As the days dwindle down and the finish line of a 3,300-mile ride to prove the valor of the off-track Thoroughbred draws near, Valerie Ashker’s eyes fill with tears.
“Every time I think about this ride, I really start crying,” says Ashker, who expects to complete her journey on horseback, from California to Virginia, this Saturday.
Along with riding partner and friend Peter Friedman, the pair has climbed mountains and sustained falls and broken bones on a trip that started on clear day in May. “Looking back on the entirety of this, I’d say it’s been the ride of a lifetime.”
Sire: Monashee Mountain
Dam: Siberian Shamrock, by Siberian Summer
Foal date: May 6, 2009
Sire: Bold Badgett
Dam: Proper Look, by Properantes
Foal date: May 18, 1999And like any hard-earned victory, the going was tough. (Please follow their progress on Facebook page: 2nd Makes Thru Starting Gates).
Ashker, 60, sustained fractures to the ribs and clavicle in separate falls, and was also forced to take time out to investigate a suspicious spot on her lungs, that turned out to be scar tissue from a prior injury, and not cancer.
But no matter what came her way, Ashker and Friedman pulled on their riding britches, saddled their OTTBs Primitivo, 7, and Solar Express, 17, and road eastward.
“When I finish this ride, it will have changed my whole life,” says Ashker yesterday. With about three days left, she approaches the official end in Middleburg, Penn., at the Middleburg Training Track for Thoroughbreds. “I’ve made so many friends along the way. People who don’t know us have invited us into their homes for dinner. And, they’ve let us graze our horses and make camp on their land. We’ve all been pulled together, and immersed in the OTTB cause.”
Ashker and her daughter Laine have made their careers on the backs of off-track Thoroughbreds. Laine Ashker has ridden Rolex several times, most recently on her impressive bay gelding Anthony Patch. And her successes along with all that these animals have given to the Ashker family, was the inspiration Valerie Ashker needed to fulfill a lifelong dream to ride a Thoroughbred across the United States.
In an earlier interview, she said she used to dream of taking to the open road on horseback. When the dream became a reality on May 9, she soon discovered the ride was “not for the faint of heart.”
Tackling the hardest terrain first, Ashker and Friedman rode into the mountains, and at high altitude for the first month of the trip. At times Ashker questioned her decision, at other moments she made tearful phone calls to family members. But no matter how low her spirits dipped, the call of the finish line beckoned.
And her OTTBs never failed her. They even surprised her.
“Both of these horses have been incredible. Primitivo is an amazing little horse. He has matured greatly on this ride. He started off being sort of spooky, but he quickly became acclimated to everything the ride threw at him. He got used to the noise of really big trucks, the garbage trucks, dogs running out to the roadside to bark, and sailboats being trailered on the highway,” she says. “Along the way he became more confident in his own skin.”
Solar Express, who was her Eventing horse for many years, has been equally unstoppable as he carried Friedman across the country. “This horse never stops. He had his eye on the next mountain, and the next 20 miles, the whole time,” she says. “I used to complain about his forward gait, and being on-the-muscle too much. Now I see that he belongs in the realm of endurance horses. He led the way the entire time, his ears pricked. I’m watching Solar right now, standing by the trailer, and he looks freaking magnificent!”
When the incredible geldings arrive in Middleburg, they will be feted in a press event supported by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. And Ashker, her daughter and family will be there to hug and congratulate the pair after the journey of a lifetime. “This has been, bar none, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “And I wouldn’t change a thing.”