Crossing the Finish Line

Thoroughbred horses can’t race forever. So what happens when they leave the track?

Laurie Calhoun is used to multitasking. After all, there are 88 horses to feed and care for, not to mention 36 cats, an always-hungry pig, a mint-eating pygmy goat, and a grumpy donkey. She calls them “the kids.”

On a recent day at Summer Wind Farm in Frederick County, Calhoun, who is quick to baby-talk to her charges, doles out cans of food to several felines in various barns, calls out to “Tunie” the boar, who comes running, or rather waddling, toward her for a handful of grapes, and checks on the many equines she is trying to find homes for. “We could have three times that because of the need,” she says, referring to number of retired racehorses on the farm.

The sleek thoroughbreds, many of them prizewinners, aren’t able to race anymore due to injuries, age, burnout, or other causes. They’re not alone. While the 3-year-old horses who will bound out of the gate at Pimlico Race Course on May 18 for the annual Preakness Stakes are in their prime, they could eventually face the same fate. Most racehorses are finished with their racing careers by the time they’re 6 years old, but they can live until 30. What happens in between?

“They need another job,” says Stacie Clark, operations consultant at the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an industry-backed group that accredits organizations for the purpose of retraining and rehoming racehorses. “It’s important to realize that horses are versatile.”

They can take on such roles as event horses, hunters, trail horses, polo ponies, or simply become beloved pets. The horses are also welcome ambassadors in therapy groups, where they help military veterans, prisoners, and people with autism. “The thoroughbred has been conditioned to be around people its whole life,” Clark says.

Since 2012, TAA has accredited 70 groups around the country to help retired racehorses find meaningful lives, including several in Maryland. Calhoun’s Foxie G Foundation is one of them.

“They can have second careers,” says Calhoun, who co-founded the rescue operation with her sisters Nicole Ausherman and Kathy Reader in 2012. “They have a phenomenal work ethic.”

“They can have second careers,” says Calhoun. “They have a phenomenal work ethic.”

Calhoun runs Foxie G at Summer Wind Farm, a commercial thoroughbred facility in Union Bridge that she has owned with her husband, Jerry, since 1986. She rehomed horses for 33 years before deciding to turn the farm into a nonprofit. The foundation is named in honor of Foxie G, a winning racehorse Calhoun saved from being euthanized in 1998 after he was diagnosed with laminitis, a painful disease that affects a horse’s foot. “He survived and was a farm mascot for eight years,” she says. He is buried on the farm. He’s just one of many horses she has rescued.

In 2014, Calhoun got a frantic call from a friend. Cool Checkers, an 11-year-old chestnut gelding, was seen on social media in a kill pen. “He was destined to be slaughtered shortly, usually within 48 hours,” Calhoun says. She swung into action to save him.

She knew Cool Checkers well. He was born at Summer Wind Farm and found a new home when he was a yearling. But he never raced, ending up on the auction block years later. Scrambling to get Cool Checkers back, Calhoun found out he had a buddy, Nature’s Fancy, a 10-year-old mare. The frightened horses were seen huddled together, awaiting their fate. “Nobody is helping her,” she was told. “We couldn’t leave her behind,” Calhoun says. “We took her, too.”

Today, both horses are part of a sanctuary program on the farm because of behavioral issues that prevented them from being adopted. “It can traumatize them,” says Calhoun of their near-death experience. They’ll spend the rest of their days well-cared for in a pastoral setting, along with other thoroughbreds, some elderly, like Fireside Brass, 28, a talented racer who fell on hard times when his owner died, and Private Slip, 25, a $607,628 winner on the track who retired at age 11. “Slippie and Brassie are best friends,” says Calhoun. “They bonded. They’re always together.”

Besides the horses on the property, the farm is a veritable Charlotte’s Web of adorable animals, with rescue cats, including Jack O’Lantern and Mayhem; Petunia, or “Tunie,” the sassy pig; Cher, a joyful goat who jumps up to get a closer look at visitors; and Sunny, the grouchy donkey who doesn’t like men. “We have some interesting characters,” Calhoun admits.

They all have captivating backstories, but the star may be Petunia, who was named before Calhoun realized he was a male. He wandered onto the farm one day and started hanging out with the horses after a thoroughbred named Wilbur (“the kindest, gentlest soul on earth,” Calhoun says) encouraged him to come into the barn. “Horses are naturally curious,” she says. “They’re very accepting.” Tunie now has his own nest of hay where he buries himself at night and, during the day, wanders the farm’s 125 acres with a new mission—to lick the horses’ legs and nibble on horse feed that falls on the ground. He has put on weight, especially after being neutered, and gets “healthy snacks” such as grapes, apples, and granola bars without sugar from the human friends who look out for him.

Many of the cats—who were strays, from outdoor colonies, or dumped on the farm’s driveway—are feral and can’t be adopted. They, too, have become part of Foxie G’s sanctuary program, enjoying indoor and outdoor areas where they can play and roam. One barn cat, 17-year-old Heidi, can usually be found on a stack of hay, keeping an eye on the horses.

To prepare the retired racehorses for adoption, Calhoun, with the help of volunteers and a paid staff, gets to know them through a “very stringent process.” “Sometimes it can takes months to have a handle on what type of home they should have,” she says.

The horses are examined by veterinarians, ridden by experienced equestrians, and spend time in the pastures and stalls. When they are deemed ready for the next stage of their lives, Calhoun lists them for adoption on Foxie G Foundation’s Facebook page and other social media sites. She also has a list of people looking for horses. Once a match is found, a prospective owner visits the farm and gets to know the horse. “We want our adopters happy, too,” Calhoun says.

The adoption fee is $500, and there’s a stipulation that the horse can’t be sold. According to the adoption contract, if a horse doesn’t work out, it must be returned to the Foxie G Foundation.

So far, Calhoun has helped about 300 horses transition to other careers. “We’re always trying to add more,” she says. Her efforts are funded through public and private grants, three major fundraising events, and other streams of revenue, such as proceeds donated from the sales of candles and miscellaneous items. A restaurant in Frederick, Dutch’s Daughter, donates the use of its facility for Foxie G benefits.

Calhoun recently allowed one of her horses to go to a prospective buyer on a 30-day trial. “The woman has an older horse with a sore foot. She needs a low-key horse,” Calhoun says. “She retired him and wants him to be happy with his new friend.”

One barn cat, Heidi, can usually be found on a stack of hay, keeping an eye on the horses.

Calhoun is hopeful the pair will work out. The horse she is sending, Dance Circle, was injured and never raced. “It’s a success story,” she says. “Everything was done right.” His owner and trainer placed him in Beyond the Wire, an initiative launched by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association to find placements for retired Maryland-based racehorses. Dance Circle started his rehabilitation there before arriving at Foxie G, which partners with Beyond the Wire.

“Foxie G has offered many of our retiring racehorses a soft landing,” says Jessica Hammond, Beyond the Wire’s program administrator.

“Laurie gives them a safe place to live for retraining and rehabilitation with adoption as the ultimate goal. Her facility is one of the reasons Beyond the Wire is such a successful program.”

Beyond the Wire, which started in 2017, has already placed 170 horses. “Horsemen want to take good care of their horses . . . instead of finding out down the road they went somewhere bad,” she says. “If you want to keep the sport alive, it’s a really important facet of racing.”

To that end, TAA will be a beneficiary of Canter for the Cause on June 2 at Pimlico Race Course. For a fee, participants can bring any breed of horse to the track and follow in the footsteps of previous Preakness winners, including posing for photos in the Winner’s Circle. “People love to ride on the track if they haven’t before,” says Georganne Hale, vice president of racing development for the Maryland Jockey Club.

TAA is also the official charity of the Preakness this year. Members will be on hand at Pimlico, including during Black-Eyed Susan Day on May 17, to provide information and materials about the group’s efforts to assist retired racehorses.

“We have to think beyond the racetrack days and educate people,” Clark says. “We need to be good stewards for the sport and the horses.”

Says Calhoun, “I would love every horse to have their very own person.”