Northwest of Richmond, Va., more than two dozen retired Thoroughbreds live a peaceful life on 1,200 acres of farmland, cared for day and night.
But this is no ordinary horse retirement home. It is a correctional facility.
The offenders who are sentenced to serve their time at the James River Work Center pay back their debt to society in a unique way – they learn how to take care of horses.
“Most of these men, they haven't had any consistency in their lives. Most of them haven't had any responsibility,” said Anne Tucker, president of the James River Chapter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. “This program has really turned some of these men around.”
James River is part of the TRF's Second Chances program, which pairs criminal offenders with retired Thoroughbreds in the hope of teaching life lessons that will make a difference.
“It's something about the horses,” said Tucker. “They have a way of touching these men and enabling them to see there's a different way to do things – a better way, a more productive way.”
Offenders at James River learn horse management skills through the intensive Groom Elite program. Not only does the education qualify them to care for the retired Thoroughbreds at the facility, it also gives them the credentials to seek equine jobs when they are released.
“We have one from our very first group of men who's been out two years now, and he's a farrier,” said Tucker. “Things like that make you feel really good.”
Last year, in an effort to increase awareness about the program, the James River TRF chapter decided to hold a beauty contest. Not for the offenders, of course. For the horses.
“One of our board members had seen this Miss Mustang contest on the Internet and thought, why don't we have a beauty pageant with our horses, and we were like, what?” Tucker said. “But the more we thought about it, the more interesting it became.”
The idea caught the attention of nearby racetrack Colonial Downs, and the Miss TRF Pageant was born. TRF posted photos of several mares on its website, and fans voted online for their favorite. The top three vote-getters were paraded between races at Colonial Downs on Ladies' Day, and after the crowd voted, Patti's Storm was crowned the first Miss TRF.
“It was a good way to reach racing fans, and oddly enough, that was a group we hadn't really connected with,” said Tucker. “It got people thinking about Thoroughbred aftercare, and the mares looked really good, which is a testament to the offenders here in the James River Work Center who take care of them.”
The second annual Miss TRF pageant will take place Saturday, June 23 – this time under the lights at Colonial Downs. Fans can vote for this year's contestants by clicking here. Online voting will be open until noon on Thursday, June 21.
On Ladies' Night, the three finalists will be paraded in front of the crowd between the early races on the card. TRF volunteers will collect ballots and tabulate votes from those in attendance. Trainer Stephanie Nixon and the pony riders at Colonial are providing transportation to the track and care for the Miss TRF contestants while they are at Colonial Downs. Whole Foods, which distributes carrots to the James River horses throughout the year, will be involved as well.
“The winner will be crowned with a garland of roses and be given a basket of carrots in front of the crowd,” said Tucker. “It's a big pleaser.”
While last year's event didn't raise a significant amount of money, Tucker said it definitely created awareness about the James River facility, which also retrains and re-homes retired Thoroughbreds.
“We had an unusually good response to our end of the year letter asking for donations. We have no doubt the pageant played a role in that because it made people aware, and they enjoyed it.”
There are seven contestants in this year's pageant. There had been eight, but one of the mares had to drop out – for a very good reason.
She was adopted into a new home.
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made in support of the James River Chapter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.
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