On Jan. 21, 2017, the Eclipse Awards will be presented in a lavish ceremony at Gulfstream Park. On that day, some of the game’s most prominent equine and human stars will be recognized for their achievements over the past year.
In addition to crowning all of the divisional thoroughbred champions, including Horse of the Year, awards for outstanding owner, trainer and jockey will also be handed out, as well as honors for various media contributions to the Sport of Kings.
And while I think all of that is great, I have long felt that the Eclipse Awards don’t go far enough.
I still vividly recall the short time I spent on the backside of a racecourse (Longacres, a now-defunct facility that was located in Renton, Washington). It was 1986 and I was 19 years old. Too big — not to mention too untalented — to be a jockey, my sole reason for being there was to learn more about the game I loved, which I did.
I learned that I was allergic to straw or hay or both.
I learned that waking up at 4 a.m. is for the birds (actually, even birds, with the cranial capacity of a raisin, have the good sense to wait until the sun comes out before starting their day).
I learned that horses have regular bowel movements… I mean, very regular… exceedingly regular… shockingly regular.
But mostly I learned just how dedicated the folks that worked on the backstretch at Longacres were. I saw a passion and love for horses that was inspiring. I witnessed people practically living in tack rooms, because they wanted to be there 24/7 to look after the horses in their care.
Nobody made much money and nobody seemed to care. The trainer I worked for once told me, with great glee, about a horse that had been claimed off of him for $3,500 that he bought back for $2,000.
“I made $1,500,” he chortled, before noting that the horse had breathing problems and could only run four furlongs, so he’d have to wait until Yakima Meadows opened to race her (Longacres didn’t card races that short).
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the wait, the shipping and the Yakima purse structure were sure to eat up that profit in no time flat — he seemed so pleased with himself.
As I got older and began my career as a turf writer, I came into contact with numerous people just like the folks I remember as a manure-covered kid with watery eyes and a bad case of the sniffles. The unsung heroes of the racetrack — the grooms, the hot walkers, the horse rescue workers… men and women that rarely receive any praise at all, much less Eclipse Awards.
In my own small way, I wanted to change that, so it is with great pride that I announce the first annual US Racing Zippy Chippy Award.
As many of you know, the Eclipse Awards are named after the great Eclipse, who was undefeated in 18 starts in Great Britain during the mid-1700s and was reputedly retired due to a lack of competition.
Well, Zippy Chippy was not nearly so fortunate. In fact, the son of Compliance failed to win a race in 100 starts, but he was loved and appreciated by his connections and a great number of racing fans.
“If you have three kids and one is a lawyer and one is a doctor and one doesn’t make enough money, you’re not going to kick him out of your house,” Zippy Chippy’s owner/trainer Felix Monserrate told the Boston Globe in 2003. “You have to support him and try to get him better and better. He’s like my kid. I know he doesn’t run fast now, but I have to encourage him.”
It is that kind of love and support for a luckless blue collar horse that convinced me Zippy Chippy was the perfect embodiment of what US Racing and I envisioned this award to be. So, without further ado, I would like to introduce the 2016 US Racing Zippy Chippy Award winners — Angie Cheak and Tara Cochran.
Both ladies are being recognized for their work on behalf of the horses abandoned in Mercer County, Kentucky, which was documented by Margaret Ransom in “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell.”
Cheak was a constant caregiver for the 43 neglected horses and was instrumental in coordinating the rescue efforts, while Cochran helped to raise nearly $25,000 for the horses’ ongoing upkeep and medical treatment. To me, these women represent what I saw firsthand on the Longacres backstretch over 30 years ago — dedication, heart, compassion.
On behalf of US Racing and unsung racing industry workers everywhere, thank you ladies!
I was born to love horses. My first love was a huge draft named Old Blue that my mother loved. His gentle, massive heart captured mine. I grew up in the thoroughbred industry and spent my childhood on a Lexington thoroughbred farm. I loved the 5 a.m. stall mucking, feedings and, then, turn-out.
We had a training track on the farm and I spent countless hours with the trainers watching, giving advice (ha, ha) and learning the heart and spirit of the thoroughbred. I slept many nights in the foaling barn, anxiously awaiting each new arrival. Thus began my journey into my lifelong love affair with the thoroughbred.
After moving home to Kentucky two years ago, and prior to the Borell case, I was involved in another rescue of three thoroughbred stallions who were horribly starved, neglected and abused. It was horrific and I could not believe this could happen in the “Horse Capital of the World.” Thankfully, all three were saved and now live a wonderful life of retirement.
I literally fell into the Borell case, but now believe it was divine intervention. As soon as I saw the 43 horses, my personal life stopped. Nothing else really mattered outside of making sure these horses had a voice and [an] advocate — someone to fight for their lives. I did not, at any time, consider any other choice. I knew I was in for the long haul, no matter what or how long it would take. These horses deserved so much more than they were given and I immediately knew what I had to do. Three months, 1,200 hours later, I would do it all over again.
Have you been to the Breeders’ Cup before and what were your thoughts upon learning that you’d be going to this year’s event?
When I got the call informing me that US Racing was sending me to the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, I honestly could not speak. I just went numb. I have never loved so many horses in so many races all in one weekend — amazing!
I was in desperate need of something wonderful and this is and has been one of the highlights of my life. I have been overwhelmed by the goodness, kindness, compassion, willingness to step up, support and hands-on help that we received in this case by owners, industry leaders, trainers — all facets of the industry that I love. And to have the opportunity to support them, spend time with them is more than I could ever have dreamed for.
Most of all, I am profoundly grateful for Margaret Ransom’s dedication to making sure that the facts of this case were brought to the forefront and not forgotten. It is because of her that this case garnered so much attention and, thus, the motion for change was set into place. Best of all, I have the opportunity to spend time with her. We will forever have soul ties.
Trying to pick one race that I’m excited about is like asking me to pick one diamond out of a whole bowl of perfect diamonds. Obviously, the Classic is beyond amazing and I really can’t wait to see Arrogate, California Chrome, Frosted and Nyquist on the same track at the same time.
Songbird is my favorite horse ever, so I can’t wait for the Distaff, but I also love Larry Jones, so I’m looking really forward to seeing I’m a Chatterbox.
In the Mile, Tepin and Ironicus — wow! Runhappy and Dortmund in the Dirt Mile, can’t wait… so many great horses, owners, trainers and jockeys.
If I were forced to choose one horse that I would love to spend five minutes with one-on-one, hands down it would be Songbird. If I had to choose one jockey, it would be Mike Smith; I have so much respect for him. My favorite trainer is Larry Jones, followed by Bob Baffert. My favorite owner is Rick Porter, such an amazing man with a huge heart.
We just founded the Equine Sanctuary Center of Kentucky as a direct result of the Borell case. We have many wonderful aftercare, OTTB and re-training organizations for thoroughbreds, but, until ESC, there has been no state-accredited 501c3 immediate-care facility to take in and provide immediate and ongoing care of horses seized in any state or county neglect/abuse case.
Providing this foster facility will enable the State of Kentucky to do what they need to do in each case, while not burdening any county with the responsibility of feverishly trying to find a safe place for these horses to land during an ongoing investigation and court proceedings. ESC fills a need that has never been filled before and is 100 percent funded through private and corporate donations. We need everyone involved in the thoroughbred Industry to donate and get involved. We will make a huge difference in the lives of the horses who’ve given so much to us.
To learn more about the Equine Sanctuary Center of Kentucky, visit www.facebook.com/ESCofKY.
I have been horse-crazy from as early as I can remember. Beginning around the time I was nine or so, my mom and I began making annual summer trips to Versailles, Kentucky to visit relatives. I remember staring out the window as we drove around Central Kentucky in awe of all the horse farms and rolling hills on nearly every corner. Coming from Georgia, it was like entering a horse-filled paradise. My mom would take me out to Keeneland in the mornings to watch the horses train or in the afternoons, so that I could walk around the backside and pet horses.
We were completely naïve to visiting protocol, so, thankfully, Keeneland generously allows visitors to the backside, as did the many shedrows we walked in to visit. We were always met by kind, down-to-earth and welcoming people willing to answer any question I had. It was a pleasant contrast to the show-jumping atmosphere I was in back home and one of the initial things that attracted me to horse racing.
Growing up in Georgia, I was relegated to watching racing on major race days only; the feature stories that were aired during those telecasts only heightened my desire to get involved in the sport. I was particularly fond of the features on D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert (yes, this was the 90’s), which led me to want to be a trainer originally. In 2003, I made a beeline to the University of Louisville’s Equine Program to pursue a career in racing and got a job on the backside walking horses for Ron Moquett. The rest, as they say, is history.
Having personally known people whom Maria Borell had stolen from or used for money in the past, long before she was employed by Gallery Racing, the evidence that came out about her treatment of her horses and rental property at Colby Fields following the 2015 Breeders’ Cup was hardly a shock.
What was surprising, however, was the lack of attention the racing media gave to the condition her horses were in. Having insight to her employment with Drawing Away Stables, I learned that her standard of care in Kentucky continued in Florida. Knowing that other major racing publications would not cover this, I went to Margaret Ransom to share with her this information, knowing that she was willing to speak out and had the platform at US Racing to do so.
Thankfully, many others spoke up about the condition of [Borell’s] horses in Kentucky as well and she was able to put the pieces together to publish an eye-opening story for the industry to see. Given my experience with social media and fundraising, I was designated to share the initial photos showing the condition of the horses on social media, which was shared an impressive 700+ times.
The word was out and small donations for food came in, but the situation continued to fall on [the] deaf ears of the major players in the industry and financial resources were insufficient to provide the horses with the care and food that they needed. There came a point where those of us involved from the start knew that many of these horses were going to die if drastic measures weren’t taken.
Thankfully, US Racing allowed Margaret to continue to cover their plight, despite the critics. To coincide with the publishing of Margaret’s second story about the horses, I volunteered to create and manage a GoFundMe campaign that it could be linked to her story on USRacing.com, in the hopes that it would raise enough money to cover for the horses’ expenses and help offset the costs the volunteers were incurring out of pocket.
Not knowing what type of reception the campaign would receive, I set a modest goal of $10,000. Incredibly, that was met within two days! I raised the goal again to $20,000, which was ultimately exceeded by nearly $5,000! It was such a relief to see the industry get involved when they did, as their support was invaluable to these horses and provided the financial and logistical support needed to see the rescue effort through to the end.
The money that was donated through the GoFundMe [campaign] came from people from all areas of the sport: owners, trainers, riders, grooms, outriders, track personnel, horse players, rescue advocates and even horse lovers not directly involved in racing. The synergism I witnessed and was blessed to be a part of … restored some of my faith in humanity and the racing industry, introduced me to lifelong friends and reignited my desire to continue my rescue, Three Cheers For Third Careers.
Ultimately, the Abandoned Horse Fund raised $24,950 and garnered over 11,000 unique views and 1,500 shares on Facebook alone. $20,000 of that was donated to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Blackburn Correctional Facility and the remainder was given to the Thoroughbred Charities of America’s (TCA) “Horses First Fund”. I must recognize the assistance that Carrie Gilbert provided to me in coordinating the wire transfers to the TRF and the TCA and essentially serving as my eyes and ears on the ground in Kentucky, so that I knew where to donate the monies raised to best serve the horses and maximize the donations.
Have you been to the Breeders’ Cup before and what were your thoughts upon learning that you’d be going to this year’s event?
I attended the 2006 and 2008 editions of the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita, respectively. Both times I was working with TVG, so this will be my first time getting to enjoy it strictly as a fan. When I was informed of US Racing’s offer to fly me out to the Breeders’ Cup, I was stunned by their generosity. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to make the trip out to Santa Anita, take in the atmosphere and catch up with many people who I haven’t seen in years.
Being at the track is what makes my soul happy. When I learned that so many of the people who I have gotten to know through helping to save the abandoned horses would be in attendance as well, I was even more excited knowing that I will get to meet them in person. It was a long, daunting — overwhelming at times — yet ultimately fulfilling road we all went down together and I can’t think of a more fitting place for us to meet than at the year-end culmination of horse racing’s World Championships.
The Friday and Saturday cards of Breeders’ Cup are stacked with talent and betting value this year. It is hard to pick just one horse or race that I am looking forward to seeing the most.
There are a lot of questions left to be answered by this year’s races, arguably the biggest being who will receive Horse of the Year Eclipse Award honors? The horse who has captured my heart and attention more than any other this year is Songbird, so she is my natural “favorite” on the two-day card and I imagine she will be the favorite come post time in the Filly & Mare Distaff as well.
Tied for first on the “Horse I Am Most Looking Forward to Seeing” list is another Jerry Hollendorfer trainee, Tara’s Tango. I have been following her since her second start for obvious reasons, but have been fortunate to get to learn more about her personality and training style over the last year as well. She is a spitfire and as hard-trying and honest as you can ask for in a horse. She will have some stiff competition in the Filly & Mare Sprint, but she loves the Santa Anita dirt and can get the job done with the right trip; I will be using her in my exotics at the very least.
I am looking forward to seeing champions like California Chrome, Beholder, Tepin, Runhappy, Found and Nyquist in person for the first time too. Suffice it to say that the majority of my five-hour flight to Los Angeles from Atlanta will be spent handicapping the Breeders’ Cup cards. I am just as excited to watch training in the mornings as I am about attending the Breeders’ Cup and stopping by the storied Clockers’ Corner for the first time.
This trip will provide many “firsts” for me and getting to go has given me the same feeling of elation that I felt during my first childhood trips to Keeneland. Thank you, US Racing, for not only providing me with this incredible experience, but for providing the platform needed to help so many people come together to save all 43 abandoned horses from the farm in Mercer County.