Every Horse: Rescuing Innocence

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Zoom Zoom Zelda, enjoying the safe and good life in retirement. Photo provided.

The 20th edition of The Saratoga Special is already old news and there’s always come content that we couldn’t get in print. We were blessed with Richard Zwirn’s “Every Horse Has a Story” columns for the meet and offer up his final installment below. We thank Richard for the work and insight, and apologize we couldn’t get it into No. 20. But we wanted our readers to enjoy it and in case they’re seriously missing Saratoga already. Enjoy and see you in 2023.

By Richard Zwirn

What makes each story different is not only how it ends, but also how it begins.

Once upon a time there was a horse. Not just any horse. The first horse. Her name was Sis Henry … and she became a part of our family. We loved her. She loved us back. The first breath of a horse my children felt gently brush against the back of their necks was hers.

This stoic broodmare was a close relative of the immortal champion Thoroughbred gelding, John Henry. Her sire was Exceller, a Hall of Famer who won stakes in four countries and beat two Triple Crown winners in the process. (His life sadly ended in Germany. He was slaughtered for meat. But, that’s a whole other story.) 

“Sis” had won a few modest races during her career. She gave us five beautiful babies. We loved her dearly. The bond of trust between us was strong and she passed that feeling of security down to each of her offspring.

She was a heck of a teacher. We watched her from up close and from afar. Hundreds of unblinking hours were spent observing her every move on the foaling camera. Just from the look in her wise eye or subtle movement of an ear or foot or tail, she gently – patiently – taught us to better listen. Taught us boundaries. I believe that without her tutelage, we would have either folded or ruined many a horse.

We named her final foal Zoom Zoom Zelda, after my beloved grandmother. Sweet and gentle. This young filly was weaned early on and her innocence became clear. She counted on us. We did not let her down. We took her under our collective wings. For a year and a half we shared many moments – tender, funny and memorable ones. The day we brought her to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales grounds was, indeed, bittersweet.

“Zelda” was sold and landed in good hands. No, make those great hands. In time, she made her way to the barn of Bob Dunham. This old-school trainer was well respected by all. For the right reasons. Honest, kind and knowledgeable. You don’t train for 55 years without having a deep love for the horse. Now at 85, it’s what keeps him going. He treated “Zelda” like a champion, sparing no expense or effort. 

After a series of lukewarm winless on-track performances coupled with months of legs submerged in ice cold tubs, however, Mr. Dunham felt it was time to stop on her and find her a good home. She “looked a picture” the last time I saw her under his shedrow. Willing and able, she was to make someone a fine riding horse.

She ended up out West. Big Sky Country. Huge open spaces, right? Wrong. An unkempt dirt pen was more like it. The horse’s updated photo was none too flattering. When I was finally able to contact the new owner, I began to wonder. While raving about the horse’s attributes, she also hinted that “Zelda” was for sale and was eager for any leads I might have had.

Fast forward. Enter Susan Kayne, founder of UNBRIDLED Thoroughbred Foundation. Susan is a tireless, articulate advocate for all horses, especially her rescues. She had been contacted on Facebook that Zoom Zoom Zelda was imperiled. She was on the “threshold” – at a feedlot in the southeast where horses are sold – or sent to Mexico for slaughter. For about $830, Susan swooped in and saved this lovely, albeit emaciated and laminitic, mare. After quarantine, she would be on her way to UNBRIDLED Sanctuary in New York.

Without natural and pharmaceutical remedies in tandem with the non-stop care and expertise of Susan’s husband, Andrew Elsbree (a certified farrier), “Zelda” wouldn’t have had a chance. The help at UNBRIDLED worked feverishly to rehabilitate the nearly broken mare…and soon her clear eye returned, along with her natural gait and trusting manner. The care and love was palpable—and “Zelda” responded. She had been through some harrowing times—but as luck would have it, an oasis of support was found.

Dapples returned to her coat. She gained a couple hundred pounds. The treats offered by the hundreds of generous visitors were not only calorically beneficial, but also spiritually uplifting. It resulted in the confidence she needed to regain. It is believed that horses carry not only a genetic imprint within, but also the “will” from their ancestry. The desire and heart she demonstrated throughout her ordeal may have just come from the John Henry, Exceller and Storm Cat blood in her veins.

Now, the only additional thing she seemed to desire was a purpose.

So, “Zelda” became a teacher — like her momma. The largest, fastest, hairiest one ever.

She was inserted into programs related to horsemanship, self-esteem building, and academics. Through “Reading to the Rescues,” children read stories to “Zelda” out loud. Math and problem-solving tasks were taught through lessons regarding her own racing career, travels, expenses and nutritional needs. Science was covered using her anatomy and physiology. Fun stuff. A win-win situation. This equine educator was happy to have a job again.

UNBRIDLED shared her story, so that a young generation of horse lovers could learn about genuine bonds, respect and dignity. Heck, they even launched an exciting classroom program during the pandemic called, “Zoom with Zelda!”

Even with an obscure pedigree, less-than-stellar racing career, and traumatic episode, “Zelda” was able to make her mark. It goes to show that these ex-racehorses can be useful. Retrained. Have happy endings.

This one’s a feel-good story. One that went from heart-wrenching to heartwarming. But, horses need our voices. Our help and support. They will not be racehorses forever. As UNBRIDLED’S Susan Kayne says, “they are the co-creators of our dreams.” We all have a responsibility – fans, breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, TV networks, vets, racetrack personnel and others. Let’s not turn our backs.

I’m so happy for our homebred. Thankful for the generosity she continues to receive. She has found her perfection at UNBRIDLED.

Lastly, I am proud to see the legacy of our first horse – wise old Sis Henry – continue. Holding her head in my arms when she was euthanized many years ago just about broke my heart. That hurt has faded with time. The edges have softened. Memories of her now elicit a smile instead of a tear. Gratitude and peace have taken the place of ache and pain. 

Blessed are the horses…blessed are their stories.

Richard Zwirn has been a racing fan for 50 years – and a hands-on Thoroughbred breeder for the past 25 on a small farm seven miles from Saratoga Race Course. His column appeared regularly in The Saratoga Special during the 2022 meeting.