A horseman, who once enjoyed a glorious heyday working alongside famed Sir Henry Cecil, took a chance last year on a Thoroughbred who never had his moment in the sun.
There was just something about the 6-year-old “lead-locked” gelding with clicking stifles that charmed the heck out of seasoned Scottish horseman Nicki Wheeler. So when Silent Retreat was returned to the unglamorous stables at the Vandalia Correctional facility in Illinois, where Wheeler now works teaching inmates horsemanship skills, she threw caution to the wind.
“We had shipped him and three other horses to the Springfield State Fair as sale horses, but nobody wanted him. The other three sold, but for some reason he didn’t,” Wheeler says. “And as he walked back off the trailer” back at the prison “I took a better look at him and thought, my goodness, he’s beautiful.”
Barn name: Sammy
Dam: Silver Lined
Foal date: May 20, 2009No stranger to glitz and glamor of the Sport of Kings, the Scotland native worked for 30 years at the pinnacle of the sport before she relocated to the US, eventually landing as barn manager and equine instructor for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s inmate program at Second Chance Ranch in Illinois.
Though her career working as exercise rider and travel groom for legends such as Sir Henry Cecil, John Gosden and Henry Jones are well in her past, her practiced horsemen’s eye saw past the humble trappings of Silent Retreat, and to the good horse that he was.
“When he walked off that trailer after he failed to sell at the fair, I took a second look and thought he showed a lot of class,” she says. “He had a temperament and impeccable breeding, and I’d always had a soft spot for chestnuts.”
A week later, she bought him. Two weeks after that, she hauled him to a local dressage show to try him out in new surroundings.
“Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but we came in 4th out of 14. I’ve spent 30 years riding with my knees up to my chin, so this was a real change for me.”
That first show whetted her appetite for competition, and she immediately sought the coaching talent of Barbra Jo Rubin, the first female jockey to win a recognized race, to train her and Silent Retreat for the dressage world. The former jockey and the one-time world-class exercise rider and groom soon teamed up to bring a little recognition to the overlooked OTTB.
“We went from not knowing anything in that first show to becoming High Point Award winners in an OTTB show in September sponsored by Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds,” an Illinois-based organization that helps re-home OTTBs. “We’ve only been to two shows so far, but our goal is to get to as many shows as we can this year, and win as many ribbons as we can!”
Her little chestnut Thoroughbred, such a far cry from the famous horses she once worked with—including Secretariat’s Tinners Way—is an undiscovered star who deserves to have a heyday like she once had.