In 2004 it seemed everyone became a racing fan. That’s when Smarty Jones burst onto racing’s big stage with storybook victories in the Derby and Preakness, and the cover of Sports Illustrated was emblazoned with the great racehorse’s image.
Even a retired high school teacher, who was so non-horsey she shrugged with indifference when she first heard his name, became ensnared as the possibility of a Triple Crown victory excited the nation. In fact, Susan Kearney, 65, grew so passionate about the lives of these galloping athletes, that she went on to co-found a fundraising group committed to helping Thoroughbreds not so famous, nor nearly so lucky as the rock-star stallion.
“The day my mother told me there’s some horse at Philly Park who’s going to run in the Derby, I was like, oh, okay,” Kearney says. “I wasn’t a horse person, and I didn’t have any concept about how special it was that a horse like that would be coming out of Philadelphia Park.”
But after the dust settled, and Smarty was retired to Three Chimneys Farm to stand at stud, Kearney’s excitement for racehorses continued to grow, taking her down unexpected paths.
She started reading everything she could find about horses, from historical works on other great racehorses to articles revealing the dark side of horse slaughter.
And she began taking mother-daughter bonding trips to the racetrack to watch live racing. The pair visited Three Chimneys Farm to see Smarty Jones up close and by January 2005, the school teacher who wouldn’t know a school bell from a starting bell, found herself volunteering as a hotwalker at Philadelphia Park!
“After I’d been visiting the track with my mother, I asked someone if I could visit the backside,” she says. “A midlevel trainer from New York, a lady who was very nice, invited me to come back with her, and the next thing I knew, I began volunteering three hours a week on the backside!
“The first morning they gave me a horse to hotwalk I said to myself, ‘oh my God, I’m walking a racehorse.’ And I told the horse, whose name was Final Nickle, ‘You better behave because I know absolutely nothing!’ ”
Pretty soon, Kearney fell in love with a collection of racehorses on the backside, including Stop the Nonsense, a mare whom she learned to groom and shower with peppermint treats. And about the same time, toward the start of 2006, Kearney started to study and understand more about the fate of unwanted horses.
She began reading about the New Holland auction, where meat buyers, horse rescues, and many others bid on horses, and she learned of the yeoman’s work being done by Beverly Strauss, founder of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, and how she saves horses from slaughter.
As a birthday present to herself in July 2006, Kearney visited New Holland auction with Strauss, and while walking up and down the narrow aisles filled with closely tied horses, watching as Strauss looked for Thoroughbreds amid the doomed, slaughter-bound animals, Kearney vowed to help.
“Shortly after that, I was at lunch with a bunch of women I’d met through racing. We were older ladies who had become interested in racing because of Smarty Jones, and we started talking about horse slaughter,” she says. And by the time the check arrived, the ladies, including friends Carole Basile and Jean Fritz, had decided that every month, rather than spending money on a lunch at a restaurant, they would donate that money to Strauss and MidAtlantic Horse Rescue.
“This is how we formed Friends of Twilight. There were about six or eight of us at lunch in July 2006, and we’ve been together ever since,” she says. Through the years, membership in the ladies club has swelled to about 20 women from eight states, who, month after month, pool their lunch money to help horses in need.
Through this and other fundraising efforts, the women have raised roughly $45,000 and contributed to the rescue and aid of close to 100 horses, she says.
As for the name Twilight, it is taken from a great race mare from the early 1920s. She was a hard-trying horse who often ran multiple times a week. And the kicker—the horse belonged to Kearney’s great- grandfather, James Stevens.
So while her own horse-loving gene was late in arriving, it now guides her in the good works done for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds.