Each year, Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs breeding operation produces dozens of well-bred thoroughbreds with the hope that they will one day compete at the highest level. Many of these horses will be sold as yearlings; some are kept by Stronach to race in his famous black, red and gold silks; and there will be a few horses that just don’t make it to the track. With nearly 30,000 thoroughbreds registered with the Jockey Club each year across North America, the burden of caring for these horses when their racing career is over is a huge issue for the racing industry. In 2004, Stronach chose to take responsibility for his charges and launched the Adena Springs Retirement Program.
“Frank has always been pretty much on the forefront. We were the first in-house retirement program,” says Stacie Clark Rogers, who oversees the program from Adena Springs North in Aurora, Ontario. “Seven years ago we had about 60 retirees in a paddock in Florida and we started bringing them up here and came up with a plan through trial and error. The horses needed to be re-trained and re-schooled before you could resell them.”
The horses in the program are a mixture of stakes winners, battle-tested geldings and well-bred types that didn’t do enough to make it as a stallion or broodmare. With an eye to protecting their Adena progeny, the Stronachs set up two facilities, one in Florida and another in Ontario, to help retrain and re-purpose their retired horses for a new career.
“It gets to a point where Frank and [wife] Frieda will decide they don’t want to drop them into a lower level because they’ll get claimed as there’s so much back class,” explained Rogers about how the Stronach’s decide to retire a horse. “So it’s usually decided if a horse is not running well or dropping out and doesn’t want to run anymore they will decide to bring him home.”
Such was the case with Mark One, a gelded son of Alphabet Soup, who won nine races and nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in 35 lifetime starts. The multiple stakes winning fellow finished eighth in his final lifetime start on November 19, 2005 when running as part of an entry with stablemate Daddy Cool. When he came back to the track for the 2006 campaign, Mark One wasn’t the same horse. “He came back without that same competitiveness and they were going to run him for $20,000 in New York and Mr. Stronach said, ‘no,’” recalls Rogers. “He was entered and was in the race as the favourite but Mr. Stronach said, ‘lets bring him home.’”
Mark One would eventually find a permanent home living with Rogers who, in a fine effort of leading by example, adopted the hard-knocking horse. “I rode him two days ago,” laughs Rogers, a former jockey. “I actually have two horses. I ride Mark One and pony my other horse and I ride them for hours in the Vivian Forest.”
It’s a long process retraining these horses so that they can be adopted as show or pleasure horses. “A horse is retired in the summer or fall and they’re usually sent to Florida for some down time,” says Rogers. “In May, Richie Purcell who works at the Florida farm will pick 10 out of the paddock and start them jogging with some riders so they come up to me already started up for a few weeks.”
Downtime is a critical element of the retirement plan. “If they had a minor injury or aches and pains, then they’ve had time to overcome it,” says Rogers. “Also, being turned out with the older geldings in itself becomes a schooling because those old guys are like, ‘no, no, no, this is the pecking order’ and they learn how to be a horse again. If we took them right from the track and tried to make them a riding horse, it takes just as long. I’ve learned by trial and error that it still takes a year, so it’s better to turn them out for six months and let them go through it and be a horse.”
On a brisk April morning, two Adena retirees are hard at work on their new career as ponies. Jungle Fighter, a 10-yearold son of Wild Rush who earned $366,435 in a lengthy career, is partnered up with Super Smart, a five-year-old son of Smart Strike who didn’t quite make it on the racetrack. Their job as ponies is a vital one as they lead by example policing younger horses through morning workouts.
Lyndsey Matthews, a 22-year-old rider at the Adena facility, talks about their daily routine from her office chair, a saddle perched on the back of the portly bay Jungle Fighter. Like Rogers, Matthews has adopted a retiree of her own, an unraced Wild Rush horse named Wolf Rush. “I’ve taken him to dressage clinics, to jumping shows…I’ve ridden Western,” says Matthews of her versatile retiree. “He has the same sire as Jungle and he can do anything. He’s nine this year and he came through this program when it was just beginning.”
“They jog around in company with the racehorses,” says Matthews. “Some of the babies are nervous and jump around so they keep them company and stop them from being nervous. They work hard. If there’s five sets they go five times. We’ll put some young horses on the strap and attach them to me for comfort and jog around. Nine times out of 10 they’ll gallop on their own but sometimes they need that company so Jungle will gallop around with them like a racehorse.”
There’s a strong bond between Matthews and Jungle Fighter. “He ran until he was seven or eight, so he had a good long career before he became a pony. Didn’t ya, eh,” laughs Matthews playfully as she pats the old vet. “He listens. He’d rather just stand and watch everyone else do it now but he can still gallop with the race horses if they need company. He loves his job. He’s so good at it.”
April MacLean, a 30-year-old rider, is currently spending her mornings ponying with Super Smart but will have her hands full come May retraining a new batch of retirees hopping off the bus from Florida. MacLean’s patience is key for a younger horse like Super Smart who is in his first full summer being a pony. “It’s important they have a level head. They have to have a great mind and work ethic,” explains MacLean. “This horse will go all day, ears forwards. Not much upsets him.”
Their job is one of great responsibility. Just as retired hockey players often become coaches and impart their experience and wisdom to younger players, retired horses such as Super Smart and Jungle Fighter are entrusted to chaperone Adena’s rising stars on their first steps around the racetrack. “Jungle has worked with Mobilizer,” says Matthews, of the Roger Attfield trainee who raced in the 2010 Queen’s Plate. The veteran pony has also worked with a number of Woodbine- based Adena regulars such as Gazumba and Barrelling Home. “Jungle galloped in company with Gazumba last summer at full gallop as if he was a racehorse. He can still go,” beams Matthews.
Life After Racing
Educating the public on the versatility of the thoroughbred to be any kind of horse following the end of their racing career is a key to the program’s success. The Adena Springs Retirement Program facility website is bursting with success stories and their Facebook page is taking on a life of its own as new owners of Adena re-trained horses post photos and share stories.
“Eventers really like thoroughbreds a lot,” says Rogers. “(Trainer) Sean Smullen’s wife is involved with the Western riders over in Uxbridge doing barrel races and turn and burn. Rock Again, who was third in the Queen’s Plate (behind Wando in 2003) is excelling at turn and burn.”
The success stories demonstrate retirees abilities to work at a number of disciplines including fox hunting, jumping, showing and as tack horses extraordinaire. The program is designed not only to re-train the valuable animals for new careers but also to ensure that they cannot be sent back to the racetrack to race.
“We sell these horses with non-racing contracts so they can’t race again and we retire their papers with the Jockey Club in Kentucky so that owners can never attempt to run them,” explains Rogers. “I always have a buyback clause so that if they sell them then we have first right of refusal.”
The re-trained horses sell for about $1,500 on average, which is a fair price for horses that went through the yearling sale for many times that price and have enjoyed months of re-training. “These are really beautiful animals that are well bred,” says Rogers. “They’ve been brought up so nicely and it’s just nice to facilitate them into a good home and give somebody a good horse. I wish I had a horse like this when I was a kid.”
Ultimately, the goal is for all Adena owned horses to be cared for in their retirement. It is a daunting task as most horses will race until they are five or six years old, but with a lifespan of nearly 30 years, there’s some planning required to make sure an ex-racehorse is retired gracefully. “There’s a lot of consciousness now about after care programs in thoroughbreds and what happens to them and where they should go,” says Rogers. “They definitely want a job even if it’s just to hack twice a week. They want to be a part of something. They want to have a purpose and some discipline and someone caring for them every day.”
Not all horses are so lucky as the ones owned and retrained by Adena. Many high profile horses, such as Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, have seen their life end at the slaughter house. While rules regarding the retirement and processing of racehorses are slowly changing, there are still a number of issues when it comes to safely retiring horses. It is an underfunded movement as noted by the recent struggles of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to care for the numerous horses retired to their care.
“It’s a national problem what to do with the geldings,” says Rogers. “It’s just this small little idea that you can retrain them. Yes, it does cost us a little bit of money but not as much as people think. We’re pretty efficient with it. It costs money but it’s a code of responsibility that the Stronachs take on.”
Stronach, whose MI Developments Inc owns a number of racetracks, recently launched the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After-Care Program to help find suitable homes for retired Thoroughbreds. Stronach will finance the program by matching the one-third of one percent currently provided from purses during the Gulfstream Park meet by the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association for their own sponsored retirement programs.
“This is not a solution to the problem, but we feel it is another step in the right direction,” said Stronach. “While we believe it is the responsibility of every owner to find safe, after-race programs for all Thoroughbreds, we also believe in taking the initiative to develop retirement, rehabilitation, and retraining programs for these equine athletes who give so much to all of us.”
It is a big step in the right direction as Stronach once again leads by example.