By the time Katrina Clay met multiple graded stakes winner Tom’s Thunder, all muddy and looking fairly unimpressive to the eye, they’d each reached a crossroads in life.
The plain bay Thoroughbred who had won both the New York Stallion Times Square Stakes in 2001 and the Alex Robb Handicap in 2002, before earning more than $450,000 in 53 starts, was just a horse who needed someone.
And Clay was a grieving young woman who had only recently lost her horse.
She’d been looking hard for a new horse to help fill the void, but deals fell through, and others just didn’t pan out. So by the time she drove an hour from her Albany, N.Y. home on Halloween nine years ago, she was looking for a sign, and a friend, and a comforting presence.
Sire: Thunder Puddles
Dam: Smart Holly, by Smarten
Foal date: Feb. 10, 1998
Earnings: $463,485 in 53 starts“I had a silly little thought as I drove up to go meet Tom. I remember thinking that if the horse was going to be mine, that he’d put his head right in front of my heart,” Clay said. “So when I met him, I saw just a plain, brown horse covered in mud. He was not really spectacular looking at all.
“But he walked right up to me and hung his head right in front of my heart.” And her grief, from that point onward, started to wane.
Was her method in selecting a horse unconventional? Maybe. Did she raise a few eyebrows when she spent the next several months sitting in Tom’s field, reading a book as her hunter/jumper pals worked circles in the indoor ring? Definitely!
“I didn’t want to ride him right away, not because I was scared, but because I wanted to form a relationship with him first. I didn’t want our friendship to be based on what he could do for me,” she said. “So I took him on a lot of hand walks. I’d been watching horses interact with each other for a long time, and I’d noticed they don’t tell each other what to do very often; they typically just stand around each other. I wanted that. Everyone in the hunter/jumper barn thought I was a little weird.”
In time, she started working with natural horsemanship trainer Bob DeLorenzo, a coach she found to be “tough on people and gentle with the horse.”
With her goals simple—enjoying her OTTB, making him happy, and taking fun rides, the pair has traveled many new paths in the nine years since first meeting.
“We’ve worked cows, done dressage, taken many, many trail rides with me on him or by his side,” she said. “Tom and I often go out for walks without a lead or halter. He stays outside to free graze while I make his dinner, and he usually comes wandering back into the barn on his own, before I go get him.”
“Tom’s story,” she added, “is not one that is full of suffering and starvation. Instead it is about a horse full of heart that he is willing to share with humans.”
Clay found her horse through the assistance of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The country’s oldest and largest horse charity had been contacted about finding a home for Tom’s Thunder, Clay said. And, the TRF reached out to her. “The TRF called me and said there’s a woman who wants to donate a horse to us, but they didn’t really have the room,” she noted. “Before I went to see him, I called his trainer, who couldn’t say enough about him. I was told that whoever ends up with Tom’s Thunder is getting a real gem.”
And she did find her gem, beneath a little mud, and a plain bay façade.