Cup of Coffee: Buck Up

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There comes a time.

Valerie Buck, who had a set list of Wait A While, Fleet Indian, Rags To Riches and Octave one morning at Saratoga, broke her neck when a filly slipped and fell on the road near the Oklahoma training track in October, 2009. Buck came back. Had another surgery. Came back. Broke her ankle.

Like knowing your name, she knew it was time to go.

“I never felt right again after getting hurt. My heart wasn’t in it any more,” said Buck Tuesday morning. “I was ready to be around horses in a different manner.”

Buck made it happen.

For decades, the Philadelphia native galloped horses to pay her bills and body clipped horses to build her future. She bought six and a half acres in Greenwich, N.Y., near the Vermont border, 35 minutes from Saratoga, and began to unpack. After living on the road – working for Mark Reid at Keystone, Gary Contessa at Garden State Park, Randy Bradshaw in California, Leroy Jolley in New York, John Ward in Kentucky, Richard Mandella in California, Bill Mott in Saratoga, Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher wherever they needed her, Buck finally stopped.

And went to work.

“I bought a book on how to build barns,” Buck said. “I cut down trees, every nail, every screw, every piece of lumber, I had a hand on. I had some guys help me here or there but for the most part I did it myself.”

Buck never looked back, learning Natural Horsemanship from Pat Parelli and others, she volunteered for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Old Friends and Saratoga Warhorse and began to formulate a plan to help horses, help people and help herself. Buck had taken horses off the track for years, teaching them, learning from them and helping them find new lives. She decided to make it her job, her life. She started ACTT Naturally, a charitable organization billed as an innovative retraining program for off-track Thoroughbreds. Buck received her 501c3 status from the IRS this winter.

Waggin Tails is a lively place. Buck cares for eight horses, including Three Lions from Pletcher’s barn, chickens, guinea hens, goats, eight dogs, seven cats, a rabbit and a pig named Violet. She grows vegetables and cans them.

“I’m growing more and more self sufficient, living a sustainable life,” Buck said. “I’m one of those people who sees a door on the side of the road and I stop and pick it up.”

She’s picked up a lot of horses like that. Three Lions was a rogue when he was with Pletcher in 2009, bolting on the turn while the favorite in a Saratoga maiden and tormenting riders in the mornings and afternoons.

“He was a difficult horse, he dumped riders, ran out the gap when he was a 2-year-old. He had a label on him,” Buck said. “When he came to Florida, my name was listed to ride him, my eyes widened, I was like, ‘Oh, I remember this horse.’ He started fly-leaping and I reached down and kind of scratched his neck, he was like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’ We went on the track and I let him just hang out until he was ready. I saw a different side of him.”

At the end of the Florida season, Three Lions went to Monmouth and Buck went to Kentucky.

“I wished his owner luck and told him if he never needed a home for him to find me,” Buck said. “He called me on New Year’s Eve that following year and he’s been at my house since.”

The $300,000 son of Hennessy lives with the chickens and the goats. Buck calls him Budder, for buddy. He’s like butter in her fingers.

“I ride him bareback, bridleless, like moving a paper boat across the water with your finger,” Buck said. “When you take a horse, it’s just like taking a dog out of a shelter, you don’t know what you’re getting but it’s getting their minds turned around to where they become a safe, willing partner. They’re very sensitive and receptive if they understand what you want.”

Buck doesn’t want a lot from Three Lions. She does want a lot from her charity. She has visions of purchasing nine and a half acres next to her, building another barn, an indoor arena, cabins to provide weekend retreats to women who have suffered domestic violence or served in the military. Soft-spoken but quietly determined, you can almost hear the hammer hitting the nails.

“It’s where I want to go with my life. I’m really feeling good about helping people and the horses,” Buck said. “I look at the land over there and see my barn, my indoor arena, the cabins, a retreat for women to do equine-assisted therapy, you don’t make it to our age without something going wrong in our lives. It’s about replacing bad stuff in your life with good stuff in your life. And it’s so good for the horses.”

The fundraiser is Tuesday.

– For more information, visit ACTT Naturally.