At just a year old, she had already seen herd mates die of starvation, while others around her wallowed sick and starving in filth. The smallest among a massive herd of 177 Thoroughbreds at an upstate New York farm, she struggled daily to get by on thin rations, yet still survive.
But Annie didn’t cower.
Not when the Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA raided the farm in the Hudson River Valley where she and more than 170 other horses like her languished; not when she was taken away to live with new owners; and not when, against all probability, she went on to work with legendary Seattle Slew trainer Billy Turner.
Race name: Notinrwildestdremz
Barn name: Annie
Dam: Shelley’s Wind
Foal date: April 8, 2008“She stood with such confidence,” says Angelika Hala-Kerr, recalling the first time she and her husband Sean Kerr met Annie, one of three Thoroughbreds they would adopt after a raid on owner and breeder Ernie Paragallo’s farm in April 2009. “Nothing frightened her.”
Small as she was, just over 14 hands, the little girl the Kerrs adopted gamely took on everything that was asked of her over the years, including race training with Seattle Slew’s legendary trainer Billy Turner to become the only Thoroughbred rescued from Paragallo’s farm to run a real horserace.
Though Annie finished last in the only race she’ll ever run, the Kerrs declared her Belmont Park race on May 16, 2012 a victory. For all the abandoned horses thought of as “discards,” her no-holds-barred run for the finish line showed that in the heart of a Thoroughbred racehorse is the boldness to charge forward through anything.
“This was a discard, a horse who could have ended up in a slaughter auction,” Hala-Kerr says. “We tried to show the industry, the powers that be, that she deserved the chance” to eclipse her stark beginnings on Paragallo’s farm.
Paragallo was eventually convicted of 33 counts of animal cruelty for starving and neglecting horses on his Hudson Valley Farm, and was sentenced to two years in jail, according to the NY Times.
And Annie the “firecracker” found her place in the world.
Leased for $1 a year by small animal veterinarian Michele McKenna from the Kerr family, who vowed never to sell their rescue horse, Annie is continuing to break new ground as a rare Thoroughbred participant in the equine sport of Mounted Games.
McKenna was unaware of Annie’s past when she met the horse by happenstance at her Maryland barn, and was immediately taken by her personality under saddle.
“The first time I sat on her, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I love this horse!’ Even though she’s little, she has this bring-it-on personality,” McKenna says.
Nothing fazed her. In fact, she seemed to welcome new challenges, she adds.
“I took her along to a foxhunt one day, and my (main) horse threw a shoe, so I looked at her and said, ‘OK Annie, today’s your day.’ When all the hounds came rushing off the trailer, like a swarm, she didn’t even react. She’s got that kind of mind, it’s like she’s ready for anything.”
Soon after her hunting experience, McKenna turned Annie over to her daughter Laura Barbour to ride in Mounted Games, which, she explains, takes a cool equine head.
In teams of four, horse and riders race in relays against the clock to perform a variety of challenges. They joust at the gallop; they race up to balloons to pop them; and all the while, other teams of four dart about the arena in what looks like nothing more than a chaotically choreographed dance.
“She’s this amazing horse, McKenna says. “There’s not a lot of fear in her, and she has this spark. When I first met Annie, I had no idea about her backstory. But when I learned that she was the only one out of all those rescued horses to make it to racetrack, and that she trained with Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew, I got goosebumps. And it made sense.”
McKenna’s daughter agrees wholeheartedly.
“Annie is easily one of the most intelligent horses I have ever ridden,” Barbour says. “She’s incredibly brave and level-headed.”
Barbour, who has traveled to Wales for the Royal Welsh Show, France for La Nocturne, and New Zealand for the 2013 Mounted Games World Team Championships, is no slouch when it comes to judging the character of a mount. In Annie, she sees the makings of a champion.
After starting Annie in the Green Pony division of Mounted Games, she was amazed at how well the tiny Thoroughbred took to it. “Mounted Games can be a bit overwhelming for horses that are new to it; balloons are popping, flags are flying, and other ponies gallop straight toward them for handoffs,
while others gallop beside them, weaving through poles,” she says. That scene, combined with riders who jump on and off their mounts to the cheers and waves of fans is too much for most horses.
“Annie was a bit anxious at first, but as soon as she figured out what was going on, and that it was fun and competitive, she immediately loved it,” she says. “She is naturally a very competitive mare and wants to win.”
Annie competes in the upcoming Open Division of the Great Frederick Fair on Sept. 13 but in our book, she’s already won.
Off-TrackThoroughbreds.com congratulates Angelika Hala-Kerr, Sean Kerr, Michele McKenna and Laura Barbour for seeing the light in Annie.