Lt. John was a soldier of a racehorse who had the heart to battle on, despite nagging injuries, and who was blessed with an owner who made damned sure that after his last battle was waged, the big bay would have a welcome home.
So when Lt. John finished poorly in a race at Saratoga this past August, his owner John R. Murrell, a good steward of racing who is known to spend thousands saving other peoples’ racehorses from the slaughter pipeline, pulled out all the stops.
Typically on the receiving end of urgent phone requests from Thoroughbred advocates who are racing to raise funds to save racehorses from meat buyers, and always willing to pledge the cash that saves them from slaughter, Murrell now placed an outgoing call on behalf of one of his own.
And in doing so, he touched off a chain-reaction for the good that, swept up two Thoroughbred charities and an ex-racehorse trainer in a quest to make certain that Lt. John, recently diagnosed with a serious back condition, would live out his days without ever again having to bear the load of rider and weight.
“Responsible horsemen take care of their troops,” Morrell says. “Lt. John had his share of trials; he was scared of objects and had nagging injuries. But, I wanted the best for him, as I do for any of my horses that need retirement.
“It’s what all horse owners should want. Stewardship and responsibility are the keys.”
Race name: Lt. John
Sire: Monashee Mountain
Foal date: Jan. 29, 2006With those principled opinions, Murrell phoned Susan Swart, director of the New York chapter of Re-Run, Inc., a Thoroughbred adoption charity, and asked for her assistance in finding Lt. John a permanent home.
It was a call Swart was happy to receive.
“When I got John’s call, the first words out of his mouth were that he wanted to know where his horse was at all times, and he wanted to make sure he was taken care of,” Swart says. “I could tell right away that he was concerned about his horse.”
In mid-August, Lt. John arrived at her 17-horse facility in New York, which augments Re-Run farms in New Jersey, North Carolina.
“From the minute that horse walked off the trailer, I noticed something was funky,” Swart says. “We turned him out the next day, and I’ve never had a track horse that did not attempt to bust a gut running as soon as they’re turned loose. But he didn’t do that. We had to chase him with a lunge whip just to get him to move.”
A subsequent veterinary diagnosis revealed that Lt. John had Kissing Spine, a condition causing his vertebrae to pinch uncomfortably, she says.
What this meant was that Lt. John was no longer a candidate for a retraining program; he would not be recommended as a prospective riding horse, she says.
Both Murrell and Swart called around looking for a non-riding retirement home, but after a few promising bites, came up empty.
Not to be defeated, Swart called Erin Chase Pfister, a manager at Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue in Pawling, N.Y. and asked for a favor.
The two retirement facilities struck a deal: In exchange for a lifetime retirement for Lt. John at the New York facility founded by longtime horseman and Thoroughbred welfare advocate John Hettinger, two Akindale Thoroughbreds would be traded to Re-Run and put into a re-training program run by well-known trainer Lisa Molloy.
Pfister didn’t hesitate.
“I said of course we would help with him,” Pfister says. “John Murrell is very active in saving horses from the kill pen, and in a way it’s like karma; what goes around comes around, and we were happy to help him.”
Akindale and Re-Run agreed to split any fees associated with retraining the two Thoroughbreds with Lisa Molloy, and both sides were happy with the arrangement.
Pfister emphasized that Thoroughbred agencies need to work together when they can to help a horse in need.
And Swart noted that Murrell is setting an example for all Thoroughbred owners.
“We always talk about how we need to get the owners to be more caring,” she says. “John did everything he needed to do to get the horse to Re-Run. He did all the paperwork, contacted us, and did everything to help.
“When I got Lt. John’s paperwork, I saw there was a letter attached, signed by John, that said if it becomes necessary to sell this horse, to please contact him, and he would buy him back.”
Barring any weather-related problems, Lt. John is due to ship to the sprawling New York countryside where about 150 Thoroughbreds roam.
“It’s very pretty there,” Swart says, “and Lt. John will never have to worry about carrying weight again. He will never again have a rider on his back.”