Receiving Barn A on the backside of Suffolk Downs seems an unlikely place for dreams to come true.
The faded, hangar-like structure sits on the right, just past the track’s back entrance; it’s chewed in a few places and kicked in others. And yet, for nearly 100 racehorses who will parade in and out of the big barn next Sunday, the careworn faÃ§ade can be the gateway to glory.
For the last five years, horses no good for racing have been introduced to new owners and future careers as they step out to walk and trot past prospective buyers.
“You can find some amazingly nice horses here,” says Ellen O’Brien, executive director of CANTER New England, creator of the annual Suffolk Showcase. “Some might look like a complete mess when they first come out. This is where I like to tell people to squint and imagine what the horse will look like with an extra 100 pounds on, and turned out for show.”
What: Suffolk Showcase
Where: Suffolk Downs backside, Revere, Mass.
When: Oct. 24, 9 a.m. to noonThe self-described horse-human matchmaker, along with dedicated board members Jennifer Montfort and Barb Lamb, have worked hard behind the scenes to build the credibility of the annual event, fostering a team effort among horsemen, track officials, and would-be buyers to move horses to post-racing careers.
Each year has been more successful than the last. Last year, approximately 80 horses were listed for sale with the Suffolk Showcase, and most were in new homes within three weeks, O’Brien says.
“We mounted this incredible effort,” she says. “I know that no horses wound up in a kill barn last year.”
Although Suffolk Downs was the first racetrack in the nation to adopt a zero tolerance of horse slaughter, a policy resulting in the permanent banning of trainers whose horses are tracked to a slaughterhouse, the work of volunteers to find new situations for these animals is still a major ingredient in the collaborative effort to re-home horses.
That effort gets underway bright and early on Saturday mornings. This is when Montfort and Lamb arrive at the track to photograph horses, confer with trainers and meet with Stable Superintendent and horse-welfare advocate Lorita Lindemann.
“We show up and talk with Lorita Lindemann. She’s been there all week, so she knows which trainers to contact,” Montfort says. “Then we walk up and down the main road, and people know who we are by now. They know our faces, and see our clipboard, and a lot of times they’ll yell out, ‘Hey, I have a horse to list!’ ”
With the racing season winding to a close here, trainers are making their winter-racing plans. Horses that didn’t run well over the summer need to be moved on before they relocate to other tracks, she explains.
“This is when the most need is, this time of the year,” Montfort says. “We expect to have 80 to 90 horses for sale at the Showcase.”
For Lamb, the work is exceptionally rewarding.
“It’s such a huge thing to make a difference for these horses, and it works,” she says. “We know we’re going to move horses. It’s an amazing feeling when you see them loaded onto a trailer and you know they’re going to a good home.”
The positive stories that flood their email and CANTER New England’s Facebook page reinforce the rewards of their work.
O’Brien can rattle off the names of horses who nobody wanted, so-called “throwaways” at last year’s Showcase. Many have done a complete turnaround since the sale.
CBT Frenchmistress is just one example of an ex-racehorse made good.
When the horse was placed in the sale last year, nobody wanted her. Not until a 14-year-old rider decided she was “the one.”
Today, the horse has filled out on beet pulp, and is competing at Beginner Novice Eventing.
“She’s just a stunning little horse,” O’Brien says. “She’s got a ton of personality and is smart as a whip. But at the Showcase, she was one of those throwaways.”
New owners, Karen Champagne and daughter Jessica are overjoyed.
“We just can’t say enough great things about her,” Champagne says.
She has been so excited about her horse’s progress that the posts updates on CANTER New England’s Facebook page. Updates like these keep O’Brien and her volunteers feeling optimistic about the future. “There’s a big cohort of Thoroughbred lovers that are just so passionate about their spirit and intelligence” O’Brien says, noting that the breed is not for everyone. Some riders need a horse version of a minivan, she jokes. But for others, she says, “Thoroughbreds are Porsches. They’re bred to be fast and responsive.”