07/07/2009 11:00PM

Early Pioneer gets greener pastures


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Out West, the chatter this weekend is all about the $700,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, which will be run for the 70th time Saturday. But before too long, a visitor at the Old Friends equine retirement community in Lexington will be able to eavesdrop on the tall tales told by the celebrity pensioners and hear nothing but "Hollywood Gold Cup this" and "Hollywood Gold Cup that."

This is fitting, in a way, since the creation of Old Friends by retired journalist Michael Blowen was inspired by the grim saga of Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year in 1987, when he won the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic. In 2003, it was learned that Ferdinand had been slaughtered in Japan after a failed career at stud.

The idea of a Kentucky Derby winner slaughtered for its meat is one of those nightmares from which the sport should never awaken until it can never happen again. Old Friends, now with 44 retirees in residence, does what it can with private funding to ease the pressure of a large retirement population, putting it in the same boat with dozens of other reputable but cash-starved facilities around the country.

Next month, three-time Gold Cup winner Lava Man, now 8, will be heading to Old Friends after completing a series of stem cell injections on a tendon. He will be joining Futural, who finished first in the 2001 Gold Cup, only to be disqualified and placed third, and Early Pioneer, who stunned heavily favored General Challenge at odds of 24-1 in the 2000 running of the Gold Cup.

Early Pioneer and Futural share a large paddock with New York stakes star Affirmed Success and Del Mar Futurity winner Siphonizer. Apparently, Futural still holds a grudge.

"Futural runs things in that paddock," Blowen said. "Siphonizer made a takeover play a couple weeks ago, but Futural took care of that in a hurry. Affirmed Success puts up with all of it with kind of a knowing sigh. As for Early Pioneer, he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. As long as he stays out of Futural's way, everything's fine."

Lava Man was still a marquee name when he retired and should be a major draw at Old Friends, which offers itself as a combination living museum and high-class petting zoo. Futural, by contrast, made 50 starts after his unfortunate Gold Cup experience, winning his final start for a $5,000 claiming tag at Hastings Park in British Columbia.

Early Pioneer raced just twice more after winning his Gold Cup. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts training for comebacks, he was supposed to have been retired for good, at a place in Arizona well known to owners Dave and Holly Wilson. But at some point something happened, and he ended up on a path that could have led to the fate suffered by Ferdinand.

Somehow, though, Early Pioneer got lucky. By the time Nevada horseman Shawn Davis paid $1,000 for Early Pioneer in early 2008, the horse was 13 and nearly eight years removed from his moment of Hollywood fame. Still, on the unofficial fair circuit that laces the western United States, a reasonably sound old warrior with a taste of back class can run out some decent cash.

"He was well fed when we got him, but his shoes had come off and his feet were all broken up," said Davis, who first laid eyes on Early Pioneer at the fairgrounds track in Elko, Nev. "It took about six weeks to work on that. Then I galloped him for a month or two, but he just wasn't feeling that comfortable to me. That's when he retired. I just wasn't going to abuse him, or put him anywhere he couldn't be raced with dignity. And I don't send horses to the kill pens."

In June 2008, Davis called bloodstock agent Joyce Long in hopes of finding Early Pioneer a permanent place to retire. Long got in touch with the Second Call program, sponsored by the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. That is when Rhonda "Cass" Dewey became involved, as someone who has taken in retired and rescued horses through the years.

"When Joyce called, I was over-flooded with horses," Dewey said. "I did 73 retired racehorses last year alone. But when I found out about Early Pioneer, I told her I'd make room, and Second Call helped sponsor him."

It was Dewey's daughter, Brandi Goode, who suggested a horse like Early Pioneer might belong at Old Friends

"I would have liked to have kept him," Dewey said. "With him in my back yard, I could have received money from Blue Horse Charities and Thoroughbred Rescue Foundation. But the horse deserves the acknowledgement he's earned. And as much as I love Arizona, we sure don't have green pastures for these guys."

A retired Thoroughbred can't do better than Old Friends, and Early Pioneer is one lucky racehorse. If nothing else, his saga should stand as a cautionary tale. Few owners have been more responsible with the retirement of their racehorses than Dave and Holly Wilson. If it can happen to one of their horses, it can happen to anyone, which is why the racing industry must one day pony up the resources for regional retirement facilities to care for Thoroughbreds who have reached the end of their working lives.

"People are always saying, 'I've found a good home for your horse,' " noted Blowen. "But you can't spend your whole life finding out if that's still true every day. At some point, you've got to take that leap of faith. The important thing in this case is that Early Pioneer is doing great."