11/07/2008 12:00AM

Benefit from $650 rescues: Priceless


Big as he was, Seattle Slew's grandson French Postcard still found it hard to stand out in the Thoroughbred crowd gathered at Hollywood Park during the first week of November 1997. Among the horses on the scene at the time were Skip Away, Singspiel, Favorite Trick, and Spinning World, all preparing for the 14th running of the Breeders' Cup.

Accordingly, there was little fanfare when French Postcard finished eighth of 10 in a maiden claimer on Nov. 4, four days before the big event. Three races later, dropped to a maiden tag of $8,500 at Golden Gate, he pulled up lame as the 7-5 favorite. That was that.

Renegotiable, a son of Floating Reserve, was bred by trainer Joe Manzi of Roving Boy fame and hit the ground in 1988. A year later, Manzi, 53, suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving Renegotiable behind to run for his wife, Sandra, and father-in-law, Harry Belles.

Trained by family friend Jack Van Berg, Renegotiable ended up winning more than $200,000, topped by the 1992 Bel Air Handicap at Hollywood Park. Among the beaten that day was Missionary Ridge, winner of the Pacific Classic two races later. As for Renegotiable, he made just five more starts and was finished as a racehorse by the spring of 1993.

Somekinda Wunerful is a son of Secretariat's half-brother Somethingfabulous and boasts a female line that traces to some of the finest Claiborne Farm blood. He was foaled in 1996 and trained with a career in mind, but a pair of sickle hocks gave him a stride that more closely resembled a folding chair falling down a flight of stairs. He never raced.

If you think you know where this is going, jump on board. The Thoroughbred business chews up and spits out horses like French Postcard, Renegotiable, and Somekinda Wunerful all the time. This is not news. But when three stubborn old refugees like these can be found still alive and loved in a remote corner of the Southern California equine community, some kind of recognition is due.

The credit goes to Elizabeth Ondrako, a senior citizen living on a fixed income and serious racing fan who shared her passion for the game with her husband, Steven Ondrako, a Marine Corps jet pilot. How serious?

"We were married at St. Catherine's here in Laguna Beach on Aug. 7, 1965," Ondrako said from her home this week. "We had the ceremony early that morning. Then, as the reception began, we told our guests to please enjoy themselves, eat, drink champagne, and stay as long as they liked. But we were going to Del Mar, because Native Diver was running in the San Diego Handicap."

Let the record show that The Diver did his part, winning by more than three lengths. The Ondrakos bet $200 and collected $260. Happy honeymoon. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1993, but Ondrako still calls her former husband her best friend.

"I don't know what I'd do without him," she said. "But after the divorce, I was a little lost. Right about then was when Christine Lund" - a local TV broadcaster - "did her disturbing report on horses going to slaughter. I decided that's what I had to do, rescue a horse."

In addition to a small collection of Arabian and Quarter Horse mares, Ondrako has been caring for French Postcard, Renegotiable, and Somekinda Wunerful for going on 10 years. All three were at a ranch going out of business in suburban Azusa, east of L.A., and headed for slaughter had she not intervened.

"Hayburners is what they called them," Ondrako said. "I offered the slaughter price of $650 and they took it. Renegotiable - I call him 'Goshe' - had been standing in a muddy paddock and was near foundering. French Postcard's tendons had healed from his racing injuries but he had nerve damage in his hind legs and couldn't be ridden. As for Somekinda Wunerful - my Baby Doofus - he was only 3! Can you imagine that?"

For the past 3 1/2 years, Ondrako's boys have been boarded at Skydance Ranch in Oceanside, just over the hill from the inland reaches of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. They were doing fine until the last few months, when French Postcard cut a hind tendon and Renegotiable suffered a detached ligament in his neck.

"I blame myself for Goshe," Ondrako said. "It had been so long since they'd had shavings to roll in. So I bought them some, and they just loved it. I think he hurt himself overdoing it. He looks so forlorn, but the vet says he's found a way to hold his head so it's comfortable, and he is eating with gusto. But I will never let a horse live in pain."

These days, the American Thoroughbred landscape is dotted with scores of rescue operations and sanctuaries. Still, the vast majority of former Thoroughbreds are in the hands of individuals like Ondrako, who act without a second thought in the absence of any established, racing industry solutions. There was no one standing in line behind her when she wrote those $650 checks.

"People tell me what a wonderful thing I've done for these horses," she said. "But what wonderful things they've done for me. You can't put a price on how Baby Doofus will follow me around, put his head on my shoulder, and just make those sighing sounds."

That would be thank you, in horse. And by the way - Ondrako turns 80 on Tuesday. Veterans Day.