08/05/2016 3:26PM

Hovdey: Hitting this board means gold, silver, or bronze


The roster of breeds carrying the colors of the United States in the equestrian competition beginning this weekend at the Summer Olympics includes three Belgian Warmbloods, three Dutch Warmbloods, a Danish Warmblood, a Westphalian, an Irish Sport Horse, a Holsteiner, a Hanoverian stallion …

And a former Thoroughbred racehorse named Blackfoot Mystery.

Anyone who took 35-1 on Blackfoot Mystery in a maiden claimer at Hollywood Park on the quiet Friday afternoon of July 13, 2007, probably tore up the ticket after he finished last of six going 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Too bad.

Now a proud and robust 12, that same Blackfoot Mystery and rider Boyd Martin are part of the eventing team being fielded by the U.S. this week in Rio de Janeiro. These are the versatile equestrian triathletes, required to compete in jumping, dressage, and cross-country, with medals on the line for both teams and individuals.

In the modern era, the list of former Thoroughbred racehorses who have made the U.S. Olympic team is short. The bar was set by For the Moment, the winner of the 1977 Blue Grass Stakes and eighth in the Kentucky Derby, who was part of the 1988 team-jumping silver-medal glory in Seoul, South Korea.

For a former racehorse to get even close to such rare air is cause for celebration. Blackfoot Mystery is a poster boy for life after the racetrack, even though his career lasted only three races and he never picked up a check or, for that matter, beat a horse.

He was lucky, though, to be trained by Jesus Mendoza, who donated Blackfoot Mystery to Leigh Gray’s Thoroughbred Rehab Center at the Winner’s Circle Ranch of Dr. Don Shields in Bradbury, just east of Santa Anita Park.

Gray, a veterinary technician, ranch manager, and former racing official, has spent what probably feels like a lifetime in the rehabilitation, retraining, and offtrack placement of racehorses who can no longer make the grade. She was already the go-to resource at Southern California tracks for years before she founded the Thoroughbred Rehab Center in 2003. More recently, the TRC has developed a close working relationship with the California Retirement Management Account, which helps to fund the state’s qualified aftercare programs.

The call Gray received from Mendoza nine years ago had a familiar ring.

“It was clear that racing was not going to be Blackfoot’s forte,” Gray said. “When he called me, he said, ‘You’ll love this one,’ which is pretty much what he says every time he calls. He was attractive but big and gangly. He was really easygoing, the kind of disposition I look for that makes them easier to place. He just needed more time because he was going to be such a big horse.”

Blackfoot Mystery is a Kentucky-bred son of the Cox’s Ridge stallion Out of Place, who suffered an irreparable injury in his Claiborne Farm paddock in 2010 at the age of 23. He is buried at Claiborne’s Marchmont Cemetery, alongside such champions as Damascus, Ack Ack, Easy Goer, Conquistador Cielo, Unbridled, Numbered Account, Moccasin, and Dearly Precious.

Blackfoot Mystery’s dam is True Mystery, a daughter of Proud Truth, the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner who bequeathed his grandson his chestnut color and considerable size. “He was 16-1 or 16-2 when I had him as a youngster,” Gray said. “And he only got bigger from there.”

The journey from last place in a maiden claimer to the starting team for the Olympics took Blackfoot Mystery from Gray in Southern California to Shirley Aronson and then Lisa Peecook in Northern California, then eastward to Kelly Prather in Pennsylvania, and finally to Olympian Boyd Martin, who was part of the 2012 U.S. team.

Martin and Blackfoot Mystery must handle all three eventing disciplines. But it is the cross-country that has their fans excited.

“Thoroughbreds are perfectly suited for this sport,” Gray said. “They have the endurance to go the distance. They have the fortitude, the brain, they’re strong, and they can bring the speed. Dressage is always a difficult phase for eventers, but it’s the cross-country that is the main, hard test.”

In Olympics past, the cross-country courses were unforgiving, sometimes downright brutal.

“Cross-country has changed,” Gray said. “It’s now pretty fast, and they ask different questions. They have narrows and corners, which means the horse has to be very agile, thinking on his feet. Thoroughbreds do that in spades.”

All the major betting shops encourage play on the Olympics, equestrians included. With 15 countries represented, Coral has the German team heavily favored to win the eventing competition, with Britain and New Zealand next and the United States offered at 12-1.

The dressage portion was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, while Blackfoot Mystery and his teammates will take to the cross-country course on Monday. (DVRs should be set for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern on the USA network.) The eventers wrap up on Tuesday with the jumping competition, after which Blackfoot Majesty can kick back and enjoy the synchronized swimming.

“I can’t wait,” Gray said. “I think he is talented enough and has the potential to get a medal, but there are some incredibly tough competitors from Europe who’ll be there. Out of 580-something horses that I’ve rescued so far in the last 15, 20 years, this is my Olympian – and probably will be my only one. I’m going to relish every minute.”