About a year ago, Rough C's Ahead got more ink after a ninth-place claiming run than most allowance horses do in their whole lifetimes. The Marvin Davis trainee struggled home last in his third career start at Fair Grounds on Dec. 29, 2016 and was listed for sale on social media by Thompson's Horse Lot and Co on Jan. 3. No one knew it whenever he passed through the gates, but Rough C's Ahead left the track just ahead of an EHV-1 outbreak which would plague Fair Grounds for several weeks and his presence in the receiving barn meant state animal health officials went looking for him. His discovery in the hands of self-proclaimed kill buyers sparked public outrage and discussion of racetrack anti-slaughter policies.
Fortunately for the flashy chestnut, he escaped both EHV-1 and a long trailer ride south within a few hours of appearing online. Dinah Moors and Samantha Molyneaux, frequenters of online kill pen listings, fell in love with Rough C's Ahead's photo and raised the money to bail him. Then, they found out about the EHV-1 threat at Fair Grounds. Because the gelding had been exposed, Louisiana's Department of Agriculture wouldn't let the horse leave the kill pen for a few weeks until officials could be sure he wasn't in danger of falling ill. Then, they had a whole new problem – how could they make sure it was safe to introduce the chestnut to their own herd?
“Up here, things like that are a really big deal. We needed the horse to go to some type of proper quarantine and we couldn't find anywhere to take him because he'd been exposed to EHV,” said Moors.
Eventually, they found a private farm in Louisiana which works with many kill pen rescues and quarantined the horse on-site for another 30 days when he shipped north to Moors' farm in Illinois. From there, Molyneaux took over and brought the horse with her when she moved to Georgia.
“He was the typical kill pen case: weight loss, bad feet because they've been standing in the muck and everything, swelling in hind legs from bacterial infection, rain rot, worms, general ill health. It's disgusting,” said Moors.
Molyneaux and Moors guess it took three months or so before they got Rough C's Ahead back to the picture of health, and his personality began to show through. He was always sweet but became more of a “goofball” as his weight came back.
“From the get-go he was a really solid guy,” said Molyneaux. “Dinah and I had discussed it and I said, ‘I'll keep the horse if I can't find somebody who understands his story and loves him the way we do.' I went through a lot of people who were interested in flipping him and I always said he needed to go someplace where someone had followed the story and understood.”
Moors and Molyneaux say it's emotionally exhausting to fight what feels like an uphill battle with the kill pen system.
“It makes you very sad because they're nice horses and they have futures. Why are people throwing them away?” asked Moors.
“Louisiana has a problem,” Molyneaux agreed.
Meanwhile, outside of Wilmington, N.C., Jennifer Witkowski was mourning the loss of her horse to cancer a few weeks earlier and was not looking to take on a new partner just yet. She saw social media postings for horses in trouble from time to time but kept hearing about the same chestnut OTTB.
“I had a friend from Georgia, a friend from Chicago, and a friend from California all call and tell me about this horse,” said Witkowski. “I'm not a religious person and I don't believe in fate, which makes this all weirder to me, but everyone kept saying, ‘There's this horse and we kind of had the feeling that you need to have him. This is a horse you're supposed to have.'
“I'm old school: You vet test everything, you test ride everything, but I called and said, ‘When can I come pick him up?' I questioned if I was insane myself but drove down to Atlanta and came back with him.”
Witkowski quickly learned the gelding is more puppy dog than horse, proving to be one of the sweetest OTTBs she has encountered. On his first day in his new home, Rough C's Ahead lay down and put his head in Witkowski's lap.
“It was the sweetest, most ridiculous Disney thing I could have imagined,” she said.
Witkowski grew up riding outside of Chicago, where many of the barn's mounts were off-track horses, so she is no stranger to legging up OTTBs. Normally, she gives hers 90 days of letdown, followed by slow hacks and easy rides focusing on the basics. With “Rough,” she strapped on her mouth guard, helmet, and safety vest, preparing for a few exuberant bucks in their first ride together, and she got … nothing. The pair walked, trotted, and cantered both directions with no fireworks on their first time out.
“I know why he lost: he is a lazy horse,” she said. “He'll run in the pasture and my Percheron will outrun him. He's like, ‘That's fine, you go ahead!' He doesn't have that race drive in him.”
Witkowski hopes one day Rough will make an eventer, but it's a little early to tell what he will enjoy most. For now, the pair are waiting out the winter weather to begin training in earnest and just learned they were accepted into the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project. Rough spends his days in Witkowski's backyard, where he can occasionally pops by the house to check on her.
“He tries to get into my bedroom,” she laughed. “I have a big back porch that my bedroom opens up to, and he's been found on the porch more than once now. Just kind of looking in the window like, ‘Watcha doing?' He's very sweet and in your pocket, and I think that's what devastated me so badly. I've seen horses go to slaughter before that had problems or couldn't be turned around but for the life of me I can't understand how something this sweet got thrown away.”
According to the Louisiana Racing Commission, a Marvin Davis (there is more than one in their licensing system) had his license suspended in 2017 for an unpaid debt. Equibase indicates the Marvin Davis who trained Rough has not saddled a horse since mid-February 2017.
Witkowski understands the complexities of enforcing racetrack anti-slaughter policy (the biggest difficulty being the authority's ability to prove an owner or trainer knew a horse would be going to slaughter at time of sale), but believes the current system just isn't enough.
“It's a problem, all these trainers claiming, ‘I thought he was going to a summer camp!' Really? Really, did you think that?” she said, citing a common refrain among connections whose horse is later found in a kill pen. ”It's hard because I don't know what the best answer is. As a horse person, I get so frustrated with this. But at least putting him in the (Thoroughbred Makeover) would bring some light to this.”
That's also the reason Witkowski hasn't changed the horse's name. “Rough” doesn't suit his personality at all, but it's important to her people recognize the former kill pen case.
“I ultimately made the decision to keep his name because I hope Marvin Davis finds out about this,” she said. “I hope that it gets far enough that he sees. You threw him away. But he didn't need to be.”
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