By Kathryn McMackin
It’s unusual for Kimberly Gatto to be on the receiving end of questions.
An accomplished author and lifelong horsewoman, Kimberly is more likely to be found in the interviewer’s chair, researching for one of her many non-fiction tales.
She’s written about the world’s most famous racecourse in “Churchill Downs: America’s Most Historic Racetrack.” Her research and writing for “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge” has helped horse lovers cope with and heal from the loss of their four-legged counterparts. And “Sandsablaze” tells the tale of a little American Thoroughbred who carried Buddy Brown from medal finals all the way to the Olympics.
Kimberly’s portfolio reads like a “Who’s Who” of the equestrian publishing realm. Her byline has been found between the pages of The Bloodhorse, The Chronicle of the Horse, “Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul” as well as Sidelines magazine.
There are 15 non-fiction titles bearing her moniker on the cover, dating back to her first release in 1998, “Michelle Kwan: Champion on Ice.” Kimberly’s latest book, “All the King’s Horses: The Equestrian Life of Elvis Presley,” a collaboration with Victoria Racimo, was released in August 2017.
A writer for a financial corporation by day and researcher and award-winning author by night, Kimberly is on the hunt for book number 16.
Born to Write
As a 5-year-old, when most kids were dreaming of becoming crime fighters and veterinarians, Kimberly dreamed of being a writer.
“I was born to do this,” Kimberly said. “Writing was something I always did and always wanted to do. I’m lucky I was able to make it a reality.”
The budding author experimented with poetry at 6 years old, prompting her mother to enroll Kimberly in after-school creative writing classes. Later, Kimberly attended the Boston Latin School, learning Latin, German and Greek, as well as nurturing her love of literature. Her favorite author at that time was William Shakespeare; she eventually named her first horse As You Like It after one of the literary hero’s famous comedies.
She followed up the Boston Latin School with a stint at Wheaton College, where she studied creative writing and psychology. And while her education has certainly supported her writing, Kimberly said nothing has helped her develop her skills more than putting pen to paper.
“I was constantly writing; I was always doing it in my spare time,” she reminisced. I was always writing down my thoughts and writing poetry … I’m a sensitive person and writing is a way for me to express my feelings. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and college as a way to cope with stress.”
A different kind of inspiration is needed to write a book. To call the process of writing a book long and challenging is an understatement. But is it worth it? To see your vision come to life, absolutely, Kimberly said.
It takes Kimberly about a year or two to complete a book. In that time, she locates and restores photographs, seeks out old news clippings, interviews relevant connections and, eventually, writes. She works late into the night and early in the mornings. She needs complete silence, choosing to write from home or the library, away from the distraction of music, TV and her two cats, Coal and Buster. Her third cat, Donovan, lives at the barn.
“It’s just such a passion of mine that once I find a subject that I want to write about, it’s something that I can’t stop thinking about and just want to work on,” she said. “In addition to the actual writing, I truly enjoy the research part of it. It’s almost like a treasure hunt when I start delving into a subject and search for leads and little bits of information to create the story. It really becomes somewhat of an addiction to find out more and bring the particular story to life.”
The Equestrian Life
Kimberly had her first taste of the equestrian life when she was 13 years old, mounted aboard a trail horse at a pal’s birthday party.
One celebratory trail ride was all it took. She started riding lessons shortly after, eventually purchasing a pony, embarking on a show career and poring over the pages of George Morris’ “Hunter Seat Equitation” at night.
It was the little Thoroughbred mare named As You Like It — dubbed Chutney — that turned Kimberly into a horsewoman.
Chutney was the four-legged inspiration behind two of Kimberly’s successful books: “Belair Stud: The Cradle of Maryland Horse Racing,” a tale unearthed during research into Chutney’s bloodlines; and “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge,” developed when Kimberly was preparing herself for the unavoidable loss of her beloved mare. Chutney was also the muse behind “To Chutney, With Love,” Kimberly’s submission to “Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul.”
“The relationship with the horse is most important to me,” Kimberly said. “My horse Chutney was very talented, but you had to be a quiet rider — she was tough and she was hot. Over the years, a few trainers would tell me that Chutney and I were not good together, but the partnership between us was so important to me that I grew to ride her well and consistently.
“Horses have always been my anchor,” Kimberly added. “When something goes wrong, and even when it doesn’t, I find peace just being with them. They love you no matter what; it’s just a pure type of love that makes my life whole. They don’t judge us or create emotional walls like people do. When my father died unexpectedly when I was 18, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘I want to see my horse.’ I knew that she could provide me with the comfort that I needed at that moment, and she did.”
Kimberly boards her two current horses: Flash, a palomino who’s roughly 14 years old, and 23-year-old Grace, an off-track Thoroughbred Kimberly rescued as a 4-year-old. Kimberly rides for pleasure now, and spends nearly every morning and evening caring for and doting on her two horses. “Horses have taught me a lot, but most importantly, they’ve taught me to never give up,” she said.
Writing With Passion
Horses have done more for Kimberly than inspire perseverance, they’ve also served as her muse. “What I’ve found in writing is you need to have a passion for something,” she explained. “The books I write are non-fiction, so you have to immerse yourself in your subject in order to really tell the full story. It’s the passion that drives it.”
Typically, it’s a central muse that inspires Kimberly to begin her research. For “Sandsablaze,” it was an unforgettable photograph of a 1973 AHSA Medal Finals win at Harrisburg that stirred her passion. For “All The King’s Horses,” it was a combination of her fondness for Elvis Presley’s music and her discovery of The King’s horsemanship that sparked her interest.
While the passion kicks off the writing process, it’s the storytelling that keeps Kimberly churning out books.
“I write about the things and subjects I feel should leave a positive impression on the world,” she said. “For me, I like to make the people who read my work happy. That’s the most important thing to me, and also to do justice to the different stories I feel need to be told.”
Belair Stud, an American Thoroughbred racing stable and breeding farm based in Maryland, was the subject matter of what Kimberly described as a story that needed to be shared in “Belair Stud: The Cradle of Maryland Horse Racing.” Her hard work presenting the story of a stable that owned two Triple-Crown-winning horses has garnered her some acclaim, including three different awards.
“There’s only one small parcel of the original farm that remains of the estate — the rest was sold off and developed,” she remarked. “I felt like all the history of the farm was forgotten as well. The awards are wonderful, but my goal was just to share the incredible story that a lot of people didn’t know.”
Calls From the Top
Success can be measured any number of ways, but for Kimberly, it’s not about book sales and awards, although she’s achieved both those things. Most recently, “Belair Stud” was the recipient of the 2018 Prince George’s Award of Excellence, “All The King’s Horses” won the Whinney Award at the 2017 Equus Film Festival and “Sandsablaze” was recognized with a Feathered Quill Silver Medal in 2015.
Instead, she tastes her success in the notes from touched readers, the phone calls from icons and catching glimpses of her stories sitting on the shelves of the Churchill Downs gift shop.
“George Morris called me after I sent him the manuscript of Sandsablaze to read,” she remembered. “I almost fainted when I answered the phone — I grew up idolizing this man. But you always hear how tough he is, so I thought Oh no.”
He loved it. So did William Steinkraus and Michael Matz, who were also idols of a young Kimberly.
It’s tough for Kimberly to choose a book she’s most proud of, as each story comes to life in its own way. But she holds “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge” close to her heart. It’s one she re-read herself to heal following the death of a horse.
“It was a tough one to write, but it was worth it,” she said. “This book means so much to me because it helped so many people cope with losing a horse. We’re thinking of republishing it because it’s out of print now and a lot of people still ask me where they can get it. I’ve gotten so many letters from people who said this book has helped them. You can’t ask for more than that.”