In the predawn hours of Dec. 26, 1971, five-year-old Meg Rapagna—”pronounced like lasagna,” she would explain, many years later—awakened to the sound of her father’s voice, and then to the realization that her family’s home was in flames. The Rapagnas lived in a comfortable two-story house on Arch Street in Delran, New Jersey, a suburb along the Delaware River 15 miles northeast of Philadelphia; there were parents Robert and Judy, and their three young children—Meg, four-year-old Lynne, and three-year-old Robert Jr. Twenty-four hours earlier, the family had opened presents next to the Christmas tree in what was in those times called a rec room. Meg’s favorite gift that year was a plastic Breyer model horse, which she had slept with on Christmas night and snatched up to hold close when her father called to her. She loved horses even back then.
Meg’s dad picked her up and rushed down the stairs and out the front door. This is what Meg remembers of those moments, which were unlike any that most children will—or should—experience: “My father said, ‘Go run next door, and get them to call the fire department.’ There were no cell phones, of course, or anything like that. So I went next door, to my best friend’s house, Carl Heck, and I knocked on the door and told them to call the fire department.”
In a story published on Dec. 27 in the Courier-Post of Camden, New Jersey, Charles Heck, Carl’s father, said that Meg’s knocking on the front door awakened the family dog, which in turn awakened him. It was 6 a.m. Heck said he opened the door and found Meg standing on the stoop, and also saw that flames had engulfed the Rapagnas’ house. Heck told the newspaper that he called the fire department and then ran to grab a ladder. Meanwhile, recalls Meg, “My father ran back into the house to get my mother and brother and sister.” Meg had her own second-floor bedroom; her siblings shared one down the hall, also on the second floor.
Meg remembers walking to the curb and sitting down with her toy horse. Firefighters comforted her. “My father stayed in the house for a long time,” she says. “And when he came out, it was very traumatic.” According to the Courier-Post, another neighbor, William Chappel, found Robert Rapagna sitting on the curb, hugging Meg and crying. “He was saying, ‘I can’t get them out! I can’t get them out!'” Chappell is quoted as telling the paper. Later that morning, after the flames had been extinguished, firemen would find 27-year-old Judy Rapagna’s body on the first floor of the gutted building, next to the bodies of her two youngest children. The fire had started on the first floor of the house, possibly in a new television set, and the floor beneath the children’s bedroom had collapsed as Judy tried to gather the kids and get them to safety.
In just minutes, a family of five had become a family of two—a 36-year-old ex-Marine and his kindergarten daughter, one old enough to know that his life was forever altered, the other much too young to process it all. A father, cast adrift; and a daughter, left with the clothes on her back and a little toy horse, alone in the winter dawn.
On Friday afternoon at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, a two-year-old filly named Simply Ravishing will go to post as one of the favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, a $2 million race that brings together many of the best two-year-old fillies in the world. She has started three times since early August for trainer/part-owner Ken McPeek and won all three, the last two by an aggregate margin of almost 13 lengths.
Among the few attendees to watch her race at Keeneland will be the former Meg Rapagna, now 54 years old, almost half a century gone since the fire that changed the course of her life. She is Meg Levy now, the mother of three grown sons and the founder and owner of Bluewater Sales, a horse consignment company and farm in Lexington. She will be present because four years after the death of her mother and siblings, her dad bought her a horse and then horses became her lifeline. She will be present because a college boyfriend took her home to Kentucky and showed her the thoroughbred world, and she stayed in it. She will be present because almost four years ago she took a detour on a birthday drive, paid $500 to rescue a nine-year-old mare named Four Wishes from abandonment, bred her to a colt named Laoban and produced Simply Ravishing. She will be there because, in a life interrupted and shaped by an unspeakable tragedy, she says, “Horses saved my life.”
For a while now, the most powerful narrative in racing has been its impending demise at the hands of humans who would allow horses to die. To die by running too often. Die by running on unsafe tracks. Die by running pumped full of illegal drugs. Die by neglect. Die by cruelty. Die by greed. It is a narrative that assigns guilt to a nebulous industry built on the backs of nefarious humans who treat horses as expendable commodities and not as living creatures, and escape due scrutiny because of racing’s lack of central administration. And let’s be honest: There’s more than a little truth in every one of those accusations.
But that narrative is also incomplete. The sport is full of people who care for racehorses with the type of compassion humans usually reserve for each other, and for whom the safety of the animal is more important than the thickness of the bankroll. For whom horses can be not just a line item in a ledger, but also a companion. Meg Levy is one of those people: A woman saved by horses who now saves them.
In the days after the tragic fire in 1971, Meg and her father, who owned a trucking company, moved in with family members in New Jersey. They had lost everything, both material and ethereal. Barely a year later, they moved to Florida together. “I think he just wanted to start over,” says Meg. There was a settlement from a lawsuit that the family filed against the manufacturer of the television that might have started the fire. That helped. Robert Rapagna went into commercial real estate; Meg pestered him to let her a get a horse. A real one. Eventually Robert caved. Meg remembers him as a stoic man, who never expected to be raising a little girl alone. “You can imagine how tough it must have been on him,” says Meg. “Things were different back then. There was very little in the way of support. I think he had just had enough of me asking.”
Meg started riding at the Burt Reynolds Ranch, near her and Robert’s home in Jupiter, on Florida’s East Coast. There was a steep learning curve. Robert bought Meg a rambunctious three-year-old named Dee Dee, on the very flawed, but well-intentioned premise that the young girl and the young horse could grow up together; instead the horse sent Meg to the hospital twice after falls. “We persevered together,” says Meg. She graduated to equestrian horses and became a good rider. But that was not the most important part.
Meg carried the scars of the fire into her teens; the horses were a salve. “I had been through a terrible trauma,” says Meg. “But I was inside myself. Seen and not heard. And my father was a strict man. It was all very hard. Now, we see horses used to help people with PTSD, children with disabilities, any kind of trauma survivors. I didn’t understand it at the time, but that was me. I would sit on my horse and just cry. They were my friends. That’s what I mean when I say horses saved my life.”
Life, however, was not finished with Meg. Just shy of her 18th birthday, her father—who had remarried and fathered two more children—suffered a heart attack at home; Meg was in the house at the time and followed the ambulance to the hospital, where her father was pronounced dead at the age of 48. Meg finished high school and enrolled at SMU in Dallas. She brought two horses with her to Texas. “They were my family,” she says. “Truly, my only family. People did not get therapy back then, they just didn’t. But I had my horses.” She went to football games at Texas Stadium and watched SMU teams that won a lot of games and also incurred the NCAA’s “death penalty” for egregious recruiting violations.
Meg dated a college boy from Kentucky, and after graduation, he introduced her to the thoroughbred world; she visited Secretariat at Claiborne Farm. The bluegrass became her home, and she worked breaking yearlings and prepping horses for sales. “It was a revelation,” says Meg. “I found this entire industry where I could work with horses I loved, have a great time, and get paid.” She married one man who worked in the horse business in 1989, and together they had a son they named Ryder; the marriage ended in divorce in 1992. She later met Mike Levy at a horse sale; his father, Bob Levy, had been a prominent horse owner—among his runners was 1987 Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice (who ended Alysheba’s Triple Crown bid). They have two sons together—Tyler, 21, a student at Washington & Lee; and Sam, who attend Meg’s alma mater, SMU.
In 1999, Meg started her business on a tiny, 24-acre parcel in the heart of Kentucky horse country. She named it Bluewater, in homage to the Atlantic Ocean of her youth, but also for the small creek at the back of the property, because in lore, horse farms are named for some distinguishing feature of the property. In 21 years, Bluewater has grown to more than 250 acres. Its core business is consignment, in which a farm owner buys or breeds horses, prepares them for sale and profits off those sales. Bluewater has sold more $250 million in stock, including dozens of winners of Grade I races and recent Breeders Cup winners Belvoir Bay (2019), Accelerate (2018) and Shamrock Rose (also 2018). It is a very successful business.
However, business was only tangentially in play when Meg climbed into her Audi SUV on the morning of Feb. 7, 2017, her 51st birthday. She was ostensibly headed across town to a horse sale, but instead detoured to Heritage Farm, whose owner had placed a Craigslist ad selling three mares abandoned by their owner, one a nine-year-old in foal and with a weanling on the ground. The owner had sent the four horses to Heritage four months earlier and was $8,000 in arrears in payments, a debt that few small farms can float. The mare in foal was named Four Wishes. And Meg is the kind of person who brings home strays.
Meg walked into the broodmare paddock and stood a few feet away from Four Wishes. “To me, she just looked kind of pitiful,” said Meg. “She was off on her own and I could tell that she was…. not that she was abused, but she just looked a lot thinner than the others, and like she needed some TLC.”
(Chad Mendell, the owner of Heritage Farm, pushed back on that description. “I’m not saying she was shined and ready for the sales,” says Mendell. “But she was not a bag of bones or anything like that. She was a healthy horse.”). Neither Meg nor Mendell suggests that Four Wishes’ life was in imminent danger. “It’s not like she was headed to the glue factory, to use that term,” says Meg.
Mendell says, “If you’re talking about sending her to slaughter, probably not from us. That’s not something we would do. We’ve got 30 head on the farm right now that are fat and happy and the owners haven’t seen them in five years. They just retire here and get to live out their lives.” The owners Mendell describes are paying their bills; Four Wishes’ owner was not. Mendell says he would have found a home for Four Wishes, but most likely outside the thoroughbred industry.
There was more in play for Meg. “I know this sounds goofy, but I just have always liked a certain eye on a mare,” she says. “I was in that paddock, and she was by herself, and she turned around and looked at me. I saw something. It’s corny. What can I say?” A little girl and her horse. Meg paid Mendell $500 to take Four Wishes off his hands and off his ledger. She called her farm manager, and she drove to Heritage and loaded Four Wishes, in foal, onto a horse trailer. By nightfall, she was bedded down at Bluewater.
From a business standpoint, it was an impulse purchase. “I had nothing commercial in my head when I bought her,” says Meg. “Her qualifications didn’t make her commercially appealing. I just wanted to give her a home.” Four Wishes had been foaled in 2008 and ran five times in maiden races (for non-winners) in 2010 and 2011. She never finished better than seventh in any race. But it’s often mares who raced little, and often slowly, who make successful broodmares, while those who were brave and fast are less successful at reproducing themselves.
At Bluewater, Four Wishes recaptured good health. She was bred in 2017, but lost that foal in delivery. A year later she was sent to upstate New York and bred to Laoban, a promising young stallion. The resulting foal is Simply Ravishing, who was broken and prepped for sale back at Bluewater, often under the eye of Ryder Finney, 29, Meg’s eldest son. “She was always special,” says Finney. “Smartest yearling I’ve ever been around. We sell lots of babies with all the tools to be great, but it’s how they’re made upstairs that separates the good ones from the special ones.”
There would be one more hiccup; en route to being offered for sale as a yearling, in the summer of 2019, Simply Ravishing kicked the back wall of her transport van and incurred a fracture in her right hind foot. She recovered, and 13 months ago, McPeek, a veteran Kentucky trainer who trains this year’s Preakness winner, Swiss Skydiver, was part of a group that bought Simply Ravishing at a yearling sale for $50,000. She won her first race, at Saratoga, on Aug. 2, and most recently won the Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 20. She is 5-2 on the morning line for Friday’s race, a genuine threat. Meg says she will watch the race from a box at Keeneland, “but I’ll be so nervous I’ll be hiding on the floor.”
Back at the farm, Four Wishes is in foal, increasingly well regarded as a broodmare, healthy and strong. For her, the journey has been 45 months from abandonment to stardom.
For Meg, it has been much longer: Nearly a half century from tragedy to survival, from a toy horse to live ones, from therapy to fulfillment and elation. From a lifeline to a life.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.