Blackfoot Mystery represented America proudly this week, competing at the Olympics in Rio. Of the 45 horse and rider combinations who had the tenacity, skills and luck to complete all three phases of the event, Boyd Martin and his retired racehorse finished 16th, ahead of many of the world's leading horses and riders.
While many now know who this rags to riches horse is, far fewer are familiar with the organization responsible for taking him from the racetrack and helping him build a foundation that would carry him to Olympic glory.
“I've always been crazy about Thoroughbreds because they make great eventers,” said Leigh Gray, founder and president of Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc., a non-profit Thoroughbred rehabilitation and adoption facility in Southern California. “I started [Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc.] and that became my goal – to find a horse who could go up levels and onto the Olympics. It took fifteen years, but I did it and couldn't be happier!”
Gray grew up competing in eventing and later spent twelve years working as an exercise rider at the racetrack before working as a licensed veterinary technician. It is the convergence of those skills and experiences that are the foundation for Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc.
The home base for Gray's efforts lies at Winner's Circle Ranch, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation and layup facility located within minutes of Santa Anita Park. The ranch is owned by Dr. Don Shields, a racetrack practitioner with a special interest in equine sports medicine, lameness diagnosis and advanced therapeutics. He also serves as the triage veterinarian for CARMA (California Retirement Management Account), a fundraising organization that supports Thoroughbred aftercare facilities that care for horses whose careers have ended after competing at California racetracks.
“I knew Don from the racetrack, and when he bought the property to create his facility he hired me to oversee the layups on the farm,” said Gray, who works as the Winner's Circle Ranch Manager. “He offered to allow me to run the rescue out of his farm and he has been incredibly supportive, helping our horses with x-rays, therapies and other medical care.”
Having an aftercare facility located on-site at a world-class Thoroughbred and sport horse rehabilitation center like Winner's Circle Ranch creates opportunities for specialized care that few other aftercare organizations can match. Thanks to Shields and his associates, Gray and her Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc. can provide cutting-edge medical and therapeutic care to retired racehorses rehabilitating from injuries, including platelet rich plasma and stem cell treatments, IRAP, shockwave, dental care, acupuncture, whole body vibration and more.
Shields, who is also an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, regularly hosts seminars for veterinary students at his ranch to demonstrate techniques, procedures and therapies. Often, horses from Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc. are used during the demonstrations.
Finding New Value for Retired Racers
Since its inception, Gray estimates that Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc. has had 585 retired racehorses pass through its program. With Gray's background and connections in the world of combined training, many of the program's horses have enjoyed successful eventing careers, but Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc's graduates have also gone on to be trail horses, hunter/jumpers, Western competitors and more.
“My role is to find the right horses for the right job,” explained Gray. “There are so many out there like [Blackfoot Mystery] that just need the right opportunity to show what they can really do. I'd love to see him make it to the World Equestrian Games or to the next Olympics.”
Before Blackfoot Mystery, Gray's organization had transitioned another internationally recognized horse, a son of Cutlass Reality who competed in the World Cup Eventing qualifiers as Kipling with rider Lauren Whitlock.
“We transition 20 to 40 horses a year to non-racing homes. I've had people tell me ‘thank you for allowing me to adopt. I would never have been able to afford a horse like this.' That's what it's all about – creating new value for these horses after they no longer have racing value.”
Gray often works with friend and former Olympian Jil Walton, who was the top-placed American in eventing at the 1992 Olympics, to put a riding foundation on many of the horses she adopts out. Based in Montana, Walton routinely travels to California to see what Gray has in her stable of prospects.
“Jil gets excited to come and try the horses out to see what they can do,” said Gray. “She comes to Galway Downs and brings students or clients and I bring the horses. The horses get an education and she gets to shop around for prospects and see what catches her eye.”
Money Makes the World Go Around
While the Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc. is fortunate to be situated on an equine layup facility owned by a veterinarian who is in full support of its efforts, Gray says outside funding is crucial to meet her operational expenses.
“CARMA is one of our main supporters and we also have been fortunate to have support from Jerry and Ann Moss's Zenyatta Foundation. We also receive grant support from the Thoroughbred Charities of America and donations from a variety of private individuals, and last year we received accreditation and funding from the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance,” said Gray.
The organization also gets funding from adopting out and selling horses.
“Occasionally I'll sell a horse and get money that way, but I am a big believer in finding the right home for each horse, and that isn't about the money. I'll let a horse go for $1,000 if it's truly the right person rather than getting thousands more from someone who might not be as good of a match.”
Gray credit's Blackfoot Mystery with bringing her Thoroughbred Rehab Center, Inc. newfound visibility and awareness. In the coming months the organization plans to launch a new website and social media presence with the simple but important goal of long term sustainability for the organization.
“Blackfoot Mystery has really opened people's eyes out here [in California] to what Thoroughbreds can do. It's helped me to connect with people who didn't know we existed and reconnect with people I'd lost touch with,” said Gray. “I just want to keep doing what we're doing for years to come and see our graduates go onto big things.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughb,mred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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