Sir Prize Birthday, the oldest of the 900+ horses within the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) herd, approaches his 35th year of life next month as an accomplished racehorse and teacher who is best remembered as much for his ability to transform self-absorbed inmates as his grit to knock in 206 lifetime races.
Now missing a few teeth at the hands of the loving dentist, and lacking the muscle he displayed as a mighty racing adversary, Birthday comes gently but firmly into the sphere of inmates working in the TRF Second Chances horsemanship program at Wallkill Correctional Facility. And with the flick of his ears, and a swish of his tail, he changes the focus of men who once thought only of themselves, says James Tremper, program manager of the horsemanship program.
Sir Prize Birthday
Dam: Prize Du Nord
Foal date: May 25, 1980
Earnings: $306,182 in 206 starts“Older horses like Birthday have made such a huge difference in the way that some of the guys think, and in their ability to do something for another living creature, other than themselves,” Tremper says. “A lot of these guys have had drug problems, and their whole lives have been preoccupied by feelings that focus on how badly they’ve been treated, by society, by their parents, by the criminal justice system … but when they come into contact with Birthday, and other older horses, who only ask to be fed and groomed and given water … it changes them.”
Tremper continues, “When they’re working with the older horses who are coming to the end of their lives, not the younger horses, I can see a change in attitude. They become less self absorbed and they become better listeners.”
In the 17 years he has worked with Birthday at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York, Tremper has marveled at the ways of the dark bay ex-racehorse who earned $300,00 in a lengthy race career before retiring fit, shiny and full of fire to the farm in 1998. Back then, Birthday was an alpha horse who confidently took on the role as herd leader.
As time has worn the body of the once-vibrant horse, he just needs a little protection now from the other horses who might steal his food. So Birthday is separated from the herd at feed time, so he can enjoy his double rations of senior feed and grain that helps keep both his and his spirits weight up. And the fight in him has long been replaced by a Zen attitude toward life.
“Nothing bothers him,” Tremper says. “He has no arthritis. He still trots around his field and every once in a while he breaks into a canter. Physically, he’s nowhere near what he used to be; he has a pretty good swayback now and not much muscle around his hips. But aside from that, you can’t tell he’s old.”
When the faint of heart were bemoaning the long, hard winter, Birthday was out rolling in the snow, he adds.
And twice a day, he gets hands-on care. And with his cues, like ear pinning if something isn’t done just right, he communicates with people who have had it rough, but who forget their edge when they peer into the wizened face of a Thoroughbred who only asks for a gentle touch and a kind word.
As onetime inmate Anthony told Off Track Thoroughbreds in an interview last year, Birthday heals in the most unexpected ways.
“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.”