His mahogany-hued coat glistening in the bright sunshine, the still-sturdy Thoroughbred broke into a light jog as owner-trainer John Pimental attempted to pose him for a picture.
“He still has it in him,” Pimental murmured, breaking into a grin at the 34-year-old pensioner's willingness to strut his stuff for visitors.
In about three weeks, the bay gelding named Welfare Line will accompany Pimental and his wife Diana north when they move their 15-horse stable to Monmouth Park. Retired three years ago from ponying duties on the racetrack, the Ontario-bred ex-racehorse has a job waiting for him at the New Jersey racetrack – as an unofficial greeter for patrons walking to the track.
“They have a trolley that crosses the railroad tracks, and our barn is right across from the tracks,” Diana said. “We'll bring 'Welfie' out to say hello, and kids will bring him carrots and peppermints. He thinks he's a big shot.”
The Pimentals have owned Welfare Line since purchasing him after his last race in 1994 at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts from former owner and trainer Elias Hasbany. That sixth-place finish was one of 116 career starts in a seven-year career for Welfare Line, who won 15 times, eight at Suffolk and seven at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.
“I was good friends with the owner, and I paid him $1,500 to see if I could make a pony horse out of him,” said John Pimental, referring to a horse that is used to accompany skittish Thoroughbreds to the track for workouts and races.
Pimental couldn't predict whether Welfare Line could do the job, since he had been difficult to pony himself heading to the starting gate. “I hated to pony him because he always tried to get away from me,” John recalled. “He was a real tough horse to gallop, too, and (Hasbany) had to use a big exercise rider on him in the mornings.”
Any racetracker will tell you the only thing more obstinate than a stubborn horse is a stubborn horseman, and Pimental was determined to convert Welfare Line into a willing, capable pony horse. He tried different bits and headgear until achieving the comfort level he needed to help Welfare Line focus on his new job responsibilities.
The rest, as they say, is history, as well as about half a lifetime of lasting memories for the Pimentals and their family.
“That $1,500 was the best investment I ever made. Once we converted him over, he wasn't tough anymore,” Pimental said. “We'd bring a racehorse to the gate, and when I'd turn Welfie around to get away, he would squeal and let me know how much he loved his job.
“He was a good 'catch' horse, too. I used to be an outrider at Suffolk, and he wasn't shy about catching a loose horse. He was just made for the job.”
But Welfare Line's ongoing contributions to the Pimentals haven't been limited to the racetrack. The couple has three grown daughters and five grandchildren, and Welfare Line has been a part of their upbringing and a constant source of joy and affirmation as the makeup of the Pimentals' racing stable inevitably expanded and contracted over the years.
“Our kids and our grandkids, he's always been there for them, you know?” said Diana, who previously worked as a jockey's agent both here and at Suffolk and as an Association Official at Tampa Bay Downs for eight years. “He has always been part of the family, and our grandkids come to the barn to give him baths and feed him and be with him.
“Our youngest granddaughter, Alexus, was terrified of horses, but one day when she was about 4, John just picked her up and put her on Welfie and they went around the barn and that was it,” Diana said.
Alexus, now a 9-year-old third-grader, lives in New Bedford, Mass., with her parents, Tabitha and Steve Silvestre. She was diagnosed last year with Intellectual disability, which is characterized by limitations in reasoning, learning and social skills.
Since she bonded with Welfie, Alexus looks forward to every opportunity she gets to visit her grandparents at Monmouth Park. She'll spend a couple of hours every day in his stall, brushing his mane and coat and deepening their unspoken relationship.
Her parents allow her to visit Diana and John three or four times each summer, sometimes also taking along their 17-year-old daughter, Tyra. Alexus takes riding lessons twice a month back home, and Tabitha and Steve believe her experiences with horses have increased her confidence, helped her to be more outgoing and lessened bouts of severe anxiety.
Alexus also interacts with the other horses in the stable, and she amazes her grandparents with her ability to identify each of their racehorses by name.
“There is something about a horse that keeps her calm and relaxed and makes her happy – I think because she can actually care for something bigger than herself,” said Tabitha Silvestre. “We had read that horse therapy was one of the best things for someone with her disability, and we've seen that when she gets to spend time with Welfie, it is completely relaxing for her.”
Welfie has enriched the lives of Alexus, Tyra and their oldest sister Jazmine, now 23, as well as the Pimentals' two other grandchildren: Jonathan Oswald, now 20, and Cedes Oswald, 18. “He just has that mild, patient temperament that makes it easy for children to get close to him,” Tabitha said. “He'll put his head down for Alexus to brush him, and it is like they are in their own little world.”
The Pimentals, who have been married 45 years, run a “bread-and-butter” operation consisting mostly of claiming and low-level allowance horses. John's best horse was the Ontario-bred gelding National Hero, who earned almost $200,000 in his career and was twice honored as New England's Champion Turf Male.
In addition to training the couple's string, John still works as an afternoon pony person at Tampa Bay Downs, escorting racehorses to the gate with his 15-year-old mixed-breed horse, Riggy.
Three years ago, when the Pimentals decided to retire Welfare Line, they chose to board him at a farm in Rhode Island. When they went to check on him after a couple of months, they sensed he was not doing well.
“I think maybe he was missing John,” Diana said. “They were always like best friends, and whenever John gave him a day off from racing, Welfie yelled at him.”
Given John's gruff, hard-boiled exterior, it might seem strange he and Welfie are so tight, yet they are a familiar odd couple to Oldsmar racetrackers. “He's always been included in everything John and Diana do,” said Jenn Moore, the Pimentals' close friend and a Tampa Bay Downs Association Official.
“He goes everywhere they go, and I know John was really worried about him (when they were separated).”
When John pulled his trailer up at the boarding farm that summer of 2016, he soon knew there was only one thing to do: take Welfare Line back to the racetrack, where he'd resided for almost 30 years.
“He started nickering and hollering when he heard me, and when I grabbed him, he walked right onto the trailer,” John said – per custom, in the stall directly behind the driver.
“As far as I know, he's been on the racetrack since he was 2,” John said, “and I guess he just falls apart if you turn him out.”
So Welfare Line, with a dignity and nobility that transcend his ability on the racetrack, lives out his days in apparent contentment, doing surprisingly well for a senior citizen. His general condition and health are good, and he acts like he's enjoying life although he sleeps a little longer than before.
“He's a little weak behind, but other than that he's doing fine,” John said. “When I first got him, the star on his forehead just had a few white hairs, and it's burst forth over the years.”
“We have a dentist look at him every six months, and he was very impressed the last time he saw him,” Diana said. “He gets out on the walker every day for about 25 or 30 minutes, and he's always excited to see us. John feeds him peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches every day, which are his favorite.”
Diana also pleads guilty to treating Welfie like royalty. “My mom spoils all the horses, but he is extra spoiled,” Tabitha said. “She'll give him an extra carrot or an extra scoop of grain when my dad isn't looking.”
While the average lifespan of a domestic horse is between 25-to-33 years, and some have lived well into their 40s, Prospect Point, who died at 38 in 2016, is considered to be the oldest North American Thoroughbred on record. He won only seven times from 72 starts, but crafted a career as a hunter-jumper for eight years after retiring from the track.
Much longer ago, a California-bred named Merrick, foaled in 1903, lived just past his actual 38th birthday. He made more than 200 starts, winning 61. An Australian-bred Thoroughbred, Tango Duke, died in 1978 at 42, although his pedigree records were never completely confirmed.
All North American Thoroughbreds are considered to have their birthdays on Jan. 1, for record-keeping purposes; Welfare Line was born Feb 1, 1985. Regardless, the Pimentals aren't in this to break records. They know end-of-life decisions might have to be made if he founders.
Yet the love that exists between them and Welfie will endure after his passing, and his spirit will remain bright among the backstretch workers and fans fortunate enough to have known him.
“A lot of people get in touch with us to ask how he's doing, and we tell them 'Yeah, he's still doing,' ” Diana said. “He's our baby, and he has meant so much to us. He's lived a great life, and we will never let him suffer.”
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