Updated on 09/17/2011 2:02PM

A minute to honor the retiring kind

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In a dramatic departure from Dogwood Farm tradition, the 2004 Dominion Award bestowed upon one of racing's unsung heroes is not going to someone with an "Our Gang" kind of name.

In the past, there have been very deserving Dominion winners who answer to Salty, Gelo, Peanut Butter, Junior, Sprinkles and Buck Wheat. This year, however, the award will be inscribed with a very proper "Pamela," as in Pam Berg.

Berg is northern California's answer to St. Francis of Assisi, at least when it comes to the welfare of working-class Thoroughbreds who have reached the end of their racing careers. Her one-woman operation at , deep in Sonoma Valley's wine country, has provided safe haven for scores of ex-racehorses over the past decade, either through adoptive placement or the peace of a permanent home.

The Dominion Award has been around for a dozen years. Cot Campbell, the man behind the Dogwood Stable syndications, thought it would be a good idea for regular racing folks to have their own "award of merit," singling out an individual who goes way above and well beyond the call of duty. Campbell named the honor for the Dogwood Stable stakes-winner of the 1970's who went on to a noteworthy stallion career in England.

As Thoroughbreds go, Dominion had a pretty good life. Berg is dedicated to survival of the vast majority of Thoroughbreds who are not in the Dominion category. Her 8 1/2 acres are home to 27 former racehorses who have ended up as industry scrap, unwanted by their owners and worthless as commercial goods. Berg tries to find homes for adoptable candidates, but inventory always exceeds demand.

"I have a very steady supply of people who want to donate horses," said Berg, who works as a track steward on the northern California circuit. "Unfortunately, most of the people who contact me about adopting just don't qualify. It will be a young child without any money who wants a pet. Or a parent looking for a free horse for a child who doesn't know anything about horses. And then there was the fellow from Canada who wanted to adopt a horse to train him for chariot racing. He said that at least the horse wouldn't have any weight on his back."

Retired racehorses exist in a kind of twilight zone between the pressure-packed world of the track and the switched-off lifestyle of the pleasure horse. These old warriors, most of them cut loose by their last in a series of owners, have spent their lives tapping into the deepest instincts of speed, power and flight. Many of them have paid the price in fractured bones, ruptured tendons, and degenerated joints. Still, they are healthy enough to enjoy life as a pasture animal.

"Potential owners who do have the right kind of experience tend to want a sound horse for nothing, a horse they can go on to show or whatever," Berg noted. "So there are few and limited opportunities to adopt them out. It simply isn't that easy to place retired racehorses."

In choosing to honor Berg's work with retired Thoroughbreds, the Dogwood group is throwing a bright and welcome light on one of horse racing's dirty little secrets. For all the good work being done by , there is no institutionalized, industry-wide mandate for funding a national racehorse retirement program.

Each year, thousands of Thoroughbreds who have generated millions of dollars in parimutuel churn come to the end of their commercial value. The lucky ones are retained by enlightened, compassionate owners who feel responsible for ongoing care. The rest end up slaughtered, euthanized, abandoned, or misused.

Priscilla Clark is president of the retirement and rehabilitation facility for Thoroughbreds in Tehachapi, Calif. (this reporter is a member of the Tranquility board). Last week, Clark got a heads-up call from a Los Angeles County animal impound center, letting her know that they had received a horse with a lip tattoo. When she arrived with her trailer, she discovered a noble Thoroughbred among the cats and dogs (and one angry emu) who bore the signs of serious past racing injuries and needed immediate nourishment.

"It was apparent he was once a racehorse," Clark said. "He had that presence, that pride. The fire was still inside."

Clark was right. She had stumbled upon , a foal of 1991, who had run 43 times in Florida and the Midwest, winning six races (including the 1994 Lost Code Handicap at Sportsman's Park) and earning $117,749. Now, you can call him "Lucky."

"We've got about 70 old horses out here who can answer to that name," Clark said. "And a lot of them are here for good."

Berg will receive her award on Aug. 4 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. And even though she must take a couple of days off work, arrange care for her flock of 27 dependents, and pay her own way, Berg is grateful for the chance to represent the cause. There is also a generous $5,000 award from Dogwood that goes along with the honor.

"It's already spent on the horses," Berg said with a laugh. "But maybe I'll do a little something for myself. I could use a new pair of jeans."

::