The chips were already stacked against Ray’s Storm before he entered the post parade at the California track.
Then his luck got dramatically worse. As the gate sprang open, another horse slammed into him, hard.
He stumbled. He appeared to almost to fall. But rather than quit, like so many horses might have, Ray’s Storm dug deep and fired his “back burners,” recalls Maureen McKenzie.
And just about a minute later the racehorse who’d been a bettor’s long shot that day rocketed across the finish line in first place, winning a little money, and a lifetime place in the heart of an instant fan.
It was in April of 2013 when McKenzie watched an average horse show magnificence. And she fell in love with the snowy white horse.
Sire: Illinois Storm
Dam: T.H. Heroline, by With Approval
Foal date: March 14, 2007“I’d been traveling for business and a colleague and I decided to take in a race at Los Alamitos, and I remember sitting there eating when Ray’s Storm went by in the post parade,” McKenzie recalls. “And I turned to my friend and said, ‘Oh look at Number 5! He’s beautiful! He looks just like a horse my Dad got me as a teenager.”
Deciding to place a bet on the long shot, she was “mesmerized” when the gates finally opened and Ray’s Storm looked immediately like he was going down. But he surprised her and everyone in attendance by regaining his composure and powering on to win. Moments later, as Ray stood for his photo in the winner’s circle, a place he visited rarely in a short, unsuccessful career, McKenzie found herself moved to tears.
“All I could think about was how much he reminded me of an OTTB my father bought me when I was a kid, and I could imagine my father’s voice telling me to buy that horse,” she says. Before she left the track, she managed to find the horse’s trainer Eric Berman and convince him that if he ever needed to find a new home for Ray, that she had a perfect one in Alaska. “He told me later he thought I was completely crazy,” she says.
Five months passed and as she was taking a ferry in Belgium on a family vacation, her cell phone rang. It was the trainer with a straightforward question: “Lady, do you still want that horse?”
After she burst out “yes!” she and her partner drove 150 miles in the foreign land to find a Western Union office and send the cash. “We got the strangest look. The cashier asked what I was buying, and I said, oh, just a racehorse.”
With the same surprising gusto that Ray pulled off a win that day in California, the beautiful gray gelding toughed out a rough ride from Los Alamitos in California to Homer, Ala. “He traveled for 12 days and lost 200 pounds,” she says. “It was a rough ride. By the time he got to Anchorage, we kept him there to rest for two weeks while we built a barn.”
The barn she built was still in progress when he rolled in, but with the threat of snow in the air, a construction crew literally built the barn up around Ray, who stood calmly eating his hay, she says. And when the barn was completed, McKenzie decorated his little shelter with photographs of his great ancestors like Secretariat and Buck Passer.
And while Ray may have been unremarkable in his life on the track, he became a rare bird in the hardy Alaskan countryside.
“Horses like Ray aren’t found up here,” she says. But now friends and the curious flock to visit and to admire his refined, noble looks. And to marvel that a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse took such a long, brave path to find his way home.