12/09/2010 3:17PM

How old is too old for a racehorse?

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
John Henry (right) won the Grade 1 Turf Classic in 1984, when he was 9. Considered one of the greatest old racehorses ever, he won Horse of the Year titles at age 6 and 9.

When Wake At Noon broke down June 29 during a workout over a training track at Woodbine Racetrack and had to be euthanized because of his injuries, some members of the horse racing community reacted angrily. His owner and breeder, Bruno Schickedanz, was barred from racing or stabling at Woodbine. Wake At Noon, a former Canadian Horse of the Year, had not started in a race since 2007 and was working out for the first time since he had come to the track from a farm. The horse was 13.

It was Wake At Noon’s age that raised a critical question: How old is too old for racehorses?

Old horses – horses as old or nearly as old as Wake At Noon – regularly compete in North American races. Some are blue-collar claimers and never have been much more. Others once were stakes or allowance horses, set back by one big injury or the accumulation of many small ones, making last rounds in some dim corner of the racing arena. And there are the classy vintage models, whose bodies dip and weave as the ravages of time slip past.

“Only the good lord can answer that,” said Ron McAnally, asked how some horses maintain high-class form well into their middle years. McAnally trained the best of them. John Henry was born in 1975 and began racing in 1977. In 1984, at age 9, he won six major stakes and was named Horse of the Year.

“Physically, he stayed about the same till the end,” McAnally said. “He had a few little problems, a hip pull, muscle pull, but he stayed reasonably sound most of his life. That’s what was extraordinary about him.”

Schickedanz, who declined to comment for this article, has vigorously contested his Woodbine ban and has contended that Wake At Noon’s breakdown was a tragic accident – a broken leg that could have happened to a horse of any age. Wake At Noon was eligible to work out at the racetrack, and Schickedanz told a three-member tribunal of the Ontario Racing Commission that Wake At Noon had been training for several months at a farm. Wake At Noon was breezing to assess his fitness level, and no decision had been made to return the horse to racing, Schickedanz told the tribunal.

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There are plenty of old racers scattered across the land, and had Wake At Noon made a comeback, Jockey Club records through Dec. 1 show he would have been the 15th horse to race this year at age 13. Nine hundred and thirty-eight 9-year-old horses have made one North American start in 2010 – as a Thoroughbred either in a flat race or a steeplechase or as a Quarter Horse in a race with Thoroughbreds. Another 371 10-year-olds have raced at least once, as have 169 11-year-olds and 54 12-year-olds.

A couple of the ancients, the 13-year-olds, even managed to find the winner’s circle on the flat: Motel Staff won a $6,250 claimer at Golden Gate, and Eagle Time won twice for $5,000 at River Downs. Other 13-year-olds toiled to lesser ends. Mr. Garry C got nothing in a trio of $2,500 conditioned claimers at Beulah Park in Ohio. Past Time was badly beaten in two $2,600 claimers at Lethbridge Race Track in Alberta, Canada. Tender Offer, Grade 3-placed in California during a 2000 campaign, finished last of four somewhere out in the wilds of Oregon, at the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show.

Standardbred horses can’t race past age 13. Some states enforce age restrictions for Thoroughbreds, but some don’t. Among the major racing states, California, Florida, and Kentucky do not have a cutoff, but New York’s limit is 14.

When an attempt was made to race 17-year-old Alpena Magic after a long layoff during the summer of 2007 at Ellis Park, track owner Ron Geary, fearful of tragedy, bought the horse and turned him into the track’s “equine ambassador,” a position Alpena Magic still holds.

“We’re always cognizant of situations like that,” Geary said. “The racing secretary alerted me about Alpena Magic.”

But no one will be mercy-scratching Romeos Wilson when – as is currently planned – he goes to the starting gate as a 13-year-old of 2011. Romeos Wilson ranks as the leading North American 12-year-old of 2010, with two wins, three seconds, and a third from 10 starts. His most recent victory, in August at Albuquerque, came in a New Mexico-bred stakes race.

“We’ve had him ever since he was a 2-year-old,” trainer Fred Danley said. “He’s just as sound now as he was then. This horse, he just handles himself so well. He’s super to do anything with. He really gets into it. You have to take him with the pony all the time, because he gets to playing so hard that the riders can’t stay with him.”

After 96 starts, and with races dating to 2000, Romeos Wilson has no problem handling the life of a racehorse, and Danley doesn’t let his senior charge get too far away from that life. No extended turnouts, no long periods of rest – and that appears to be an essential part of successful racing longevity.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a prominent equine veterinarian based at the Rood and Riddle clinic near Lexington, Ky., suggested that injuries like the one suffered by Wake At Noon are not a product of age, per se, but can occur after a long absence from racing and race-level training.

“You just can’t leave them away from racing that long and expect the system to keep up with the wear and tear,” Bramlage said. “You take a horse out of training, they lose that top line. The skeleton and basically all the musculoskeletal system only stays as strong as the strain being put on it.”

Many old horses have suffered injuries after attempting to return from a long layoff. Just three weeks before Wake At Noon’s demise, 12-year-old Capazuri broke down at Mountaineer Park while racing in a $10,000 turf claimer, his first start after a layoff of almost 10 months. On July 3, at Pinnacle Race Course in Michigan, 12-year-old C J’s Rolex was eased in a $4,000 claimer, his first start since October 2007. On April 13 at Turf Paradise, 12-year-old Paladin Power was distanced in his first start in almost one year. Eleven days later at Thistledown in Ohio, 11-year-old All About Speed pulled up lame making his first race after an eight-month break. Eleven-year-old Midwatch, once among the best turf sprinters on the East Coast, attempted a comeback after a five-month layoff in June and was beaten almost 40 lengths in a $5,000 claimer at Delaware Park. The year’s most farfetched comeback attempt came in the steeplechase world: 11-year-old Cradle Snatcher fell during a race in April, his first start since 2003.

But older horses have consistently made up a large part of the racing population. Bramlage conducted a study some years ago that found one-third of the population is at least 5 years old, a proportion that has remained unchanged through many years.

“It’s interesting how many 8- and 9-year-olds always are racing,” Bramlage said. “If they’re productive, they stay racing, and that hasn’t changed much. The average number of starts actually is pushed down by the younger horses we try that don’t have talent, get injured, or whatever.”

The limbs of a Thoroughbred mature at about age 3, Bramlage said, and by 4 or 5, horses’ growth plates have disappeared, and the skeleton basically has become fixed. The lone exception is the withers, the raised area between the back and the neck, which can grow – for reasons unknown – until a horse is 11 or 12.

“They aren’t born with the skeleton that’s needed to race,” Bramlage said. “That has to be trained into them. Once you make 4 to 5 starts, the incidence of knee problems and stuff goes way down: The training has made them into full-scale racehorses. The skeleton is always hardest to bring along. Once it’s fully mature, then you have wear and tear that the horse has to keep up with.”

Old-timers may be less susceptible to problems with bone, but the chance of soft-tissue injury increases with age. Tendons can more easily tear. The cartilage in joints of a young horse is all the cartilage that horse will ever have, and it tends to deteriorate over time. Arthritis can set in.

But some horses have an amazing ability to keep pounding away through all these physical pressures. In 1998 at Charles Town, a 13-year-old named Time to Bid made his 179th start and won for the 50th time. That landmark in the books, Time to Bid quickly was retired to trainer Jeff Runco’s farm.

“He was a pretty neat old horse,” said Runco, who had to put Time to Bid down at age 23 because his teeth were so bad. “He was just an old campaigner, a gritty old guy with a lot of personality, real easy to deal with, knew his job.”

Hermosilla might have been the last 15-year-old to race in North America, his farewell coming Sept. 22, 2007, in a $1,300 allowance race at Sandy Downs on the Idaho fair circuit. Hermosilla lost by 25 lengths that day, but just three races before he had finished second in a Wyoming Downs claimer.

“He’s still good and sound, but he’s finally acting his age now,” said Shaun Story, who trained Hermosilla for most of his last three seasons and now keeps him at his property in Liberty, Utah. “When he was an old racehorse, he still acted like a 3-year-old, but he don’t act like that anymore.”

What set Hermosilla apart was his powerful will to compete, Story said.

“He wanted to try every time, even if he ran second or third.” Story said. “Even if he was older or run down, or whatever, he still wanted to run. I’ve got a horse now, he’ll be on the lead and just quit.”

Sir Prize Birthday was one of the few Thoroughbreds in modern history to start in 200 races. At age 12, he finished second twice and third three times in a five-race campaign, retired after his 206th trip to the post.

“He was one of my favorite horses,” trainer Tim Ritchey said. “All class, very pleasant, great temperament. Every time he ran, he tried for me. He enjoyed his job, what it was about, and he knew where the finish line was.”

Sir Prize Birthday made his last 27 starts at Penn National, but Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, has become the new gathering grounds for racing’s elderly. Two of the 13-year-olds to race in 2010 started there, as did two 12-year-olds, 17 11-year-olds, 30 10-year-olds, and 54 9-year-olds.

“We’ve got plenty of old ones,” said Beulah’s racing secretary, Ed Vomacka. “Some years I even write the Old Man Winter Starter Handicap for 7-year-olds and up. We have no trouble filling it.”

A Beulah owner-trainer, Charles Lawson, has made a habit of collecting old racers. In 2010, Lawson started at Beulah two 11-year-olds, Scooter Roach and He’sachicmagnet; two 10-year-olds, Say Hey Charlie and Convexity; and five 9-year-olds, Prairie King, Still Smoldering, Lord Carmen, Top Glory, and Black Deed. Animal rights advocates might well call Lawson’s propensity for heavily racing such seniors a black deed – He’sachicmagnet raced 15 times this year and tailed off badly his last three − but six of these eight animals actually won a race in 2010. Top Glory won four times.

Lawson, perhaps, brings to bear some of his own day-to-day experience in handling racing seniors: He is 82.

“You do have to train them a little different,” Lawson said. “You don’t train an older horse as much. He knows what to do. He’ll just about run on his own. You have to train them to keep them fit, but you don’t have to over-train them. Keep him fit enough where he can run the race and still not hurt.”

Lawson grinds out minimal purses with old horses in decline, but trainer Bret Calhoun has demonstrated a knack for claiming older stock and finding ways to make them better. King of Speed, for instance, was one of the best 11-year-olds of 2010, winning three races from nine starts. Calhoun and owner Carl Moore claimed him for $25,000 as an 8-year-old in October 2007, and King of Speed has since won a remarkable 17 races.

Five races after Calhoun took him, another trainer claimed King of Speed away. The horse was eased in his lone start for his new connections, but Calhoun and Moore claimed him back, and King of Speed won when he ran back six weeks later.

“He’s a typical old horse,” Calhoun said. “He likes to be pampered, spoiled. We dote over him. He gets doughnuts and candy all day. He’s the center of attention.”

King of Speed doesn’t like heat, and Calhoun gave him most of the summer off. His two starts this fall have been decidedly subpar. One more like that, Calhoun said, and King of Speed may be retired, though the horse might not be happy about it.

“He’s one I don’t know if he’d enjoy farm life,” Calhoun said. “He really enjoys his job.”

Calhoun and Moore appear unlikely to drop King of Speed further in class to extend his career, but that is what has happened to many of the old horses at Beulah and other comparably small tracks. Every year, there are hundreds – if not thousands − of old horses in North America who might benefit from life after the track, more so than ever before. A 13-year-old horse used to be “past middle age,” according to Dr. Bramlage. Now, thanks to medical advances – especially those that ward off common but serious parasites – horses regularly live to 30. Where are they all to go? What to do?

“We write cheaper races with more conditions for beaten horses than most racetracks,” Vomacka, the Beulah racing official said. “We had a 9-year-old break his maiden here. If a horse gets to that age, chances are they’ve had something wrong with them. Most are geldings, don’t have much other future. I think we’re saving horses in some way. We can prolong their careers.”

Alpena Magic, the 17-year-old who attempted a comeback at Ellis Park, was said to have been returned to training because he so detested pasture life. This is not uncommon for a horse steeled to the rigors of the racetrack and synced with its strange rhythms.

Romeos Wilson, the 12-year-old New Mexico stakes winner, may never comfortably leave the track.

“We’ve tried turning him out before, but he kind of went all to pieces,” said Danley, the trainer. “He doesn’t handle that at all. He loses weight, goes downhill, and it takes a long time to get him back.”

Such responses do not surprise Susanna Thomas, the director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park. Thomas heads a division of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, finding horses who are sound and sane enough to be put back into training, re-schooled for a second career in areas such as competitive eventing. But Thomas will not take horses directly from the racetrack.

“If I put you in a box for three or four years, and I fed you Mountain Dew and Power Bars and only let you see your friends for 20 minutes a day, would you be a little psychotic?” Thomas said. “All you have to do is look how Mother Nature designed horses: Herd animals, nomadic, foragers. You tell me on a racetrack when a horse can be social, nomadic, and forage. They have all the stress of high-caliber athletes, and they’re babies. It’s not the natural way. I’m not saying racing is heinous, but it does require an adjustment period.”

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has about 1,200 horses in its system. They’re housed in 13 states and at eight correctional facilities, where inmates learn to care for the animals. Jim Tremper heads the TRF program at Wallkill Prison in New York. Five more retirees, bringing the Wallkill band to 60, were headed his way when he was recently reached by phone.

“We get every which kind here, but I would guess that about half have gone lower and lower until they’re almost unusable anymore,” Tremper said. “They go from Belmont and Aqueduct to Finger Lakes, Penn National, Suffolk Downs, when they’re no longer able to keep up. Sometimes they’re limping around. Other times they look in pretty good shape. We also get them from auction. Someone will purchase them just to save them.”

Auction. That’s the other fate awaiting many of the old geldings who can’t hold their own even against $2,000 claimers at Beulah. Buyers taking horses for meat and rendering will pay $500 a head. The horses coming to Tremper’s prison could easily have taken a darker path.

“Most of them are confused,” Tremper said. “They don’t seem to know what’s expected of them. There is a readjustment period.”

The TRF has coined a new slogan: “Responsible for life.” It asks a lot of the Thoroughbred community, and caring for the unending stream of racing seniors with bleak futures is a daunting prospect. But the lifespan of Who Doctor Who could serve as a model for this philosophy.

On pedigree alone – by Doctor Stat, out of a mare by Barnstorming − Who Doctor Who would’ve been bound for obscurity. By nothing, out of nothing, the racetrackers said, and not built so well, either. Who Doctor Who’s right front leg winged crazily out when he ran.

“We figured we’d have trouble with that, but it was only bad in the mud,” said Herb Riecken, who trained Who Doctor Who and owned him with his wife, Nancy. At 2, in 1985, and early the next year at 3, Who Doctor Who swept through Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, winning six out of his first eight starts by almost 40 lengths combined. The gelding would race six more seasons, crisscrossing the Midwest while winning 33 of 64, never racing for a claiming price.

“We could go from Ak-Sar-Ben to Minnesota, stop at a rest stop, and let him get out and eat grass,” Riecken said. “He was a kind of horse that made any trainer look good.”

Who Doctor Who kept racing till age 9, in 1992. When it was over, he got paraded in front of the stands at Ak-Sar-Ben, then at Lincoln. Both times, the aging sprinter took things calm as could be, only startling at the bell-sound of a race going off. Riecken took him home to his farm to live out the rest of his days.

“He was just a great big old gelding who ran with the mares,” Riecken said. “If we had three or four new horses, we’d put him out to babysit. We had another horse, St. Patty Day. She made $204,000, a normal, everyday, hard-trying racehorse mare. Them two were one year apart, and they were like husband and wife. When he was 24, his ankles got to hurting. It was hard to get around. Her teeth were so bad, and she was 25. They weren’t enjoying life any more. We put them down the same day.”

John Henry's final race: Ballentine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands, Oct. 13, 1984