05/12/2006 12:00AM

17 tales of horse-saving heroes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's too late to shop for Mother's Day and too soon to spend anything on dad, which makes this the perfect time to peel off a quick $55 for a selfish splurge on a work of remarkable beauty.

"Saving Leslie Jones" (Long Wind Publishing) looks like it might be just another a coffee table book about pretty horses. Fools people, too, who merely flip through the 112 pages full of colorful photos and gracefully arranged text. It would appear to fit comfortably in that unread stack over there, alongside "Origami Gardening" and "Lighthouses I Have Known."

But then, hold on. What's the story on that woman in a wheelchair watching a Thoroughbred gallop through a stormy dawn? Who's hand is that, caressing a forelock, attached to a wrist that bears a Star of David tattoo? And then there are all these disturbing words popping out of certain photo captions - "steak in Europe," "correctional facility," "purchased for $1 on his way to slaughter."

Leslie Jones, as it turns out, is a Thoroughbred mare, a former racehorse, who was abused, neglected, and eventually saved from an agonizing death by the people at Exceller Farm, an equine rescue and retirement facility in upstate New York.

Her story is one of 17 vignettes, researched and written by Dave Joseph of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and if there is a pattern to each of these 17 tales, it is one of quiet heroism rising from stark, unforgiving circumstances. Choose your hero.

It could be Tim Sullivan, a lifelong horseplayer and former speech-writer who used hard-earned parimutuel winnings to buy three old racehorses off the Suffolk Downs backstretch - one of them with 190 starts - and provide them with honorable retirements before something terrible could happen.

It could be Kelly Young, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania farm girl who spends her Mondays at the notorious auction pens of the New Holland Sales Company, from which she has rescued more than 500 horses before they could be sold into the hands of the killer buyers.

It could be Priscilla Clark, who cares for 80 retired racehorses at California's Tranqulity Farm (with which this reporter is associated) and retrains dozens more for potential adoption as pleasure mounts.

It could be Robin Cleary, a former assistant trainer and exercise rider who was rendered quadriplegic in a fall at Calder Race Course, and now helps heal the loss by working hard to place horses in good homes when their days at the track are finished.

Or it could be Bill Bigger, who served his time for a DUI in a Florida prison that offered him the chance to work with retired racehorses during his stretch, then adopted two of them shortly after his release.

"I really wanted to make sure they would always be cared for, because when they came in they both had problems and I hated to see them go through the hurt," Bigger told Joseph.

Bigger was in jail - and it was the horses with problems. Over and over, as the pages are turned in "Saving Leslie Jones," the theme bangs away. These were Thoroughbreds - not free-range mustangs - but Thoroughbreds brought into this world by human hands, intended for commercial gain, but at some point discarded and forgotten.

As racehorses they had names, records, lip tattoos - you can look them up. Leslie Jones, who arrived at Exceller Farm suffering from abscesses, bone disease, and rain rot. Northern Steam, who could have been food for sled dogs. Southern Wish, found in a gulch penned by barbed wire. Banker's Jet, abandoned and starving. Forever Baby, who ended up at New Holland, where he "stood in the 'kill pen' staring at a dead pig in the scoop of a small tractor" while Karen Young negotiated for his purchase.

Jon Kral's photography throughout "Saving Leslie Jones" is nothing less than cinematic. From the sweeping to the intimate, he works visual miracles with an eye, a tail, a cribbing set of old teeth, while giving Joseph's vivid reporting a glowing, visceral accompaniment.

There is no Eclipse Award for what Joseph and Kral have done, but there should be. And they certainly won't get rich off the sales of "Saving Leslie Jones," since 100 percent of the price tag goes directly to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (it is available at trfinc.org).

In the end, "Saving Leslie Jones" is a troubling book, but it's not a downer. There is just enough hope woven into each of the stories. There are happy endings, and it is also the best writing about horses you will read this month, this year, maybe in this lifetime.

It comes at the right time, too, because the horse business seems poised for a fundamental shift in the way it treats its primary resource. "Saving Leslie Jones" was underwritten by Calder Race Course, for which the track deserves considerable credit, while other tracks and jurisdictions have taken small but significant steps to institutionalize support of Thoroughbred retirement facilities. New York's Ferdinand Fund is the most effective of these efforts and could serve as the model for every state where horses are used to fuel both purse money and tax dollars.

If nothing else, "Saving Leslie Jones" shows how horses can change individual lives, and how individuals can rise to brave moments where racing's institutions have so far failed. Hopefully, that is about to change.