The one that got away
I lost a horse once. It was both heartbreaking, devastating, and alarming – but more importantly, I had absolutely no idea how to solve the problem. He was gone from the equine stratosphere, and no amount of internet or Facebook searches led me to his re-discovery. To compound my grief and disparity, I was tightly linked to his breeder, his race owner, and his trainer. I knew his every connection, and had great respect for each. And yet I knew that if he did resurface, and resurfaced in a less than ideal location, it would be each of them that would catch the heat – not me. More importantly, not the people that put him directly there.
Natty came into my life as I was managing Hinkle Farms. He had been bred by the farm, and they had kept him after he was scratched from the sales at Keeneland due an injury. He was placed in training with someone who I respected immensely – Wayne Mackey, at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, KY. It was only a 15 minute drive from my house to the track, and I would occasionally go to watch him work – hoping for the best, but witnessing the worst. While Natty was stunning – standing at 16.2, with a strong shoulder and great mind, but he was neither fierce nor fast – and Wayne quickly alerted the farm to this fact. Being the amazing horsemen that he is, he acknowledged that maybe Natty would be best suited for another discipline. One that possibly required the speed of a mini van, instead of the Porsche that we had hoped for.
He came home to the farm, his racing plates were pulled, and I convinced the owners of the farm to let me attempt to retrain him for a second career. I had never retrained a thoroughbred up to this point, and had little to no clue of what I was doing. I hadn’t ridden or competed a horse consistently in years, and yet I dusted off my saddle, my helmet, and my half chaps and swung on.
But surprisingly, Natty was a willing pupil, and I quickly fell back into the routine of riding. At the end of a rough day, I would throw my Crosby onto this leggy 3 year old, strap on my spurs, and hack throughout the 1200 acre farm that he was foaled out on. We would amble up and down hills, walking at times and galloping at others, and just take in the scenery. And it became evident just how nice of a horse he truly was. He was green but willing, contemplative but considerate, and athletic yet solid.
I would come home at the end of my ride and collapse into my couch. My boyfriend would stare at me – startled by this new transition in my life. He had thought when he started dating me that he had won the jackpot. A horse girl with no horse. A girlfriend who could help him turn out yearlings or foal a mare, but who’s weekends could be spent not at the dusty fairgrounds of a horse show. A woman who could diagnose an illness or assess a lameness, but who smelled of roses instead of MTG. And yet I was not. What he thought of as the perfect girl was actually the most imperfect of them all. I would never again be that arm candy, or that trophy wife. How could I be? I was, yet again, horse obsessed.
I found my heart and soul in that horse. Like a secret that had been kept locked up for many years, my true self was finally released. I had given my event horse away as a last attempt to resurrect a relationship with my father, only to have my father succumb to his battle with cancer, leaving me both horseless and without the strength or happiness that had previously consumed my life.
And yet, with each gallop, each fence, and each stride on Natty, my soul rebalanced. I got to jump my first XC fence in nearly 8 years. I went to my first horse show in as many. And more importantly – I remembered that these creatures and this sport were here for one reason and one reason only – FUN. To bring joy. To force smiles. To laugh.
But I hesitated. For some reason, one that I still don’t fully understand, I placed Natty for sale. I hadn’t owned a horse for almost a decade, and was unsure of how to provide one an adequate home. I didn’t think that the Hinkle family would allow me to keep him on the farm for the rest of his life. I knew that with my job as a farm manager, showing and riding consistently would be nearly impossible to do. I was scared of the funds that it would take to properly care for this horse. I was petrified of the way my lifestyle would change. And I thought he deserved more…so I sacrificed my heart, and went with my brain – and I sold him.
I thought I had found Natty a permanent home. The young woman seemed like a great match, he would stay local where I could keep an eye on him, and I made sure to dictate that I would be offered first right of refusal if it were to ever not work out. I loaded him up onto their trailer, gave him one final hug, walked back to my truck and dissolved into tears.
Years went by where I searched daily for Facebook updates and new statuses posted. I was excited to see them run their first mini event, or to drive past the farm where he was boarded and find him grazing in the field. We shared a farrier, and I desperately asked for any update that he could offer when he came to shoe my horses. And I shared their photos and bragged of his endeavors whenever I could.
But as is life, she decided to move away from riding, and he was turned out. He was placed for sale, but at a price that I was assured would land him into good hands. But no one bit the bait, and on abated breath, I watched as his price dropped lower and lower and lower. I begged friends to go see him, and advertised him to anyone who was willing to listen. The last time I reached out to the owners, they refused my participation, and I hung up the phone and hung my head, allowing this horse to dissolve me into tears for the second time.
And then he disappeared. His ad was marked as sold, and I never saw a photo of him again.
For a few years now, I have attempted to find Natty. I searched the local auctions at first, desperate to see if he had landed there. And then I attempted to locate him through internet horse sales sites – like EquineNow and DreamHorse. I searched for him in the TIP database. I re-entered him in my VirtualStable, fearing that he might even end up back on the track – being young and by War Front. And I never found him.
That is, until a few weeks ago. I was at a local jumper show and ran into the trainer that his previous owner had ridden with. I hesitantly inquired into whether she knew of his whereabouts, and she smiled and said that a young girl in Michigan had bought him. That he had passed the vetting with flying colors, and was now more of a pasture ornament than show horse, but that he was thriving. And I exhaled. I thanked her for the information, walked back to my truck, and cried a new set of tears – these now of joy and relief rather than sadness.
I am one of the lucky ones. I found mine, and more importantly, he was safe. Had I learned the opposite – I would have been devastated. Of course for myself, but more importantly, for the damage that his second, and third, and fourth owner would have done on the reputation of his first. Had he ended up at an auction, it would have not been Hinkle Farms, or Wayne Mackey’s, fault, for they had done right by the horse. They had retired him as a sane and sound individual, placed him into my hands to secure a second career, and wished him well.
But that is exactly who would have gotten the blame. Just this week, a horse named Financial Mogul was found at New Holland. Through a series of unfortunate events, he ultimately was euthanized by the caregiver whom had bought him from the supposed kill buyers. He hasn’t raced in almost a year, and was no longer in the care of his breeder, trainer, or race owner, and yet due to dollar signs – these are the very people who are being attacked.
No one looks for answers from the most recent owner – the person who actively dropped the horse off at the auction grounds. No one asks the liaison to the kill buyers why they spent $500-1,000 more dollars on these “well bred” thoroughbreds than they would on the others. No one asks the supposed “rescues” where the funds truly go to secure these horses. But everyone asks the breeders, the trainers, and the race owners for these very facts.
Why was the horse bred? Why did he sell for $200,000? Why was he placed in the hands of that trainer? Why wasn’t he retired until he was 6? Who thought it would be a good idea to support racing? Why are you involved? Where is the money that this horse “won” you over 12 months ago? Who are you?
If I replace Financial Mogul’s name with Natural Bridge, I could answer all of those questions for you. And that is something that I feared having to do every day for years. This is the risk that I take by being the liaison between the good guys of the thoroughbred industry and the sport horse world. Every time I retrain and sell a horse, I am risking their reputation moreso than my own. I am just a little fish in a big pond. No one is coming after me. But they are coming after my friends. My employers. My industry.
And here are the answers. These horses are bred with a purpose. Their genetics are selected specifically to create stamina, strength, and stability. They sell for the high amounts of money that are directly proportionate to these decisions, as well as the amazing care that they receive for those first 18 months of their lives. They are placed into the most capable hands available to secure the highest success rate – which is based on both ability and well as soundness. They are retired at a specific age based on that ability. Their soundness. Their desire. And this money that they secure then gets handed to the farriers, veterinarians, farm managers, stallion owners, as well as the track employees who serve the food, cater the weddings, and mow the lawns. It is cyclical, and it is great.
And who am I?
I am just a girl trying to build a bridge between these amazing people and the rest of the world. One horse at a time, one day at a time.
I am so happy that I found Natty, or at least that I know that he is safe. Not just for myself, but for the amazing people who trusted me to act on their behalf. This horse who has caused me so many tears of joy, of fear, of relief, and of sadness. But I fully acknowledge that this happiness is based entirely on luck. I could be that person. Natty could be Financial Mogul. I could be defending my industry, my actions, and my horse from an entirely differently angle.
So here are the questions I want answered. Who are these rescues that berate horse racing every day? Why do they search for these horses? Why do they spend more money on a thoroughbred at an auction than they would another breed? Why do they need GoFundMe’s to secure funds? Where does the money raised go? How do they choose which horses need saved and which don’t? Is it based on potential ability and soundness, or potential connections to drain funds from?
And more importantly, how did this once great racehorse end up at an auction house filled with kill-buyers? Who put him there?
I am so saddened by the loss of Financial Mogul. My heart breaks, acknowledging that we could just as easily replace his name with Natural Bridge. A good horse that was raised by great people is gone, and this is devastating to all of us that love horses. That love the thoroughbred. Even those of us that just love racing.
But what is more devastating – both to the industry, as well as the legacy of this great horse – is by penalizing and punishing the wrong hands. Letting the truly corrupt people walk, and targeting the innocent. Demonizing the very industry which allowed this horse to thrive, that retired him and placed him into a second career, and yet defending the other industry – the one that hasn’t answered any of these important questions.
So I ask you – can you answer these questions? Can you point the fingers in the truly guilty direction?
And I plead with you – the next time one of these horses ends up in this same predicament – don’t throw rocks at glass houses. Don’t penalize the people who did right by the horse. Don’t target the me’s of this world. The good guy. The one’s who are just trying to do whats right for these horses – one thoroughbred at a time.