SARATOGA SPRINGS — Ancient storytellers shared mystical tales of sacred and storied horses. And as such legendary accounts spread from generation to generation, listeners were transported on the wings of flying horses and half-human centaurs.
According to legend, the Hopi Indians, who were so drawn to the power and mysticism of horses, spread cotton scarves and kilts along the ground for Spaniard Antonio de Espejo’s horses to pass. Tibetans and other Eastern religions believe that the horse is the link to the human soul. And the Celtic horse goddess Epona, who is escorted by three birds from the Otherworld, is believed to hold the keys to unlock the gates of heaven, restore the dead to life and heal all sadness and pain.
And even in recent times, the legendary feats of such horses as War Admiral, Secretariat, Sea Biscuit and American Pharaoh have touched hearts in such a way that they seem to make dreams possible.
For Georgie Nugent and Giséle Gurley, horses have always been a life balm.
As the two women, who were separated 41 years ago, could only dream of getting a moments’ embrace with the other, their mutual connection to horses has kept them unwittingly together. And for most of the past four decades, they have been traveling within the same horse world, their paths often crisscrossing within miles of each other.
Gurley, whose father was an electrical engineer, has worked as a horse hot walker at Kentucky’s Keeneland racetrack in Lexington for many years. Nugent, an electrical engineer, has lived two furlongs from Saratoga Race Course for many years and is on the board of New York Racing Association.
In 2015, Nugent was at Keeneland for the Breeder’s Cup, barely 10 miles from Gurley’s Versailles, Kentucky home. And while there, Nugent went to a Breeder’s Cup party that Gurley’s friends had all also attended. A few years earlier, Gurley was supposed to work at the Saratoga track, but the horse trainer she was working for changed the plan at the last minute. Gurley is licensed to work racetracks in nine states and has been to all but Saratoga. Nugent travels to the same tracks for races and to tour horse barns.
In perhaps a most serendipitous moment a few years back, the two women posted Facebook profile pictures that, when placed side-by-side, are near mirror reflections of the other, each leaning forward and kissing a horses’ nose.
This cord, that unknowingly connected the two, wound mysteriously through their lives as if preparing them for a reunion four decades in the making.
Georgeanna Nugent, more comfortably known as Georgie, was born in Binghamton, New York. She is 41.
Giséle Gurley was born in Switzerland. She is 60.
Gurley is Nugent’s biological mother.
Tracing the DNA
Nugent was adopted as an infant by Virginia and George Nugent of Vestal, New York. She grew up jumping and showing horses. And while she said her adoptive mom and dad are wonderful, she always wondered about her birth mother.
“Why do I have brown eyes? Why do I have chicken legs? Does she think about me?”
But it wasn’t until her son, Ripley Lynch, now 14, was born that she realized he was the first person she knew who was related to her by blood.
“I started searching back then, but not seriously,” she said during an interview at her Saratoga home on Tuesday night. “In 2014 he was diagnosed with a heart condition that was highly genetic and he had to have heart ablation surgery.”
Then in 2015, Ripley was diagnosed with another serious medical condition and Nugent said doctors were asking about an updated family medical history and she had to say, “I don’t know.”
That spurred the mother of two (she also has a daughter, Maginn Lynch) to find out about her biological family. But New York adoption laws are very restrictive and adoption records are sealed.
“My adoptive Mom went to the adoption agency. I called the Department of Health and we were told that we would have to petition the court and go through a lengthy process,” she said, referring to the New York law that says someone who was adopted cannot have their original birth certificate without a court order. “I thought, ‘What do I do? Do I hire a private investigator?’ At this point, I didn’t even know if my child was going to survive.”
So Nugent had to find a faster way to her past.
“I saw a commercial for ancestry.com DNA,” she said.
According to ancestry.com, the test is relatively new and called an autosomal DNA test. They send a kit with a test tube that must be filled with saliva. About a month later, the results are sent back to the individual. Basically, your entire genome is questioned at more than 700,000 markers that are your genetic code.
Nugent’s results came back with a few clues to her family tree: 50 percent was western European; 15 percent Irish; 11 percent from Great Britain; 6 percent Siberian Peninsula; 4 percent Asian; and 2 percent Italian.
“I was connected to over 100 third and fourth cousins who had also taken the test,” she said. “So I started tracking it. I knew that my parents were 21 and 19 and that my mother was born in Switzerland and that she probably was not living in the U.S. I started seeing trends and noticed three lines that led to the same family.”
“I did this every night and I had a whole road map across the kitchen,” she said. “Eventually, I found my biological father in February 2016.”
But because she was still not sure, she kept researching and finally, on May 18, Nugent’s friend, Gloria Ford, called the man to say she was helping a friend find her biological parents and wondered if he had a girlfriend from Switzerland back in the 1970s. And the man said he did, but a huge fight separated them and he never saw her again. He had no idea Gurley was pregnant or that he had a child from their several months-long encounter.
“He was awestruck,” Nugent said. “He called me about two hours later.”
The father and daughter met at a New York park. Like Nugent, he is an electrical engineer. But because he has been married for more than three decades and has several other children, he said it was not the right time to tell his family.
Still, she said he is a good and gentle man.
“We met and just talked,” Nugent said. “It was wonderful.”
And perhaps best of all, she now had her mother’s name.
The search continued.
“I looked her up on Facebook,” she said.
Finally, Nugent found a family business and a phone number for her biological half-sister Amelia. “I called her and said, ‘this is an old New York friend,’ and she gave me my mother’s phone number.”
On May 20, Georgie Nugent sat on her front porch steps, facing the Saratoga racetrack, and called her mother for the first time.
“I waited for that call for 40 years,” Gurley said by phone on Thursday. “I’ve thought about her every day of my life since then.”
“We’ve talked every day since,” Nugent said.
This past Labor Day weekend, mother and daughter were finally reunited in person after waiting and dreaming and kissing horses for so many years.
It was a reunion of instant embraces, sobs and an arm-wrapping hug that seemed to never end. But in a fitting culmination to the years of being around racetracks, their tight hugs were momentarily interrupted when the racetrack’s bugler’s “Call to Post” was projected over the speakers in the Kentucky airport. “Did you hear the post time called?” Gurley asked, laughing and referring to the cellphone video of their first reunion.
“She’s such an incredible woman,” Gurley said. “I’m waiting for the next moment we can be together.”
Gurley said she hopes to come north soon and will be setting up a barn in Saratoga this summer.
The two are uncannily similar with so many of the same physical traits, mannerisms and behaviors. “We have lived almost identical lives,” Gurley said.
And she freely talks about what happened so many years ago.
“I was 19 and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m so grateful. I don’t regret what I did one bit. She had such a good life.”
Regarding Ripley’s medical history, much to his doctor’s relief, there was no genetic predisposition. “There was no history on either side,” Nugent said, adding that she was respecting her son’s privacy by not revealing the details. “We still have to monitor him.”
Like mothers and daughters often do, Nugent and Gurley got to sit in Gurley’s Kentucky kitchen and just talk, laugh and be together. “It’s like we have always been together,” Nugent said.
Gurley echoed her daughter’s sentiment. “It didn’t feel like I had been away from her for so long. It didn’t feel like we had just met.”
And much like the Celtic horse goddess is said to heal all sadness and pain, the joining of Georgie Nugent and Giséle Gurley through their ever-present connection to horses has done the same.
“I am at peace now,” Nugent said.