In the best-case scenario, it's fair to say that all retired racehorses would have the option of running free in a green field after they leave the track. But for most Thoroughbreds, the odds they'll end up living out their days in a second career or as pasture pals is not as high as it should be, for a variety of reasons.
On Greenfield Farm, in Cumberland, Va., a group of ex-racehorses and pensioned broodmares are living out the best-case scenario.
In the next county over, their breeder, Nellie Cox, is enjoying the view of her fields at Rose Retreat Farm, where other “lawn ornaments” (as she calls her attractive, but not rideable retirees) nibble grass shoots.
Cox has been in the Thoroughbred business for 25 years, on a fairly small scale, with no more than ten mares in foal each year. Early on, she focused on commercial breeding but after breeding several notable stakes horses, she's been keeping more of her stock to race.
In 2003, Rose Retreat-bred Gimmeawink collected six stakes wins and climbed into the top 100 horses by earnings for the year. The same year, Cox bred Be Gentle, who won the Grade 2 Darley Alcibiades and the Grade 2 Golden Rod, and made a run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
It was 2006 though, when Cox really hit it big. Showing Up, one of the last offspring of Cox's mare Miss Alethia, collected four graded stakes victories that year and ran sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Cox has a wall of win photos from the horse, who eventually settled on the roster at Adena Springs in Canada.
As a veteran of the racing industry though, Cox is well aware that most of her homebreds don't find that kind of success. That's why she retires as many as she can back on the farm where they grew up.
“I'm fortunate that I have the land and I can do it, and I know everybody else can't do that,” she said. “I'm happy to see them enjoying themselves. Some of them were not particularly good racehorses, but they found a home for life anyway, and I am glad for that.”
For her, the sense of responsibility starts at the beginning. Horses are handled patiently and consistently from the time they're born, usually producing relaxed, polite personalities that set them up well for a riding home later on. Cox hires trainers (primarily Christophe Clement and Robbie Bailes) she trusts to manage her horses conservatively and let her know when a horse needs some down time to prevent or heal from an injury.
“You definitely want to retire one before he is so injured that there is no possibility of anything else,” she said. “The trainers that I have used have been of the same mindset that I have not to take a chance or overdo it and have them retire healthy.”
If a horse is bought or claimed from her, Cox keeps an eye on their form. If she sees one dropping through the ranks, she'll claim them back or buy them privately and retire them.
Cox's husband, Sidney B. Cox, Jr., specializes in breeding hunter/jumpers, and their daughter Lisa has worked with many of her mother's horses to get them prepared for a new home. Rose Retreat horses have become hunter/jumpers, polo ponies, and children's riding horses, and one recently began training to become an eventer.
On this summer morning at Rose Retreat, 6-year-old gelding Plantation is enjoying his daily grooming in the barn. Winner of the A Huevo and Private Terms Stakes, Plantation is an imposingly tall horse who seems unaware of the fact. He's here for a break from the track, and may have a future as a hunter/jumper.
Cox sold a half-interest in Plantation, with the stipulation that she get him back when he retired.
“Plantation is the first one that I've really had the desire to keep him myself and see what he could do, and see if he would work in these all-Thoroughbred shows,” she said. “I've always thought that no horse does anything better than a Thoroughbred can.
“If that doesn't come to fruition, then he will just be a pasture ornament here. It's difficult to even give a horse away anymore, unless it's to someone you really know, because you don't know how they're going to be treated down the line with the cost of feed and everything.”
That honor isn't reserved for stakes winners. One of the most well-known horses on the farm was Flying Harley, a hard-knocking gray gelding who started 81 times in his eight-year career at the track. Cox lost “Harley” to a claim early in his career, and he was claimed eight more times before Cox claimed him back in 2003. After a few last races, she retired him sound. Even though he never ran higher than allowance level, he was a special horse for Cox.
“He was beautiful and sweet and kind. I was so glad that I had him,” she said. “He did anything in the world of him that anyone ever asked of him. He had an effect on me, for sure.”
For horses who aren't sound enough for riding homes, or who have retired after their breeding careers are through, there's a great big pasture at Greenfield waiting for them. Harley spent his years grazing there, occasionally babysitting weanlings, before succumbing to melanoma in his teens. Today, about a dozen retired broodmares live in the farm's largest pasture, with several off-track geldings scattered elsewhere on both the Greenfield and Rose Retreat properties.
In trying to track down horses who have grown up and left the farm, Cox said she encounters the same problem as many owners and breeders—some of them seem to disappear. Unless she's in contact with the owner, it's hard to know if a horse who stopped turning in workouts was retired, or injured, or vanished. Those are the horses she can't stop wondering about.
“You cannot, I don't think, breed horses without falling in love with them,” she said. “I have worried about what happened to a lot of them eventually, and I'm sure that some of them slipped through the cracks. I have claimed them and probably paid too much for them to get them back in my control, but I'm glad that I did it.”
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