In 2013, readers fell in love with miracle baby Magna Fortuna, the subject of a profile we published when the gelding went into training. The son of Magna Graduate was rescued in utero when the Illinois Equine Humane Center (IEHC) pulled his dam, Silver Option, from a kill pen for $300. Gail Vacca, president and founder of the IEHC, remembers thinking the mare was in such bad shape that she wouldn't survive the trip to Canada. Her plan had been to humanely euthanize Silver Option, who was suffering from laminitis. It was only afterward she discovered Silver Option was pregnant and that the previous owner believed she had lost the foal early in her pregnancy.
Vacca decided the resulting foal, dubbed Magna Fortuna and fondly known as “Taxi” could be an ambassador for responsible Thoroughbred ownership and aftercare, so she formed an ownership group of 15 partners to send him to the races. Taxi won twice on the Illinois circuit, in maiden special and allowance company for trainer Michele Boyce.
The story was not entirely a fairytale, however. In 2014, Taxi's ownership group ended up in the news for a court battle raging over his custody and retirement status. The gelding bled following a five-furlong workout and was diagnosed with exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). Vacca, who was designated as equine welfare manager in the syndicate's partnership agreement, thought he should be retired, but other partners believed with rest, antibiotics, and oxygen therapy, Taxi could run again.
“Ultimately it showed me that you really need to have lawyers look at things and maybe have more lawyers look at them again,” said Vacca. “You have to really protect them and make sure that every 'I' is dotted and every 't' is crossed because people are funny and when they get a taste of the excitement of racing and the money, it can cloud people's judgement.”
The war over Taxi got ugly, but Vacca says two years after it began, the case was resolved. Taxi's ownership was transferred back to IEHC and he was put up for adoption last summer. After just a month of looking for a new home, Taxi moved a few miles away from IEHC and began his second career with adopter Alex Haser.
“The thing that stood out the most to him when we went to go see him was his personality,” Haser remembered. “Even out in the pasture you could tell he was kind of one of the more spunky horses out there. We threw him in the stall and were taking a closer look at him. There was a feed tub on the ground and he flipped it over and put his front feet on it, trying to see over the stall door. I saw him and was like, 'This could work.'”
Haser, a lifelong hunter/jumper rider, had intended to prepare Taxi, now seven years old, for a career in eventing but is starting to think they may stick to the dressage ring. She reports he has a polite, easygoing presence on the ground, probably in part to Vacca and her years of care.
The publicity, both positive and negative, surrounding Taxi's story has made it easier for Haser to learn about his history before adopting him.
“There's a ton of information and pictures out there to go look at on him,” said Haser. “A lot of people who have followed his story have reached out to me on Facebook. I think it's a good way to show retired racehorses can have a second life after the racetrack. I think he's a good horse for that because his story is so unique.”
Haser has worked with off-track horses before, but usually as leases. Taxi is the first ex-racehorse who has belonged to her. Haser wants to give Taxi more practice trailering off the farm before taking him to their first show, which is her goal for 2018.
“Honestly, he's just been crushing it,” she said. “Everything we throw at him, he figures it out and is doing great. I'm actually kind of debating sticking with the dressage thing and seeing how it plays out. He's been picking it up quickly and it's been good for the both of us. I did jump him a little bit and I think he's got that in him too but I'm trying to give him a nice solid foundation before we add more stuff.”
Unfortunately, Taxi's dam Silver Option was euthanized in 2015 due to the laminitis and navicular disease she had when they found her in 2009. Thanks to extensive care and shoeing, the IEHC team was able to give her several comfortable years in the pasture after her rescue. She was 18 years old.
The rescue world has changed since Vacca put down $300 to save Silver Option (and, unknowingly, Taxi). IEHC primarily deals with owner relinquished horses and neglect cases but used to attend auctions frequented by kill buyers whenever they could raise the money. Now, social media has changed the game.
“Definitely we've had to scale back because of the advent of all of these broker pages on social media, where people are basically working with the kill buyers and making money hand over fist. They're saving horses from slaughter and the bail price is anywhere from $700 to $1,500. Let me tell you, they don't get that when they take them to slaughter,” she said. “I think I can speak for a lot of legitimate horse rescues, we're all in the same boat where donations are drastically down because of this. Unfortunately, the public are willing to donate to get them safe but then when it comes time for $50 to buy hay for a week or whatever, people don't want to give you that.”
In the end, even though Taxi's case was riddled with legal woes, Vacca believes he shows that a horse can race, retire, and begin a second career responsibly.
“I still think it's completely doable to race horses in a humane manner and put their welfare first and retire them at the proper time to let them go on to have long, happy healthy lives doing something less strenuous,” she said.
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