Lauren Bullard could feel the calculation in their eyes as they scrutinized Unjust, her 17-hand gelding who on Valentines Day back in 2009, was entering a claiming race at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
These horsemen couldn’t help but notice the fine figure parading before them; a tall, big-boned beauty who had already won $100,000 in races from Turfway Park to Churchill Downs.
“I saw a couple of well-known claim buyers and I gave them dirty looks. They were looking at my baby, he was my favorite, and he looked fantastic, of course,” Bullard says. “He always shines and looks beautiful, and I could tell they were thinking, ‘Gosh, he looks great.’ ”
As she feared, Unjust won his $7,500 claiming race that day and without haste the valets came by and clipped a tag on Unjust’s bridle: he’d been claimed.
“Being a woman on the racetrack, you really try to keep your cool. But that day I didn’t care. I couldn’t stop bawling,” she says. “As a trainer you always worry when a horse gets claimed because you don’t know where they’re going after they leave you.”
Race name: Unjust
Barn name: Lou
Foal date: May 14, 2003
But leave he did, and with giant tears rolling down her face, Bullard watched as the claim-buyer’s groom put a new halter on the horse she called Lou and without ceremony, lead him away.
Clutching her cell phone, Bullard was on the phone the entire time with Loren Osborne, Unjust’s owner, as the transfer was made. As they spoke, they worried openly about their baby, and whatever fate might be in store.
“I remember getting back to the barn where he lived and I didn’t have it in me to take his name off his feed tub,” she says.
For months Bullard and the Osbornes, Loren and her husband David, kept track of Unjust’s whereabouts. They studied training reports, followed his progress on a virtual stable and eventually found him entered in a claiming race at Churchill Downs.
“He’d come to race on a track that was essentially in our backyard, said Loren Osborne.
The seven-year-old, it would turn out, had never won again since Oaklawn Park, and was now available for claim in a $5,000 claimer.
“I’ll never forget it when Loren (Osborne) said ‘Lets go ahead and claim him back,’ ” says Bullard. And with that, the two went to the track that day to happily hand over the cash for seventh-place finisher.
After his last race was run, and the claim was official, Bullard immediately slipped his old halter onto his head, and together with Osborne, took him to the Osborne’s farm in Prospect, Ky., where Unjust was given a well-deserved three-month vacation.
As they watched their baby settle into farm life, Osborne and Bullard debated whether to run him again, and decided pretty quickly that their hard-knocking fighter deserved to take it easy now.
Instead, Osborne and Bullard decided next to retrain him as a hunter/jumper, a transition, it turns out, was easy as pie.
“He thinks it is so fun to hop over little jumps, but he’s an overachiever, so he tries to be the best at whatever job you give him,” Bullard says.
After performing decently at schooling shows in Frankfurt, Ky., last February, Unjust won a pair of second place ribbons at an all-Thoroughbred show in October. “He came in second in a 2-foot-6 jumper class, losing first place by only three tenths of a second.”
This year, she plans to ride Unjust in more shows, ensuring the “sweet, laid back” Thoroughbred for whom she has such a soft spot has a happy life.
“In this business, there are definitely those who are smart enough not to fall in love with their horses, but I was never one of them,” she says. “I’m extremely soft hearted when it comes to the racehorses I’ve worked with, and Lou was always one of my absolute favorites.
“I’m so happy we have him back.”