On Belmont Stakes day 10 years ago, two races before Da’ Tara pulled off an upset in the Belmont Stakes (G1), Groomedforvictory swung wide into the Belmont Park stretch and finished sixth in the Woody Stephens Stakes (G2).
The gelding’s effort that day wasn’t memorable. He never ran in another graded stakes, but made 62 more starts (68 total) while being claimed numerous times, and retired with a 15-11-12 record, three black-type wins, and earnings of $735,172. A few years later, a video of him online caught someone’s attention.
Cathy Gulick Sanders was looking for a “war horse” for the 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover. When scanning Facebook in late March of 2016, she saw a listing for a horse she knew had been retired to New Vocations, but she was shocked to see him up for adoption already. Heart pounding, she sent an email before calling New Vocations’ Kentucky facility as panic set in that someone would scoop him up.
The phone call was answered, paperwork was completed, an adoption fee was paid, and transport was arranged. Groomedforvictory was hers.
“He calmly walked off the shipper’s trailer and into mine. He looked so sad, so lost. I stood in the trailer hugging him and telling him he would never be bounced around again,” she said of the now 13-year-old New York-bred.
Sanders started Groomedforvictory’s retraining with dressage, but switched the focus to trail after she saw how the gelding enjoyed it. The pair competed in competitive trail at the 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover and at other local events.
“I was actually a bit worried he would have some hang ups from his long career but (it was) quite the opposite,” she said. “He is such an incredible horse and I’m in awe of him everyday. I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have him in my barn.”
Like Groomedforvictory, Away Game also ran on the Belmont Stakes day undercard. After finishing fifth in that allowance race, the son of Lemon Drop Kid made four more starts, including two unplaced runs in grade 3 events, before retiring with a 3-2-1 record in 13 career starts and $193,284 in earnings.
Away Game made his way to ReRun in New York and was spotted by Amanda Bonath.
“I worked for (ReRun executive director) Lisa Molloy and she wanted me to have a project horse for the (Thoroughbred Makeover) and I chose Away Game. I really liked his personality from the first time I met him,” said Bonath, who competed with Away Game in the 2016 Makeover in the field hunter division.
“He is by Lemon Drop Kid and I used to ride a horse also from Lisa by him, and I just love the temperament and build,” Bonath said.
Now the duo have taken up eventing, a discipline that is second nature for the 7-year-old.
“It suits us so well,” Bonath said. “He is so striking for dressage and a jumping machine, which makes him perfect for the sport.”
Before both Groomedforvictory and Away Game found their new homes, they transitioned off the track through TAKE THE LEAD, a program that was created by and receives the majority of its funding from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
“TAKE THE LEAD was started because we saw the need for doing more than just donating to aftercare organizations,” said Andy Belfiore, executive director of NYTHA.
“We wanted to be proactive and help owners and trainers find the best and easiest path to retirement for their horses. We also wanted to ensure that the aftercare organizations had veterinary information and additional funding for the horses, and we wanted to help take some of the financial burden off the horsemen by providing transportation to the retirement facility.”
Launched in 2013, TAKE THE LEAD is embraced by the local racing community. The program also receives funding from New York Thoroughbred Breeders and the New York Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund.
“Our horsemen have been overwhelmingly appreciative of our efforts on behalf of retired racehorses and, for the most part, incredibly generous in contributing to the cost of their aftercare,” Belfiore said. “They know that all they have to do is pick up the phone and call me, or our aftercare angel Rick Schosberg, and we will try to find that horse a home.”
A phone call is where the journey of finding a new home begins. The next step is placing the horse in a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited facility.
“We feel it is vital to work with TAA-accredited organizations because we have every confidence that our horses are going to excellent homes,” Belfiore said. “We know how rigorous the accreditation process is, and we could not possibly do that level of vetting on our own. If an organization passes TAA muster, they are very good at what they do. There is also a great paper trail and a built-in safety net when you work with TAA-accredited programs—you don’t have to worry about horses falling through the cracks.”
TAKE THE LEAD was modeled after Pennsylvania’s Turning for Home, while Maryland’s Beyond the Wire was modeled after TAKE THE LEAD. Belfiore said NYTHA enjoys working with individuals in others jurisdictions looking to start aftercare programs.
“I think the one message many of us involved in aftercare programs want to highlight over and over is the idea that aftercare is not a last resort, it should be part of every owner and every trainer’s business plan,” she said.
“It is a benefit to all concerned to know when it is the right time to retire a horse. Trying for one last race is generally a losing proposition—the horse is not going to perform to the best of its ability, so the added cost of keeping the horse in training is not going to be recouped. It really is best for all concerned to call TAKE THE LEAD sooner rather than later.”
PHOTO: Cathy Gulick Sanders