Muscular Dystrophy Can’t Slow Down OTTB Enthusiast Jessica Hammond

by | 05.28.2019 | 1:55pm
Jessica Hammond

Since the age of 3, when she first sat on a pony in the parking lot of the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, Jessica Hammond's life has been one consumed by horses.

As she grew older, so did her passion. Whether counseling backstretch workers, as an owner herself, or in helping find them forever homes, horses have always been part of the equation.

Just weeks shy of her 42nd birthday, Hammond will for the first time this year be a participant in the annual Canter for the Cause, a June 2 charity event sponsored by the Maryland Jockey Club and The Equiery to benefit the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

Canter for the Cause is a unique event that allows riders of various ages to walk, trot, canter or gallop their horses on the same Pimilco Race Course main track that has hosted such champions as Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Secretariat and recent Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify.

Hammond will be competing in Group III's War Admiral walk and trot division aboard 11-year-old gelding Zabarajad, one of four retired Thoroughbreds she owns with her husband, Scott, a former trainer for the family's Somerset Racing venture. Scott Hammond will compete in the same class aboard 12-year-old gelding Moran Gra.

“He used to gallop on the racetrack, so it's going to be funny for him to come out here and just walk and trot,” Hammond said. “But, he's really coming to just be support for me and to help keep my horse calm.”

Zabarajad made 18 starts during his racing career, the first 10 in Europe and Dubai and the last eight in the U.S., including an April 25, 2013 win for Somerset sprinting five furlongs on the grass at Pimlico. Ridden by Horacio Karamanos, the Irish-bred was sent off at 40-1 and returned $83 in his lone North American triumph.

“He's pretty fast. I have never ridden on the track in my life and I have a horse that has actually won on this track, so it's going to be something,” Hammond said. “I've been a part of racing for a long time, but not in a physical way. I was an owner, I put money into it, I came and watched the races. But one of the coolest things about him is that he was a racehorse, and this will be me getting to see a little part of what that's like – in a minor way.”

In reality, just participating in Canter for the Cause will be a major victory for Hammond, diagnosed in her teens with the genetic muscle disorder fascioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). Muscular dystrophy refers to a progressive muscle degeneration, with increasing weakness and muscle atrophy. In FSHD, weakness first and most seriously affects the face, shoulders and upper arms, but the disease usually also causes weakness in other muscles.

FSHD usually progresses very slowly and rarely affects the heart or respiratory system. Most people with the disease are able to have a normal life span.

“I was probably born with it, but I didn't get diagnosed with it until I was a teenager. Before I rode a ton I was actually a ballerina, and I couldn't dance anymore because I couldn't raise my arms over my head,” Hammond said. “I was riding a little bit and I wanted to ride more but dancing was taking up so much of my time. I was disappointed to not be able to dance anymore when I realized what was wrong with me was going to be permanent, but then I just thought, “Well, OK, now I can ride more,' and that's what I did. I switched from dancing to riding because I don't have to hold a horse over my head.

“There's no treatment for it, so there's not really anything special that I do,” she added. “I've gone to physical therapy in the past, which has helped me get stronger and helped get me stronger for riding, but riding really keeps me in pretty good shape. And just barn chores, too.”

Hammond and her husband lease a 92-acre farm in Fallstaff, north of Baltimore. He manages the Timonium OTB and clocks horses in the mornings at Pimlico, and she works as benevolence and counseling director for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and program administrator for Beyond the Wire, the MTHA's Thoroughbred aftercare program.

“I've gone through periods where I've had anxiety in things because I don't know how much I can count on my strength and I don't know if I'm going to get weaker or not,” Hammond said. “Sometimes riding, even more in this past year than I have been in a while, it's totally given me confidence in my physical abilities and just lowered my anxiety in general, because I see the strength that I've gained by riding in the past year. It just makes you feel good. Riding and being around horses just makes you feel good in general.”

Holder of a degree in psychology, Hammond has been able to combine her passions for helping both horses and humans. Launched in early 2017, Beyond the Wire has retired nearly 200 horses to various TAA-accredited facilities over its first two years including MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, Foxie G Foundation, New Vocations, Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue, After the Races and Life Horse.

“The only thing I was missing working at the track was that I didn't get to be in the barn all the time directly working with the horses,” Hammond said. “I loved doing the counselor administrator position for the MTHA but I really missed being able to interact with horses as part of my job, so as soon as they offered that I just had the best of both worlds. Now I get to do the work I love with people and I get to do the work I love with horses.

“The response has been extremely positive. The horsemen, it took them a while to understand the program and to become familiar with it and now I get calls all the time, literally all the time,” she added. “We've retired at least 180 horses now. We started out with two TAA-accredited facilities and now we have eight facilities that we work with, so it's expanded as the need has expanded. The more familiar people became with the program, and it spread by word of mouth, the more horses we were getting in.”

Hammond is often inundated with texts and emails from the new owners of former Thoroughbreds she has helped retire that have gone on to successful second careers.

“I always tell people I truly believe that Thoroughbreds are the most athletic breed of horse there is. There's nothing they can't do,” she said. “They can participate in any equestrian discipline.”

Hammond said she is able to draw both inspiration from and a parallel to the horses that have come through Beyond the Wire and been given a second chance at life.

“There's a lot of types of muscular dystrophy and I didn't know that until I had it,” Hammond said. “Riding-wise it makes things complicated because I have weakness throughout my entire body, but I think it kind of makes me feel a kinship with some of these horses in a way. When you kind of meet them and there's a job that they can't do and somebody's disappointed in them in one way because they can't be a racehorse, now there's something else that they can do.

“I know there are some other jobs that they are going to be great at. There's certain things that I can't do, but I'm really motivated to go on to things to try and be successful and I kind of see that same thing in horses,” she added. “I'm happy with where I am and what I'm doing.”

Registration for Canter for the Cause must be completed before 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 28. To register or for more information, call the Pimlico ticket office at 877-206-8042 or visit http://www.pimlico.com/events/2019-06-02/canter-cause

For full Canter for the Cause event description and rules, go to www.usponyracing.com

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