The story of this well-traveled OTTB's path to his forever home starts not with him, but with a paint mare named Pepsi, who was emaciated and in need of intervention.
“My husband and I had bought a house with a barn and two acres of land, with an amazing forest directly behind us,” said Michelle Birdsall. “I fell in love with the house, as it gave me the possibility of one day owning a horse right in my own backyard.”
That day came sooner than expected, when Michelle's sons, Patrick (13) and Ryan (11), came across a young paint mare who was severely underweight, untrained, and in dire straits. The mare was definitely not what Michelle had envisioned as the family's first horse on their new property, but Michelle could not deny that the mare was in need of someone to step up and ensure her well-being, and Patrick was especially eager to help.
“With a little vet care and a whole lot of groceries, it wasn't long before Patrick, my amateur horseman, had this three-year-old halter-broke, lifting her legs, lunging, and standing for the farrier,” said Michelle. “It was a bit worrisome for me, but it sure is fun watching a turned-on kid working on a cause rather than being a witness to daily dying brain cells from video games.”
Not long after, a friend of Michelle's introduced her to a Thoroughbred rescue that had recently relocated within the vicinity of the family's home. Michelle was admittedly leery of the reputation Thoroughbreds had as being hot, high strung, and difficult to handle, but she and Patrick went to visit the rescue with an open mind. If nothing else, it would be an educational experience for them both.
“That's where we were introduced to Hey Elvis,” said Michelle.
Elvis was at the rehabilitation and rehoming facility after retiring from a racing career that took him all over his native land of Australia and later to America, where he landed in the barn of Doug O'Neill, trainer of this year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents.
Elvis had been a classy horse in Australia, racking up wins in the handicap divisions. Elvis was good, but he was a horse with issues. Hey Elvis lost by the tiniest of margins in his U. S. stakes debut, but bled in his next start and, after ample time off, O'Neill ran him back twice for two more wins.
Nearly a year later, Hey Elvis showed up with the same owners but a different trainer at Golden Gate Fields, in a race significantly lower in quality than what O'Neill had been running him in and what he was used to in Australia.
It looked like a sure win for Elvis as they turned for home, but he slackened in the stretch and crossed the line in third…and lame. It was an unremarkable end to a career that had once held so much promise. It was also the catalyst for Elvis's transition to the rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming farm where he had that fateful meeting with Michelle and Patrick.
“My first impression was that he was the most majestic creature I'd ever seen,” said Michelle. “He was slightly deflated-looking since he had recently been restarted after a nine-month rest to recover from a racing injury. He wasn't starved like Pepsi – just out of shape.”
Michelle was intimidated by his size nbut decided to take the rescue manager up on allowing her to ride him in their arena. Elvis was much bigger than other horses Michelle had dealt with, and she had difficulty at first getting up on his back.
“He waited patiently without moving a muscle as I struggled and stumbled to mount him,” said Michelle. “His gentle personality and extreme tolerance was not what I expected of a once favored Group 1 winner. Heck, the 24-year-old American Saddlebred I'd taken lessons on wasn't as obedient.”
After Michelle and later Patrick rode Elvis, they were unabashedly smitten with him and took him home that very day.
Elvis's transition to life at their farm as been easy and uneventful, and he's stamped himself as the perfect family horse.
“The only issue we had with him is that he stumbled a lot at the walk – he seemed a bit lazy and didn't pay much attention to where he was placing his feet,” said Michelle. “So, I started walking him on a lead rope at least a mile every day, up and down steep hills. We live on a hill, and it's nothing like the graded track surface that he was used to.”
The walks helped and while Elvis is now much steadier with his feet, Michelle still takes him on those daily walks. But now the goal is simply to spend time with him.
“I ride him two to three times a week on trails and in the arena, often with Patrick and Pepsi,” said Michelle. “He just moseys along the trails peacefully and carefully gives me more energy when I ask for it. Elvis has built muscle, is more alert, and is downright sexy. He might not be as fit as a race-ready Thoroughbred, but he definitely has some genetics favoring him.”
His calm demeanor has spurred Michelle to consider attempting to qualify him for search and rescue efforts in her area in the near future.
“I may never know if Elvis's relaxed personality is from racetrack burnout, slight arthritis, or if it's just him,” said Michelle. “All I know is that he's the perfect horse for me and always will be.
Name: Hey Elvis (AUS) (a.k.a. “Elvis”)
Born: August 9, 2004 in Australia
Sire: Clang (AUS)
Dam: Queen of Song (AUS)
Race Record: 27-9-7-2
Race Earnings: $347,028
If you have or know of a retired Thoroughbred with an interesting story to tell, we'd love to hear about it! Just email Jen Roytz ([email protected]) with the horse's Jockey Club name, background story, and a few photos.
Jen Roytz is the marketing and communications director at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. She also handles the farm's Thoroughbred aftercare efforts. She currently owns Point of Impact (by Point Given; a.k.a. Boomer), who retired from racing in late 2011 and is in training as a hunter/jumper. Contact Jen on Facebook and Twitter.
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