SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — He is a sight, Southern Phantom, with a face as white as a bedsheet and a blue eye to match his brown one. His tail is all Spice Girl, pony-tailed with blonde streaks. His legs? All four of them seemingly sport ivory knee-high socks.
And Southern Phantom’s nature? Sweet as the sugar cubes held out in the open hands of the many visitors at Barn 46 here who just have to see this unusual colt with their own eyes.
Is Southern Phantom fast? Yes. No. Really it is to be determined later — on Saturday, hopefully, when he races for only the second time.
In his debut last month, Southern Phantom broke slowly out of the gate, followed the field for a half mile and then closed with a rush to finish fifth in a field of 10 horses.
“He was just going through the motions,” his jockey, Joel Rosario, said of Southern Phantom’s lackadaisical start. “Then he kind of figured out what it was all about. He didn’t know what he was doing at the beginning.”
Yes, some tickets were ripped up, but Southern Phantom was mostly forgiven. It is hard to stay mad at a social media sensation whose unusual look has been talked about since he was born on June 5, 2016 at the central Kentucky farm of his breeder and owner, Southern Equine Stables.
His sire, Bodemeister, was a speedy sort who finished second in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and had a white blaze on his face. But that mark was nothing compared with the chrome trimmings of his tie-dyed son. Southern Phantom’s trainer Eric Guillot also was in charge of the racing career of his mother, Out for Revenge.
“She was a bay with not a drop of white on her,” he said. “I had his brother, too, a horse named Stronger, and he had a dot of white on one of his legs. That’s it.”
So what happened? Guillot, a Cajun famous for his backside crawfish boils and his penchant for hanging voodoo dolls in his barn to signify a hex on a rival horse or trainer, sells a theory about a mishap in the breeding shed. In his telling, the teaser stallion brought in to prepare the mare for Bodemeister was an Appaloosa.
“That old boy fell in love with ole Out for Revenge, jumped the fence and cut Bodemeister out of the deal,” Guillot said, his singsong patois helping to make it plausible. “That’s why Phantom looks like a real pretty paint horse.”
No matter. The funky looking colt was a hit as soon as the first photos of him went viral. Bloodhorse.com, an industry trade news organization, held a naming contest but closed it after only four days because it attracted more than 3,000 entries.
A Louisiana native, Mary Beth Woods, was the winner after being struck by how the foal’s white face looked like the mask worn by the misunderstood genius in the musical “Phantom of the Opera.” She combined it with the “Southern” that the colt’s owner, another Louisianian, Michael Moreno, chose for his racing operations.
All that chrome, however, has made life for Southern Phantom complicated. His skin is sensitive, and he requires sun screen when outside. His mismatched eyes are sensitive, too, and are often hidden behind makeshift sunglasses fashioned from a mask in order to keep flies out.
And to be fair, Southern Phantom is not for everyone. When the colt appeared on the racetrack on Sunday, some people recoiled.
“Creepy,” one said.
“I can’t look,” said another. “He’s haunting.”
Guillot just shrugs. “Sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand,” he said.
He is among those who does not understand why Southern Phantom looks the way he does. “I know nothing about genetics,” he said.
But he knows horses are part of his own DNA.
In 1898, his great, great-uncle, Poufette Dalcabre, owned horses as well as a racetrack in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country. The Dalcabres and Guillots have made fast and slow horses, pretty and not so pretty ones, part of their fabric ever since.
“This little horse makes people happy,” Guillot said. “He makes me happy.”
Overlooked in the fuss over the looks of Southern Phantom may be the talent the colt has been demonstrating in the mornings. On Sunday morning, he zipped through four furlongs in 47.87, the fastest time of the day for the distance.
“He’s going to win some races,” Guillot said with a smile. “When he does, watch out, I’ll get my voodoo dolls out and no one will be safe.”