Everyone thought Portia Winters had lost it.
Why, her curious friends asked, would she even consider owning a racehorse who had lived and competed on a track for eight years?
He’d be lame, they chorused. He’d have battle scars, they reasoned.
Winters knew better.
Having spent the better part of her equine career retraining and reselling animals that others might not have given a second look, she was fairly confident that Neartic Ice could be let down from a long, winning career at the Fort Erie racetrack, and emerge as a wonderful riding horse.
So, when Canadian jockey, and friend, Francine Villenueve-Anderson extolled the animal’s work ethic—even when he’s sore, she was told, Neartic Ice will push through it and keep on going —Winters was eager to meet the gelding who earned more than $160,000 in winnings.
Anderson says she watched the horse labor year after year at the Fort Erie track, where she earned a great racing record herself, and that she deeply admired the equine athlete.
“I just admired the old guy for running so hard every time out, and I could see his career was coming to an end,” Anderson says. “I wanted to make sure he was rewarded for his hard work.”
She contacted Winters and described his virtues so well that his future owner came to think of him as a survivor, long before they met. After all, he had pushed himself to win, year after year, past the time other racehorses would have retired.
But now in the Winter of 2009, as she took in the full spectacle of his physical presence, her jaw nearly dropped. Not only was the sleek, dark horse beautiful, but his condition was immaculate. Those legs her friends feared would be dinged up and bearing battle scars? They were clean as a whistle! “There wasn’t even a sign of a small bow,” she says.
Race name: Neartic Ice
Barn name: Batman
Sire: King Neartic
Dam: Golden Gallary, by Barachois
Foal date: May 4, 1997
Earnings: 160,695And his coat, so dark, nearly black, shone without a blemish. Or, even a speck of white.
“When my friends saw him, they were all so impressed because his legs were so clean,” she says. “Even my daughter couldn’t believe it. I think everyone definitely had a different opinion once they saw him.”
He settled into the Pasco County, Fla. barn where she boards and teaches lessons, and Winters started working with him.
Having re-trained approximately 50 other ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, Winters learned quickly that the horse they all called Batman, had no patience for 20-meter circles in a riding ring.
The more bored he got with flatwork, the more anxious he became.
So, Winters decided to shake things up by taking him foxhunting!
“He loved it! The more chaotic it is, the calmer he becomes,” she says. “When you think about it, life on the track can be chaotic, and I think some horses like it. Batman just goes into a zone when there’s commotion all around him.”
Amid the chaos, he shines. He puts his head down and gets to work.
Again, to the amazement of friends who’d previously warned that the horse would “kill her” on a foxhunt, Batman went through, around or over every obstacle and every challenge he confronted.
“Absolutely nothing fazes him with the foxhunts, or at a hunter/pace, not even the carriage horses,” she says. “At home, it’s a different story. When it’s quiet he’ll start paying attention to the wind blowing through the grass and go on high alert.”
In all the years of working with horses—her career includes stints as an exercise rider, an owner/operator of a boarding and training facility, and currently, Winters is a vet tech for an equine services company—it has been the rare horse who has wormed his way into her heart the way Batman has.
“I’ve had two other Thoroughbreds before him who stayed with me until their last days. My last Thoroughbred gelding stayed with me until he was 21, and died of liver failure.
“Now I have Batman, and there’s just something about him; he’ll be with me until his last days.”
In him, she may never have a show horse on a par with the many talented animals she has started, but with Batman, she has an animal she can respect. He worked hard at the track. He pushed himself to perform. And now he’s very brave when she asks him.
“He’d go through anything for me. The first time I took him foxhunting, he was in a new place, with horses all over the place, and dogs running around his legs,” she says. “He took it all in stride. He never bolted; he never flipped out; he never got worried.”
In the barn where Batman lives, there are many well-heeled Warmbloods, and some very fancy Thoroughbreds, purchased directly from the major sales, but never raced.
Each one is owned by an equestrian with strong opinions on which horses make the best riding prospects, and for whom.
And few believed the seasoned track campaigner would be a good fit for Winters.
But, three years later, even the most skeptical has had a change of heart.
“People say it’s amazing how well we’ve bonded,” she says. “They tell me that when Batman hears my truck, he looks around for me.
“When I walk down the aisle of the barn, he starts whinnying for me, and if I go out to his eight-acre paddock at night, where he’s turned out, he’ll walk right over to me.
“He’s one horse I’ll never sell.”