12/12/2003 12:00AM

Given a chance to retire with dignity


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The recent death of Our Mims brought to an end a tale of timely rescue and noble retirement that should serve as a lesson for anyone who cares about the animals who make the racing game possible.

Our Mims - also known as Alydar's big sister - was a brilliant racemare, a modest broodmare, and eventually a forgotten pensioner. She was approaching her 25th birthday when she was discovered by Jeanne Mirabito, a Kentucky journalist, in a local Paris County pasture. Through the help of the ReRun retirement and rehabilitation program, Mirabito adopted Our Mims, returned her to good health, and cared for her these past five years, until the ravages of colic required merciful euthanasia at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on Dec. 9.

Our Mims was a champion, winner of the Fantasy, the Mother Goose, the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Alabama, and the Delaware Handicap during her remarkable 1977 campaign. If the economics of the business can render her anonymous, it can happen to any horse.

Fortunately, such a fate was never a possibility for Golden General. He could have spent his working life pulling the cart or carrying the mail - he still would have been guaranteed a happy ending by his owners, Don and Barbara Black.

As far as the racetrack is concerned, Golden General was a wrap on Oct. 23 at Santa Anita when he was distanced in a $25,000 claiming race on the dirt. As a racehorse, there was only one way for Golden General to go, and that was down, down, down the claiming ladder, until he was no longer competitive under any circumstances.

The Blacks, however, suffer from an expensive delusion. They are among those racehorse owners who feel ultimately responsible for the fate of the domesticated pleasure animals in their possession - Golden General being the largest. The term "commodity" has never come up in conversation around the Black dinner table.

Barbara Black grew up in Burbank, not far from the L.A. Equestrian Center, and as a young woman she became intrigued by the idea of becoming a farrier. After attending farrier school and getting her feet wet in Minnesota, she returned to California, where she faced the realities of a difficult business climate fraught with liabilities, litigation, and tough competition, regardless of gender. She went back to an office job, thoroughly qualified to patch any quarter crack that might arise.

Even so, her love of racing never flagged. When she married Don Black, a special effects artist in the movie business, he became her most passionate convert to the game. In 1991 they bought into their first Thoroughbred partnership, and then, in October 1997, they caught sight of a lanky chestnut at a Barretts yearling sale in Pomona.

"He was not particularly good looking," Black admitted. "In fact, at first we thought he was a filly. But there was something about him, something that drew us to him. Our expectations were not very high, but at our level, we were very excited to get him."

For $4,700, the Blacks went home with a son of Golden Act - one of the best 3-year-olds in Spectacular Bid's class of 1979 - whose pedigree cried out for distance on the grass. Golden General blossomed into a handsome lad and went on to earn more than $220,000 in a career of 31 starts.

In the bargain, "The General" took the Blacks on some incredible rides, including victories at Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood, and two trips to the California Cup Mile. He was trained throughout his career by Jesse Mendoza.

Golden General injured a suspensory ligament in September 2002 and was sidelined for 11 months. He returned with three starts for claiming prices - the first of his career - which was a nerve-wracking experience for Barbara Black.

"It was a strange feeling," she said. "The idea of losing him in a claim was terrible. But then, when no one claimed him, I was kind of insulted. Why didn't anyone want him?"

Somebody did. Last week, Golden General settled into Tranquility Farm, north of Los Angeles near the town of Tehachapi, where about 70 retired racehorses are cared for under the supervision of Priscilla Clark, Tranqulity's president. (This reporter is on Tranquility's board of directors.) There, Golden General will commence retraining as a pleasure horse, with the goal of someday being adopted for a second career. For the Blacks, who will continue to pay Golden General's way, it is a perfect solution, especially since there was no room for their pride and joy in their Northridge backyard.

"After all he's given us, he deserves a chance to retire healthy and happy," Black said. "And since he's only 7, he has a chance for a whole new active life. I did warn Priscilla, though, not to be surprised if I show up there someday to re-adopt The General.

"Another owner once told me that I had absolutely the wrong attitude for a racehorse owner," Black added. "He said I was too attached to my horses, that I couldn't afford to get emotionally involved. He said that the last thing someone should want to be was the last person to own a racehorse."

We all should be so lucky.