Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets, Installment 8

Celtic Trick
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

I was out of town one Saturday morning in August of 2006, so a couple of my volunteers made the usual track visit without me. At the end of the morning, a trainer noticed them leaving the backside and hurriedly motioned them over. This particular owner/trainer didn’t work with the CANTER-Michigan program – he didn’t list his horses with us, and we never received any of his slow or injured horses. We did have previous dealings with him, however. A horse of his, located at the off-site training center, was noticed by a CANTER volunteer to be severely underweight and very lame. After verifying the shocking condition of the horse, a CANTER board member reported her findings. This, we believe, alienated the already surly trainer and left us unable to help any of his horses. But on this particular morning, he wanted a horse of his gone and CANTER, it seemed, was his only option.

His first priority was confirming that CANTER would purchase his horse. Only after he was certain he would receive $250 for the horse did he begin to give the details. He wasn’t sure of the horse’s name – “it’s Trick something, or something Trick” – “but he’s hurt already, and the damn thing hasn’t even raced yet!” While walking away from the volunteers, he told them he would be moving the horse to the receiving barn and that he must be picked up that very afternoon. I was alerted to the situation minutes later and since I was on my way home, I could get to the track by mid-afternoon. I asked for the horse’s Jockey Club papers to be left at the guard shack as most everyone would have left the track by the time I arrived.

As expected, the backside was a ghost town when I pulled in with my trailer. The injured horse was alone…he was the only horse occupying a stall in the huge receiving barn. He was standing at the stall door and glanced my way when I approached, but my relief that he hadn’t retreated to a corner was short-lived. His body was wet with sweat, his eyes were glazed, and his left knee was swollen and hot. My experiences over the years had taught me to take pain medication along, so I quickly gave the suffering horse a dose. As I stood with him, waiting for the medication’s effects, I took in his surroundings. The stall’s dirt floor was uneven and hard. There was no hay and more importantly, no water left for him on a sweltering 90-degree day. Completely alone, in pain, without even the most basic of necessities…and the one person responsible for his welfare simply pocketed his $250 and walked away.

Radiographs announced the devastating news –a collapsed slab fracture of the left knee and chip fractures in the right. He was humanely euthanized within the hour of the diagnosis.

He was a 2-year-old. He was a beautiful, dark bay colt. He was delicate, still growing and maturing. He lived for and was destroyed by the racing industry. He was Celtic Trick. His owner didn’t know his name…please, let us never forget it.

Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets, Installment 7

Royal Finder
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

Bred and owned by a prominent racing family, Royal Finder took his first wobbly steps as a newborn in Texas. One might expect Royal Finder would race successfully then find a soft landing at the end of his career, after having fattened the bank accounts of his father-son owner and trainer team. The handsome grey gelding did in fact earn $64,000 in 11 starts as a 2- and 3-year-old. He was running in allowance races with purses well in excess of 20K and was also stakes-placed. A full year passed, however, from his 11th start in an allowance race to his next race as a 4-year-old. In his 12th start, he was dropped into a claiming race, a frequently used “business plan” for owners to dispose of an injured horse. Such was the case for Royal Finder, and although he placed first for another 10K in earnings, he was claimed that race.

Royal Finder raced less than three weeks later for his new connections. He came in a dismal 10th, and the track comments for his next three races were telling: “Early speed, tired,” “Pressed pace, tired,” and “Close up, gave way.” And finally, his last race, “Clear, broke down.” Royal Finder’s knee had collapsed. Even after such a catastrophic injury, Royal Finder was forced to walk back to the barn in what must have been excruciating pain. And yet, his ownership was transferred again, to a small-time trainer who believed he could get one more race out of the wounded gelding.

When our racehorse rescue volunteers walked the shedrows of Michigan’s Great Lakes Downs during the closing week of its 1999 meet, they knew they would be intaking many injured horses – horses of nomadic trainers who would not want to pay to ship them to the next meet in another state. And so it happened for Royal Finder. His new trainer decided against taking the gelding with him and approached the rescue volunteers about purchasing him. One look at the pitiful grey horse – ears back, head down, and non-weight bearing on the injured leg, which was grotesquely turned outward from the knee down – and the rescue matched “meat price” then quickly searched for the private racetrack veterinarian.

Although track vets see equine injuries on a regular basis, Royal Finder’s collapsed knee was so severe the vet was shocked and outraged at the suffering the gelding was left to endure for well over a week. Then in less than an hour’s time, Royal Finder was purchased by the rescue, liberating him from the industry that destroyed him…then euthanized with the caring volunteer at his side, releasing him from his agony. Royal Finder, having run in 17 races and earning $75,000, was dead at the age of four.

Fast forward to July 2012. Multiple reports from racing media outlets, including BloodHorse, the Daily Racing Form, and the Paulick Report, told of 10 broodmares found at the Round Mountain horse auction. Located in Marble Falls, Texas, the auction is known to be frequented by kill buyers. The presence of broodmares at any horse auction is a common occurrence, so why did these particular mares make the headlines? Because of the man who sent them there: Keith Asmussen, patriarch of the prominent Texas-based Asmussen racing family and father of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen.

Only months earlier, many of the mares had delivered 2012 foals, and 8 of the 10 were bred back. Now, 9 were rescued from likely slaughter by businessman and Thoroughbred owner John R. Murrell. Keith Asmussen claims he was unaware kill buyers (purchasing for Mexican slaughterhouses) are present at the Round Mountain auction. Asmussen: “I didn’t even know there were any slaughterhouses left.” Amazing…to be oblivious to the slaughter of horses when his own website – the Asmussen Horse Center – exclaims “Horses are, and always have been our ONLY business!” and, by the way, “Starting our 52nd year…”

The Asmussens – Keith and Steve – were the breeder/owner/trainer of the ill-fated Royal Finder. And much like the 10 Asmussen broodmares dumped at the auction, Royal Finder was unloaded into a claiming race. Less than 3 months later, he was dead.

Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets, Installment 6

Lou’s Expectation
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

The look of eagles. If you’ve been blessed to have seen it, it will never leave you. John Taintor Foote best describes this confident, proud expression worn by only the finest of Thoroughbred racehorses in his book The Look of Eagles. “About the head of a truly great horse there is an air of freedom unconquerable. The eyes seem to look on heights beyond our gaze. It is the look of a spirit that can soar…It is the birthright of eagles.” These extraordinary Thoroughbreds are aware that they are something special, yet their “air of knowingness” is tempered with a quiet kindness. I had seen this look, although the sightings were very few and very far between. And I had often wondered about the broken-down horses we rescued from the track…those who possessed this “air of freedom unconquerable,” could it still shine through despite their broken bodies and wounded spirits? Then one balmy Saturday morning at Great Lakes Downs, I met Lou’s Expectation.

Lou’s Expectation ran his first race on April 12, 2002, when he was yet 9 days shy of his third birthday. A Florida-bred, Lou’s fourth start was his first win, but it was also his last race in the Sunshine State. Only 18 days after that first victory at Calder Race Course, Lou was running in California for trainer Jeff Mullins. As a three-year-old, Lou raced 14 times in less than 9 months. His success that year – 4 wins and 6 second place finishes – was quickly making the classy Valid Expectation gelding one of his sire’s leading winners. The following year in 2003, Lou continued his winning ways in California and was ranked 99th in the country by wins. But in his last race that year, he was claimed for 50K for the infamous owner Michael Gill. Lou headed east.

Lou started 2004 with a race at Aqueduct on a clear, cold January day. The dark bay gelding “tired in the stretch” and came in last…something Lou had never done. The cracks were beginning to show, as Lou again finished last in his next two races. A trainer change brought a short-lived “improvement” with a third and a pair of fourth place finishes, but Lou ended his 5-year-old year in an allowance race at Monmouth Park, outrun, and coming in last by 23 lengths.

On January 26, 2005, Lou was claimed from Gill for 10K at Laurel Park. It wasn’t but three races later that the now 6-year-old former stakes winner was running for a 5K tag at Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. By summer’s end of 2005, Lou’s ownership had changed hands ten times in just over three years. On August 12, in his 38th start, “Lou’s Expectation bore out and bumped with Mr. Lucky Numbers at the start then was used up after a half four wide.” “Used up after a half,” Lou came in dead last, more than 32 lengths behind. After a short 12-week break, he posted a win in a 4K claiming race, a third 2 weeks later, and another win on December 30, 2005 to close out the year.

Lou didn’t run all of January 2006, and it wasn’t until the end of February when he raced again. He was now among the lowliest of Thoroughbreds, running in cheap claiming races at a second-rate track. In the 9th race on February 24, Lou faced seven competitors in a 6K claiming race. He knew what it took to win – he had done it 14 times. He “pressed the pace just off the rail” but came up short by a mere ½ length, coming in a hard-trying third. Lou made $1500 for his connections, but he couldn’t walk off the track…he needed to be “vanned off after the finish.”

Three months passed, and the beautiful bay with the interesting white facial markings was now at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan. He had again changed hands, being either sold or given away, and another race was still to be demanded of him. Other trainers at the low-level track knew of Lou and his impressive racing history. Even though he was only seven – young by equine standards – the trainers referred to him as “that old class horse.” Lou was lame, but no one said anything, nor came to his defense. On May 31, 2006, Lou’s Expectation made his 43rd start, a cheap 4K claimer. And once again, he showed his class and his heart, coming in second and earning his owner/trainer nearly $1300.

Four days after Lou’s last race, on my weekly track visit for the rescue I volunteered for, I was approached by Lou’s trainer. “You can have the horse in stall #19…and you need to take him today. I’ve got another horse that needs that stall this afternoon. If you can’t take him today, he’s gone. Oh and… he’s got a bad ankle.” Lou’s Expectation, a winner of well over 300K, was being thrown out. He literally didn’t have a stall to stand in.
Lou’s pain was glaringly obvious with movement. Limping badly as I led him from the stall, I moved slowly, trying hard not to cause him increased suffering. I was so focused on Lou’s broken ankle and each tiny step we took in unison that I didn’t notice when we finally reached a clearing. But Lou did. When he abruptly came to a halt, and I looked up from the injured limb to his exquisite face, I saw it…Lou’s Expectation could barely walk, but in his eyes, I saw his spirit soaring. The heart that propelled him to the finish line when his body could not remained unconquerable.

Lou had suffered fractures of both sesamoid bones in his left front ankle. He underwent prompt surgery but the damage was severe, leaving him with a life sentence as a “pasture ornament.” Fortunately for Lou, a board member of the rescue was thrilled to embrace him as part of her beloved equine family. Gail still recalls his noble yet kind disposition the very day he was welcomed home. And though the physical limitations resulting from racing injuries bound him to this earth, Lou’s Expectation’s spirit continued to soar upon wings of eagles. Lou was lovingly cared for by Gail for too short a time. Less than two years after his rescue from the track, Lou colicked and required euthanasia while on the operating table. During surgery, a tear was discovered in his diaphragm. His intestine had migrated up through the tear and had become necrotic, greatly diminishing his chances for survival.

The tear in Lou’s diaphragm was determined to have not been a recent injury, but rather an existing one from some prior blunt force trauma to his body. A probable cause would be when two horses collide with each other during a race, just as Lou and Mr. Lucky Numbers did less than three years before Lou died. And although Lou’s life was cut drastically short, he was fortunate to experience love and kindness in the end. Mr. Lucky Numbers was not so fortunate…racing to 10 years of age, he was confirmed slaughtered in 2008.

Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets, Installment 5

Slade…gentle, beautiful Slade…
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

One of the first things I do when learning of a Thoroughbred racehorse in need is search for a race replay. I want a mental image, a “face to go with a name.” There were several of Slade. I chose one of his winning races and watched him gallop across the finish line, lengths in front of the rest of the field. He was wondrous to behold, a glistening chestnut with snow-white markings. Jogging back to the winner’s circle, head high and nostrils flaring, Slade felt the jockey’s celebratory pats upon his powerful neck. He pranced in place as photos were taken, and those around him cheered loudly, their faces beaming in excitement and pride. But as I watched this golden stallion, his sides heaving with each breath, I shared none of the victorious thrill of those around him. I felt only dread.

You see, this race I watched had taken place a year earlier. When I learned of Slade, too much time had passed and too many races had been run. Slade would never again carry a rider – not triumphantly into the winner’s circle – not at all. His legs, once swift and strong, were now unable to evenly bear the weight of his own body. The applause for this once-revered racehorse was long silenced. He had run his last race and had suffered his final injury on February 27, 2009 at Penn National Race Course. Slade had spiraled to the bottom of the racing game, becoming one of its disposable warriors. After his last race, he stood in his stall for 3 months without evaluation or treatment of his shattered ankle. And he waited…for help that might never come.

A Kentucky-bred by Menifee, Slade had 50 starts for earnings of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. He ran at Churchill Downs and Arlington International Racecourse as a youngster, but was claimed for the first time in only his fifth race. Over the years, Slade was claimed and privately sold repeatedly. In his last full year of racing, over a nine month period, he was with seven different trainers. Days of winning races were over. Yet he endured race after race, another claim and another private sale. Again and again, he found himself in an unfamiliar barn with unfamiliar handlers. Then on February 27, 2009, at Penn National in the cheapest of claiming races, Slade could not or would not run anymore. Even after that last race, the damaged, lame horse was acquired by yet another trainer.

Slade’s royal beginnings meant nothing now – he had become just one of the “cheap” horses at a “cheap” track. (Racing owner Michael Gill stated in the February 6, 2009 Thoroughbred Times: “these horses [at Penn National] are cheap claiming horses….”) His newest trainer was known for acquiring class horses – former successful runners – and racing them with existing injuries. As weeks turned into months, Slade remained lame at a walk and was unable to be removed from the vet’s list. The New Holland horse auction, known as the New Holland “killer sale,” was likely Slade’s next stop. Slade’s horrific descent was closing in on him and he had no one pleading for his salvation.

But at this same time, hundreds of miles from Penn National in Michigan, a phone call alerted two friends of Slade’s situation. Within 24 hours, after some difficult negotiating, the trainer agreed to relinquish Slade to his “rescuers.” Demands for x-rays of the 8-year-old’s injured ankle were finally met, and the films were devastating. In a phone conversation, the track vet relayed the results: bilateral sesamoid fractures, severe end-stage arthritis, and extensive new bone growth, indicative of repeated injury and the body’s attempt to heal itself. When asked about Slade’s prognosis and his general condition, the vet responded: “The horse cannot race, cannot be ridden or carry a rider. He’s a pasture ornament, at best. He’s lame at a walk and his coat is rough.” The vet’s final remarks, when told of Slade’s previous gleaming coat and stunning good looks: “He’s got no gleam to him now…and he will never live without pain.”

On May 27, 2009, exactly 3 months after Slade limped off the track for the last time, he was transported to the safety and security of horse advocate Mary Johnson’s farm in Ohio. The gentle horse was the perfect gentleman upon arrival at Mary’s farm. Her apprehension that Slade, as a stallion, might be difficult to handle quickly faded. His kind and agreeable disposition endeared him immediately to his foster mom. Within just a few days, Mary even allowed her 11-year-old daughter, Emma, to sit on the fence as Slade stood next to it, enjoying the attention she gave him. When Emma would enter Slade’s stall, he would gently nuzzle her pockets, checking for the treats she would bring him. He settled in quickly to the routine at this new place, and for the first time in many months, and most likely years, Slade was lovingly cared for. He enjoyed clean hay, fresh water, and the close company of other horses in adjacent paddocks. Mary medicated Slade daily for his pain, and although she noticed he had some relief, he was still unable to stand squarely on all four legs, keeping his injured limb pointed and nearly non-weight bearing. We had hoped that treating Slade’s pain regularly and carefully would bring him significant relief. It didn’t. Each day with Slade was treasured by his foster family, but now those days were going by too fast.

Gentle, beautiful Slade lived for 23 days with Mary Johnson, lacking for nothing and cherishing every moment. The noble Kentucky-bred stallion had come full circle…once celebrated, then disposed of…now at his life’s end, valued and adored. And he was glistening once more, if only in our eyes.
Slade was humanely euthanized on June 19, 2009 with Mary at his side. His injuries would have made it impossible for him to live comfortably even as a pasture pet. We didn’t want to let him go, but out of love and respect for this most gallant horse, we gave him the kindest gift – release from the suffering he had endured for so long. He lived his last 23 days in peace, lovingly attended to and nothing expected of him.

Slade was only 8 years and 3 months at the time of his death. His life was cut drastically short due to the damage done to him by the “sport” of racing. Sadly, Slade is only one of thousands of racing’s casualties. Every year, Thoroughbred racehorses die not only by humane euthanasia in numerous rescues because of their racing injuries, but in the dirt of the many racetracks across the country, and on the bloodied slaughterhouse floors.

Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets, Installment 4

Brave Miner
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

I first saw Brave Miner in 1999. It was opening year of Thoroughbred racing at Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon, Michigan, and having been a lifelong fan of the “Sport of Kings,” I was thrilled to have live racing only 45 minutes from my home. Brave Miner was larger than life to me, a gleaming chestnut that exuded confidence, class, and dignity. As I watched him prance in the paddock, I could only dream of having him as a member of my beloved equine family.

Shortly after, I became involved with a Thoroughbred racehorse rescue and rehabilitation organization. My responsibilities included walking the shed rows to take listings for the owners and trainers. Brave Miner was now 6 years old and had accumulated 18 wins – including 4 black type which are the highest level – from 48 starts on dirt and turf, going long and short. He was extraordinarily beautiful, but the wear and tear on his body was already evident. I had never seen ankles that large and misshapen. Becoming acutely aware of the fate of so many racing TB’s, I made myself and Brave Miner a promise that I would take him from the track before his body and spirit were broken beyond repair.

Over the next 7 years, from 2000 to 2007, I watched and waited. I made frequent requests and monetary offers for Brave Miner, and he was actually promised to me on two separate occasions. The first promise was broken when he was sold to yet another racing owner/trainer for a measly $500. By the fall of 2007, the courageous gelding had run an incredible 131 times and had stuffed his connections’ wallets with over $340,000 from 31 wins, 18 seconds, and 19 thirds. But in his last several races, as a 13-year-old with weary, hurting legs, he struggled to come in anything better than last.

In October of 2007, the second promise made to me by his current owner was just one race away. Only one more race and I could take him home! It didn’t matter to me that he no longer possessed the physical beauty as when I first laid eyes on him 8 long years ago …I just wanted to take him from the place where he had been the best, but now had left him stripped of everything he once was.

At Hoosier Park in Indiana, on October 13, Brave Miner ran in his 132nd start. Since I would be picking him up the next day, I had my truck and trailer packed and ready to go. I watched the clock that evening, waiting for when the race replay would be available for viewing. With my heart in my throat, I watched the replay through my fingers with the sound turned down to barely audible. I heard his name called only once and never saw him cross the finish line.

Brave Miner broke bones that night that would never be repaired nor could ever heal. 31 times he had stood in a crowded winner’s circle, but on that night, he laid in the dirt alone…only the track vet kneeled beside him, administering the lethal injection to end his suffering and his life. Human greed had taken from that amazing creature – one with a heart few can comprehend and even fewer appreciate – everything he had willingly given.

My promise to Brave Miner was broken and so was my heart. But the pain I felt was nothing in comparison to the pain and suffering he endured. There were plenty of opportunities to retire the overworked warrior and give him the chance to live. Instead, the people responsible for him dug his grave and ran him into it. Brave Miner’s story doesn’t have a nice, pleasant ending…but then, neither did his life.