There are few things New York racing fans like better than honest hard-trying geldings "of a certain age." Witness the jubilation in early November when 9-year-old multiple stakes winner and turf specialist Compliance Officer wired a 10-horse field of $32,000 claimers to capture his first victory since June 14, 2014 at odds of 18-1. Race caller John Imbriale gushed from the booth: "They're not going to catch Compliance Officer! The old boy rolled today!"
(Editor's note: This article first appeared on the New York Thoroughbred Breeders' Inc. website at www.nytbreeders.org and is reprinted with courtesy of the NYTB)
Although some of these highly accomplished "old boys" find themselves eventually descending the claiming ladder with uncertain futures, others - happily - have story-book endings to their careers. Be Bullish became the poster child for the dream retirement in May. Former owner Mike Repole claimed back the popular 10-year-old multiple stakes winner for $16,000 out of his 87th start, a winning effort at Belmont Park, to retire him to Old Friends Cabin Creek in Saratoga Springs.
What follows is the story of another popular "old boy" from the New York racing circuit who retired just as happily this year. In this case, the horse's breeder stepped up to the plate to hit the grand slam.
Spa City Fever, a 9-year-old gelding by former New York stallion Roaring Fever, is a flashy blaze-faced chestnut with a couple of white stockings. He was bred by Adam Madkour, president and chief executive officer of Saratoga Spring Water, and became a stakes winner of more than $700,000. Spa City Fever was truly an iron horse. With almost no time off to speak of over the last seven years, he won 10 of 63 starts, finished in the money in more than 50 percent of his races, won one stakes race and placed in nine more.
Spa City Fever loomed large in Madkour's small racing operation, which currently consists of two broodmares and a few horses in training. The gelding's late dam Lady Di Huntley, a multiple winner and $234,500-earner, produced six New York-bred winners from six foals to start, three of them bred by Madkour - Spa City Fever (2006) and two full siblings, both chestnuts. Spa City Princess (2007) is a Grade 2-placed multiple stakes winner and earner of $251,309. The mare's last foal, gelding More Zen Tea (2008), is a ten-time winner of over $250,000 and scored his most recent victory Dec. 12.
Unraced at 2, Spa City Fever broke his maiden at 3 for trainer Pat Kelly. The following year he marched through his state-bred conditions and won his first open allowance. At 5 he transitioned from turf to dirt and started almost exclusively in New York-bred stakes. On New Year's Eve 2011 he became a stakes winner in the Alex M. Robb.
In the spring of 2012 Madkour sold Spa City Fever privately to Rising Graph Stable, a partnership group headed by Thoro-Graph. Madkour seems to regret the sale in retrospect.
"[Spa City Fever] is extremely special," said Madkour. "It was tough watching him in somebody else's hands when I didn't own him for a while. It was very difficult." In the event, and given some time, Madkour successfully executed a long-term plan to get this "special" horse back into his own hands.
Spa City Fever excelled first-out for new trainer Mike Hushion, posting a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 100 as a close runner-up in Aqueduct's open Bryan G. Stakes. Not long after, however, his form tailed off and, by the end of the year, he began to appear in claiming company. On April 12, 2013 he was claimed for $62,500 by trainer David Jacobson as owner and trainer.
Madkour missed his opportunity to get the gelding back this time. "I happened to be out of the country," recalled Madkour. "[They] put him in for $62,500 and I didn't see the notification so I could not even put a claim in."
In 30 subsequent starts for Jacobson, and racing for the most part in conditioned allowance races or otherwise protected from the claim box, Spa City Fever won five races and finished in the money 11 more times, including three stakes placings.
In the spring and summer of 2015, though, Spa City Fever began to appear regularly for a $62,500 tag. On July 29, 2015 he took a precipitous drop in class, entered for $12,500 at Saratoga where he finished a closing fourth as the 5-2 favorite.
Madkour had been monitoring Spa City Fever's career and was not only in the country on July 29, but at the racetrack. Moreover he was determined not to lose this opportunity to get the horse back. That was easier said than done. Madkour's master plan needed some good luck in its corner.
"The whole claiming process was difficult because we were not the only ones who put in a claim for him so we had to shake for him," said Madkour, who didn't remember how many exactly, but "It was a handful." He named five or six trainers whom he thought had put in a claim. He waited anxiously for ten or 15 minutes at racing office for a latecomer to be summoned by cell phone.
"I'm standing there saying 'All these people put a claim in, what are my chances?' My wife was sitting outside."
The stroke of luck came.
Said Madkour, "I practically had to hold tears back when they pulled my number."
His next task was to find Spa City Fever a new home. On the recommendation of his now-retired trainer Michael Wilson, Spa City Fever shipped to Questroyal North, Barry Ostrager's expansive 280-acre spread near Stillwater which is home to a quartet of stallions and a large broodmare band owned by Ostrager and others. The plan was to let him down at the farm and find him a permanent home.
Enter Kelly McCombs, Questroyal's office manager.
Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, McCombs is a graduate of SUNY Morrisville with a BA in Business Administration and Equine Reproduction. She was horse crazy from early girlhood and had targeted the equine program at Morrisville at age 13. McCombs' responsibilities at Questroyal for the past two years run the gamut, including stallion contracts, mailings, breeding schedules, shipping, record-keeping and all the rest, but it doesn't stop there.
An experienced horsewoman with plenty of exposure to broodmares and foals before and during college, McCombs is often to be found in the barns, assisting with newborns and veterinary issues, contributing to sales prep and, on one occasion last winter, delivering a foal solo in a field on an emergency basis when a hasty mare took everyone by surprise.
And as it so happened, McCombs had a long-term crush on Spa City Fever. "I had followed his career for a few years and always loved how classy and hard-trying he was. There was just something about him that drew me in."
The stars began to align in midsummer.
"I knew that Adam Madkour had once owned him, and when I heard Adam was claiming a horse just to retire him and that the horse would be coming to Questroyal to board, I got very excited," said McCombs. "I had a feeling it was Spa City Fever. When the trailer arrived and horse was unloaded, it was! [Jay Ryan] the farm manager told me that Adam was going to be looking for a home for him, so I wrote an email to Adam to tell him a bit about myself and about how much I already loved this gelding."
Madkour picks up the story from here. "When I retired [Spa City Fever] and I brought him up to Questroyal, I didn't even know Kelly. Shortly after I brought him up there, she contacted me and said she's been following his career for a while and that there is a connection between her and the horse. She wanted to know if I'd be willing to give her the horse. So after looking at her background a little bit, we structured a very simple agreement and I turned the horse over to her."
Delighted with this outcome, Madkour also wanted to make everything go just right for the transition. McCombs took over Spa City Fever's care after his July 30 arrival at the farm, but Madkour retained ownership until early October expressly to cover any vet bills that might arise as Spa City Fever adjusted to life after the racetrack, and to buy any equipment the gelding needed for his new life, starting with a rain sheet and a winter blanket.
Said Madkour, "I carried him until he got to a point when I know he's kind of settled, he's healthy, he doesn't have any bone issues, because I didn't want to end up turning over a lame horse to somebody who is going to end up getting stuck with vet bills and will not be able to afford it and then we're back to square one - me being concerned about the well-being of the horse being in somebody else's hands. [Kelly's] plan is to retrain him and you can't retrain a horse if he's not healthy. So I wanted to get him to that point until I was assured that he was healthy before I turned him over to her."
Things are going well as we head deeper into this uncharacteristically mild winter season. "[Spa City Fever] has just been learning to be a horse," said McCombs "He is thoroughly enjoying his turnout and I have worked with him on groundwork almost every day, whether it be lunging him, grooming or working on some natural horsemanship. All of this is to gain his trust and respect, so that he learns that I am his person."
Spa City Fever is not the only beneficiary of Madkour's sense of long-term responsibility to the Thoroughbreds in his life. New York racing fans will recognize the name of Spa City Princess, Spa City Fever's full sister, now the anchor of Madkour's small broodmare band. They will not, however, know a gelding named Twelfth Night (by Griffinite out of Paper Cut) whom Madkour purchased for $35,000 at the 2013 at the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred preferred sale in Saratoga.
Madkour kept Twelfth Night in training well into his sophomore year, including time off. He was in no hurry to push the horse until he was ready, but even after a layup, Twelfth Night's training did not progress. Ultimately, with the help of some candid advice from a second trainer, David Donk, Madkour decided that Twelfth Night should not proceed with training. He said that, with an assist from McCombs, he identified a person in Maryland this fall who loved the horse. Madkour interviewed the person, spent some time with her and ultimately gave her Twelfth Night.
Madkour explained, "I could have sold [Twelfth Night], but it's about finding these horses the right home and re-purposing them if possible and how can you do anything else? I just don't get it how some of these people turn their backs, walk away from these horses they bred, they raced. It just does not make sense to me."
Madkour expanded on his philosophy as a breeder and owner. "I'm not trying to get compliments here or anything. Simply, I think of these horses. They work for you. They race for you. Whether they make money for you or not is irrelevant. They're still part of your life. They're like employees almost. [Laughs.] I don't want to call them pets. They're a living thing. You bred the horse, you've got to take responsibility. You race the horse, you've got to take responsibility."
McCombs, for her part, is over the moon about owning Spa City Fever, whom she has dubbed "Gunner" for daily use. "I am just thrilled finally to have a horse of my own to love and spoil. He is the first horse I've ever owned myself. I had to wait until I was 30 to make it happen, but he was well worth the wait." She will continue working with "Gunner" on the ground through the winter and start riding him in the spring. "I won't be doing anything serious, just some trail rides and flat work in the ring. He deserves to have a happy, easy life."
The "old boy" may have run his last race, but his breeder, in collaboration with a horsewoman and long-time fan, have ensured that his future is bright and can join the annals of retirement stories with ideal endings.
(Editor's note: This article first appeared on the New York Thoroughbred Breeders' Inc. website at www.nytbreeders.org and is reprinted with courtesy of the NYTB. Photos courtesy of NYRA and NYTB.)