06/09/2009 11:00PM

Endgame often depends on luck

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Just for a moment, let's pretend this is the way it works all the time.

During the summer of 2007, a 6-year-old swaybacked gelding named Storm Legacy was turned over to trainer Pete Tardy at Penn National, who was told by the owner, "You don't have to train him. Just board him." Then, in early 2008, the owner tossed Tardy the keys. "He's yours if you want him," was the message.

The fact that Storm Legacy was a son of champion sire Storm Cat meant absolutely squat, since he had already run 42 times and had spent the last year in the company of $4,000 and $5,000 claimers. Also, he was dead lame, which explains why his barn nickname was "Ankles."

"If you'd have been in the shape he was in, you wouldn't want to get out of bed in the morning," Tardy said the other day. "Anybody but me, he would have been in New Holland. You know what New Holland is, right?"

To anyone who thinks Thoroughbreds deserve a shred of dignity upon leaving the racing stage, New Holland is definitely wrong. New Holland, Pa., is the location of a major livestock auction where buyers for slaughterhouses converge to scoop up horseflesh by the pound. Whether or not slaughter is still legal in the United States is beside the point. There is no federal law forbidding purchase and transport to foreign processors.

So Storm Legacy dodged a bullet, just by waking up in the Tardy barn. And then Tardy was inspired to give Storm Legacy a try. He worked like a demon on those ankles, and by springtime the horse was in good enough shape to go back to the races. He made 13 starts in 2008 for Tardy and his wife, Donna, and hit the board six times, finally winning one on Dec. 29.

Along the way, Tardy took a look at the back of Storm Legacy's foal papers and found an unusual notification.

"It said whenever the horse was no longer raceable, they would like to give the horse a home," the trainer said. "And there was Marylou Whitney's phone number."

By April of this year, Storm Legacy had come to the end of the line. Tardy made the call to the Whitney farm in Lexington, Ky., and a van was dispatched to Penn National. Storm Legacy, bred by Whitney in partnership with W.T. Young's Overbrook Farm, was going home.

"When he left here, I took off his nylon halter and put on a leather halter," Tardy said. "Not a new one, but a real nice one."

It was a simple gesture of respect, and a gracious acknowledgement of Storm Legacy's heritage. After all, he came into this world as a full brother to the accomplished mare Catinca, out of a half-sister to the top-class racehorses Hail Bold King and Metfield, and by a stallion who had already sired more than 100 stakes winners.

Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, are part of a quiet but growing movement among enlightened patrons to affix end-use assurances to official foal papers. Storm Legacy settled right in with two other geldings in a large paddock at the Whitney spread. And why not? He didn't have to die to go to heaven.

"We were a little worried how he'd do with the other two, him being younger and right off the track," said Kim Nelson, the Whitney farm office manager. "But from the start, they were acting like old pals, trading stories."

Storm Legacy's new friends are the half-brothers Brave All the Way, age 14, and Cviano, who is 12. Another half-brother, equipment intact, is otherwise occupied at Gainesway Farm down the road, where he serves a full book of mares each year. His name is Birdstone, sire of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird.

While Storm Legacy was able to avoid the horrors of New Holland and beyond, Cviano could tell a different tale. Named for the late C.V. Whitney, Cviano had been lost in a claimer in 2001. Shortly after Birdstone added the Travers Stakes to his victory over Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont, Cviano was found at New Holland, on his way to slaughter, by a volunteer with Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, and steered to Angel Acres Farm in Pennsylvania. When they found out, Whitney and Hendrickson were quick to bring Cviano home.

Among the other residents at the Whitney farm is Dear Birdie, the dam of Birdstone, Cviano and Brave All the Way. She is in foal to Street Cry, which sounds great on paper, and there is always a chance she'll produce another Birdstone, or better. Of course, there is just as good a chance the foal with turn out more like Brave All the Way, who ran 76 times and won 10 races, or Cviano, who was 4 for 49. Between them they earned less than $200,000.

"This is about lives we created," said Hendrickson at the time of Cviano's rescue. "We're responsible for them."

Such sentiments are rare, and yet to be held widely enough to find widespread institutional support. There are no safety nets, and the downward pressures on Thoroughbreds are relentless, because of both economics and health. Even though he never got a whiff of the New Holland kill pens, Storm Legacy must be considered a very lucky horse to have stumbled upon the right people at the right time.

"If you ever talk to those folks in Kentucky," added Pete Tardy, "tell them he absolutely loves those Starlite Mints. When he would hear that wrapper crackling, he'd come right to the front of the stall."