Every year, about 20,000 thoroughbred foals are born with dreams of the Kentucky Derby’s roses gleaming in their breeders’ eyes. But only one horse will wear the red garland on May 6. And only 12 horses have won the Triple Crown in the century since the chestnut colt Sir Barton brought recognition to that feat with his 1919 wins in the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.
Most thoroughbreds’ racing careers are over by the time they are 5 or 6, even though horses can live into their late 20s. Very few have a future on the stud farm, with the result that many are soon only a truck-ride away from the slaughterhouse. Some are saved by rescue organizations to be retrained for the show ring or the leisure riding industry.
And a small number find a new lease on life in an entirely different kind of racing that has flourished on the East Coast for more than a century.
It’s called timber racing, and “second-chance horses” is what Maryland horseman Bruce Fenwick calls the thoroughbreds he buys off the track to compete in it. He always has several in his fields, which overlook a rural racecourse more than three times the size of the Derby and with 22 upright wooden jumps, some as much as five feet high, along its undulating route. The Maryland Hunt Cup, which will be run this weekend, is the most grueling race in this sport — and over the years it has become something of a showcase for second-chance horses, including Fenwick’s Foyle, who was a lackluster performer on the flat until he became a champion over fences.
The process of persuading horses to forget life in the fast lane and instead develop stamina, jumping ability and a little common sense is a slow one, according to timber trainer Alicia Murphy. She recently took on a 5-year-old named Overawe, who was bred with top-level flat racing in mind and bought as a yearling for $230,000 by the owners of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Overawe’s ambitions stalled after he won only one race on the flat. A friend told Murphy about him, and she bought him for a fraction of his yearling price, hoping that as a bigger, stronger animal, he might have a future over fences. Three months on, he’s living up to her expectations.
“His happiness level is higher at all times now that he’s out in the fields,” she said. “And he’s already more powerful.”
Timber racing brings its own risks for both horse and jockey. A slight misjudgment over wooden fences can send them sprawling to the ground. Most get up and gallop on, but for a horse, a broken leg is usually a death sentence. Many timber horses hit their stride around 9 or 10, may compete until 15 and go on in their retirement to be fox-hunters.
That’s the path followed by another of Murphy’s trainees, Grinding Speed, a lanky gray thoroughbred. “Speedy” wasn’t as fast as his 1996 Kentucky Derby-winning father, Grindstone, and was sold in 2009 for $2,000 and then reigned over jumps, twice taking home another famous timber race win, the Virginia Gold Cup. He now fox-hunts with his owner, Maryland lawyer Michael Wharton, who describes him as an “amenable” animal who “only occasionally forgets” he’s no longer a racehorse.
Not all horses are as easy to retrain, and many still end up in kill pens despite a 2007 law banning horse slaughter for meat in the United States. The closure of domestic slaughterhouses brought unintended consequences, according to a 2011 GAO report, which reckoned that in its wake, “U.S. exports for horse slaughter increased by 148 and 660 percent to Canada and Mexico.” The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that more than 100,000 horses, including many thoroughbreds, are shipped to slaughterhouses, and is calling for legislation banning their export.
During his flat racing days, the future didn’t look very bright for last year’s Maryland Hunt Cup winner, Senior Senator. “He was going to get shot if we hadn’t found him,” said his trainer, Joe Davies.
The rangy bay gelding caught the eye of Davies’s wife, who devotes hours to watching flat races on the Internet in the hope of spotting timber prospects — big, athletic horses that seem to have staying power. When she watched Senior Senator come to the end of a race on the flat, he looked as if he was only just warming up.
“He’d run out of track,” as Davies put it.
He had also run out of options, with a reputation for being so dangerous that few jockeys wanted to ride him. Davies bought him in 2013 for $7,500.
Senior Senator lived up to his unruly reputation when he arrived at Davies’s Maryland farm. He was almost impossible to bridle, throwing his head up into the air and swinging his enormous body around. He would also routinely unseat his jockeys, often before they reached the starting line, with his acrobatic bucking and leaping. Once, he ditched his jockey at the third fence and jumped into the crowd. Last year, he was disqualified in a race for running fellow riders off the course.
But the horse, Davies says, has begun to settle down, even though he is still too wild and headstrong to join the pre-race parade around the paddock. Once he gets to the start, though, Senior Senator is proving hard to beat. With his giant stride and soaring jumping style, he won a big timber race in Maryland last weekend. And he is a favorite for the Maryland Hunt Cup on Saturday.
“He’s still not easy,” said Davies. “But he’s so happy doing what he does — running four miles and jumping five-foot fences.”
“It’s miracle we found him and he found us,” he added.
Call it a one in 20,000 miracle.