Older Racehorses: Bordeaux Bandit

What do you do with an older racehorse? A horse that is not unsound, but like any middle-aged athlete has accumulated over time pesky aches and weak spots that need attention? An animal which, like career service men and women, has spent its life on the move in a demanding job with ever changing vistas and company? Those horses are much harder to place than the young ones that may have raced a few times if ever at all; the ones that are too slow or too sweet to make the break, from the starting gate literally, or in the competitive field of racing, figuratively. As I tell visitors to the MMSC, not every horse is destined to be a racehorse. Some don’t hold up physically or mentally. Some don’t have the brains or the stomach for it. But you have those special horses that get the game, that cotton to it, and that commit to trying. Bordeaux Bandit is one of those.

Bordeaux Bandit was sold as a yearling at the Keeneland Sales for $350,ooo. He is well bred, by Vindication who is by Seattle Slew, out of Mimi’s Golden Girl, a Seeking the Gold mare, and must have been very good looking as a youngster. At 10, he’s handsome still. Well balanced, a lovely shoulder and hind end, and a beautiful head with big, expressive eyes.  He ran once as a two year and nine times as three year old. He showed a bit of promise here and there. He was a good, solid campaigner, always trying.

In October of his four year old year, he was claimed for the first time, racing five times for that stable before being claimed for the second time by an owner/trainer who kept him and campaigned for four more years. Still racing at nine in $5K claimers, the original owners decided to buy him back and retire him. Except that he was sound, and very service oriented. There was no reason he couldn’t have a second career; indeed, it would be good for him. He probably would have gone mad or become depressed if forever relegated to greener pastures. Think how a career sergeant would feel if sent, at age 45, to live in the confines of an old folks home.  

So Bordeaux Bandit came to the MMSC last June, just one month after his last race. His ankles were a little big, but x-rays showed nothing of concern-edema that could be healed with cold hosing and rest. Like all career athletes some muscles were tighter than others, some bigger, some smaller. He was stiff. He needed to be chiropractically realigned. Massage and magnetics would help him. Stretching both from the ground and from the saddle too. A joint surfactant, acupuncture, and herbs would be beneficial. None of those things concerned me. They rarely do with ex-racehorses. Provided there are no major injuries, the body can be fixed with time and diligent care.

It’s the brain and spirit that I worry about. Older racehorses are laden with with mental and spiritual baggage. I never know how long it will take to get to the bottom of that stuff. I am pretty confident that we can get  there. I have only encountered a few in my time that have a permanent lodestone so cemented in their psyches or souls it can’t be dislodged. The question of what to do with these rare types is the subject for a whole other blog which I probably will never write.  

Older racehorses like Bordeaux Bandit deserve a chance, yet they present a real problem for the MMSC. Capable of having a second career, but needing the time to transition there, these horses are expensive to take on. Without my help, they may not be able to go on to a new career right away because they are too stiff, too sore, too “race tracky” to suit an amateur owner. Yet no professional is going to touch a horse like that—because it can be difficult to ride at first and even once reschooled most likely won’t have the scope to win because of its age and history. Horses like that get flipped for low dollars. They also contribute to the bad rap of the “crazy Thoroughbred”. 

How can I justify spending donated dollars on a horse that needs time to unwind physically and mentally that needs new skill sets to be serviceable yet that racks up a bill of five, six, seven thousand dollars over nine months or so in making this transition? Should I not take on these horses and recommend that they be permanently retired? What would that cost over fifteen or so years? And who would pay for that? 

Doesn’t it make sense, therefore, if the horse could have a purpose to invest in its transition to a new home and job?  I think so.  But I also look at the MMSC’s  bottom line and budget all the time. A horse like Bordeaux or Bawanna Jake or Nowhere to Hide, two horses that I wrote about in earlier blogs, can rack up bills of $6000 or more before they are ready to find a home where I know they can be of service, be safe, and be loved. Yet, how can I ask for that money back from an adopter when that is the cost of a show horse or a younger horse with potential? As we speak, I have $6,800 of expenses in Bordeaux—he is lucky because his donors love him and cover much of those costs. But what if he didn’t  have owners like that?  Until I establish and get a fully funded “slush fund/trust fund” for horse care, I can’t.   

Yet Bordeaux, as we call him at the MMSC, is priceless. When he came to the MMSC last June, he was all business and no pleasure. He didn’t like to be touched (he still doesn’t as he is very ticklish), refused treats, looked out at the world with levelheaded yet circumspect eyes. In the field, it took him months to learn how to play with other horses. He kept his distance from the herd, a grumpy old man who scorned the antics of the young.

Under saddle, he was workmanlike but stiff and tense. When asked to canter, he wanted to gallop. When trail riding, he stayed on high alert, like a commando anticipating ambush. He did all that we asked: walked over bridges, trotted over cavalletti, jumped cross rails, but he showed no joy, just duty.

He was tried by several potential adopters last fall, but his horsenality was too dry and his way of going too intense. So when our closing date in December came, we sent him off to a friend of mine, Diana Shoop, who fosters horses on her Gemstone Farm for free for us. Diana is never without a carrot or a kind word for any horse. She’s hawk-eyed about her horses and diligent with their care. She had adopted an older racehorse, Desert Wheat from us, and I had seen how he has bloomed emotionally and physically in her care. I knew Bordeaux would be in good hands.  

I was right. When I went to visit him in February of this year, I couldn’t believe what I saw! Yes, he was wooly and plump, but that didn’t surprise me. It was the look in his eye! Happy. Calm. Trusting.  Bravo Diana and Father Time!  His balanced conformation was now matched, nay surpassed by his beautiful expression!

Bordeaux has always been ready to serve, but he has come back expressing a real joy in doing so. He is still sensitive—he needs a light hand and seat and a clamped leg still means GO! He is still ticklish and doesn’t like to be groomed vigorously. But now he likes treats, and having his forehead rubbed. He has become quite the trickster in the field, grabbing the feed tub and challenging the youngsters to play tug of war with it. He leaps, he races, he spars with them too. He is bursting with life and joie de vivre

Yes, it cost money to bring this older racehorse around. Yes, he is lucky to have former owners that support him. Yes, the MMSC has been good for him.  But surely, this beautiful horse deserves this? He served his humans as he could at the track. Having started 41 times, won 3 firsts, 6 seconds, and 5 thirds for a career total of $100,700, he has a past to be proud of. Now Bordeaux Bandit awaits his glorious future, as do many other older race horses just like him.

Cheery bye,