A Baltimore man has become the first graduate in the history of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) Maryland-based Second Chances program—which teaches inmates horsemanship skills while caring for Thoroughbreds— to earn a groom’s license in the state of Maryland and a job at Laurel Park.
Following a recent milestone decision by the Maryland racing authorities to issue a license, and a job offer by famous race trainer Hugh McMahon, who says he made the tender in part because “everyone needs forgiveness and a second chance,” Nelly Madden, 51, went to work for McMahon in December. And, upon graduation and release from the Central Maryland Correctional Facility, began a new life and career.
In a win-win partnership, a man who describes his time working with the TRF herd as an “experience of a lifetime that touched my heart” walked through the stable gate at Laurel Park to earn the respect and admiration of a trainer. A trainer who in fact has come to admire and respect Nelly Madden, whose life and struggle touched his own heart.
“As I’ve learned more about Nelly, I’ve discovered … a side to him that’s really loving and kind and compassionate,” McMahon says. “He was the product of a hard environment, and the fact that he survived that … made me decide that he’s a walking miracle.”
Noting that it has been a privilege to be able to offer Madden a second chance through a job as a groom/hotwalker, McMahon adds that it was his faith in God and his Christian ideals that prompted him to open his doors.
“The real answer to why I did this is that we as people, every single one of us, needs to be on the receiving end of forgiveness … as the recipient of (forgiveness) I know I have to give it as well, otherwise I’m just a hypocrite,” McMahon says.
Madden, who lives with his wife Teresa in Baltimore, a city roiling with unrest in the wake of the highly publicized and tragic death of Freddie Gray, says his job at Laurel Park and his work with Thoroughbred ex-racehorses has helped him gain peace in his life.
Citing the dedication of Farm Manager Judi Coyne, who was instrumental in helping Madden obtain a groom’s license and a job with McMahon, Madden says, “I really owe so much thanks to Judi. If it wasn’t for Judi, I never would have gotten my license.”
In Nelly Madden, Judi Coyne saw a shining example, a model student of the Second Chances program who was a natural fit for the racetrack, she says.
“Nelly is a very confident, outspoken person with a lot of energy. So I knew the track would be a really good environment for him,” she says. “He loved the challenge that every horse brought, especially his favorite horse, Dancer. If there was a problem horse, he was the first to say, ‘Let me try, Judi.’ ”
All that trying paid off after Coyne sough the support and assistance of key racing officials who helped secure the first Racing Commission license granted to a Second Chances graduate. Coyne says special thanks go to the following officials for their help: Phoebe Hayes, Director of Horsemen’s Relation, Maryland Jockey Club; Robert (Bobby) Lillis, Executive Director of Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Fund; and Robin (Rob) Dewberry, Investigator for DLLR, Maryland Racing Commission.
Working with Thoroughbreds, especially Maryland-bred Liang’s Dancer, a personal favorite, made a lasting impression on Madden.
“Before my experience with the TRF, I thought horses were just meant to get on and ride. I never knew about the Thoroughbred as a breed, or how unique they are,” Madden says. “My TRF experience touched my heart.”