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Retired Thoroughbred Racing Horses Help Prison Inmates Recover

Even though fans aren’t allowed in this year, the racing world is still focused on the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course right now. But what happens to thoroughbreds after their career on the track? I went to Saratoga Springs to find out.

Your average racehorse was bred for the track but only races from the time they’re about 3 years old to the age of about 6 years old. But they can live to nearly 30.

After life on the track, horses may enter a program like the nonprofit ReRun Inc., which helps find their next “job” – like police horse, polo pony, or trail horse.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Fund, or TRF, is for all the horses who can’t do those jobs because of their temperament or injuries. Founded in 1983, TRF cares for over 500 thoroughbreds. Half are at sanctuary farms across the United States where they can live out their days in small herds, hanging out eating hay.

The other half are distributed to prisons – where inmates can earn a spot on the ranch tending to the horses day in and day out as part of TRF’s “Second Chances” program.

Bold Mon, a tall gray New York-bred, last raced in 2007. He recently returned from Wallkill Correctional near Newburgh to act as an ambassador for the program. On a rainy August morning, TRF’s Director of Development and Communications, Jennifer Stevens, took WAMC to meet him. 

Stevens says because racing is so rigorous, retired thoroughbreds tend to act like they’re on vacation, making them very playful. Bold Mon proved this. I’ve ridden horses my whole life. He’s the friendliest one I’ve ever met.

Bill Douglas agrees. He’s a former inmate at Wallkill Correctional who worked with Bold Mon in the Second Chances program.

“I think that even the roughest guy would show their softest side once they got to know the horses,” Douglas said.

Douglas is a military veteran who turned to drugs after he left the service. He ended up in Wallkill Correctional with a felony drug charge. He says the horses made him want to stay clean - and his “aha” moment came from a horse he calls “Bootles.”

“His mane was all knotted up, he wouldn’t trust nobody,” Douglas said. “He wouldn’t even let me near him. I worked with him every day for months until I finally gained his trust to let me put a rein on him and brush his hair. I got to the point where he even let me pick his feet, that’s how much trust he had in me.”

Douglas says he keeps a picture of Bootles on his calendar at home – and that he loved the 52 horses so much he actually didn’t want to leave prison. When he got out, he applied to every sort of ranch he could find, but no one wanted to hire a man with a felony. Now he works as a color mixer at Mold-Rite Plastics in Plattsburgh. He says he works 12-hour days, happily, and he couldn’t have managed that without the discipline he learned from working with the horses in prison. 

The Throroughbred Retirement Fund is a nonprofit. With COVID-19 precautions in mind, they’ve replaced their regular barbeque barn fundraiser with a barbeque drive-thru, taking visitors through a winding horse-racing wonderland at the Saratoga Winery August 11. TRF fundraising coordinator Kim Weir says it will feel similar to Albany’s “Festival of Lights” drive-thru – but with horses, food, and local celebrities.

“You’ll start with some miniature ponies and some of our racing personalities that are joining us,” Weir said.

Like NYRA Paddock Analyst Maggie Wolfendale-Morley, Hall of Fame Jockey, Ramon Dominguez, and analyst and retired jockey Donna Brothers.

“You will see draft horses, you will see retired racehorses, and you will in fact see our TRF herd ambassadors, Joey and Bold Mon from Wallkill,” Weir said.

At the end, TRF will hand you your pre-ordered barbeque plate and your adult beverage or pie. You can roll your car windows down and take pictures. The celebrities and volunteers will be wearing masks, but you don’t have to.

The horses won’t be wearing masks, either.

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