Three weeks ago, Kirsten Fada was sitting on her gelding, Ryman, after a ride at Moserwood Farms in Prospect, Ky. Fada was in transition between Fair Grounds and Canterbury Park, where her boyfriend Coty Rosin oversees a summer string for Joe Sharp.
She had intended Kentucky to be a short stopover. As an exercise rider she was used to traveling with the race meets, but the coronavirus pandemic had turned everything upside down, and she and Ryman had been at Moserwood longer than she had originally planned, anxiously waiting to learn what their next move should be.
Fada was chatting with several other girls from the farm, and they mentioned that a new group of off-track Thoroughbreds had just arrived for Second Stride. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited group bases its training operation out of Moserwood, so boarders are used to OTTBs coming in and out. Fada asked about the new trainees, but the person she was speaking to couldn't remember most of their names, except one – Inked.
Fada said her heart stopped.
“That's my horse!” she blurted out.
The hardest part of falling in love with a horse that isn't your own is the wondering. It's easy to follow a Thoroughbred in active training, monitoring their recorded workouts and entries on Equibase's virtual stable. It's when the email notifications stop coming that uncertainty creeps in.
Unless you have an inroad with the horse's connections, you don't know whether he suffered an injury or is enjoying a well-deserved vacation in a grassy field; whether he has moved on to a second career, or if he's at the end of a long trailer ride in a forgotten pen somewhere. It feels wrong to assume the worst, but irresponsible not to consider it. Where the heart is concerned, the brain can run wild with worst-case scenarios you may be powerless to prevent.
Fada rides a lot of horses and is fond of them. She retrains and rehomes as many as she can and tries not to let herself worry about what she can't control. After all, the horses she rides don't usually belong to her.
Late last year, she realized the notifications had stopped coming for a particularly special chestnut gelding. In 2017, Fada and Rosin had picked out a small chestnut son of Include with a big head from the Keeneland September Yearling Sale and purchased him after he failed to make reserve at $11,000. Rosin told Fada she could choose his Jockey Club registered name, and she dubbed him Inked. Fada did the early trackwork with Inked, aboard for his gallops and breezes and gate schools. Even as a 2-year-old, he stood out from the crowd.
“He was always just so kind, so willing,” she remembered. “There's not a mean bone in his body. Even when he's unsure about things, he's always been willing to try and kind of looks to you as a rider for reassurance that things are ok. We really developed a good relationship there.”
Fada had come to exercise riding unconventionally. She grew up in Ohio riding at a Morgan barn before falling in love with the racetrack, where she has groomed, ponied, started babies, and galloped. She also took a two-year detour to immerse herself in dressage with Dutch Warmbloods before returning to the track.
Many people in Fada's life tried to spare her. Make horses a hobby, they said. Find a job in another, more stable field and ride after a day at the office. She tried community college, but the path to a conventional career didn't feel right.
“I knew that wasn't where my heart was,” she said. “For me that is not even an option. Horses have always been my therapy. I've dealt with depression and anxiety my whole life and they have kept me going.”
Inked made three starts for his fan club before he was claimed at Oaklawn in February 2019 and moved out west. Fada watched the notifications come in from Prairie Meadows, where he spent the summer missing the board in maiden claimers. He changed hands twice more, and began surfacing at racetracks Fada hadn't heard of – Wyoming Downs, then Sweetwater Downs (where he finally broke his maiden), then Grants Pass in Oregon, where he was sixth in a claiming contest. Then his record went silent.
“It's such an unsettling feeling when they're just gone and you have no idea where to look for them, how to keep track of them,” she said. “Three weeks down the road, by the time you realize, they're gone. Day rate is too expensive. I understand all of that.”
More than a thousand miles away from Oaklawn, where Fada and Inked had said their goodbyes, someone else was getting those same emails throughout 2019.
Susan M. Young hadn't set out to become a Thoroughbred breeder – it had happened by accident. She was a fan of racing, but most of her experience was in sport horses. Young, who is based in Portland, Ore., is a senior vice president of mortgage operations at Wells Fargo – a company so enormous she said it's actually a logistical issue to try to communicate with people.
“There are a billion Susan Youngs,” she said. “I have to tell people 'You have to put Susan M. Young in, or I won't get your email.'”
One summer afternoon in 2007, Young made the trip down to Del Mar for a day at the races with some friends. To everyone's amusement, there was a familiar name in the program for the fourth race, a maiden claiming race. Princess Susan M was making her second career start for trainer Peter Miller. Naturally, the group all placed bets on her and cheered her to the wire as she prevailed by a head over a fast-closing rival. The group felt invested in the mare – the novelty of the name, the thrill of victory at the West Coast's premier summer meet. Young added Princess Susan M to her Stable Mail.
Princess Susan M would go on to earn six figures the hard way, racing for six seasons as a claimer. Young kept track of her progression through Southern California to Northern California to the East Coast. She reached out to the new connections whenever the mare got claimed but none were willing to sell her the horse. In 2012 the mare began running for an owner/trainer named Danny Hamilton II and Young found a phone number for him.
“I said, 'I know this sounds stupid. Here I am, this woman in Oregon who has never actually touched this horse, but for some reason she has touched my heart. So if anything ever happens to her, please call me,'” Young recalled.
She didn't really expect a call, especially when the horse started winning. She was pretty sure this trainer, like all the others before, thought she was nuts.
When Hamilton slipped the bridle on Princess Susan M in her stall at Mountaineer before the walkover for a claiming race on Oct. 1, he'd later tell Young he made the mare a promise. 'Win this race for me,' he whispered in her ear, 'and I'll call that lady in Oregon for you.'
Princess Susan M ran away from the field under the lights, running like she hadn't run before and winning by 8 ½ lengths. The next day, Hamilton kept his word to his horse.
Young was surprised when her phone rang – she had seen the mare's victory and assumed she wouldn't hear a word for months to come – and bought her on the spot. Princess Susan M began a new career as a broodmare in Central Kentucky, and Young began a career as a breeder. She was thrilled with the mare's first foal, a filly by Roman Ruler later named Pooker T, and enjoyed watching her grow and ready for sale at Keeneland September. The next year, the mare gave birth to a colt by Include who would one day be named Inked.
Young was less thrilled when she learned her first filly had been exported to Puerto Rico following the auction. Puerto Rico does not have the geographic or financial resources to maintain a significant aftercare program. Then Hurricane Maria hit, and Young had no idea if the filly was alive or dead. She made contact with Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare Inc., which works to bring horses back to the United States for retirement and rehoming after their careers in Puerto Rico are finished, and asked them to keep a lookout. Pooker T surfaced as a 3-year-old and struggled along at the claiming level for a few months.
In summer 2018, Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare called Young to report Pooker T had an injury. Her connections did not intend to rehabilitate her and planned to euthanize.
'Don't do that,' Young said. 'I'll take her.'
With the group's help, Young had her shipped back to her birthplace at Phoenix Hill Farm in Kentucky for lay-up.
Meanwhile, Young was watching Inked with a critical eye, too. When she saw his entry come through for Grants Pass in October 2019, she made a four-hour drive south to introduce herself to his trainer. She learned his retirement plan was likely to go to the Indian relay race circuit.
“You put all this money into them, and when they're born you have a commitment to them to do what you can to help them,” said Young. “If I rescued their mom, I have to do the same for the offspring.
“When he was claimed the second time and started on the fair circuit, I got concerned. He was actually in pretty good condition but I was worried about his life after racing. He wasn't setting the fair circuit on fire. I asked the trainer what it would take to buy him, and he told me.”
Her original plan was to send Inked to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, which had agreed to take Pooker T at the end of her recovery, but transportation logistics stuck him in South Dakota for the winter.
Haven't I seen him before?
When Hannah Meier, one of the owners of Circle J Horse Transportation, was contracted to pick up a horse in South Dakota, she thought there was something awfully familiar about the stocky chestnut with the large head.
“It turned out to be Inked,” she said. “He's just sitting out in a pasture in South Dakota, and he was a calm, easygoing kid. He hopped right on my trailer. He was just a gem, he did everything perfectly. He got along with everyone, ate, drank, everything.”
Meier does a little bit of everything – track work, hauling horses, and retiring/retraining OTTBs. Inked had caught her eye when she was working in the shedrow at Grants Pass, for then-trainer Gilbert Ecoffey. Physically, Inked was her type – big, well-built. But his temperament was what made him shine, even though he wasn't a talented runner.
“For being a 3-year-old, he was massive, and very full of himself at the track,” said Meier. “I paddocked him for races a couple of times, worked with him on the backside on his training days. I wasn't galloping him, but I was doing anything else.
“He's a super personable, bright, happy gelding. Even when he was at the racetrack, he was super kind and loving. There's just something about him that sticks out to people. No one ever broke this horse's spirit, at all.”
Meier hauled him back to Phoenix Hill Farm, where he would put on some weight and await a spot at one of the accredited aftercare facilities. The whole way, she thought about whether she could take him herself. He'd be a great prospect and would be fun to work with while she looked for a new home for him, but she wasn't sure if that was fair.
“I'm going to take him all the way back to Oregon, and he's probably going to be a retrain that I find the right person for and selling, and then he's going to end up back on the East Coast. I couldn't quite justify dragging him all the way across the United States, again,” she said.
Meier made fast friends with Kim Dionne, owner of Phoenix Hill Farm, and checked in with her favorite chestnut often. Dionne was starting to fall in love with him, too. Then, Dionne called one day and asked if Meier could take him. Meier couldn't make the logistics work—by then, COVID-19 was beginning to limit interstate travel, and she worried she might get him halfway home and then be stuck somewhere.
About three weeks ago, Meier heard from someone in Ohio looking for an OTTB to ride, and thought Inked would be the perfect choice. She called Dionne, only to find out he had left that morning for Moserwood.
“I said, that's great,” she said. “There are plenty of Thoroughbreds out there for me, and as much as I loved Inked, if the stars don't line up then there's a reason for it.”
Fada didn't even get off her horse before going to the barn where the new Second Stride ship-ins were acclimating to their new stalls. She called out Inked's name, and as if coached by a Hollywood director, the gelding poked his head out of his stall to greet her.
“I was so excited I don't think I could even cry,” Fada said. “There was no question. I was just like, he's back, he's here, he's mine. I'm still in shock. It's been totally fate.”
“When I found him, it didn't matter if he'd had three legs, he was going to have a home with me. I don't need another horse, I have a lot on my plate, but that didn't matter. This was meant to be. Sound or not, he was coming home. But to see him in the field he looked pretty good, and then to get on him and feel those first couple trot steps, it was an amazing feeling. He has made it through his racing journey so sound.”
Fada immediately adopted him, and Young was floored to get an email that her gelding had been rehomed in 24 hours. Fada wrote about their reunion on her Facebook page, and the post went viral, connecting her with Meier. Soon, the three women were sharing memories and photos of their favorite Thoroughbred. None of them had known before that the other two existed.
The Thoroughbred world feels like a small one, until your heart belongs to just one special horse in the sea of the 45,000 that make a start each year. Fada has spent the past two weeks thinking about how many ways she and Inked could have missed out on being at Moserwood at the same time. If he hadn't run in Oregon, if Young hadn't made the drive to see him there, if Meier had called one day earlier, if Fada's departure from Kentucky hadn't been delayed; if, if, if. It's hard not to think the hands of fate must have been especially tired after moving around all the pieces to make this journey come out just right.
“An angel has been sitting on his shoulder, for him to end up back to the person who adored him and missed him,” said Young. “He is a blessing for her and she's been a blessing for him. He's the type of horse who needs a person, and he got that. She adores him. Somebody intervened to make sure their journeys ended up in the same place.”
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” echoed Meier. “He was a slow racehorse but he seems to have ended up exactly where he was supposed to be. He could have slipped through so many cracks on his path of ending up there.”
Fada's first few rides with Inked have gone well. He's the same willing, trusting partner she remembers from his days on the racetrack. His mouth is soft in her hands and he has some natural balance that will be improved with time and fitness. They have hacked out in a bareback pad, and hopped a crossrail in their second ride together, even though Fada is quick to say she's really not a jumper.
The horse and rider relationship is like an electric current, emotions silently and quickly flowing from one to the other. The best partnerships happen when there is trust on each side; magical partnerships happen when confidence travels from one to the other as well. Fada is supremely confident in Inked, certain that he can accomplish anything they set their minds to, even if he has never done it before. She glows as she talks about his kindness, his versatility. Because she believes it, he will believe it. Their mutual joy is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The degree of kismet involved has invigorated Fada. Where she had felt rudderless, she now feels she has purpose. She plans to take Inked to the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover, likely to compete in dressage. But she hopes he will accomplish much more than that this year.
“I'd like to go on field trips with him and see what he likes to do,” said Fada, who will be authoring a blog on America's Best Racing and documenting their journey on Inked's Facebook page. “I do think it would be fun to find someone who's into roping or something I've never done and go check it out with him. He does have people watching him, including non-horse people or non-Thoroughbred people and they can learn with him. I just think he could be a good ambassador for OTTBs, with his disposition.
“This is the best horse on the planet. He was meant for this. I'm taking it as a sign from the universe that this is definitely our path, and it's definitely what we're meant to be doing right now.”
No matter what comes next, Fada is hopeful the tale of their reunion can inspire other people to believe, as she has come to believe, that dreams really can come true. That there is a bit of magic in the world. That maybe, sometimes, guardian angels really do go for a spin on fair circuit claiming horses.
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