There's a story behind every horse that walks into the starting gate, but the story of a 2-year-old colt about to debut in Illinois is one of the more unlikely tales you'll ever hear.
It begins on June 6, 2009, when former trainer Gail Vacca and colleagues arrived at the Shipshewana livestock auction in northern Indiana. As Vacca puts it, “Shipshy” is not a place that any caring or passionate horseman would care to visit. The horses that wind up there endure miserable conditions before an almost-certain fate of slaughter in Canada or Mexico.
Vacca had come to Shipshy looking for off-track Thoroughbreds that might have been transported there in violation of Arlington Park's zero-tolerance policy for sending retired racehorses to kill auctions. That day, Vacca only spotted one Thoroughbred.
In the back of a pen filled with horses, Vacca saw an attractive dark bay mare that appeared crippled. She asked the “kill buyer” if she could purchase the horse from him. He said no. She asked if the mare was a Thoroughbred. He said no.
“He went in and flipped her lip, and said, nope, no tattoo,” Vacca said. “I knew he was lying.”
Vacca managed to get to edge of the pen and flip the mare's lip herself. Just as she surmised, there was a tattoo signifying her registration as a Thoroughbred racehorse.
“I told the kill buyer, I'd really like to buy that mare. She will not make the trip to Canada,” Vacca said. “He didn't want to, but eventually he sold her to me for $300.”
After a 30-day spell in quarantine, the mare Vacca named “Lulu” was brought to the Illinois Equine Humane Center (ILEHC). Vacca, the center's president, spent hours on the Jockey Club website trying to figure out who Lulu really was. She had no luck.
In the meantime, Vacca and her staff were doing their best to improve Lulu's condition, but they knew she wouldn't be adoptable.
“We had been debating whether it might be more humane to euthanize her because we are a non-profit, and she would be costly to manage with her lameness issues. But in the weeks that followed, my suspicions about Lulu were confirmed.”
The mare was pregnant.
After months of nursing Lulu along, on April 15, 2010, the staff of the ILEHC celebrated the birth of a colt they named “Taxi” because it was Tax Day (see photo box above for pictures of mom and foal).
“He was so gorgeous, with classic Thoroughbred looks,” Vacca said. “I said this is not a Heinz 57, this is a Thoroughbred colt.”
Vacca renewed her search for Lulu's identity. She found the sales ticket from the Shipshewana auction and tried to track down the consignor. Eventually, she found his Facebook page and sent him a message. A couple days later, Vacca received a call from Lulu's owner. The mare's real name was Silver Option.
“He said, ‘do you know who that horse is?'” Vacca recalled. “He said, that mare's by Silver Hawk, she's a really well-bred mare. He couldn't believe the mare had a foal. He said the vets told him she had lost the pregnancy.”
Vacca said the man begged her to sell the new colt to him, promising to take good care of Taxi.
“I said, ‘are you out of your mind?' I said, buddy, there's not enough money on the planet for me to sell this horse to you. You threw his mama away like yesterday's garbage, and I hung up.”
Silver Option, a 1997 foal, only raced twice in her career for owner John Amerman and was well-beaten in both starts. She was later sold as a broodmare, and in 2009, she was bred by the man who called Vacca to a new stallion at Darby Dan farm. It turns out Taxi was a son of Magna Graduate, although the farm had no idea Silver Option was in foal.
Technically, the non-profit Illinois Equine Humane Center was now on the hook for Magna Graduate's $5,000 stud fee.
“We thought it'd be great if we could get Taxi registered, but we couldn't afford the stud fee,” Vacca said. “I contacted Darby Dan, and the farm and owner of Magna Graduate graciously agreed to reduce the fee to $1,000.”
Taxi was then registered with the Jockey Club and named Magna Fortuna (which means “great luck” or “great fortune”).
“We got to thinking that it'd be really cool if he could do what he was bred to do,” Vacca said. “I thought maybe he could make it to the track and become a “spokeshorse” for the way some of these broodmares are treated. It just defies description that people can do this, throw them away like garbage the minute they can't make money off of them.”
Vacca and ILEHC volunteer Laura Donohoe assembled a group of people to form a racing partnership they called Rescue Me Racing. They put their own money in and bought shares of Magna Fortuna.
“The partnership isn't about making money for the partnership, it's about taking care of (Magna Fortuna) and giving him the opportunity to do what he loves to do,” Donohoe said. “If he makes it to the track or wins a race, that's a bonus, but all along it was about taking care of him first and foremost.”
Magna Fortuna, now a juvenile, is set to make his racing debut Dec. 26 at Hawthorne Race Course in an Illinois-bred Maiden Special Weight race.
“I probably won't sleep the night before,” said Donohoe. “All of the partners are just so excited. Whether he wins or not, I just want him to come back safe.”
At least five percent of any proceeds from Magna Fortuna's racing career will go to the Illinois Equine Humane Center.
“Really what I want people to think about is what could've been,” Vacca said. “He would've been slaughtered with Lulu. I just want people to think about, before they own a horse or broodmare, what they're going to do when they're no longer able to keep the horse. We owe it to the horses to do better than what we're doing now.”
Silver Option has a permanent home at the ILEHC, and Vacca said the 15-year-old is doing very well now that her broodmare days are over. The ILEHC welcomes donations to help keep up with the costs of caring for Silver Option.
Jennie Rees at the Louisville Courier-Journal helped launch a blog that is following Magna Fortuna's training. About half of the 15 partners are chipping in to the blog, as well as the colt's trainer, Michele Boyce.
The partners have agreed Magna Fortuna will never be entered in a claiming race where he could be purchased by someone else, and if the colt doesn't seem to enjoy racing, he'll be retrained for a new career.
“We would try to find a good forever home for him,” said Donohoe. “With the partners, we'd probably have to draw straws to see who gets him, so that's not going to be a problem.”
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made in support of the Illinois Equine Humane Center. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.
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