Every morning the youngster sprang from bed, exhilarated.
Hers was only a little “job” granted by a kindly neighbor who doubtlessly wanted to allow the horse-loving girl a glimpse of his temptingly beautiful herd of racehorses.
But it was an awesome responsibility for a 10-year-old. “It was my job to look after the horses,” recalls Patti Shirley, vice president of the Pima County Horseman’s Association.
Her work, essentially, was to guard them. She walked the fields to make sure the horses were all fine—that nobody had hurt themselves in a fluke accident— and she kept an eye out for trespassers.
On several occasions she saw a young girl sneak onto the field, clamber up on the backs of the Thoroughbreds, and ride them flat out, bareback, with no halter. Shirley never learned the identity of the interloper, but she imagined she was watching a jockey great like Julie Krone.
“I never did get close to her; she always bailed off the horses when she saw me,” Shirley says. “But boy what a rider she was!”
On those idyllic summer days watching the horses, she also got a glimpse of what her life would later be.
Soon after graduating Arizona State and beginning work as a teacher, she met and married her sweetheart, Dale Shirley.
Her dentist husband had zero interest in horses at the time, but would eventually spark her lifelong association with Thoroughbreds and racing.
It began innocently enough. She attended a racehorse sale in Scottsdale, announcing to her spouse that she was going with a friend to scout it out.
“I remember after I told him, he warned me not to come back with a horse,” she says, chuckling. “But, while I was at the sale, a horse named Doc Sweet Surprise came up for auction—it was just prophetic.”
A quick call to her husband to get his consent, and they were off to the races!
After purchasing the mare, and bringing their first foal into the world, the couple was hooked. In quick order, they purchased a farm, brought in a few more horses, and eventually, Shirley, at her husband’s suggestion, obtained a trainer’s license.
From 1998 to 2011, she raced horses at New Mexico racetrack Ruidoso Downs; an oval that recently grabbed front-page New York Times headlines for being among the most dangerous to jockeys and horses. And the couple also raced horses at other tracks as well, including Rillito Park Racetrack, where her husband went on to hold non-paying positions as Director of Racing and General Manager of the track.
Together, they worked alongside some great horsemen, and some not-so-great ones. “Just like anywhere, there’s good and there’s bad,” she says.
But in Shirley’s world, there was a lot of good. The couple soon decided that what pleasure and profit they made in the races was secondary to taking care of their great animals.
So smitten was Shirley with the athletes who worked for her, that if she lost one to a claim, she made sure to claim the horse back at the earliest opportunity. In this way, she held on to just about every horse she and her husband ever raced.
Although there were many, many stories of re-claiming action, one in particular tickles her funny bone.
Racehorse Kotuspeeding was the most high-strung, high-maintenance horse she ever owned, a favorite, despite his quirks. He was also the least likely to catch the eye of another owner. Or so she thought.
She put him in a $10,000 tag, and he was gone in an instant.
“I was so shocked that he got claimed!” she says. “The thing about this horse was that he was a nervous wreck. He would weave in his stall. We did everything to keep him calm before he raced.”
What she knew, but the unsuspecting claimer didn’t, was that his sensitive nature required lots of coddling and finessing to get him to perform.
He had to be exercised early, for example, so he wouldn’t be cooped up in his stall too long, and become claustrophobic. And he had to be given a diuretic to make him urinate before a run, otherwise, he’d refuse to go, and wouldn’t race well.
The lovely Texas couple who took her horse soon figured it out, though. With consternation, they approached Shirley’s trainer the day after claiming Kotuspeeding.
“They ran into one of my trainers in the parking lot and said, ‘Oh my gosh! What do you do to keep him calm?’ ”
Later, Kotuspeeding managed a fourth-place finish, and the couple approached Shirley: “Are you claiming him back?” they asked.
“I said, ‘Damned straight I am!’ And, I got him back for $7,500!”
The way the Shirleys figured it, the horses who worked so hard for them deserved to come home with them after their track careers ended.
Although her husband, an integral force in their horse business, died tragically in 2002 from complications after surgery, their devotion to horses lives on in a 120-acre ranch in Tucson, Ariz.
On this stretch of land, back in 2005, Shirley founded Equine Encore Foundation, a racehorse retirement facility for successful equine athletes.
“The farm came about shortly after I won a big race at Sunland Park,” she says. “I was being interviewed, and I started saying, off the top of my head, that the industry needs to be worrying about these horses after they leave the track. I made this speech, and it was reported in the media.
“That’s when I decided that I should take the lead on this.”
Good to her word, Shirley currently houses 70 ex-racehorses on her farm, most big-money winners in their heyday. And she is continually keeping tabs on horses who might need her help.
“I have a virtual stable where I keep track of certain horses, and a network of friends who tell me about others,” she says. “The problem is that a lot of people find horses for me, but they never find the funding to support their care.”
As time has passed and her herd has grown, Shirley has made the personally difficult decision to fundraise. In 2005, her nonprofit took in $5,000 in donations. In 2011, it took in $118,000, she says.
“There’s only so much money out there for nonprofits, and I don’t like asking for money,” she says, noting that sometimes the magnitude of her work is daunting. It’s even a little depressing at times, she admits.
But then the horses drive the blues away.
On one recent Sunday, she walked into the paddock after a rainstorm.
Horses who had “clearly forgotten they were old” romped like youngsters through muddy puddles.
Watching from a safe distance, Shirley snapped a picture. This chance moment, after a storm, was a reminder of why she does what she does.
“These horses have given so much to us, and they ask so little in return,” she says. “We need more people in the racing industry to step up and take care of their athletes.”