Goosebumps of pride and peals of laughter celebrated the moment as cameras flashed, and the winning photo was taken. And then all was blighted by the presentation of an ugly red claiming tag, which sucked the breath from Megan Kerford, and dissolved her to tears.
“I went from feeling like we’d won the Kentucky Derby to feeling like I was going to barf,” Kerford says. “Even just thinking back on it now makes me feel horrible. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and how I went into the bathroom at Woodbine (Race Track) and I lied down on the floor and cried.”
And as suddenly as the temperamental chestnut had entered her life, he was gone. Just like that. And from July 2009 until the year 2013, Kerford tried to buy the horse back, followed his every move on a virtual stable, and prayed that he would be OK.
Kerford and Last Tribute blew into Woodbine the previous year. She was recovering from a badly broken hip sustained galloping horses the year before, and he was nursing a sore attitude, snapping at just about everybody.
Barn name: Alfie
Dam: M.S. Secret
Foal date: April 12, 2006
Earnings: $76,000, in 38 starts“I think our story is that same old story you hear about people adopting pets because they need to feel loved and wanted, they need to take care of somebody,” she says. “I’d been an exercise rider and living independently for 10 years. But after my accident, I was taken in by my mother.”
When the chestnut gelding arrived at the shedrow, he was intimidating on the ground, and walked his legs off pacing his confined stall. Nobody else bonded with him, so Kerford offered to play groom.
Ever so slowly, Last Tribute stopped stall walking and pinning his ears, and gratefully accepted her ministrations. “It took about three months before I could (work on) his legs, but over time he calmed down and gained some weight,” she says.
The pair became so tight that when Kerford was cleared to return to riding, he was the first horse she galloped. “He was phenomenal!”
It was no small feat for her to get back in the irons. The year before, in 2008, Kerford sustained a serious injury exercising horses. She was catapulted off a Quarter Horse so fast and so hard that her femur was driven up into her torso. Fortunately it missed her organs, and caused only minor internal bleeding. But her hip sustained a serious break.
In fact, Kerford had a brief brush with him when her trainer tried to claim him back for her, just before he embarked on a four-year campaign of claiming races.
By the time she got back in the saddle as Final Tribute’s exercise rider, she had developed such a deep bond with the horse that from the time he got claimed away after that tearful moment in the winner’s circle in July 2009, and for years after, she pined for and tracked the animal’s whereabouts.
“I was cleaning his stall and getting it ready for him to come back. It was August 2009 and I was listening to the race on the radio before I walked out to meet him after he came off the track,” she says. “On my way, I got a call on my cell telling me we’d been out shook.”
After that, Kerford carried his memory with her for four years. During that time, she entered and graduated from veterinarian school. Her life was full. She groomed great horses, including Canadian Sprinter Hollywood Hits. But she never forgot that one horse. She watched him drop in class on her virtual stable, and she talked about him to all who would listen.
Then last November; the horse mysteriously disappeared from her virtual stable.
And reappeared in a Woodbine shedrow where Kerford’s boyfriend Mike Mehak would surprise her.
“Hey, Megan, I need some help with a horse!” Mehak yelled. And as she rounded the corner and saw the thin, worn horse, she threw her arms around the animal’s neck, and sobbed tears of joy and promised to take care of him. This story was originally published in June.