Shedrow Secrets

Claims My Name
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile (author of “Saving Baby”)

There is a worn, broken halter that hangs just inside the entrance to my barn. While a variety of equine tack is certainly ordinary and expected in one’s barn, this particular halter looks out of place. It hangs alone on a wooden peg, across from a planked wall with a tidy assortment of gleaming leather bridles and colorful halters. Every day when I walk into the barn, my eyes are immediately drawn to that tattered old halter. And every day, a plain brown mare with kind eyes is remembered and honored once again. She was “Claims My Name,” and like her broken halter that has a special place in my barn, this broken mare will always have a special place in my heart.

It was the first week of November 2007, and Great Lakes Downs was ending its meet and closing down for good. Owners and trainers were hastily packing up equipment and horses, leaving the small racetrack in western Michigan and heading south for winter meets. We at the rescue were making daily visits to the track. Over a nine-day period, 27 horses that were too lame to continue racing or had become non-competitive were loaded onto our trailers, leaving the racetrack for good and hopefully beginning new lives. On one of those last days at the track, I was approached by an owner/trainer about taking two broodmares from a farm where he would lay up horses over the winter. After a quick phone call to the farm owner, arrangements were made to pick up the broodmares the next day. Although most “unwanted” horses were donated to the rescue, both of these older mares needed to be purchased by the racehorse rescue organization for $250 each.

I had been given the names of the mares and the night before I was to pick them up I did a little research on them, curious as to who they were and where they had been. Claims My Name, I found, was a Kentucky-bred, and although her sire’s sire was the great Mr. Prospector, she was very modestly bred. She had run 50 times in her racing career, and in doing so had traveled to Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan. Her races were always “cheap” races, earning only $19,444 for her three wins, three places, and five shows. No one ever claimed her, but her ownership had changed frequently through private sales. Her last race was in February of 1999 at Tampa Bay Downs, when she came in eighth out of nine horses, over 13 lengths behind the winner. And that was where the trail of her life ended. There was no record of her after that last race, and even the Pedigree On-line Thoroughbred database had no progeny records for her.

I was filled with uneasiness the morning we were scheduled to pick up the mares. I wondered if the farm owner shared the same lack of care and concern for the horses at her farm as the trainer she took horses in for. This trainer’s horses were typically underweight and signs of lameness were usually present. He was also known for leaving his horses on the hot walker for several hours on hot summer afternoons while he visited the local bar. I prepared myself for a disturbing morning.

The farm was small with three or four tiny paddocks, all of them muddy with no dry areas for the horses to stand on or lie down on. Two strands of wire strung from rusty, leaning T-posts made up the fencing. The paddock closest to the road had six or seven Thoroughbreds in it, and although there was no hay available to fight over, one skinny gray gelding was kept in a corner and away from the herd by a more aggressive Thoroughbred, still wearing his racing plates. There was no shelter in any of the paddocks, although the paddock by the road had a tarp lying next to four wooden posts, so I surmised it had once been suspended on the posts, making a “roof” of sorts. The one, small barn on the property had no stalls, only some bales of hay and assorted debris, so it was obvious the horses on this farm lived without any shelter in the harsh, Michigan winters. I shivered looking at the ribby horses, imagining them trying to stay warm in the frigid months that lay ahead.

Claims My Name was not in this paddock, but was in the back of the property with the other broodmare and each of their foals. The mud was even deeper in this paddock, almost to the knees of the mares, and as in the other enclosures, no shelter was available. At this point, it took literally biting my tongue to keep from asking the farm owner how she could justify the horrible conditions the horses were forced to live in. But questioning her would risk offending her and being asked to leave, and thereby ruin the chances of taking the two mares, so I kept quiet.

None of the four in that back paddock moved while we stood at the gate, clucking to them in encouragement to come towards us. Again, no hay was present, so I was silently surprised that the two moms and foals didn’t come up to investigate, at least to find if we had food to offer. All were filthy, with matted manes and tails, and all stood with their heads low, showing no interest in our presence.

Finally, the farm owner waded into the mud to retrieve Claims My Name. Since the foals had not yet been weaned, I was expecting some commotion as the mare was being taken from the others and brought to the gate. But if her youngster was coming alongside or not, I was not aware. All I could see was this muddy, thin mare attempting to walk, one hind leg moving grotesquely with each labored stride.

When she was brought through the gate and onto dry ground, the reason she struggled to walk was something I had never seen before. I had loaded horses onto my trailer with broken legs and torn tendons, gaping wounds and bloodied injuries, but never something like this: Her hoof was coming off her leg. I took the lead rope from the farm owner, continued towards the trailer and over the screams in my head, all I heard was silence. This suffering mare never called for her baby, never turned back to see the little filly she was leaving behind, never stopped her awkward, forward movement. Head hanging low, she quietly and obediently limped alongside me. Only when we were in the trailer did I finally become aware of the horrible stench coming from her sloughing hoof.

I dialed my own veterinarian before I had the truck in gear. His clinic was a mere 30 minutes from where I was, but I wished at that moment for a snap of the fingers that would have us there immediately. Traveling to the clinic, I winced with every stop and start, every minute bump in the road, unsure of how Claims My Name would tolerate the trip. I was thankful our plans included another transporter to a separate, local foster home for the second mare, leaving me able to direct all of my attention towards the damaged mare in my trailer.

The vet tech came out to meet us before I was out of my vehicle. Claims My Name had been eating the fresh hay I had for her in the trailer, so I had decided to let her stay and eat as long as possible. The tech took one look at the mare’s hind leg and said she would be back with the vet. It was a short walk from the trailer to the grassy area where Dr. Visser asked me to bring Claims My Name. He knelt down to examine her leg, and when he stood and looked at me, his eyes were filled with tears and he said nothing for a moment or two.

The last hour had gone so slowly. The time to get Claims My Name from farm to clinic where she would be released from her suffering seemed to take forever. But now there was not enough time, not enough time to tell her how beautiful she was, not enough time to tell her she deserved so much better, not enough time to whisper to her that I would never forget her. Now everything around me felt as though it was in fast-forward, yet she seemed to slump to the ground in slow motion. As the vet gave the final injection that would stop her heart, I held her head and promised her she would always be remembered.

And every day, she is.

Within the month, the farm owner conceded to sell three more Thoroughbreds to the rescue and to donate the two foals that had been left behind when we took their mothers. The “skinny gray gelding” was one of the three purchased, and after six months of great care at a foster home, “Juan’s Bouncer” became the stunning beauty we’re certain he once was. He has since been adopted into a permanent home. “Runaway Easter,” a timid chestnut filly, was terrified of trailers. Yet the day we picked her up, her hunger won over her fear and with her whole body trembling, she walked on with her head buried in the hay I held in my arms. This little 3-year-old suffered from neurological problems and needed to be euthanized.

Two other Thoroughbreds at this farm, “Gotta Beau” and “Leader of the Pact,” were not as lucky as their former herd mates. The farm owner would not consider selling the younger Gotta Beau, but she would part with Leader of the Pact for $1000. That amount made it impossible for the already financially strapped rescue to obtain him. The emaciated and lame chestnut gelded son of Charismatic, 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, was bred by a well-known and respected farm in Kentucky. Numerous calls to the lucrative Thoroughbred breeding and racing operation for help for Leader of the Pact went ignored, even after being promised a call back.

Approximately one year later, the farm owner called requesting to donate Leader of the Pact. He immediately came into the program but by this time, all hope for a new life was gone. The gelding had endured White Lines Disease that had gone untreated for many months, and according to the examining vet, he had over 20 pockets of abscesses in his front feet. Help for Leader of the Pact came too late, and the suffering gelding was humanely euthanized.

Gotta Beau’s whereabouts are unknown.

Shedrow Secrets

Shedrow Secrets: Brash Tony
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile and Patrick J Battuello

In a 2002 The Michigan Thoroughbred (published by the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) article, “These Gallant Geldings,” the author touts the value of claimers, calling them “the backbone of the daily racing program.” Injuries, the magazine says, are hardly a reason to retire these crucial card fillers: “Perhaps they have suffered an injury that has compromised their chances of running at full potential. For whatever reason they are training along side some of the best and putting on a substantial part of the racing program at most tracks. They are the bread and butter horses of daily racing. Most of these claimers are geldings, as they have no residual breeding potential and therefore have an extended [italics added] racing career.”

The article went on to happily report that nine-year-old Shamanuu edged out eight-year-old Brash Tony for 2001 Claimer of the Year at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan: “Both of these gallant geldings have shown they love to run! They have shown great heart, are competitive and determined. They are great examples of all the characteristics we value in a racehorse. The fact that they raced at a lower level than stakes horses should not diminish their achievements, as they are the backbone of the racing industry.” The vote, as it turns out, was a shameful deception, for one of the gallants in the running was already dead. Yes, dead, before the ballots were even cast.

We first encountered Brash Tony in the late fall of 2001. Our weekly visits to Great Lakes Downs, walking the shedrows looking for possible rescues, were coming to an end along with that year’s race meet. The Thoroughbreds at this small track would soon be moving on to the next circuit stop, and if no onsite rescue existed there, the injured or physically compromised would be prime targets for slaughter. That morning, Brash Tony, visibly limping, was tethered to an automatic walking machine, head bobbing with each painful step. Round and round he went, trying mightily to keep pace. We knew right then that this poor horse needed saving. Our request was summarily denied. The trainer insisted he had no injuries, describing the arthritic horse as “just a lazy son of a bitch that takes a long time to warm up.” His prescription for indolence: “I make him loosen up and go on the walking machine for several hours each day.” Several hours.

With the trainer unmoved, we approached Brash Tony’s diamond and gold-clad owner, who was taking in morning practice. Donation, of course, was out of the question, but he “generously” offered Brash Tony for $600, an inflated price for a broken, dispirited animal probably destined for euthanasia. We, of course, paid his asking price and immediately took him to see an equine orthopedic surgeon at Michigan State University. The good doctor, knowing how excruciating each step had become, brought the radiology equipment to the patient. The x-rays confirmed our fears: Brash Tony was beyond help, even his standing state a painful one. And so, on a crisp November day in 2001, Brash Tony was peacefully laid to rest. His “extended racing career,” his years of servitude mercifully at an end. No more masters, no more seedy tracks, no more whips, no more painkillers, no more walking machines, no more suffering. Gentle release.

Michigan requires pre-race exams to ensure that only the sound run, but the state vets at Great Lakes failed their duty. Brash Tony was forced to the gate, arthritic legs (at eight, he should have been in his prime) and all. In the end, he was killed by simple human greed. Shamanuu, career earner of almost $200,000, started his last race the following April at Illinois’ Sportsman Park. Pulling up early on, the other “gallant gelding” was “vanned off,” never to be heard from again. Coincidentally, this was the same month his “victory” was announced in The Michigan Thoroughbred. Life for “bread and butter” claimers is even worse today as racino-bloated purses entice horsemen to run their damaged assets in low-risk, high-reward races. If a bone snaps, no great loss, for other cheap, anonymous horses await. Brash Tony and Shamanuu toiled a world away from Triple Crown pageantry, a world where mainstream media and casual fans rarely stray. Sad, indeed.

Horseracing Wrongs is proud to present the first in a series of guest posts from two of the most respected equine advocates in the country, Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile. Both on their own and through their rescue, Saving Baby Equine Charity, Jo Anne and Joy have positively impacted the lives of countless animals, undoubtedly saving many from cruel and bloody fates.

The pair will publish under the heading, “Shedrow Secrets” and with this picture of Baby as their symbol:

Shedrow Secrets

Winds of Love
By Joy Aten and Jo Anne Normile

On November 6, 2007, Winds of Love labored to a last place finish, beaten soundly by eight lengths. The nine year old gelding had run twelve times in just 5 months, managing only a pair of third place finishes for earnings of $2,493. Entered as frequently as every seven days, it was very clear that his racing days were over. He was running at a small low-level track in Michigan, far from the Florida racetracks where he had been a winner ridden by high-profile jockeys such as Pat Day and Cornelio Velasquez. But while the local betting public saw only an aging gelding running for the smallest purses, the stakes were actually much higher…Winds of Love was running for his life.

He had become an unfortunate member of a stable belonging to an owner/trainer duo known for running injured and ill-kept horses. Walking through their shed row, one would find the horses waiting until noon for their first meal of the day. Horses with big ankles and dull coats stood in urine-soaked stalls for hours on end. There were those that had only ever been cheap claimers, and there were former stakes horses bred by the most well-known and respected farms in Kentucky, Florida, and California. But royal pedigrees and impressive earnings were forgotten here. All of the horses were expected to “get a check,” and running with accumulated damage to joints and limbs was commonplace. Failure to run successfully and produce purse money would be tolerated only so long, and for Winds of Love, the clock was ticking.

On that cold late autumn evening, Winds of Love ran in his 102nd start. His lifetime earnings were $194,475 from 14 wins, 9 seconds, and 19 thirds. He had been racing for at least four years with three screws in his right front ankle, and he was tired and sore. During the race, his jockey heard the dark bay whinny, a sign of distress if done while running a race. He was eased across the finish line and brought back lame to the barn. On a heart-wrenching journey down to the lowest of the claiming ranks, he had run out of time.

Now the big gelding with the heart of a lion and the temperament of a lamb was headed for the auction and most certainly, the slaughterhouse. His years of faithful service- fattening the pocketbooks of his owners and trainers- meant nothing to those responsible for him. The quickest and cheapest way to rid themselves of the broken-down Winds of Love was their one and only concern.

On November 7, 2007, less than 12 hours after his last race, Winds of Love loaded willingly onto a trailer. He trembled from head to tail, but stood patiently while waiting for two other broken Thoroughbred racehorses to join him. But this trailer was not headed to the auction. A Thoroughbred racehorse rescue organization had purchased Winds of Love for $250 from his owner, and the three occupants of that trailer were headed to the safety of the rescue’s farm.

Winds of Love lived for another week. Evaluated by two veterinarians, including an equine orthopedic surgeon, the gallant gelding was diagnosed with severe end-stage arthritis that would make it impossible for him to live without pain. His ankles had been destroyed by the multiple steroid injections administered to them over the years. He was humanely euthanized. Winds of Love was loved and carefully attended to by his rescue caretakers those cherished last days of his life.

Winds of Love did not die before millions during a world famous race. There was no media coverage and no public outcry. The fact that he died due to multiple injuries sustained from racing was not acknowledged or recorded anywhere by the racing industry. Only the rescue cared, only the rescue recorded. Unlike Barbaro or Eight Belles, the only tears shed for Winds of Love were by the rescue’s volunteers. Though his suffering and death were not their fault, they told him, “We’re so sorry,” as they whispered kind words and gave him his last loving strokes.

Shortly after Winds of Love was euthanized, Joy Aten contacted the gelding’s breeder/former owner. The two had a lengthy conversation that consisted primarily of the owner’s memories of the “sweet, black horse.” Within several days, Joy was surprised to receive a package from the owner. There was a language barrier noticed during the telephone conversation, and that barrier must have led to some miscommunication because what was included in the package was never requested by Joy…a veterinarian invoice for Winds of Love detailing steroid injections into the gelding’s hocks, stifles, and ankles on March 7, 2003. How many injections Winds of Love endured over the course of his short life we will never know, but we do know the corticosteroids caused the lethal deterioration of his joints. No thought was ever given to a life beyond racing for the “sweet, black horse”…and Winds of Love never got that chance.

This site holds that horseracing, being exploitation of the weaker, is inherently cruel, and no matter the supposed number of “welfare initiatives,” racehorses will continue to suffer and die. All, for $2 bets. But to be fair, there are some current and former insiders working hard at trying to right the many horseracing wrongs, striving to save as many horses as possible from wasting away on some “retirement” farm or having their carotid arteries slashed. One such activist is Jo Anne Normile, co-founder (along with Joy Aten, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, and Larry Lindner) of the equine rescue Saving Baby Equine.

JoAnne

As well as starting CANTER, one of the first organizations dedicated to saving racehorses from ugly ends, Jo Anne is a published author, co-penning the memoir “Saving Baby: How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption.” Just this morning, Jo Anne’s hometown paper, the Observer and Eccentric, ran this article on her life. Nice story, wonderful woman. Jo Anne Normile is a true friend to equines and an advocate we can all admire.