THW: Farewell, Mr. Franco

THE HOARSE WHISPERER By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 28 December 2011, Wednesday

Farewell, Mr. Franco

It was with deep sorrow that the Metropolitan Association of Race Horse Owners (MARHO) announced last December 22 the demise, early that morning, of director Jose Mari Franco, a long-time and well-respected horseowner and breeder.

Mr. Franco had long suffered from cancer, and he fought the disease bravely, going for treatment here and abroad. He held himself with dignity and courage at all stages of his illness. He never complained; all he’d say, when I’d ask him over the phone how he was, would be “I’m not fine, Jenny,” and heave a sigh.

Then he’d change the topic – had all his foals for the year been nominated to the MARHO Cup program? Was he in arrears in his dues? (He never was.) He was very punctilious about his duties as a MARHO director; he attended all the Board meetings until he got too ill.

He loved most to talk about his horses. He didn’t like to talk about his health; he’d steer the topic to his horses, his ranch, his new foals or stallion or mares, the races, the track condition, and work himself up into a state of indignation over one or the other. He had a great concern for the Thoroughbred industry. “Check on, it, Jenny,” he’d say, or “Write that letter,” and I’d reply, yes, sir, I will. And I did.

He loved visiting his thoroughbred breeding ranch in Batangas and spent as much time as he could there. It relaxed and calmed him; the quiet, the fresh air, the long languid lunches with his farm veterinarian Dr. Fritz Ocampo, as his horses nickered and neighed softly in the background.

Mr. Franco was tall, perhaps six feet, large around the belly, with jowls of good-nature that made him seem like Santa Claus or some other benevolent Caucasian saint (he was of Spanish extraction and spoke the language at home), until he got sick and the illness sucked his life, slowly, his frame shrinking and collapsing on itself.

Yet the last time I saw him, November 20, the Championship Night of the San Miguel Beer-MARHO Cup Swift Sixteen event, he held himself erect as ever, though walking slowly, very slowly, along the halls of Santa Ana Park in Naic. He refused help; he was like that.

We were all so happy to see him there, knowing what we knew, and how little time he had left. We were grateful that he chose to spend some of it with us, at the track watching the MARHO races.

The same roguish twinkle he always had was in his eye, and it sparkled all the more brighter after he received the trophy for breeder in the MARHO Sprint, after that speedy gray Heaven Sent, out of his racemare Kiss and Run, won and won decisively. I can still hear his laugh as he held that trophy in his arms.

“Jenny, have you congratulated Mr. Franco?” asked MARHO president emeritus Aristeo “Putch” Puyat after that race. Mr. Franco’s contemporary and his friend, Mr. Puyat had traveled with him abroad to buy horses at auctions.

One time Mr. Franco brought back a stallion, Mr. Sutter, who went on to sire local champions such as Go Army. Mr. Puyat was proud of that. He was proud of all the horses Mr. Franco chose and brought back to the country to improve our bloodstock, proud of the horses he bred.

He was very proud of his friend, who owned the island-born filly Copper Dew, that set and still holds the record for the mile at 1:38; who owned the “Spanish” horses – among them Spanish Eyes, Spanish Ruler, and Spanish Drums, the latter a veteran who had slowed in past two years of his career and was not expected to do well anymore but won as a longshot the night of the day Mr. Franco died, surprising the jockey, my ex-husband Oyet Alcasid, who didn’t expect Spanish Drums to win, but when he did, knew that this was the horse’s farewell to his departed owner.

So I congratulated Mr. Franco. He bent over a bit as I tiptoed to give him the usual beso on the cheek that he insisted on each time we met. This time he chucked my chin and smiled as he turned his back and walked away.

That was the last time I saw him.

I hope that where he is, there are ranches, wide spaces of green grass under blue skies and cotton clouds, where magnificent foals with shiny chestnut, bay, roan, and black coats gallop in paddocks and munch apples fallen down from trees.

I hope Mr. Franco is walking among the horses, nuzzling their cheeks with his, holding his palms out to be licked by curious tongues as he tugs a mane here and smooths a tail there.

And I hope that where he is, they have racing, so he can watch horses run, as his spirit runs with them, free now from pain, free now to race and catch the wind. ***

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