Every foaling season, little miracles carry the high hopes of the horse racing industry. A wobbly legged colt romps through a springtime pasture, unknowing to the ripples he will send. By the very act of being born, this single foal affects the future of breeders, owners, trainers, handlers, racetracks – an endless web of those who will come in contact with him. Foals like him are a precious commodity, and regulations are put in place to protect the many livelihoods dependent on him and his future. There is an incredible effort from the very start. Extraordinary costs and painstaking plans go into the most opportune mating of stallion and mare. Intensive care nurtures a foal to adolescence – the process of preparing him for auction and educating him for racing is a costly one. The investment grows with each passing day – veterinary bills, boarding, training, transportation and time all culminate in the “return on investment” of racing.
An exceptional effort for the horse’s well-being as an athlete is obvious when one attends the high-caliber racing venues. However, there is an existing imbalance in the horse racing industry that begs the question: What happens to many of these athletes, after all the investment, once they leave their racing career? It quickly is realized that horse racing as a business must become accustomed to including the final phase of a horse’s career as part of doing “business.” Not only will this mindset boost the public opinion of horse racing, but also - and most importantly - protect these fine working athletes.
Fortunately, there are forces at work around the United States striving to preserve the lives of these precious animals. Volunteers come from within and outside the industry - impassioned people motivated to action by the precarious circumstance of these glorious horses.
Bonnie Adams is just such a person. In 2010, Bonnie began TROTT (Training Racehorses Off The Track), a non-profit organization that helps ex-racehorses find new careers as hunters, jumpers, dressage competitors, eventers, trail horses, or even just a life of luxury as a pasture companion or loving pet. TROTT’s goal is to give these horses a new, suitable vocation so they can transition successfully from the track, creating opportunities for a prosperous, useful life away from racing. TROTT states: “By giving these horses training for a new discipline, TROTT believes we are giving them value, and thereby giving them a future. We strive for a day when OTTBs [off-the-track Thoroughbreds] won’t need to be rescued.”
During the week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park, I had the great privilege of witnessing our modern-day racing heroes flex their muscles on the historic Southern California track. However, a top spot on “My Most Memorable Moments” list definitely was the TROTT’s Legends Event. Some of horseracing’s two-legged stars donated their time to come together and share their stories to help bring awareness and raise money through a charity auction of horse racing memorabilia.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and Zenyatta’s co-owner Jerry Moss
A panel of racing’s superstars sat before a crowd, each with a designated microphone. Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss opened the discussion sharing his emotional feelings on the great mare’s career.
“The 2009 [Breeder’s Cup] stretch run … was absolutely as great as you can get,” Moss said. “To this day Santa Anita considers it the finest moment in the history of the racetrack, what [jockey] Mike Smith did on Zenyatta that day.”
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, TROTT's Legend Event Master of Ceremonies
The incomparable Master of Ceremonies, Gary Stevens, added: ”My greatest memory of the Breeders‘ Cup is when I stood in front of the Turf Club, in the upper mezzanine with my son … not only one of the greatest rides I’ve ever seen, but it was the greatest moment … when he [Mike Smith] pulled up after the race, the crowd went nuts, and I had tears coming down my cheeks and I looked over at my son and he had tears coming down his cheeks.”
Stevens paused a moment to remind us why we all congregated that evening. “They all need a home, whether they are Zenyatta or a $4,000 claimer.”
Following his poignant remarks, Stevens turned to fellow Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
“I was so blessed,” Smith said. “What Zenyatta did that day tops it all. It was the most amazing day of my life. Truly felt like I was a fan myself. There are no words. You had to truly witness it. She was unbelievable.”
(l to r) Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, jockey David Flores, trainer Doug O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens
“So now, I’ll bring it old school,” Stevens said as he headed stage right to the far end of the table.
Gary Stevens uses Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg as a podium
There waiting was Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Stevens and Van Berg reminisced over times past. Stevens recalled some of his rides: “Sometimes they felt like a ’55 Chevy on a washboard road.” Van Berg sternly glanced at Stevens, who directly responding to Van Berg’s expression, said, “Yeah, I rode a few of those for you too. They weren’t all Alysheba’s!”
Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg
Once the roaring laughter subsided, Van Berg fondly spoke of Alysheba.
“Alysheba was so talented that I don’t think we ever got to see the best of him. He was doing things so much better every year,” Van Berg said. “When I was a kid, I was a little, short, fat guy. I couldn’t keep up with my buddies. They’d run ahead of me, then they’d let me catch up to them. Then they’d take off again. Alysheba was the same way. He let horses catch up to him. Then he’d embarrass them and take off again!”
Jockey Tyler Baze
Jockey Tyler Baze, a rising star in horse racing, sat beside Van Berg. The young jockey has had tumultuous year strife with personal tragedies and challenges. He is a positive testament to the kind of inner strength required to be successful in the tough sport of horse racing.
“I went through a lot of stuff last year,” Baze said. “I really needed to get my head straight and my health right. Right now, I’m concentrating on being healthy and doing the right thing.”
“It’s amazing what God does for you when you do the right thing. I’m excited about Saturday [riding Tale of a Champion in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint]. I got a good horse. I’m looking forward to it. He’s training great!”
Jockeys David Flores and Tyler Baze
Baze’s honest remarks moved everyone to applause. Stevens then placed his hand on jockey David Flores’ shoulder to encourage him to speak. Flores with absolute perfect timing leaned in slowly to his microphone, “I thought this was going to be a fun thing, I’m almost crying here!” The room burst into belly-rolling laughter.
(l to r) Jockey David Flores, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez
Flores is an active supporter of riders, advocating for the well-being of not only his local jockey colony here in Southern California but also the Jockeys’ Guild and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund for disabled riders across America.
“Just like we take care of our brother and sisters, we do the best for the horse out there on the track because they are the ones that do for us,” Flores said. “They take us to the best places.
“I rode $2,500 horses in Tijuana, where I come from, so I never forgot what the horses did for me,” Flores continued. “Where you can win a $10,000 race or a million dollar race, they’re all the same for me.”
Trainer Doug O’Neill with jockey Mario Gutierrez
Kentucky Derby- and Preakness-winning trainer Doug O’Neill spoke next. He couldn’t resist adding his personal experience of first meeting Jack Van Berg training at the track. O’Neill’s knack for telling a story is unbeatable and even managed to get a huge laugh from Van Berg. It was also very interesting to hear O’Neill share his thoughts on having chosen the young jockey Mario Gutierrez to ride I’ll Have Another in this year’s Kentucky Derby. But after all the laughter, O’Neill spoke of the privilege he feels working with these fine animals.
“The horses are just so amazing,” he said. “How much they give you. How they handle the crowd. How they do so much to make the humans around them look smarter than they are.”
Mario Gutierrez added to O’Neill’s comment on riding I’ll Have Another.
“The first time I worked I’ll Have Another at Hollywood Park, I got off the horse, I was so anxious that I called my Canadian connections. ‘You won’t believe this, he is the real deal! But I don’t even think they are going to let me ride him cause he is so good!’ ”
Trainer Mike Puype
Sitting at the end of the table, respected trainer Mike Puype spoke of his trainee, Mizdirection, who is running in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Training for co-owner and television and radio personality Jim Rome, Puype said: “He’s a dream to train for. The man has such passion for the game. It’s second to none. He loves the horses and he’s all heart. He tests me throughout all times of the day.”
Puype spoke about Mizdirection, saying: “Mike’s riding her on Saturday. She loves the [downhill turf course] and she’s 2 for 2 on the hill. We feel there is a little bit of a home court advantage. We hope for good things on Saturday.”
(l to r) Trainer Doug O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, jockey Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, and trainer Mike Pupye
Gary Stevens testified to the Puype principle of training.
“His honesty is second to none. He’s there every morning walking down watching his horses train every morning. He is down with every set walking back and forth. To me that’s what trainer’s do!”
For further information on TROTT, please visit http://www.trottusa.org/