Stakes placed TB leaves meat truck to help vets

Sonofaqueen, a graded stakes winner was tied to a meat-buyer's truck before he was saved.

Sonofaqueen, a graded stakes winner was tied to a meat-buyer’s truck before he was saved.

A stakes placed T’bred who’d earned north of $350,000 during a lifetime spent racing, stood tied to a meat truck; his head hung in defeat.

“This is the part that makes me want to cry. He just stood there, with his head dropped, and an attitude like he’d just accept whatever’s next,” said Nicki Smith, a Thoroughbred advocate with the Exceller Fund. “What’s so heartbreaking is he would have willingly walked on the trailer because he has such a pleasant disposition.”

But it wasn’t Sonofaqueen’s time to die.

Though he’d already been purchased by a meat buyer at the New Holland auction in February, and had been weighed and tied to the trailer in preparation to load, the 21-year-old racing warrior was granted a last-second reprieve, Smith said.

Barn name: Prince
Sire: Believe the Queen
Dam: Whobeatsgonnabeit
Foal date: April 9, 1994
Earnings: $357,022 in 71 starts
“Kelly Smith of Omega Horse Rescue flipped his lip and was able to identify him. And she called us to help raise the bail money” to free him, Smith said. After his rescue, he temporarily resided with a horse farm in Pennsylvania until his next calling brought him to Oklahoma to help war veterans.

In September, Sonofaqueen began working for Hooves on the Ground, which is offered by The Right Path, a member center of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International.

The 17-hand gelding, who last raced in 2002 before disappearing from the radar, has taken to his job so easily that he has quickly become the program’s favorite horse.

He’s so high class and super sweet that people call him Prince. And he is,” Smith said, adding, “I think it’s important to note that he had been off the racetrack for a long time, and nobody knows where he’d gone before he wound up tied to the slaughter truck.”

In this photo by the Exceller Fund, Sonofaqueen walks with a veteran, and carries another, passing the American flag. “The Exceller Fund launched a racing warrior campaign to build awareness around the racehorse with more than 50 starts. A lot of people might dismiss an older horse like this, who had so many starts. To them I say, just look at him! Instead of being slaughtered, he’s proudly making a difference in the lives of America’s heroes.”

Barbaro friends start quest with throwaway TB

This beautiful OTTB gelding was rescued by the Fans of Barbaro in 2007, about a year after the Kentucky Derby winner broke down. Named Gunner, he is the spokeshorse for a new charity.

This beautiful OTTB gelding was rescued by the Fans of Barbaro in 2007, about a year after the Kentucky Derby winner broke down. Named Gunner, he is the spokeshorse for a new charity.

By the time the anonymous black Thoroughbred wound up in the trash heap years ago, he was destined, like so many, to fade into the obscure masses of slaughter-bound horses.

Nobody even knew his name.

And any so-called family connections—past owners, a breeder, or glamorous Thoroughbred pedigree — had faded just like his lip tattoo, which could have, were it legible, revealed his identity.

But the horse had friends.

Average folks— a golf pro, a biochemist, and others—were complete strangers until they watched with a nation as Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down at the 2006 Preakness Stakes. And as the great, glamorous racehorse soldiered on through surgeries and heroic veterinary attempts to save him, these same caring individuals banded together to help the lesser known even unknowns of the equine world. Horses like that black racehorse, who but for the fact that Barbaro fans had formed a network to save horses in honor of the Derby winner, would have been lost.

“That horse is alive today because of Barbaro,” said Daryl Smoliak, founder of the newly created American Horse Rescue Network.

So as good luck would have it, by the time the this 17 year old throwaway horse turned up at the Yakima Auction in Washington in 2007, the network known as Fans of Barbaro was all over it, he said.

“A friend named Sherry Van Wagnor got a call from another friend in Washington. She was told a beautiful Thoroughbred was about to be loaded into a slaughter truck headed for Canada,” Smoliak said. “Sherry got in touch with this friend and said, ‘Whatever it costs, buy him.’ That was in November, 2007.”

Gunner went from a frightened, biting, kicking wild man to a children's pony.

Gunner went from a frightened, biting, kicking wild man to a children’s pony.

A year later, after Van Wagnor sadly learned she had Leukemia, she called upon her good friends Smoliak and biochemist Margaret Bass, all members of Fans of Barbaro, and asked that they promise to take care of the beautiful horse. And the horse, now named Gunner, was sent to Minnesota to live with Bass in March 2008.

“When he arrived, he was really skinny and completely out of control,” says Bass, the treasurer of the new rescue. “He would bite and kick out because he was just so scared. I had horses as a child, but hadn’t been around them for a long time. So, I began by taking him out every day for a hand walk. Each time we went out, I’d take him further and further off the farm.”

One day a tree branch touched Gunner’s back, and he “exploded” in a frightening display of power and rage. Said Bass: “He obviously didn’t trust humans.”

But she didn’t give up on the horse. For the sake of the animal who needed an advocate, and in tribute to the memory of Sherry Van Wagnor, who saved Gunner, but eventually lost her own life to Leukemia in 2009, the march continued.

“Everything was a challenge with Gunner,” Bass says. “Our biggest one was getting him to walk into the indoor arena. He’d become so frightened he’d lather up. And then one day, I noticed he wasn’t scared.”

One small horse in the vast landscape, Gunner now represents the mission of a new charity.

One small horse in the vast landscape, Gunner now represents the mission of a new charity.

Gone was the panic and pinned ears. In their place was a different animal, all filled-out in a shiny coat. Gunner now had happy eyes and the disposition of a child’s riding pony.

The transformation of Gunner resonated so strongly with Bass and Smoliak that last year the pair decided to formalize their efforts to help more horses. And push the boundaries beyond what they had helped accomplish in the name of Barbaro.

Acknowledging that Gunner is “alive today because of the overall Barbaro connection,” which drew friends from all walks of life into the horse welfare movement, Smoliak, a retired golf pro, founded nonprofit charity Horse Rescue Network in 2014. Its purpose, he says, is to raise funds for horses from everyday folks and from corporations outside the horse world, and to disseminate those funds to nonprofit horse charities.

“I’ve participated in many, many fundraisers during my years of teaching golf and doing tournaments. I played in a tournament every year to preserve waterfowl. And I can tell you that a lot of our sponsors were not associated in any way with waterfowl,” Smoliak said. “I think we can do something similar for horse fundraising. Horses helped make this nation great. They’re used by the police, and in programs to help returning soldiers. I think we all have an obligation to help them, not just the people in the horse industry.”

At age 27, Gunner has a new lease on life.

At age 27, Gunner has a new lease on life.

Years after Barbaro’s tragic injury at the Preakness Stakes united thousands upon thousands of fans and friends, Smoliak added that now is the time to cast the fundraising net beyond the horse industry.

“I believe Barbaro was a messenger for all of this. In his name, many have fought to end horse slaughter” and other practices that harm equines, he said. “Barbaro opened the door to a whole new world for me and countless others. But the majority of Americans still do not know about horse slaughter, or the fact that the Bureau of Land Management is managing our wild horses and burros into extinction. I think it’s now time to cultivate relationships outside of the horse industry, and take our message further.”

And Gunner, though not a household name like Barbaro, is just the horse to help carry that word.

“He represents everything American Horse Rescue Network stands for: proof that every life matters, that every life has a purpose and that every life has a right to live a dignified and honorable existence,” Smoliak says. “He came to us scared, angry and unruly. In our ‘throw away society,’ it’s understandable why someone would discard him. But with love and patience, Margaret worked with him and brought out the real soul that is Gunner! Isn’t this the lesson all humans should learn?”

Mud-caked stakes winner helped mend her heart

Katrina Clay and her multiple graded stakes winner Tom's Thunder enjoy a snuggle.

Katrina Clay and her multiple graded stakes winner Tom’s Thunder enjoy a snuggle.

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.

Tom’s Thunder
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!

All she wanted was a horse to hang with, to call her friend.

All she wanted was a horse to hang with, to call her friend.

“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.

From the beginning, Clay's goal was to build trust with her horse first. The riding she saved for later.

From the beginning, Clay’s goal was to build trust with her horse first. The riding she saved for later.

“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.