Author’s note: This week, I am re-running earlier stories, which were favorites among readers. Off-TrackThoroughbreds will resume its regular publication cycle on Monday, Sept. 24, 2012.
Rebecca and Robert Anderson don’t wear masks and capes when they saddle up and head to work. But when they swoop in to stop a runaway racehorse, or save a jockey from hitting the dirt, they appear to whoosh in like a superhero come to save the day.
In seconds, something can go wrong on a racetrack. It did in Race 5 on Aug. 21, 1998 at the former Bay Meadows racetrack.
Immediately after the starting gate opened and seven horses surged forward for an evening race, a jockey fell. The scared horse spun and careened the wrong way around the racetrack.
Robert was waiting. Urging his off-track Thoroughbred Fortac into his fastest gear, they pursued with such dogged determination that Robert later said of Fortac, “He’s a horse that would never give up.” Not that day, and not earlier in life, when a sudden illness brought him to the brink of death.
The Andersons kept him at University of California Veterinarian School for extensive treatment of an infection requiring multiple quarts of plasma. They never gave up on him, and at Bay Meadows, on that fateful night, he showed his fortitude once again.
As the jockey hopped away from the racetrack, the race between Robert Anderson and Fortac was so riveting that track videographers kept the film rolling. Please see a series of clips embedded at the end of the story. The last clip is the best).
Race name: Fortac
Sire: Fort Calgary
Dam: Taciturn Lady
Foal Date: March 3, 1990“We went at him pretty fast. At one point we passed a field of seven horses crossing the finishing line. We crossed the finish line too, going the wrong way,” he says. Robert caught up to the horse and tried to get the reins; but the racehorse spooked again, jumped Fortac’s heels, and kept on running.
“At the 7/8pole I knew the race was coming,” he says. Making split second decisions while battling to keep his own horse from being driven into the rail, Robert caught the loose horse in one of the most dramatic “pick ups” the racetrack had ever seen.
That evening, says his wife, “Bobby and his horse put their lives on the line to save seven other horses and their riders who were running head on.”
Daily life at the track is not so dramatic. Paraphrasing the line often used to describe an airline pilot’s job, he says, “It’s hours of boredom and seconds of terror.”
Yet, there’s something about horses and life at the track that has held onto the husband and wife team. For many years, she’s worked as a pony rider in Northern California’s Golden Gate Fields, while he has worked as an outrider.
It’s physically demanding, but very gratifying. It’s Rebecca’s strong hands that often reach out to rein in a horse who’s become too much for its jockey.
“I keep people from getting bucked off everyday,” she says. “These horses sometimes want to play or buck … I can usually prevent a jockey from hitting the ground. I like to think of myself as being like a pace car.”
Rebecca and Robert, who first met at a racetrack, have had horses at the center of their lives for a long time. His father owned racehorses for years, and she grew up in horsey Tennessee.
They started their own pony-rider business after she left her career as a flight attendant in 1991 to raise their son.
Along the way, they’ve never lost sight of the fact that it’s been Thoroughbreds that have kept their little family going, and kept them safe on the bad days, like the one five years ago.
“These horses give so much to us, and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have our business,” Rebecca says. “We know this. And we make sure we stand beside them when their careers end.”
In Fortac’s case, the horse was so loved by the Andersons that they retired him to a family farm in Oregon, where at 20, he is living a far more relaxing life. “I’ve got pictures of him standing in the snow with a bunch of blankets,” Rebecca says. “What a life!”
With their other horses, mostly ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, they’ve made a point to find them next careers. Working in partnership with Skyline Ranch, Oakland, Calif., these horses get retrained as lesson ponies, or for the therapeutic riding program.
While most outrider ponies live a life of quiet heroism, never recognized like the superstar racehorses they are, Fortac and Robert were honored in 2005 at Belmont Park. They were nominees for the national White Horse Heroes Award for the work they did at Bay Meadows. The award, given by the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, recognizes heroism on the racetrack.
“This horse was my husband’s partner for so many years. This horse performed a once-in-a-lifetime pickup” that night at Bay Meadows.
“We live in the shadow of the limelight, and yet, if people only realized the accidents we prevent and the amazing saves our horses make, they’d be amazed,” Rebecca adds. “Our ponies don’t get the credit that racehorses do. But we often hear the jockeys tell the racehorses, ‘That pony has more lifetime earnings than you do!’ But we live in the shadow of fame and fortune. And our ponies and their riders are the unsung heroes.”