- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Eighteen years after he last accomplished anything of note, John Henry still receives birthday and Christmas cards from strangers.

He is fondly remembered — particularly among older women — and well-wishers write notes of encouragement and sometimes even send gifts.

“Sweet one, it’s birthday time for you,” an admirer from Ohio wrote. “Enclosed is money to buy you goodies. Maybe the Carrot Lady will bring some for you.”

John takes all the fuss in stride. But, then, that is what one would expect from a horse.

“John’s not real wild about people,” said Cathy Roby, manager of the Hall of Champions at Kentucky Horse Park. “He likes to see they’re there, but he doesn’t like to bother with them. If he can’t see the other horses he’ll get a little nervous and call for them.”

The occasional bout of jitters aside, John Henry at least can, at the advanced age of 28, take comfort in having a place to call home in retirement.

The state-owned Horse Park provides such a place to 180 horses, many of them champions, of 50 breeds. Down the road apiece, a program at the Blackburn Correctional Complex also gives retired race horses a place to go — and a means to avoid an undignified end.

Unhappy endings

A stallion gone sterile, a gelding that can deliver no post-racing profit or a barren mare may have no place to go when its multimillion-dollar career is finished.

Some horses find a second career in riding programs or as personal mounts. A smaller number are pensioned to the farms of grateful owners, where grazing holds the cost of upkeep to less than $1,000 each year.

But, according to industry reports, about 5,000 are sent to slaughterhouses in Texas each year to be converted into glue, fertilizer, pet food or meat for dinner tables in Japan or Europe. Most were nothing special on the racetrack and are sold to the slaughterhouses for $500 or less.

The thoroughbred industry struggles to balance compassion for the horses with its bottom line. More than 35,000 horses are produced annually, and not all of the older ones can be saved.

“What motivates me is the love of the horse and the good of the game,” said John Stuart, a breeder and the president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. “I particularly have a strong motivation to take care of the horses we’ve bred here and sold through the ring here.

“They’re taught to do anything we asked them to do. They will follow a man into the meat wagon, and that’s not the way they ought to end their lives after they’ve done all this for our pleasure and profit.”

But two groups, just a few miles apart, provide second chances for both horses and men.

Another Kentucky home

They just want to touch them, run their fingers over the shiny brown coat and feel the short, coarse hair. There’s something about the chance to pet a horse that draws children and their grandparents to the fence.

“It’s part of the magic that occurs between man and horse,” said John Nicholson, director of Kentucky Horse Park. “If we can have an opportunity for young people to interact with horses, we’ve done our job. It’s all it takes — interaction — and people are sold. It reinforces this wave of warmth toward horses. It reinforces what’s important about America.”

Kentucky Horse Park, which opened in 1978, is situated on a 1,200-acre farm bordered by two interstate highways. Though the park draws 850,000 visitors each year, it still is quiet enough to hear the hum of cicadas, the clopping of horses and the quiet explanations of those who watch these famous horses grazing inside the 30 miles of white fence.

Only the best of the best come to the park, no matter the breed. Kentucky is best known for thoroughbreds, but it actually produces more horses of other breeds: The saddlebred is a renowned native, and Tennessee Walking Horses, quarterhorses, mustangs and clydesdales fill the barns and pastures.

“I’ve traveled to Asia and Europe, and everywhere you go people associate Kentucky with the horse,” Nicholson said. “There’s not many places that have a special gift that makes it unique. It makes Kentucky not just any state and Lexington not just any city.”

There are two museums and a movie theater to educate tourists. There is a humongous sales ring, a half-mile track, horseback riding, carriage rides and show rings. Jockey Isaac Murphy is buried beside a massive statue of Man o’ War, arguably the greatest American runner ever.

But the horses are the stars.

John Henry attracts older women, many who never even saw him race. A woman in a wheelchair from Michigan visits him each year, and the “Carrot Lady” from a nearby town brings him dozens of carrots each week.

John Henry has good company. Cigar, a two-time Horse of the Year, is in the opposite paddock. Nearby is two-time Breeders’ Cup champion Da Hoss. So is I Two Step Too, who played Seabiscuit in the recent Hollywood blockbuster.

Cigar, a 13-year-old who once tied the record of 16 straight victories, tends to attract ardent race fans and young girls.

One couple married with Cigar as the “best man” watching from the fence. Another man proposed in front of the champion. Cigar doesn’t seem to mind.

“He loves people,” Roby said. “He will take his hay and shove it in front of the door so he can watch people. He likes to bite, but he doesn’t mean to hurt you. He’s a big bluffer.”

Cigar still gets cards from owner Madeline Paulson, and he often receives boxes of peppermints, apples and carrots. An Arizona woman sends him a wreath with treats tied to it every Christmas. Another horse, Forego, used to get bananas from fans in New York — fans who still send flowers on the anniversary of his death.

“So many people get attached to these horses,” Roby said. “You don’t realize what effect they have on people.”

Nicholson thinks part of the attachment just comes from being American.

“There’s a return to values and what makes us feel good about being Americans and the horse is a large part of that,” Nicholson said. “There wouldn’t be an America as we know it today if it were not for the horse. It may have been interrupted, but not broken by the advancement of technology.

“It used to be you went to the movies on Saturday afternoons and saw cowboy movies. That stopped, but we’re going back to the movies and seeing horses again and they’re our heroes again.”

Prison retirement farm

British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, “An outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”

John Edwards understands.

Edwards is an immate at the Blackburn Correctional Complex just a few miles from Kentucky Horse Park. He has four months remaining of a 2½-year sentence for assault and holds a job that just might transform him from prisoner to taxpayer.

Edwards and 17 other prisoners participate in a public/private program in which inmates learn a trade by caring for horses on unused land outside the prison walls. For Edwards, the experience has been good.

“You learn things you can use in your own life, like self-control, because these horses depend on you,” Edwards said. “It gives you a sense of responsibility. There’s more to a horse than putting the saddle on them.”

More than a dozen paroled inmates now work at racetracks and farms. The 76 horses in the program benefit as well by getting affordable accommodations: It costs only $1.30 daily per horse.

“It has been a win-win situation here in horse country,” said Blackburn warden Steve Haney. “You never hear the inmates complaining. They’re more than willing to do whatever they have to do seven days a week, even when the weather isn’t nice. It has been the perfect situation.”

Said Stuart: “We need labor. We have all the jobs in this business so if these guys get trained we have jobs for them.”

The horses at this facility and others like it are bottom-level claimers, not like the stars at the ritzy Horse Park down the way. One horse wound up here after it lost its tail in a starting-gate accident. Saratoga Character was sent to Blackburn by a trainer after seeing him sit down in the gate in six races in two weeks.

Still, it is much better than the alternative: More than 350 horses that likely would have been sent to the slaughterhouse now live on these farms.

Many of them eventually will be adopted. Blackburn recently sent six to Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., to help repopulate herds on an American Indian reservation.

It’s not easy for the prisoners to see their horses depart.

“It’s pretty tough on them,” Stephens said. “They say, ‘Adopt me.’ They get an attachment to these horses. They know it’s for the best, but it’s like losing a pet they’ve had for a while. They want to reach out to somebody or something.”

Edwards knows the feeling: A girl adopted one of his favorites.

“I was happy for him because he’s getting used, but I felt bad the day they came to get him,” Edwards said. “I took him up to the top of the hill and told him to be good and then loaded him up. You can’t get attached to them, but it’s easier said than done.”

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