The handsome chestnut Thoroughbred hung his head and turned his back on people who peered into his stall.
Seeming to wish they would just go away, he stood in the furthest corner, in the dark, as an aura of sadness appeared to roll off his well-muscled body with every breath.
But Marylou Neilson took a second look.
The sharp-eyed Pennsylvania equestrian was visiting the stables across from Penn National to find a project horse. She saw many beauties on that trip, but the little horse named Fiumes was the one she couldn’t forget, couldn’t stop thinking about.
“I went home and I had nightmares about this horse,” says Neilson, president of Shannondell Farm. “He seemed so unhappy with his life, so I went back, pointed to him, and said, ‘This is the one I want.’ ”
In a Cinderella story, horse and rider would have pranced off into the sunset at this point. But Fiumes was a little too ungainly to prance. And his personality and demeanor were standoffish at best. Though it was impossible to know why, in his emotional world, he appeared so sad, Neilson vowed to make him happy.
“At our farm we’re very quiet people, and we have nice fields for turnout and kind people working there. He was exposed to all that. And in about two or three months, he started coming to the front of his stall,” Neilson says.
Sire: Macho Uno
Dam: Relaxing Rhythm, by Easy Goer
Foal date: Feb. 20, 2005
Earnings: $85,456From that slow beginning four years ago, Neilson put the horse who’d earned $85,000 in his racing career onto a path to reboot his brain and re-make his skills under saddle.
Pairing him with rider Jennifer Brennan and seasoned Thoroughbred trainer Beth Spatz, Neilsen figured the duo just might be able to bring a new career to the Thoroughbred, and bring him out of his full-time funk. But even Spatz, a former jockey turned hunter and equitation expert, as well as judge and schooling supervisor, was stymied by Fiumes at first.
“He was a big, huge train wreck,” Spatz says. “I used to call my mother, who is also a horse person, and tell her that they keep telling me how much they love this horse, but that he’s such a bad jumper.”
He ran without stopping, hung his feet over jumps and didn’t understand what everyone wanted of him.
After bombing at his first show, Spatz and Brennan went back to square one. Fitted with a new bit, a jointed Pelham, which she admits looks like a “monster bit” but was one he felt comfortable in, they started him in lunging exercises designed to help him figure out “what to do with his legs.”
“He needed to learn some of it on his own, without us teaching him,” she says. “And I realized that he’s circus-horse smart and cutting-horse fast.”
As Fiumes and his new handlers became more accustomed with one another, Spatz tapped her knowledge of racehorse training to strike a perfect balance in the OTTB’s schooling schedule.
Recognizing that racehorses tend to be more “up” in the morning and lazier in the afternoon, Spatz built his day around a similar routine: In the morning, he had a light workout, after which, he returned to his stall for a bit, and then was turned out in a big field. In the afternoon, after he’d settled into a quieter frame of mind, she worked him a little more.
And he thrived.
“Once he started to know his job, he started to think he was Superman,” she says. “Before, he went around in a thoughtless, frantic way. Now he goes around with ears up, showing interest.”
And this was precisely the picture Fiumes made earlier this month at the fabled Devon show grounds, as Brennan guided him with ease over water jumps that spooked a couple of pretty impressive competitors.
“He didn’t start jumping at this level, in the meter 10 and meter 15 until April,” Brennan says. “And with all that competition, he marched right around while ex-Grand Prix horses were stopping at the water.”
Although they had a couple of rails down, and left without ribbons, on balance, the effort at Devon was a smashing success.
“Fiumes hadn’t done a lot of bigger shows before we got to Devon. He got the points to qualify at smaller shows in New Jersey,” she adds. “To get him ready, we only took him to four or five shows beforehand, and he had just come off a winter break.”
Says his owner: “Jen and Beth have done a great job with him. He has really turned over a new leaf.”
Not too shabby for a woebegone animal who didn’t want to leave his stall!