On the very day that would help determine his fate – to live or die- the docile great-great grandson of Bold Ruler gave a gentle ride to all-comers.
Struggling with a medical condition that caused breathing difficulty, and that required surgery if he was ever to lead a normal life, the handsome dark bay was offered for free that day to anyone who could look past his condition and promise to provide him the surgery he so desperately needed.
Fifty-year-old Tennessee resident Juli Gavaldon was an unlikely candidate to do all that.
The first-time rider counted herself lucky just to be able to take riding lessons at the barn where Jackson (Jockey Club: Onlyifyouloveme) was stabled after changing hands several times in his post-racing career.
Barn name: Jackson
Sire: Kentucky Jazz
Foal date: Jan. 9, 1993The economy hadn’t been kind to her and her husband, she says, and the idea of making that kind of financial commitment to a racehorse, of all things, seemed crazy. And as a first-time rider, the notion of starting down the path to horse ownership with an ex-racehorse seemed ill advised. Not logical.
But that all changed the moment she slipped a tentative foot into the stirrup iron and hoisted her right leg over the back of the giving gelding, who never put a foot wrong as he carted her so carefully around at a walk.
“He was so good with everybody, not at all like what I was thinking a racehorse was like,” Gavaldon says, noting that after watching him give several other rides she was emboldened to try him. “I felt like I was taking a child’s pony ride.”
And by the time she dismounted, the wheels of fate had turned. After her ride, Gavaldon’s daughter convinced her to take a chance on the animal—think of him as a birthday gift, she said.
So, Gavaldon scraped together approximately $1,000 to pay for the surgery to remove a very large hematoma in Jackson’s upper right nasal cavity and for treatment of another in his upper left nasal cavity.
In addition, the animal underwent a tracheostomy procedure, which provided unrestricted airflow into his lungs via a golf-ball sized flap cut into his neck.
For a little while before he got better, he looked like a ragtag horse come through a battlefield, and spent months recuperating.
Gavaldon took him on short walks up the barn aisles twice daily, and he lavished her with affection. “He’d rest his head on my back while I cleaned his feet … and raised a front leg like he’s doing the Spanish Walk when he wanted a carrot,” she says, noting that his charm won her heart, and that of her husband.
“There was a point when Jackson had to be tubed, and I couldn’t be there to hold him for the vet, so my husband stood in for me,” she says. “He’d been kind of upset when I first got him; he wasn’t a horse person. But after that day, when he stood with that animal while he calmly underwent the procedure, he fell in love with that horse. He started to visit him to feed him treats, and that horse really converted my husband to horses and me to Thoroughbreds.”
Once Jackson recuperated, Gavaldon began to ride him. Nothing too bold. For a long time they walked, until his novice rider gained the confidence to try posting the trot. Occasionally, she even grabbed a handful of his black, silky mane, clucked at him, and leapt a tiny jump.
So that was the life. The two of them learning one another’s habits and idiosyncrasies and building a bond that was reward unto itself. But life sometimes has its way, without warning, of turning sorrow into joy and back again. And in January of this year, in the paddock of his barn, Jackson died.
He’d sustained injuries Gavaldon suspects, in a fight with another horse.
A year since she lost him, Gavaldon still cries when discussing the horse that changed her life.
“I can’t describe all what that horse did for us,” she says. “He brought the whole family together. He was like therapy. Whenever I would go to see him, I would forget about the problems in my life and just be with him … he was my best friend.”