It Takes a Village
This article was originally featured in the February 2024 Issue of BloodHorse Magazine in the Second Acts series.
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It Takes a Village
Tomater Gator’s Soft Landing to OTTB
December 15, 2023
By: Stacie Clark Rogers
The heartwarming story of Tomater Gator’s retirement is a touching story that the industry cannot afford to overlook. Tomater Gator concluded his racing career in August 2023 with a respectable fourth-place finish. It was at this moment that his owner and trainer, Leandro Barban, made the decision to sell him for a well-deserved retirement.
The 8-year-old veteran gelding had raced an amazing 85 times in just seven years. During his remarkable career, he achieved 12 victories and amassed earnings exceeding $282,000. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, a horse with Tomater Gator’s extensive racing history is often referred to as a ‘war horse.’ Surprisingly, these ‘war horses’ often remain relatively unknown to the broader horse racing community.
No stranger to the world of racing and racetracks, Tomater Gator ran the majority of his starts at Penn National Racetrack or PARX Racing. However, this seasoned racehorse ventured beyond his usual tracks, making the journey from Pennsylvania to South Florida to compete at no fewer than six different racetracks. Remarkably, he was claimed 19 times over the course of his incredible career.
As Tomater Gator prepared for another race at Penn, little did he know that a movement was underway to secure his well-deserved retirement. Just under a week after running in a claiming race with a purse of $7,000, Tomater Gator found himself turned out and basking in the joys of retirement.
It’s not uncommon for these veteran ‘war horses’ to garner a dedicated following on social media, particularly among supporters for Off-the-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs). In the case of Tomater Gator, one such fan was Fran Burns, the founder of Maryland’s Thoroughbred Show Series, who had been avidly following Tomater Gator’s journey on social media for a couple of years.
“I watched him closely on Twitter within a group dedicated to following older racehorses. Tomater Gator was primarily competing at PARX, and I found myself tracking his journey for not just a couple, but perhaps closer to three years,” Fran exclaimed with excitement. “I kept sending donations to MidAtlantic Thoroughbred Rescue, directed specifically for Tomater Gator. I truly believed we could secure his retirement.”
Fran chuckled, recalling her interactions with Bev Strauss, the Executive Director of MidAtlantic Thoroughbred Rescue, a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance accredited organization. “Bev would often laugh at me; I think she thought I was a bit crazy.”
Horses like Tomater Gator, who find themselves on public watch lists, deserve recognition. Tomater Gator could have easily slipped through the cracks of the system. However, thanks to another passionate OTTB advocate, an anonymous supporter determined to contribute to his retirement, Tomater Gator’s story took a different turn.
“Gater had been listed as a horse to watch for the past two years,” his secret admirer noted. “So, I decided to reach out to Rick Schosberg, a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance board member from NYTHA, to assist me in locating Gator’s connections.”
Even with Rick’s assistance, reaching the trainer proved challenging. But eventually, the message was conveyed: “We would like to help Gator retire.”
Fast forward to the week of August 30th, when Tomater Gator was gearing up for his final race at Penn. During this critical time, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance received an unexpected text message from an anonymous admirer of Tomater Gator.
“Hey, no pressure, but I’ve been following a particular horse for a while now, and the owner/trainer has expressed willingness to sell. Do you happen to have any contacts I could discuss rehoming with?” the message read.
The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance office had no prior knowledge of Tomater Gator’s dedicated following or the ongoing donations to MidAtlantic Thoroughbred Rescue (MAHR) in his name. Yet by an incredible stroke of coincidence, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance suggested that the anonymous friend contact Bev Strauss.
When Bev received the call, she couldn’t help but burst into laughter. “This horse has been on Fran’s radar for three years!” she exclaimed.
Without delay, Bev reached out to Fran to share the exciting news. Tomater Gator had found a generous benefactor, and Bev was making immediate arrangements for his pickup. She also reached out to Beth Walker and Joe Topper, trusted associates from MAHR’s rehab facility at Breezy Hill Stables, who readily agreed to collect Tomater Gator the following day.
The inner circle of Tomater Gator’s newfound friends was overjoyed by their successful effort in securing him a well-deserved retirement. It became evident that Tomater Gator’s circle of support was more extensive than anyone had initially realized.
After successfully picking up Tomater Gator, Bev Strauss took to social media to share the news:
“Exciting news! Tomater Gator has officially retired, and it truly took a village. The outpouring of support and enthusiasm from all of you has been incredible. As his racing days came to an end, it’s heartening to see this veteran horse find a safe and happy place.”
Bev’s post sparked a wave of positive reactions, with dozens of comments, several shares, and nearly 500 acknowledgments, underscoring the widespread appreciation for the efforts made on Tomater Gator’s behalf.
One Facebook connection highlighted, “He finished in the top three in 41.18%. Gotta love these war horses!”
Other comments included expressions like, “It takes a village,” and another person noted, “Many fans have been following Tomater Gator, and we were all so excited last night to hear the news of his retirement. Even better news that it was MidAtlantic that swiftly stepped in to make this happen. Thank you, Fran Burns and MAHR.”
Numerous individuals sent texts of support, such as, “Props to all of his connections; he looks great.”
The placement of Tomater Gator in his well-deserved retirement was a serendipitous event, where all the stars aligned for this remarkable Thoroughbred.
When Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance asked the anonymous sponsor why she decided to step in, her response encapsulated a sentiment shared by many: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the horses who pour their hearts into day-to-day racing could count on their connections to do the right thing when the time comes? After Tomater Gator’s impressive 85 starts and seven years on the racetrack, he had fulfilled his duty as a racehorse. For Tomater Gator, everything fell into place—it was meant to be.”
Schosberg emphasized, “With these horses, 70-75% of their lives come after their racing careers are over. It’s our industry’s responsibility to look after them.”
As of the publishing of this story, Tomater Gator is still residing at Breezy Hill, where he will enjoy some well-deserved rest before transitioning to MAHR’s main facility in Chesapeake City. Strauss noted, “We’ve already received numerous inquiries about adopting him, but we’re a little ways off from that stage. We’ll gently reintroduce him to being ridden and see what he prefers.”
Though it’s only just beginning, Tomater Gator’s story is a shining example of the racing industry coming together with fans and aftercare organizations to ensure its equine athletes are loved and cared for at the conclusion of their racing careers. With the sport’s social license to operate being threatened, the industry cannot afford to overlook the goodwill generated by such stories.