By T. D. Thornton
For most people, crossing an item or two off a “bucket list” is enough to yield an enormous amount of personal contentment.
Patricia Akiona goes about her goals a little bit differently.
The effervescent 50-year-old law enforcement retiree–a new grandmother who cares for two ex-racehorses on a small farm in Snohomish, Wash.–belongs to that subset of uniquely driven bucket-listers whose achievements instead serve the purpose of sparking deeper involvement into lifetime aspirations.
In May, Akiona finally checked off her bucket list a long-planned trip to attend the GI Kentucky Derby and a tour of a Bluegrass breeding farm.
But she didn’t stop there. Thanks to a fortuitous confluence of circumstances–and Akiona’s charismatic ability to connect with people and make requests that others might consider beyond feasibility–she later managed to parlay that visit into a two-week, fully immersive experience as a hands-on horse worker for Lexington’s Mill Ridge Farm during the just-completed Keeneland September yearling sale.
She paid her own way in terms of travel, lodging, expenses, and meals, and neither asked for nor received compensation for her labor at a time when Thoroughbred farms in the region are having difficulty attracting quality help.
“The first couple of days, it was so surreal. I kept thinking I’m going to wake up from a dream,” Akiona said in a phone interview last Friday after completing another day of chores and shadowing Mill Ridge personnel, which she has treated like a mid-life internship. “It was like all the stars just lined up. And I’ve had the goofiest grin on my face the whole time I’ve been here.”
Akiona traces her attraction to Thoroughbreds to age six, when she was enthralled by the televised pageantry of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown triumph. Her grandmother introduced her to live racing at the now-defunct Longacres racetrack in the Green River Valley of Washington, where the grade-school girl was able to get up close to racehorses in person for the first time.
After several years of “begging and pleading” to hang around with horses her neighbors kept, Akiona announced at age 16 to her parents that she was intent on making a career out of working with racehorses at the track.
Her mortified mom and dad gave her the “not under our roof” rebuttal, which only made Akiona more determined to follow through.
“So I packed my bags, caught a bus, and went to Longacres thinking I would just march in there and somebody would see what a great talent I was with no experience and let me start riding their horses,” Akiona said.
She made it as far as the stable gate, where a gruff security guard told her to go back outside, sit on the bench, and wait for the next bus back home.
Later, when the guard saw the stubborn teenager still lingering outside, he had a change of heart and said Akiona could have a half-hour inside the barn area to find a job. But if she didn’t find one in that time frame, he promised to yank her back outside by the ear.
That was all Akiona needed to hear. She immediately struck up a conversation with an older couple training a small outfit. They gave her a hotwalking job, protectively took her under their wing, and later got her started galloping horses.
“But then life takes over,” Akiona said, matter-of-factly compressing the next three decades of her existence into a single sentence. “I went off to college, got a job, got married, and had kids.”
Settling in Snohomish (“it’s about 40 miles north of Seattle, but light years away if you know what I mean”) to raise a family, Akiona scaled back her racehorse dream to taking in two off-track Thoroughbreds and the possibility of attending the Derby one day. After retiring from 20 years of police work three years ago, she took a part-time job at a local equine hospital, “but I just knew I needed to finish what I started back when I was 16.”
So in 2017, Akiona and her husband, Jon, finally booked that trip to the Derby. They also bought Mill Ridge tour tickets via Horse Country, the central booking outlet for stud farms, nurseries, and equine veterinary clinics that connects tourists with horse destinations in the Bluegrass.
The day the Akionas went to Mill Ridge, Headley Bell, the managing director of his family’s 55-year-old farm, happened to be conducting the tour.
Bell and his son, Price, have been instrumental in the formation and development of the non-profit Horse Country as a way to promote Thoroughbred tourism. Bell told TDN that one or the other of them usually likes to lead the Mill Ridge tours because, “we end up getting more out of the experience than the people on the tour. They’re so gracious and appreciative, and it reminds us how very, very fortunate we are.”
The Akionas and Bell got to talking as they toured the property, and their conversation extended beyond horses, lasting long after other tourists had drifted away.
Akiona went back home, happy she had experienced the Bluegrass. But over the next two months, she couldn’t get Mill Ridge out of her thoughts, because she had the nagging feeling she had left an important question unasked in her interaction with Bell.
Around July 1, Akiona contacted Bell, thanked him again for his kindness during and after the tour, and asked him outright if Mill Ridge ever would consider taking her on as a worker–for free–so she could better learn the business while getting to spend time with young, developing racehorses.
“Let me ponder it,” Bell told her. Akiona thought this might be code for Bell needing time to come up with a tactful deflection.
Yet the Mill Ridge boss phoned back a few days later with an entire itinerary–an equine curriculum, if you will–planned for September.
“And so here I am,” Akiona beamed last Friday, glee evident in her voice.
“I remembered her and her husband, Jon,” Bell said in a separate interview. “He was so accommodating of her. I remember that very, very well. It was just like, ‘This is her world,’ and he was so supportive of her.”
But still, Akiona’s request gave Bell pause. She had horse experience, but stud farms in the Bluegrass can’t just allow any volunteer enthusiast who asks to take a turn at handling stallions, mares, and yearlings during the busy part of the sales season.
“My reaction to her request was sensitivity,” Bell said. “Here was somebody that [the tour experience] touched her like that, and it was the least I could do to try to facilitate her. I remembered meeting her, and she was speaking very much from the heart. I had observed her during the tour, and she was taking it all in, and I was sensitive to that.”
Akiona arrived Sept. 12 and started tagging along with farm manager Marc Richardson, doing turnouts, changing bandages, and holding horses for blacksmithing work. Eventually, she was tasked with handling a yearling filly at the Keeneland sale.
“I actually ended up going into the sales ring, which was just thrilling. I had only seen it live-streamed online. In person it’s completely different. If you look closely at the pictures, my eyes are like saucers because it was so surreal,” Akiona said.
“She was different from the get-go,” said Bell. “She had enough experience–and I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t–to be able to show the yearling with a level of expertise that I felt comfortable with allowing her to go through with the entire process.”
The Mill Ridge crew members who did similar jobs were polite and helpful, even though they initially didn’t know what to make of her.
“First they were kind of like, ‘Who is this chick?'” Akiona recalled with a laugh. “But after a couple of days, they must have heard through the grapevine, and they were like, ‘So you flew out here on your own dime and you’re not getting paid?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ Then they started speaking to each other in Spanish. I only caught a few words, but I know what ‘loco’ means. But they were so kind to me, especially considering how green I was.”
After the sale, Akiona wrapped up her crash course with trips to training barns at Keeneland and a night of racing at Churchill Downs.
Anne Sabatino Hardy, the executive director of Horse Country, said in the two years since the tour-selling service started selling tickets, Akiona’s query and Mill Ridge’s response stand out.
“She’s the first one to my knowledge that’s made that type of request,” Hardy said. “While experiences like Patricia’s are a long way down the road [from being regular Horse Country offerings] it’s kind of cool to see how the members really care about how the guests perceive the experience. They want to invest in it, and it’s been really cool to see them put their time, effort, energy, and dollars into making those things happen with their guests.”
Bell said, “the whole Horse Country experience is going to continue to evolve. We feel that you grow the relationship with the horse starting on the farm. Our goal is to totally allow that opportunity to connect the fan with the horse and understand where the horse comes from and how they’re cared for.”
Bell emphasized that this commitment to agri-tourism isn’t limited to Mill Ridge.
“Claiborne now has a visitor center. I mean, who would have thought Claiborne would have a visitor center?” Bell said. “And Taylor Made has a restaurant and a golf course. WinStar and Darley have trams that shuttle fans when they come through. We’re going to have 40,000 people through [Horse Country-booked tours] this year. What I see occurring in time is the racetracks will do something similar to this. And it can be a worldwide thing, this model, for different countries to utilize and start seeing the impact.”
As for Akiona, she’s already made it known that she’d gladly pay again for a similar immersive experience. “I mean, what’s a dream cost?” she said.
Yet even if a return trip to the Bluegrass doesn’t materialize, Akiona said she has now achieved a sense of fulfillment that extends beyond just checking an item off her bucket list.
“Look, I want to leave no stone unturned when it’s time for me to go to my final resting place,” she said. “The only thing that would have been terrible is if I had this opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it. I guess the moral is ‘It doesn’t hurt to ask.’
“I’ve lived a blessed life. I have such a great family, such a great husband. I’ve got my horses, a little farm, and I’ve got a wonderful job that I absolutely love going to. But there was still that little piece left unfinished. And this experience has made me whole. It’s now come full circle from when I was 16 years old.”