper comes off!" she scolds him. Scrunch, scrunch. She hugs his huge head affectionately. "Wow, that makes your breath smell good," she says.
Then Alberts turns to a bystander and rolls her eyes.
"It's a shame having a spoiled brat for a racehorse."
Few owners, or even trainers, know their animals as well. After the Preakness, Magic Weisner's jockey, Richard Migliore, told Alberts: "I've had plenty of trainers tell me how a horse is going to run, but you told me every step he'd take."
She is closer to her horses than she is to most people - and she wants to keep it that way, rebuffing repeated offers to buy into Magic Weisner. "People keep calling to say, `I just want to buy a part of him,' " she says. "Well, partnerships are sinking ships."
Partners are one thing, but employees can be just as problematic for Alberts. "She's dedicated to her horses, but very demanding. Things have to be done just right," says Ruth Stone, of Crownsville, who stables two of her own with Alberts. "Nancy lives and breathes these horses."
Even when they knock the breath out of her - or worse. Witness a lifetime of ailments: cracked shoulder, broken collarbone and two herniated disks. Four years ago, while feeding an ornery stallion, Alberts was kicked in the abdomen and nearly killed. The blow broke her spleen, damaged the nerves in her left arm and laid her up for four months. While sidelined, she entrusted her brood to her son, an ex-Marine.
Filling mom's shoes was "harder than anything I did in boot camp," Will Alberts says.
In addition to her regimen at the racetrack, Alberts regularly visits her other horses, spread among four farms in Howard and Carroll counties. It's a routine she'll soon be breaking, thanks to Magic Weisner's winnings. She's looking for a farm of her own, a home for all of her horses.
"Wouldn't you like to play with them every day?" she says. "Just think, if my horses were in the back yard, I'd never go into the house."
At a glance
WHAT Final leg of the Triple Crown
WHERE Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
WHEN, TV Saturday, 6:08 p.m. Chs. 11, 4
LENGTH, PURSE 1 1/2 miles, $1 million