The Kentucky Derby was scheduled May 2.
The Run for the Roses, a 146-year tradition, was postponed for only the second time in history. (The first was in 1945 due to World War II.)
But does anyone ever think about what happens to these magnificent creatures when their racing careers are over?
Many people know that the successful stallions are retired to make millions of dollars in stud fees. Mares that win are used to produce foals year after year as long as they are able.
But what about those who might not qualify for that lofty status?
Over the past couple weeks, leading up to the traditional “First Saturday in May,” we’ve been involved in such a case.
It started with a message in a Facebook group for horse rescues who are members of the Humane Society of the United States’ Homes for Horses Coalition.
“Are there any rescues near Madison, Wisconsin, who would take a former race horse into sanctuary?” the message read. Sanctuary means they have some issue that would prevent them from being considered adoptable, so they would need to be taken care of for the rest of their life—which could be another 20-plus years.
I responded to that message, “Spirit Horse Equine Rescue and Education Center keeps horses in sanctuary.”
What followed was a four-day frenzy of information-gathering through phone calls, texts and Facebook messages. The horse’s current owner, a racehorse trainer in New York, a thoroughbred rescue in New York, a listing service for retired racehorses based out of Maryland, several veterinarians and a concerned thoroughbred rescuer from Washington D.C. all played a part in the conversation.
The story as we know it:
Holy Week, an 8-year-old thoroughbred gelding, had a longer career than most—six years. He ran 63 races and won over a quarter of a million dollars. This bay, 17-hand, gentle giant of a horse was out of options.
What led him here?
Holy Week was born in the state of New York on April 15, 2012. He had unbelievable bloodlines and the hope of a promising future. His pedigree includes Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed—all Triple Crown winners. Another two of his predecessors won two legs of the Triple Crown.
For the first four years, he ran and earned money for his owner, trainer and jockeys. Then an injury to a hind leg caused him to be rested for eight months.
When he returned to racing, he was not very successful. He was dropped down in race classes until he ended up with a new owner after being in a claiming race for just $5,000. Soon thereafter, Holy Week’s latest owner listed him on a site for retired racehorses and sold him to a person in Madison for $1,500.
The new owner was told Holy Week was sound (had no problems with lameness) and would make a great horse for other equine sports like jumping or dressage. He just didn’t want to race anymore.
In early March, Holy Week’s new owner had him shipped from Maryland to Wisconsin, and when he was taken off the trailer it was obvious he was quite lame. The owner hired a veterinarian to give him a thorough exam, including X-rays.
According to two different veterinarians, Holy Week was probably given injections and other medications to prop him up for some more racing. He had reinjured his leg, effectively ending his career.
Holy Week has an old and a new injury showing up on the X-rays. His leg is swollen and he has difficulty walking.
A strict regime for his recovery was hampered by the restrictions put in place for horse boarding facilities due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the veterinarians believe that, given enough rest, he may be able to live pain-free.
But he will need to lead the life of a retired gentleman—no riding, no racing, no competition of any kind. Just hanging out, eating, eventually socializing with other horses, being groomed and loved.
Hearing the prognosis, Holy Week’s most recent owner decided that because he couldn’t be used for the purpose for which he was purchased, he would be euthanized. When you want to compete in a sport, keeping an extra horse with no hope of competition is an expensive, long-term commitment most would not choose. Many horses like Holy Week end up on trucks bound for slaughter in Canada or Mexico.
At just 8 years old, a horse who ran his heart out for six years, one who has the blood of champions in his veins, was to be killed.
The thoroughbred rescuer in New York somehow found out about this and set the wheels in motion.
We wanted to help this horse. One of our board members went to meet Holy Week at the stable where he is kept. She described him as sweet, big, handsome and easy to handle, but clearly uncomfortable on that swollen leg.
After conferring again with the vet who has treated him since he has been in Wisconsin, we decided we would take a chance on Holy Week.
To start, we will give him a paddock to himself, so he can’t be injured by another horse. He will have time on pasture and be offered every chance to heal. We don’t know what the outcome will be, as we believe a horse should live relatively pain-free or we’ll have to make a difficult decision.
We feel it’s the least we can do for this castaway from The Sport of Kings.