Working 22 years for the Kentucky Department of Corrections wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t the type of career John C. Nolley ever imagined would lead to Thoroughbreds. Or racing.
The Kentuckian grew up just a few miles from Churchill Downs, but in other ways, he lived quite a distance from the ‘sport of kings.’
He spent five years in the Marine Corps before going to work in administration for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. And after a chance meeting with a barn manager, he found his way to horses.
And more specifically, the fields and barns of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). Not only a refuge where approximately 70 ex-racehorses were cared for by inmates, its pastoral setting was also something of an inspiration to Nolley. Shortly after meeting a representative from the TRF, Nolley found himself working weekends at a farm.
In his free time, he drove 80 miles to Lexington to care for horses, and though some friends called him “crazy” to drive all that way, the experience kept him coming back.
“Working in different prisons for 22 years, well, I’ve seen some drama from time to time,” he says. “But when I’m in the barn in the morning, it’s just—peace.
“When you put your hands on a horse, I think it’s just good for your soul.”
For inmates at the Blackburn Correctional Complex, the positions at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation are coveted, he says. In a longstanding “win-win” partnership between Blackburn and the TRF, inmates take care of the horses, grooming, feeding, and cleaning up after them. In return, they learn skills that could be marketable later on.
“These are highly sought-after positions among inmates because they get to work with horses,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation for the department and the TRF. The horses get great care, and the work in some ways cuts down on recidivism because it gives inmates an opportunity to learn job skills for future employment opportunities.”
Nolley first became connected with the TRF after a chance meeting with a farm manager with the program. Soon after the meeting, Nolley became determined to learn about horses himself, and with the manager’s help, landed a weekend job with Lexington breeder Woodlynn Farm.
After three years learning about horses from the ground up, he started a small racing stable with friends at the Department of Corrections.
Fittingly named Justice Racing Stables LLC, the venture was launched in the fall of 2005. With black and gold racing silks depicting the scales of justice, the enterprise promises to keep at its core the values of “integrity and honesty.”
The stable offers a chance for the “little guys” to partake in the excitement and passion of racing by purchasing small shares in a racehorse, he explains. “We believe Thoroughbred ownership can be possible for anyone with a true passion for the sport,” he says.
And the small stable remains cognizant of how important it is to ensure an equine athlete wins a post-racing career or retirement, he says, adding that the stable will always endeavor to support the work of the TRF and its horse-welfare mission.
In small ways, his stable has helped the organization, donating cash in good times, and collects used equipment for the facility, and hosting benefit breakfasts as well.
“At the end of the season we go to the backside of Churchill Downs and try to find equipment that trainers aren’t taking with them,” things like broken halters and buckets that with a little fixing up. “We’re not folks with great means, but if by chance we can collect on behalf of the TRF, and save them a little money, we’ll do it,” he says.
It’s a way for Nolley to give back to the horses who infuse his life with excitement, and might one day lead to a second career for the law enforcement official.
“I think I have a pretty good feel for Thoroughbreds. I’ve been around them quite a bit, and I’ve worked with them on the farm. I guess they get a feel for you too,” he says. “I’m hoping to one day, after retirement, work as a trainer.”
For a Kentuckian who never knew what the fuss was all about, Thoroughbreds have ignited a passion for the sport, and a compassion for ex-racers that will guide Nolley into his next career.