The Thoroughbred Cycle

I was once told I was anti-racing.

That because I was a part of the second career movement I obviously didn’t respect the first, and since I believed in not pushing for one more race I didn’t cheer for the 20 before it. And that is, quite simply, wrong. Fact is, the average horse runs for 2-3 years, then is left with only a few options: Breeding? Turned out? Or, retrained?

That doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect the first years of that thoroughbred’s life. I used to be the one that woke up at 2:17 in the morning on a 20 degree February night  to deliver them into this world. My black lab puppy was the first friend they encountered after drinking their first drops of colostrum.

“You’re going to love it here.”

I was the one who woke up and rubbed their bellies when they felt a little colicky, bandaged their wounds when they felt a bit too fresh and tested the fence line, or wrapped their hooves when they pulled their first shoe. I was the one who taught them what a surcingle was, and how to walk with those weird fandangle polo wraps. It was me who taught them to stand on the scale as we measure their growth and progress, and hand fed sweet feed to convince them it was just as delicious as their pellets.

I was the one who taught them how to walk, and how to stand, and how to load on a trailer and get to their first destination; whether it be to the clinic, the sales or Florida. And, I was the one who walked back to the truck after loading them up and sobbed quietly.

Taking them to the ring. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog

I acknowledged that it was up to me to set these horses up for future success, and in my mind, that was as both a racehorse and a sport horse. If I kept them safe and growing strong they would blossom into beautiful yearlings…and beautiful yearlings received interest from the good guys and were more likely to end up in good hands. The good guys broke them slowly and trained them well, and their chances of winning a race were much greater. Their race record could then pad the sales page of their mothers—mothers I watched and cared for as they waited to deliver their next foal.

The Cycle: The first foal out of Hit Girl, a mare that I had as a foal.

Because of one horse’s success, the future foals out of those mares could be just a little bit safer—a little bit better. If she produces just one graded stakes winner the other progeny would receive those looks and make those long lists. As long as I could continue doing my job of bubble wrap and preparation, that look could turn into a short list, and maybe even a purchase.

I acknowledged that it was up to me to set these horses up for future success, and in my mind, that was as both a racehorse and a sport horse.

It is a cycle. And at the end of the cycle the racing connections only have a few choices. If they are a gelding, the number of choices drops tremendously. If they’re not sound, even more so. And that is where I come in. I loved those foals. I loved the long nights and the longer days. I loved staring at them as they streaked across the field, or slept in their stalls.

So I do cheer on those races. I scream at the top of my lungs while watching from my phone from restaurants, mortifying my boyfriend in the process. I want them to run well, and to run strong. I want them to add black to their mothers page, and hopefully boost their brothers and sisters futures just a little bit. But I also want them to retire sound, to have a chance. I want their managers, owners and trainers to ask themselves if that one last race at a level well below their highest is worth it. They have to ask themselves if that horse is running at that level because of a lack of desire, lack of ability, or worse: pain.

For the next 15 years that horse is going to face those consequences. One last race might mean one chipped knee. One torn suspensory. One bad experience. It could make the difference between an easy adoption or sale, or a horse who lingers in the field eating his weight in grain and being shod. It could make the difference between a life being loved by an aspiring upper level eventer, and one hobbling along a field in constant pain.

It could make the difference between life, or death.

I have always wanted to complete the cycle on one of my horses. I have watched as fillies return from the track to produce their own foals, and have also seen colts go on to stand as stallions. I have been able to watch from afar as some of “mine” have journeyed on to second careers, but I have never actually been able to be the one to ride them.

Until last night.

I traveled to Boyd’s Pass, MD to see a horse raised by Hinkle Farms under my watchful eye, before being purchased for $160,000 by Nick and Jacqui de Meric to pinhook into the 2-year-old sales. A horse who ran only ten times over the span of two years, but received our adulation and cheers in every single start. A horse whose connections chose to forfeit that one last race and instead placed him at New Vocations Thoroughbred Adoption in Lexington to secure that second career. A horse I then got to watch flourish in that second career for the past three years.

He goes by a lot of names now…I still call him “Spring”, Tom Hinkle refers to him as “The Malibu Moon”, his racing connections only know him as “Excess Liquidity”, and now his current owner puts him on competition entries as “Crossfire”, but affectionately calls him “Eddie” in the barn.

Lauren, Eddie and me.

I hadn’t seen “Eddie” since the fateful day where the gavel came down at $160,000. I was the one who led him to the ring, and I patted his neck on the way back with tears streaming down my face, uncertain as to who purchased him or what his future was.

He was lucky. The de Meric’s kept us in the loop and told us that they adored the horse just as much as I had, and for years I got to watch him race.

At the end of his race career his connections did what the good guys do: they gave him to New Vocations. Because he was still stunning, and more importantly still sound, he was adopted quickly and sent to Maryland.

Eddie and his mom Lauren Sumner

It is not “anti-racing”, or “pro-sport”; it is simply “pro-thoroughbred”.

It had been almost 7 years since I last saw Eddie, but I swear he still knew it was me. The girl who giggled as he came in from the paddock on his hind end. The girl who massaged his joints and meticulously picked the straw from his tail. The girl who would grab him in bear hugs to be lifted off the ground. And, as of last night, I got to check another thing off of the list. I became the girl who rode him…and I loved every minute of it.

But celebrating that hour of bliss doesn’t forfeit how important his pivotal years were. It doesn’t nullify his 10 starts, and it certainly doesn’t ignore his life before. But it was celebrated, nonetheless. With each circle, shoulder fore, and lengthening that I got to push him through, my smile only widened.

A life begun on a farm in Paris, KY has now journeyed to so many places. From the lucrative Keeneland sales to a training facility in Ocala. From racetracks all along the Eastern seaboard, and now to arrive at a rehoming facility only a few miles from his birthplace, then a quick trailer ride back to the state of his final race at Laurel Park.

Eddie as a yearling in Book 1 Keeneland September 2010

All of it is astonishing and great. A good upbringing, a trip to the auction ring, some breaks through the starting gate, and then a retirement at the perfect time.

Now he can add over 15 starts at recognized events, currently competing at training level, with preliminary in the near future. He can add hundreds of fences jumped, thousands of circles trotted, and a few blue ribbons won. To me, that second career doesn’t take anything away from the first. It is not one versus the other. It is not black and white. It is not linear. It is not “anti-racing”, or “pro-sport”; it is simply “pro-thoroughbred”.

This journey with these thoroughbreds should be cyclical, and last night, one circle became complete.

About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.