And what teenager Jenna Neher of Kailua, Honolulu enjoys with her handsome dreamboat, who is said to possess the chiseled good looks of an Abercrombie & Fitch model, is a little different, yes; but, the connection between the Chicago racehorse and his new Hawaiian owner is indeed a love story.
Their odyssey began in New Jersey.
In August, last year, Jenna and her mother Lynne Wooddell flew to the Garden State to visit friends, and in the way that friends do, one professed to know “the perfect horse” for Jenna.
The young equestrian had lost her longtime Quarter Horse to a career-ending barn injury a month before, and now pined to find another.
At a friend’s barn, the young lady tried a dozen different horses, but each time, as she hopped down from the mount, and turned to her mother, the answer was always the same: “No.”
Racename: African Wildfire
Barn name: Izzy
Sire: Tiger Tiger
Dam: Western Wildfire
Foal date: May 18, 2000Later in the week, over a glass of wine, Wooddell and friends sat around discussing Jenna’s prospects.
“It was really pretty funny,” Wooddell says. “My friend said, ‘I have the perfect horse for your daughter, but he’s in Atlanta.’ ”
Described as having a rock-solid personality, a keen intelligence, and excellent physical conformation, African Wildfire was talked up as the perfect match.
“I know this sounds crazy, but, my husband and I discussed it, and we decided to have the horse shipped from Atlanta to New Jersey, and to buy my daughter an airline ticket to fly back to New Jersey to try him,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to buy a second ticket for myself, but I told her that it was her decision, and if she really wanted to meet this horse, she’d have to do it without me.”
So, young Jenna stepped off the plane that Labor Day weekend, a couple of hours before African Wildfire arrived: “As soon as she saw him, it was love at first sight,” Wooddell says. “My daughter rode him twice a day for four days and he was perfect for her.
“She wanted a horse who was super forward, with energy and pizzazz, and the Warmbloods just didn’t have that fire she was looking for.”
Still, the question as to how to get this lovely bay to Hawaii remained. But as luck would have it, a FedEx flight already loaded with racehorses and eventers was due to depart for California, and this was all that was needed to cinch the deal. Finding a connecting flight to Honolulu was the easy part, and a stall was made ready for the Chicago racehorse.
African Wildfire had had a short-lived career on the track. After only 20 starts and just three wins, he was retired to a decent life with a college student and caretaker outside of Atlanta, where the training he received was both consistent and professional.
In fact, the racehorse had the best of care and training throughout his off-the-track career. Beginning with his first post-racing owner, Atlee Johnson and continuing with his next owner Cary Thorpe, the ex-racehorse grew to be trusting, kind and confident, Wooddell says.
But his ship really came in on Oct. 17 when he arrived in Honolulu!
“The moment he got on the ground, we backed him out of the crate, loaded him onto a trailer, and took him to our barn,” Wooddell says. “We’re in Kailua, the wet side of the island; it’s very green and we have papaya and guava growing all around.”
African Wildfire, who is called Izzy, learned right away that there’s nothing bad about a papaya: “He eats everything, including the skin and the seeds!”
Although it took a full year for him to adjust to his tropical paradise, the dark bay took no time to connect with Jenna and become her partner in competition.
A confident horse with impeccable ground manners, the 16.3 hand gelding marched into his first show ring as if he owned it. Last year, he and Jenna placed 9th in the United States in the USDF training level for juniors, and he consistently earned scores in the 70s.
Other high points of their career include winning the Edna McClain Trophy (high point trophy for 13 and under rider in Annual Pony Club Show) and the Celebration Award, which is a perpetual trophy for the highest scoring Junior/Young Rider to Training Level through FEI.
In addition, the pair won the Hawaii Horse Show Association Green Hunter Champion in 2012, the Hawaii Region Pony Club Rally Championship and earned nationally ranked dressage scores.
“Most important,” Wooddell says, “he has taught Jenna to be a better rider.”
Going hand in hand with all the success in the show ring is the sheer joy spent soaking in the natural gifts of the island.
Last summer, after a tiring day jumping, Jenna donned a bathing suit and rode him into a freshwater lake about 200 yards from the ocean. And you can see in the photos from that day, how both horse and human exude a peaceful happiness, as the warm water washes over their bodies.
“It still amazes me that a really bold, strong ex-racehorse has become so important in my daughter’s life,” Wooddell says. “That’s her guy. She adores him.”