Monday, April 15, 2013

Remembering Stalwart Member

Susan Kayne and Stalwart Member
Stalwart Member
February 12, 1993 – March 30, 2013
While taping the first season [2003] of Unbridled at Saratoga Race Course, I met owner Sandy Goldfarb in the stable yard of trainer Steve Klesaris through my friend Willy Castle. From 2001 through 2003, Goldfarb was the leading owner by wins in New York. Handsome, rich, and on top of the game … Sandy had the reputation of rock star on the NYRA circuit. 

I sat in the shedrow reading a narrative when a big black stretch limousine emerged from the morning fog. Slowly it negotiated backstretch bumps and holes until settling onto an almost level patch of dew-covered grass alongside the old track rail. Parroting Ed McMahon, Castle hollered, “Heeeeeere’s Sandy!” My heart raced, and my hands got clammy; I really wanted Sandy on the show. His status and big name could drive viewership skyward. I was elated when he agreed. He gave a great interview for Unbridled, and we have since developed a long-standing friendship. The Sandy I have come to know is kind and generous, and he sure is nice eye-candy!

In early December 2003, Willy gave me a heads-up that Sandy was planning to retire his beloved racehorse Stalwart Member. Willy asked, “Would you be interested in taking him? Sandy really wants to do what is right for this horse.”

Up until this particular call, my answer had always been an instant “YES!” I always had a farm with an open stall and soft spot for thoroughbreds. I had retired, retrained, and re-homed dozens of racehorses by way of calls from Castle. His call was business as usual, but my answer was not. At the time, I was in-between farms, recently divorced, and had my own horses boarded out. I was at my monthly limit, actually over it -- way over it. It was a tough time.

I explained my circumstances and asked Willy to give me a day or two to figure something out. He quipped, as only a close friend can, “Well, you better think fast. Sandy is going to announce this to the press.”

Sandy wanted a good home for his horse, and I wanted to help. I could not afford to board another horse so I pitched Sandy on the idea of putting up the next six months board at a local stable, and I would assure a safe transition for Stalwart Member.  I made the case that $500 a month at a farm is far less than $5000 a month at the track, and it was the least he could do for a horse that had given him so much. It was a win-win-win. Sandy put his money up and Stalwart’s off-the-track journey began.

Stalwart in the news…

On December 13, 2003, The New York Post reported: 

Leading thoroughbred owner Sanford Goldfarb announced in the paddock before the Big A’s first race, “Win or lose, this is the final start for Stalwart Member, as a ten-year-old he deserves an easier life, he is sound and fit and that is how every horse should exit his or her racing career.” Goldfarb fondly recounted, “For three years Stalwart Member has been like a member of our family, he has brought us thrilling races and many victories.” He has a lot of life in him, and we look forward to following his progress with Susan Kayne as he acclimates to life outside the track.”

On December 21, 2003, The Daily Racing Form headlined:

Stalwart member retired at age 10

Writer Karen M. Johnson, daughter of the late great trainer P.G. Johnson, recounted Stalwart’s popularity on the New York circuit. Goldfarb reiterated the importance of retiring Stalwart while he is physically sound, “He is such a special horse: you can’t measure his heart, he always wanted to win. When he saw a hole he would go for it. He gave his life to the game, and he deserves this retirement.”

I broke the news upstate on Capital OTB (Time Warner Albany Channel 12) on Sunday morning while co-hosting the day’s racing analysis with well-known handicapper Anthony Mormino. Racing fans sent dozens of emails wishing Stalwart green pastures and happy days ahead.

Moving a racehorse from a near-decade of life in a stall to the expanse of a farm is culture shock, especially for a track-savvy boy like Stalwart. He was accustomed to a very regimented routine; aside from racing, his outings were limited to morning gallops.

Meeting Stalwart…

On Tuesday, December 16, 2003, Brookledge Horse Transport delivered Stalwart to his new home at Double B Farm in Clifton Park in a huge, luxurious, eighteen-wheeler air-ride tractor trailer! He must have thought he was headed to Saratoga – but it was winter! Unloading in the brisk air, Stalwart’s nostril’s flared. He snorted and pranced, tap dancing around me with his head held high like a giraffe. His deep brown eagle eyes surveyed the lay of the land. He was oblivious to the chain over his nose and hard to keep in hand. Swiftly and gingerly, I guided him into his new stall. It was a relief to secure him in a safe space.

Quizzically he wiggled his nose into the shavings. Accustomed to straw, he investigated this strange matter. He’d dig, sniff, and then curl his lip in the air. Finally, he rolled. Covered with pieces of white pine he beckoned for the attention of his new neighbors by twisting and shaking his head. The big bay warmblood across the aisle momentarily glanced in his direction, and the old, fat, grey pony peaked though a crack in the wall while continuing to feast on his pile of hay.

A fellow rider passed by with, “Awwww, look at him. He is so sweet; I can’t believe he came from the track.” On her way back she reached through the stall bars and scratched his forehead.

Stalwart was sweet…most of the time.  

Feeding Stalwart the Race Horse

The first time I fed Stalwart, he nearly knocked me over as he tried to bury his face in the metal grain scoop. His warm breath felt good, but his overactive mandibles sent grain flying everywhere. Pushing out his snout, I made my way to his big feed tub in the corner. I poured in the hot bran mash first and topped it with the remaining grain in the metal scoop. As fast as I put food into the tub, he pushed it out! Stalwart needed a real racetrack-style grain dish, the Dan’s or Thyben’s type with a “feed saver” ring. Within minutes, more grain lay on the floor than in the tub. He had had a long day filled with big changes. I talked to him while stroking his rock hard neck; it was the most densely muscled neck I had ever touched.

“There you go boy,” I whispered. Emotion swelled as I thought about his journey, all that he had seen, and all of the different stables he had been through. No doubt he dealt with a lot of different people throughout his career – each seeking to get something for himself via his racing ability. Most thoroughbreds are only worth what they can earn at a given time. Stalwart was lucky to have had Sandy.

Leaving the stall, I turned around for another look at this amazing horse. I was greeted by his mouthful of amazing ten-year-old teeth in my face --- YIKES! Was I startled! This was not the sweet boy I just left noshing on hot bran mash! My compassion turned to self-preservation. He reinforced his message with ears pinned back. I changed out his dish and fed him through the door in the wall for the next few months!

In the months to follow, scary-monster-horse-to-feed became satiated. Stalwart settled down and let down. Savage feed time behavior turned to solace as Equine Senior satisfied his ravenous appetite. His body began transitioning from lean and sinewy to fat and shiny. Quite frankly, I was shocked at how quickly he was transforming.


His initial turn-out was in the inside. It was December, it was cold, and he hadn’t been turned loose in nine years. He seemed stunned at first. He’d stand and buck in place while adding a front leg strike and neck twist. Once he realized he really was free of a lead shank, he took off and frolicked in every inch of the indoor arena as if it were his own personal sand box.

By March [2004], Stalwart was ready to be turned out in the fresh air. First into a small pen, and then within days he graduated to larger spaces. Eventually he went into a big paddock with friends. For such a fierce competitor on the track, he was quite affable with pasture mates.

He loved his outdoor turn-out…I did not. You see, Stalwart was a mudder on the track. He searched for and wallowed in anything resembling mud. If one puddle could be found in the paddock, he’d dig it into a personal pond. Somewhere in the archives I have a picture of him with only his two eyes recognizable, the rest of him covered in a coating of dry, caked mud. I spent hours cleaning up the boy, only to have him do it again. His antics sent me straight to Rider’s Crossing for a Rhino-tough turn-out blanket by Horseware Ireland. It helped a little. Without fail, any part of Stalwart left uncovered was thick with earth.

Riding Stalwart

Stalwart was surprisingly easy-going to ride considering his lengthy career on the racetrack. The first time, and every subsequent time I sat on him, he was steady. He never felt like he was going to seize the bit and run-off. The first few weeks under saddle he was stiff and muscle sore like most OTTBs, but he was not lame. His legs puffed as anti-inflammatories and racetrack drugs left his system. Within a few days of his arrival, I started him on a course of joint supplements, Thia-Cal [Finish Line], SOURCE, and Guinness [the beer!]. His body responded, and he loosened up and became quite flexible. By March [2004], he was like a rubber band, stretching, and fluid. It was time to find Stalwart a new home.  

I had grown quite fond of Stalwart; he had a big heart under his wily exterior.

On April 4, 2004, Stalwart was adopted by Heather Brandt, a young woman with a passion for thoroughbreds. She had the background and skill set to develop Stalwart’s potential as a riding horse. Time Warner News Channel 9 covered Stalwart’s move to Brandt’s Flint Wood Farm in Ballston Lake, NY. There again he made new equine friends with several other horses under Brandt’s care. Brandt aptly referred to Stalwart as “Second Chance.” With consistent work Heather helped “Chance” to understand the nuances of English riding. She improved every aspect of his work under saddle and regularly reported on his progress. “He has shown a remarkable difference and has adjusted well to his new surroundings, and he is working well on both canter leads.”  

Heather kept me abreast of Chance’s progress. Photos showed a filled out, happy, and relaxed horse. My heart melted.

Stalwart fast became a favorite again, this time with riding fans. Heather’s students loved the horse they knew as “Chance.” In many instances he was their only chance to ride. She refined Stalwart into a safe and solid teacher. He loved his job. As Heather’s reputation grew, so did the waiting list of retiring thoroughbreds looking for a stall in her barn. Stalwart would need to move to make space for another thoroughbred in need.

It was bittersweet when Heather made arrangements for Stalwart to move to JHA Riding Academy, a reputable local lesson and show stable. His steady stride gave many JHA kids’ confidence in the saddle. He spent one year in the JHA lesson program.

Stalwart was purchased privately from JHA. Heather and I tracked and followed his every move; good reports indicated he was happy and healthy. Then, a sudden hiatus in communication alarmed us. Something was wrong.

It turned out that Stalwart changed hands a few times. Heather provided leads, I investigated. After many calls and emails I learned in September 2006, that Stalwart was with Dr. Amy French, a veterinarian from Johnstown, NY. On the day I made contact with Dr. French, I learned that she was shipping Stalwart to a livestock auction at JP Norths, a place I have known to be frequented by kill buyers over the years.

I was angry and horrified. Keeping my cool and making a deal and get Stalwart home safe was the only option. Since Stalwart moved to Heather in April 2004, I now had a farm, and it was within ten miles of the auction. I arranged to pay for Stalwart’s shipping and then some. I did not know any of the people with whom I was dealing, and each had a conflicting story. How he ended up with Dr. French is unclear to this day. Finding him in the nick of time was nothing short of a miracle.

The sketchy details of Stalwart’s whereabouts over the past few months left me uneasy as to whether Stalwart would actually be shipped to me or not. Then, I began to wonder if the horse being shipped was really going to be Stalwart. The confluence of events leading to Stalwart's return troubled me for the next several hours. I hoped for the best.

Late in the afternoon a shoddy stock trailer sped into the driveway. Stalwart’s white star and stripe were visible between the rusted slats. Tied in the rear, he was easy to get to. The rear door creaked open and there stood a skeleton of the horse I knew. Urine-soaked manure squished under my boots. The slippery footing made it difficult for Stalwart to maneuver. His weary legs trembled as he inched his way out. Helpless eyes of other innocents headed to JPs glanced out in angst. I was filled with despair; I wished each was unloading with Stalwart. Nothing good awaited them at JPs. My heart sank. 

Stalwart looked dreadful; he was dispirited and emaciated. His hip bones protruded like a clothes hanger, his skin stuck together, his mane and tail sunburned, and his heels horribly under-run. I was sick at the sight before me; I could not believe he had been in the hands of a veterinarian for the past few months. He looked like he hadn't eaten in six months.

I have always maintained an open return policy for horses I have re-homed.  This is in writing and transferred on to successive owners. Horses are very expensive to maintain. Sometimes circumstances change and people cannot afford the upkeep. It happens, but the horse(s) need not suffer. Over the years a small percentage of horses I have re-homed have returned. A few phone calls and networking online averts a potential crisis. This was the first re-homing that went horribly wrong.  It reminded of a story I just read about on Larry Ensor’s site. Thankfully, he, like me, was able to intervene.

It was time to forgive, give thanks he was alive and not slaughtered, and begin to revitalize this very lucky horse. Mortified, I called Sandy, and explained what had happened. Sandy, unfazed  stepped up and contributed funds to help Stalwart  again.

Goldfarb had claimed Stalwart Member for $35,000 as a seven-year-old in 2000 and won several races and graded stakes with him on the New York circuit including the Grade III Sports Page Handicap November 2001. Stalwart also has the dubious honor of having been the very first stakes winner for now ten-year suspended trainer Richard Dutrow.  

Competitive to the core, Stalwart Member scored a number of stakes wins in addition to twice winning the Sports Page [1997, 2000]. To this day he is on record for the fastest win the Hollie Hughes Handicap. In 1997, he topped the field and equaled the track record at Aqueduct for six furlongs in 1:08.64. Later that same year, he headlined the New York Times Sports section when he won the MacArthur under 123 pounds on opening day at Belmont, and closed out the year winning the Gravesend Handicap (G3) at Aqueduct.  Overall, he won seven stakes and placed in six other stakes, including a runner-up finish to Langfuhr in the 1997 Carter Handicap (G1). Bred by the late Edwin Wachtel, Stalwart retired with eighteen wins in sixty-four career starts and earnings of $783,807 as one of New York State’s top New York-bred earners.

Sick and tired of seeing an unbelievable number of horses breaking down, Sandy chose to send his warrior out with dignity: “He loves his job, but we knew it was time for a career change.” Wouldn't it be nice if all owners followed this example?

By late fall 2006, Stalwart regained his strength and began adding weight to his big bony frame. Lots of Equine Senior, hay, and supplements expedited his safe recovery. He was enjoying life, and he had a new fan club in my nieces and nephews, Lizzie, Kayla, and Matthew, and Sheila Watts, a delightful young girl who took lessons at our farm.

In early 2008, I began seeking a forever home for Stalwart. I interviewed many prospective adopters. The majority were unsuited to look after a thoroughbred. Then came an enthusiastic brunette connected to a good solid stable. She was looking for a horse of her own to get back into riding. I was shocked when Erin Looman said, “Yes, I will take him.” Many in her position would have opted for an older quiet, non-thoroughbred.  Stalwart hit the lottery.

For the next five years, Erin gave the “Stally” the best years of his life. She kept him in fine style at the beautifully maintained and managed Hillcroft Stables where together they learned, loved, and struggled. Stally was Erin’s prince, she went through hell and high water to keep Stally in the best of care at all times; rough patches that would have caused others to give up did not deter Erin. Honest to core, Erin kept in touch and frequently sent photos and updates on Stally. .

In late 2012, Erin moved Stally to yet another local palace, the newly revitalized Windrunner Stables. Nearing twenty, Stally began to experience aches and pains. His limbs grew stiff as ringbone advanced and spavins set-in. Erin updated me on veterinary findings, and I knew for a horse with the heart of Stally, standing around was not an option. He lived to run. Every fiber of his being embodied his magnificent stride.

On April 3, 2013, I received a note from Erin, “On Sat., 3/30/13, @ 3:00, my boy Stally crossed the bridge to greener pastures.” Her message was short. I understood the raw emotion and inability to speak of putting a friend to sleep -- it is excruciating beyond words.

Just days before I learned of the passing of Stally’s mother, Ms. Stalwart, at Our Mims Retirement Haven on January 28 due to complications of old age. She was twenty-nine.

Later, Erin’s facebook post spoke to each of us who has loved a horse: “I would like to thank everyone for their kinds words. Many made me smile through my tears. Stally for some was a machine, a money maker, to me he was a living, breathing creature who had more heart than some humans I know. He was my boy and will be missed every day.”

# # # #
# # # #