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Saving Grace

TFH Saving GraceBy Margaret Guthrie, The Blood-Horse |

It’s early January with record cold temperatures in the 20s, according to the local bank sign. Every horse at the South Jersey Thoroughbred Rescue and Adoption farm is blanketed, actually double-blanketed. They appear comfortable, looking healthy and happy, standing out under the weak sun, munching carrots and just being horses. Little do they know how fortunate they are simply to be alive.

These are racing’s bread-and-butter horses, the ones that fill track cards day after day, season after season. They have made it safely off the track from Philadelphia Park thanks to the Turning for Home program, which transitions those that are capable toward second careers. The program primarily sends horses to two farms in New Jersey and the New England Thoroughbred Retirement Center in New Hampshire, with more serious rehab cases going to a smattering of other farms in the region.

First Shot, a small chestnut gelding who during a lengthy racing career hit the board 53 times, some of those stakes wins, is in a paddock by himself. First Shot, a Florida-bred by Unreal Zeal-Nicole Rene, by Tanthem, ran in 96 races, winning 23. He raced for the most part at Suffolk Downs but finished his career at Philadelphia Park where his trainer, Herman Kinchen, put him in the Turning for Home program.

Kinchen said he bought First Shot for $5,000 and “he was a nice little horse with a lot of heart. He tried hard most of the time and made money.” Asked about the program, Kinchen said, “I like it a lot; it’s great. I’ve been in this business all my life and you have horses in your heart, so it’s good to have a place for them to go when they’re done racing.”

Besides First Shot, Kinchen has put two fillies in the program. “One of them didn’t want to, or couldn’t, run and the other had a little knee on her. She’s on a farm down in Virginia.”

Also among the 25 horses on the South Jersey farm’s 100 acres are Our Wildcat and Gone Campin. Gone Campin was supposedly suffering from bad ankles but wasn’t behaving as though they bothered her much, even though they looked as though they should. Despite the hard ground, she was moving around briskly and putting her feet down with authority. Placed in the program by her last trainer, Bill Hedus, Gone Campin, by Forest Camp-Honor Delilah, by Honor Grades, raced 24 times at nine different tracks.

“This program is a godsend,” said Hedus. “Gone Campin was a sweetheart to train; I only wish I’d had her before her ankles got so bad. She was a willing horses, but toward the end you could see she was protecting herself and finally she just didn’t want to do it anymore. I talked to her owner, and he agreed to retire her. Without this program, what do you do when a horse is done competing? It’s a huge problem for trainers, and this program is a big relief. The horses give you their all, so you need to try and take care of them when they’re done.”

Our Wildcat was in the pasture where the more permanent residents live, the ones that will never be ridden again or used for any other purpose. Our Wildcat stood off to one side, just watching as the others moved in for the carrots. Turning for Home program director Erin Hurley said he prefers to be off by himself, so we took the carrots to him and, like a gentleman, he took each one carefully and chewed thoughtfully. His modest and gentlemanly demeanor hides the heart of a real competitor, Our Wildcat, by Forest Wildcat out of Our Pesaridan, by Affirmed, raced 71 times with 14 wins, nine seconds, and 11 thirds, winning $486,528. His career ended in the $5,000 claiming ranks. He had six different trainers in his eight years of campaigning. His last trainer, Patricia Farro, put him in Turning for Home.

“He was a very classy old horse,” she said. “I put him in the program because of his feet and ankles, and he was just old. I bet I’ve put 10 horses in the program. It’s wonderful, that program. Before it, I used to wonder and worry about all the horses that passed through my hands – what happened to them, where did they end up? Now I know, and it’s so great to be able to tell my owners about their horses and what they’re doing now.”

Going from horse to horse, feeding carrots and talking about the program, Hurley explained, “The adoption process starts with a potential adopter contacting our organization, maybe from seeing the horse on our Web site. I conduct an initial interview, trying to establish a preliminary idea of general qualities that this particular person is looking for. This allows me to begin to narrow down which of the current available horses we have might potentially work for this person. I like to know the discipline, height, age, gender, and conformation specifics that this person is looking for in their future horse. Some racetrack injuries preclude our horses from certain future disciplines, and it is important for us to know exactly the adopter’s intended use. I also ride each horse, which helps me to see how they feel under saddle.

“When a horse is selected and the adopter is approved, we spend time discussing feeding, trainer, deworming, farrier schedules, vaccinations, and any other necessary health issues particular to the horse. The horse’s routine and turn-out schedule are important. We try to make the transition to a new placement as stress-free as possible by trying to keep things as close to the same as possible, meaning same feed, same time spent in turn-out, and the same initial time spent under saddle.”

As she rubbed Our Wildcat’s neck, Hurley added, “We spend a letter within the first week to follow up and detail the importance of keeping us posted on any changes in address or horse location if the horse is in a boarding situation. A veterinarian form gets completed by the adopter’s vet. This is required bi-annually. We require our adopters to keep in contact with us and send pictures and update us on a regular basis.”

Barbara Luna, the director of Turning for Home at Philadelphia Park, said that a year and a half since its inception, the operation is nearly 330 horses adopted out to new homes. Luna and Hurley know where every one of those horses is, who owns them, and what they’re doing.

One approved for adoption, the adopter must sign a contract with SJTRA that stipulates right of first refusal if the new owner should need to or decide to sell the horse. In addition, the contract states that the adopter will never send the horse to auction or allow it to be sold for slaughter. SJTRA will take back any horse that doesn’t suit the new owner for any reason.

Any questions relating to the horse’s past record or veterinary issues are referred to one of the veterinary volunteers, Drs. Patty Hogan or Tom Lurito. They can tell a potential adopter exactly what to expect from the horse and what the horse is physically capable of doing.

Luna, whose office is a beehive of activity, said that knowing where the horses are and how they’re doing is of paramount importance. “The first couple of rescue operations I worked with when we started the program made me nuts,” she said. “It took me weeks to find out where the horses were, who they were with, and what kind of shape they were in. That’s simply unacceptable.”

Reality and emotion can sometimes clash when dealing with infirm animals.

“When we first started the program,” Luna said, “one of the trainers came to us with a big, beautiful, black mare. She had fractured her knee and was in her stall all tucked up with pain. We send the X-rays up to Patty (Hogan, the program’s orthopedic surgeon), and she said she wanted to see the mare. The trainer said if the mare had to be put down, he understood and would pay for it. Patty looked at the horse and the X-rays and said she should be put down; there was nothing that could be done. The next morning she called me and said she couldn’t sleep all night, thinking about the horse. ‘I’m going to operate and fix her,’ she told me. Well, she did. The mare recovered and is now in a pasture on a farm in North Carolina. I have a lady down there who takes mares that will make good broodmares, and she breeds them to an Oldenburg stallion to get good show foals. She sends me pictures of them all the time.”

As Luna is telling the story, she is constantly interrupted by her cell phone, by people stopping by to pick up or drop off forms, or by others making dates to have horses coming into the program photographed. A trainer, Carlos Guerrero, comes in to see a photograph of a filly he placed in the program that is now on a farm in North Carolina. Peering over Luna’s shoulder at the computer screen, he marveled, “Their dog is the same color as the horse.” He turned from the screen and said, “I like to give Barbara a horse with something left so they have a good life. After all, they feed me.”

Luna said there are several keys to the program’s success. One is having a person at the track full-time working with horsemen to move horses off the grounds quickly. Crucial is the support of horsemen, jockeys, and racetrack management, who combine to fund the operation.

“You can do this anywhere if you have a dependable source of funding,” Luna noted. “The horsemen here are great about it. When they win a race, they’re liable to throw in an extra grand. Each racetrack can take care of its own, and several other tracks have called us and are interested in starting their own programs.”

Mike Ballezzi is the executive director of the horsemen’s association at Philadelphia Park. “A horse that’s rescued must be rescued for life,” he stated. “The horse must be protected at all costs. It takes follow-up to make it work. That’s why Barbara’s so good at this: She’s detail-oriented; she follows up, holds their hands, talks them through it. I knew when I came up with the idea that it had to be well-organized and well-run from the very beginning. I was lucky to find Barbara. You need the right people to make it work.

“No one in our racing community turned us down; management started us off with a commitment of $50,000 a year,” continued Ballezzi. “Then the horsemen agreed to pay $10 a start for every horse that enters the starting gate. What this proved to us is if you give the average horseman the opportunity to get involved in a program like this, they will take it.” Ballezzi added that the jockeys volunteered to be part of the program, offering to donate $10 for every win and $5 for every placing.

Joe Wilson, chief operating officer of Philadelphia Park, added, “I hate to read those articles in the trade journals about racehorses off the track being found in kill pens or at auction where they end up in slaughterhouses headed for somebody’s dinner table.

“A lot of people in this business feel that only three people are responsible for the horse: the breeder, the owner, and the trainer. We understand that somebody’s got to be responsible and that’s why we help out. Whenever we have an event at the track, we have a display for them (Turning for Home).” Asked if management intends to continue its annual $50,000 donation to the program, Wilson said, “Yes, for the foreseeable future. I can’t promise forever, but for right now, absolutely.”

Tony Black, the leading rider at Philadelphia Park for many years, worked with two other riders, Victor Molina and Harry Vega, to form the Philadelphia Park Jockeys Association. Its primary goal is to utilize some of the money coming to the riders from the casinos to give jockeys health insurance. “But then,” Black said, “this program came along and how could we not be a part of it? These horses give us our living.” So he talked to the jockeys and “almost everybody was on board immediately; we only had to work out the details. When you think about it, it’s not much, but it adds up.”

Black added, “For years I used to worry and wonder what happened to the horses I rode after they left the track. Now, it’s great knowing they’re going to be OK and that we’re part of that.”

All of this provides Luna with an income stream of about $15,000 a month, meaning she can move 10-12 horses into the program every 30 days with a two-week waiting list. “I could take more if I had the money,” she said. The shipping companies give her a discount, but it still costs them money to move the horses, so they can’t do it for free. If a horse entering the program is already on a farm somewhere, the horse must be returned to Philadelphia Park for shipment to the SJTRA farm at the owner’s expense. The program recently opened a second facility – Stillpond Farm in Moorestown, NJ, that will allow it to expand its equine numbers.

Trainers who stable at Philadelphia Park for six months a year are eligible to participate in Turning for Home. The horse needs foal papers, proof of a negative Coggins test, a Horse Intake form, and a Sold Without Pedigree form. If the horse is retiring due to injury, the trainer also submits the veterinary evaluation and all X-rays and ultrasounds. No intact males are accepted until they are gelded, the only exception being a horse on stall rest, who will be gelded at a later date at the owner’s expense. The Jockey Club removes the horse from its registry so the horse can never race again nor can the horse be used for Thoroughbred breeding purposes, although mares like Gone Campin can have a future as a broodmare for show horses.

If a horse is being retired due to injury, Luna calls on Dr. Steve McBride, the veterinary advisor to the program whose practice is located on the grounds of Philadelphia Park. “A lot of these horses are my patients, so I know about them,” said McBride. “If they’re not, Barbara will give me their X-rays and ultrasounds, I put them on my computer, and I can tell her what the horse might reasonably by expected to be able to do in a new life.

“When they were starting the program, they asked me to be the veterinary advisor and I agreed. It has evolved and is now a success.”

A horse being retired due to an injury that can be repaired is most often referred to Hogan of Hogan Equine at Fair Winds Farm. Hogan is an equine orthopedic surgeon and gives unstintingly of her time and expertise. “I’ve worked with various rescues for years, and many of these programs are limited by the amount of veterinary care they are able to afford,” she noted. “I knew Barbara Luna (before the program started), and I volunteered to look at any films to help get horses placed.

“I donate my time and materials, so I can do what is normally a $3,500 operation for $500 and that helps the program take more of these horses with chips and condylar fractures. I am frustrated by my profession that they don’t do more (for these programs). It doesn’t cost me money to take X-rays.”

Both Hurley and Luna are quick to say that without Hogan’s devotion to the program, the number of successful adoptions would be much lower.

Sara Cifelli is an adopter of one horse from the program and is looking for her second. “Barbara Luna was very helpful to me; she listened to what kind of horse I was looking for and then kept me updated when horses that fit my description came into the program. They made things very easy for me, by taking the horse from the track to the farm in South Jersey and introducing her to being turned out in the field again after a long time in a stall. I picked her up a day or two later and she’s been wonderful ever since. Barbara and SJTRA were really patient in trying to help me find the right horse to match what I wanted to do, and even in her first season playing polocrosse, the horse did better than I could have ever expected and played at the highest level in the country at polocrosse nationals this past October in Missouri.”

Somewhere out there is a lucky child who soon will be introduced to the wonderful world of horses by a gentle gelding currently named First Shot. Because of Luna, Hurley, the volunteers, the veterinarians, and all the people who support their work with money, time, and expertise, Gone Campin, First Shot, Our Wildcat, and their peers from Philadelphia Park have a future that is assured and secure. And somewhere, maybe already in the program, is another small filly or mare who has polocrosse in her future instead of a trip across the border to a slaughterhouse.

Read the original article, which features additional photos, here.

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