For 10 years the dark bay Thoroughbred raced with the heart of a prizefighter.
In his youth he surged into battle on racetracks far and wide, fighting for victory in a staggering 206 starts and earning $300,000 before it was all said and done. And when age and mileage finally took him from the track, he was asked to enter different kind of fight, the kind waged every day by the inmates incarcerated at Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York.
For 16 years now, Sir Prize Birthday, who turns 34 in May, has swaggered about as king of the field in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s inmate program at Wallkill, regularly fighting off challenges from other horses for turf rights.
But when not embroiled in a duel, he has quietly helped inmates who are privately fighting their own battles, escorting them through exercises that teach them peace and kindness.
“What makes Sir Prize special is his intolerance of aggression,” says veteran Program Manager Jim Tremper, who helped to facilitate the inmate program in 1984. “If someone was too quick with their hands, insensitive, or just not nice to him, he used to bare his teeth and pin his ears. Now he just turns his back to them. He’s getting old.”
Sir Prize Birthday
Dam: Prize Du Nord
Foal date: May 25, 1980
Earnings: $308,182 in 206 startsTremper has seen some great horses come through the program at Wallkill. Really fine horses who have patiently allowed inmates, who usually don’t know a thing about horses, feel their way as they learn to connect and care for these half-ton creatures. And in the process, they tune in to the quiet, peaceful language spoken without words.
But few could measure up to Birthday, a horse who withstood an almost unheard of number of starts on the track before retiring to Wallkill in 1998 looking fit as a fiddle.
“A lot of horses that come to us don’t look that good when they get here,” Tremper says. “But when Birthday came, he was in good flesh, had a shiny coat, and good hooves. He was in really good shape.”
When he trotted out to meet his herd-mates, he was sexy and he knew it. In no time, he established himself as the dominant leader. Always the first in line for feedings and treats, Birthday could back down any horse who crossed his path.
And when inmates met him for the first time, they were often intimidated by the proud, high-headed animal who seemed to know his own worth.
But then a kind of magic transformed both man and horse.
“The best story I remember about Birthday is that we had a fellow who was in for manslaughter, and he had an extremely short fuse. I mean, he was ready to fly off the handle yelling at peole and was just very aggressive and impatient,” Tremper says. “He started working with Birthday, and Birthday didn’t respond very well to that. The inmate didn’t get what he wanted from Birthday, and I told him he needed to take it easy and be calm, and that then the horse would work with him.”
Tremper adds, “So he started doing that. It probably took a month for him to change his attitude, but he did. And it changed his whole attitude. He started talking with people, which he never used to do, and his hand movements slowed down, his whole demeanor slowed down. Even though he was convicted of this terrible crime, he became a decent individual.”
And many others have fallen under Birthday’s spell. They arrive at the barn often afraid of horses, and by the time their stint is done, Tremper has a hard time shooing them away.
Anthony, an inmate at Wallkill since early September, is among Birthday’s recent converts. In a telephone interview, Anthony says working with Sir Prize Birthday is a healing experience for him. “He gets along with you, and you don’t feel fear; it’s love,” Anthony says. “Everybody loves Birthday, he’s inspiration in times of desperation.”