OTTBs complete ‘ride of a lifetime,’ cross USA

Valerie Ashker, 60, finished a six-month, 3,300-mile ride on her OTTB Primitivo this weekend. Ashker and Peter Friedman road from California to Virginia to raise awareness about OTTBs. Photo by and courtesy Tylir Penton

Valerie Ashker, 60, finished a six-month, 3,300-mile ride on her OTTB Primitivo this weekend. Ashker and Peter Friedman road from California to Virginia to raise awareness about OTTBs. Photo by and courtesy Tylir Penton

Nearly six months since setting out from California —on horseback— to tackle the ride of a lifetime across the United States, Valerie Ashker and Peter Friedman completed the 3,300-mile journey last weekend at Virginia’s Middleburg Training Track.

Ashker’s daughter and four-star Eventer Laine Ashker wept with joy, as friends, family and supporters gathered to welcome the tired travelers, and thousands more watched online, as the two unflappable Thoroughbred ex-racehorses trotted onto the track as if they’d just come in from a hack.

Glistening in good health, and sporting robust figures, Primitivo, 7, and Solar Express, 17, carried Ashker and Friedman toward the welcoming committee, which was organized by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. And for old time’s sake, the two racehorses were galloped toward the track’s finish line—their long ride over, a page turned to another chapter.

Primitivo
Sire: Monashee Mountain
Dam: Siberian Shamrock, by Siberian Summer
Foal date: May 6, 2009
*
Solar Express
Sire: Bold Badgett
Dam: Proper Look, by Properantes
Foal date: May 18, 1999
“I’ve actually been melancholy,” says Valerie Ashker. “After all this time, it’s hard to start a new chapter.”

Ashker set out on the blockbuster trip in early May, departing Crow’s Ear Farm in Georgetown, Calif., with Friedman, a man who’d only ever sat on a horse a time or two before this ride. But when his dear friend Ashker said she planned to ride an OTTB across the country to raise awareness about the breed, he amazed his work friends and saddled up to join her.

“I’m a machinist by trade and everyone at work hears me moaning and groaning about my aches and pains. They had a bet that I wouldn’t make it through Nevada,” Friedman says. “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it was so rewarding.”

Ashker, who sustained broken ribs and a broken clavicle and other health challenges en route, encouraged Friedman throughout a journey that saw the novice rider pilot a 17-year-old “on the muscle” Thoroughbred over mountains, and through city streets.

Valerie Ashker and Peter Friedman are overjoyed as they arrive in Middleburg, Va.

Valerie Ashker and Peter Friedman are overjoyed as they arrive in Middleburg, Va.

Friedman adds, “If Valerie could ride with broken ribs, I couldn’t not ride. I learned a lot watching her; she was my guide all along.”

The pair’s accomplishment amazed Laine Ashker.

“Thousands of riders train to ride a four-star event, but I can probably count on one hand the number of people who’ve crossed the United States riding one horse,” Laine Ashker says. “What they’ve done is just so much more amazing. But I don’t think many people grasp it. It’s not like a little trail ride. If you think about what you’ve done the last six months; for instance, I’ve been to Ireland and New Jersey, I broke a shoulder, and this entire time, they’ve been out on this ride.”

And the daily riding is only one part of the trip, which included breaking down and setting up camp, erecting corral fencing, feeding and watering the horses, and of course, making dinner for themselves. “It’s the true American way, a story of grit and perseverance and getting it done,” says Laine Ashker.

With her trip now behind her, Valerie Ashker is making plans to turn a new page in her career. She recently sold her farm in California and will reside at Laine’s farm, Keystone Acres in Chesterfield, Va. and she plans to develop a series of training videos that take an OTTB novice from purchase to training and showing. She will continue to update her Facebook page, 2nd Makes Thru Starting Gates with news and updates of her next chapter.

“This whole trip has been so amazing,” Valerie Ashker says. “We’ve had so much support along the way. I hope it helps to empower people to give an OTTB a chance.”

TRF auctions exciting race legend memorabilia

An opinionated OTTB at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation hopes Santa puts something good in his stocking this year because he's been very, very good!

An opinionated OTTB at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation hopes Santa puts something good in his stocking this year because he’s been very, very good! Today is Giving Tuesday, and the horses at the TRF welcome a small donation.

Saratoga Springs, NY – Items celebrating the racing careers of such Thoroughbreds at Triple Crown winners Secretariat, American Pharoah and Affirmed, as well as legends like Man o’War and Seabiscuit will be offered during the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Annual Online Holiday Auction fundraiser that begins Monday, November 21st at 8 a.m. concluding Monday, December 5th at 10 p.m.

The auction will not only will benefit the horses in the TRF herd, but will make holiday shopping for racing fans that much easier. All auction items have been donated to the TRF and proceeds from the auction will benefit the TRF’s herd of former racehorses. Simply go to the following link: https://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/auctionhome.action?vhost=trfauction

The halter worn by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is among the exciting TRF auction items.

The halter worn by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is among the exciting TRF auction items.

Auction items include a halters worn by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and 2015 American Champion Two-Year-Old Filly Songbird; several items, including the identification package, related to the legendary Secretariat; signed photographs of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed and his rival, Alydar; a bronze of the great Man o’War; and a framed, limited-edition news package of Seabiscuit’s victory over 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral in their “Match Race of the Century” in the 1938 Pimlico Special.

Secretariat's Universal Home Identification System will be auctioned to raise funds for racehorses retired at the TRF.

Secretariat’s Universal Home Identification System will be auctioned to raise funds for racehorses retired at the TRF.

Also available at this auction are memorabilia of John Henry, one of the top horses of the 20th century, Funny Cide, the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby; Songbird, the juvenile filly champion of 2015 and signed goggles and whips worn by Hall of Fame jockeys John Velazquez, Laffit Pincay Jr.; Jerry Bailey and Edgar Prado.

About the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation: The TRF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt organization entirely dependent on public contributions. Founded in 1983, the TRF is the the oldest and largest equine sanctuary of its kind. Its mission is to save Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. Most of the horses in the TRF herd live at TRF Second Chances Farms at various correctional facilities across the country. Donations from generous individuals, businesses and foundations account for 100% of the TRF budget. For more information contact TRF at 518-226-00287 or visit http://www.trfinc.org/, or to make a donation on Tuesday Giving Day, please do so here: https://trf20546.thankyou4caring.org/Make-A-Gift.

Spendthrift Farm donates $30K to Old Friends

Michael Blowen, left, accepts a generous donation to his Thoroughbred sanctuary Old Friends.

Michael Blowen, left, accepts a generous donation to his Thoroughbred sanctuary Old Friends.

Spendthrift Farm, one of the Thoroughbred industry’s leading breeding farms, has made a generous donation of $30,000 to Old Friends, the Thoroughbred Retirement Facility in Georgetown, KY.

Spendthrift, owned by B. Wayne Hughes and located in Lexington, plans to donate the purse earned by a third-place finish in the inaugural “Spendthrift Stallion Stakes,” which was run at Churchill Downs on October 30. The decision was announced Nov. 25.

Earlier this year, Spendthrift Farm partnered with Churchill Downs to create the Spendthrift Stallion Stakes, a $300,000-guaranteed stakes race to be run in the fall for 2-year-olds that are sired exclusively by Spendthrift stallions.

The inaugural running in 2016 was part of Churchill Downs’ 12th annual “Stars of Tomorrow” program, which is entirely devoted to 2-year-old racing.

Third-place finisher Lawton is the 2-year-old son of Archarcharch.

Spendthrift is home to many other prominent stallions including Into Mischief, Dominus, Malibu Moon, Warrior’s Reward, Temple City, Tizway, and Wicked Strong.

“What Michael Blowen has done with Old Friends has been a great service to the industry,” said Ned Toffey, Spendthrift General Manager, who presented Blowen with a check this week. “It’s a great cause, it’s good for owners, breeders, and also for the fans and so we were very happy to do this.” Toffey added. “We as an industry need to provide for these horses.”

“We are grateful to Mr. Hughes, Ned, and everyone at Spendthrift, and can’t thank them enough for this show of support,” said Michael Blowen, president and founder of Old Friends. “Such a contribution will go a long way in providing for our retired horses.” For more information about Spendthrift visit the website at www.spendthriftfarm.com.

Va. officer helps inmates heal with horses

Officer Shane Clarke of the Virginia Department of Corrections plays an integral role in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's racehorse/prisoner program Second Chances. Pictured with one of his favorite ex-racehorses, Toasty.

Officer Shane Clarke of the Virginia Department of Corrections plays an integral role in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s racehorse/prisoner program Second Chances. Pictured with one of his favorite ex-racehorses, Toasty.

Officer Shane Clarke of Virginia’s James River Work Center never gets tired of hearing the voices of paroled inmates who call him on the barn phone; the very barn that was at once a humble home for horses and a kind of schoolroom, where those dispossessed learned to pick hooves, feed and interact with 1,200 pound animals who in turn helped them find their way.

“I’d say that when I hear from guys who’ve gotten out of prison and are doing well, that’s about the greatest part of my job,” says Clarke, an officer with James River Work Center for 15 years, 10 spent working in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s prisoner/racehorse program, Second Chances. “When they call, it tells me they thought enough of the program to keep in touch. I heard from one guy who told me he and his wife are doing well, and they’re having a child. And another who just wanted to say hi and ask how everybody’s doing.”

Since James River accepted its first retired racehorses 10 years ago, and began training inmates horsemanship skills, Clarke has been an enthusiastic mainstay of the center, the prison farm, and on weekends off, the volunteer cook at many an Open Barn.

In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Clarke discusses how his career path led him to the Virginia Department of Corrections and the horsemanship program he admired so much, such that he jumped in and took the classes himself.

Q: How’d you wind up at the TRF’s James River program?

Clarke with his favorite TRF retiree, Scary Guy.

Clarke with his favorite TRF retiree, Scary Guy.

About 15 years ago I was working for Verizon and loved it. But as cell phones got more popular and people got rid of landlines, which in turn cut out the “trouble calls” I assisted with, our workload lessened, and I was laid off along with 41 other technicians. At the time, my wife and I had just built our home and my son was six months old. So I went to my next-door neighbor, who worked for the Department of Corrections, and asked how he liked working there. I heard good things and decided to apply for a job. I’ve been there ever since.

Q: What did you think when you first heard that horses may come to James River?

The first word I got about it came from Heather Mitchell, a counselor at James River at the time. She worked for the Department of Corrections and told me they were trying to get a horse program started here. I was ecstatic. Both my grandparents and my parents had horses. My grandparents rode Thoroughbreds and Arabians, and my mother rode and showed Quarter Horses. So, when I heard, I immediately told my supervisor I wanted to be a part of it.

Q: What is your role in the TRF’s Second Chances program?

First and foremost I was brought down here for security. But, once I met Dr. Reid McLellan (the developer of the Second Chances training and classroom materials) I decided to take the same courses the guys were taking. I’d be silly to be down here if I didn’t know how to take care of horses myself, so I asked if I could get the book, and I studied and took the exams with the inmates.

Q: Does working together with horses ease any tension that might exist between law enforcement and inmates?

Clarke and inmates see to the care of one of 28 racehorses retired at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's James River location.

Clarke and inmates see to the care of one of 28 racehorses retired at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s James River location.

Well, I very seldom butt heads with any offenders. I give them respect and they give it back. I understand that we all mistakes and as for the guys coming through the program, most of them know who I am, and am hoping they would say I’m a good guy. We’re all a big family around here.

Q: What are your best memories from the farm?

Mostly it’s those moments when I hear from the guys who’ve left the program and have gotten out. When I hear from them that they’re on their feet and doing OK, those are the best memories. Or when we’ve had some of the guys come back to teach, like we have with three of our farriers. These men have gone on to become professional farriers, and they come back to tell the new guys what they’re doing. Some of them are newly married, and they’re all doing well. That’s pretty gratifying.

Q: You’ve also watched many transformations in your time.

Being down here all the time, I see the changes that take place everyday. As a new horse comes in, I watch how they change. They’re not pushed here, and they live out in a herd, and it really transforms them. And some of the new offenders coming in are usually a little nervous to start, and they should be working around a 1,200-pound animal, so it really means a lot to watch how they all learn to adapt to one another.

We have 28 horses now, including two descendants from Secretariat—Covert Action and Multiple Choice. But my favorites are Scary Guy, a huge horse, and Toasty, who lived to be 32 before he was euthanized.

Q: I understand you wear several hats around the barn?

I like to help out as much as I can. When we have Open Barns for the general public, I come in on my days off to cook hamburgers and hotdogs for the public. Or if we have any other special event, I like to be part of it. I bring my family, and they love it.

Officer Clarke is one of the individuals within the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation who helps ensure a long and happy life for retired racehorses and a path to healing for prison inmates.