07/26/2012 12:11PM

Retired racehorses: One fan does her part to find mare a home

Barbara D. Livingston
Heidi Carpenter purchased Oil Money's Dream on June 14, two days after the mare finished worse than fourth for the eighth straight race, which by Mountaineer rule meant she had to leave the track within 48 hours.

At 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 14, Heidi Carpenter dragged herself out of bed and into her car in the Chicago suburb of Lisle.

She drove 150 miles south to Urbana, where she met up with Lori Cooper, the pair piling into Cooper’s truck, horse trailer attached. They drove east on the interstate for hours, crossing from Ohio into West Virginia, then twisting along the Ohio River on a narrow two-lane road until they reached Mountaineer Racetrack. The backstretch was deserted on a day with no racing. The only person about was a trainer named Jackie Erler, acting as liaison between Carpenter and the owner-trainer Bart Baird. Erler presented Carpenter a bill of sale: $1,000 to acquire Oil Money’s Dream, a 9-year-old bottom-level claimer. Carpenter signed and paid, and the three women went into Baird’s barn, found a chestnut mare with a long white blaze and gentle eye, and led her back out into the sunshine.

Carpenter, who lost 95 percent of her hearing when she was 3, recalled the moment in writing.

“Lori’s trailer was parked close to the first turn of the track and the mare trotted a couple steps when she saw the track,” Carpenter wrote, “but I told her she wasn’t going to get on another racetrack.”

Horse racing is business as much as sport, but Carpenter had just become Oil Money’s Dream’s owner with no hope of return on investment, buying the mare to take her off the track and find her a home. For weeks she had worked at arranging the deal. For years, since her husband, Shannon, chanced upon Oil Money’s Dream in a race at Arlington Park, Carpenter had followed the downward spiral of the mare’s career. That career was coming to an end this summer. It was close to ending badly.

Slaughterhouses in the United States haven’t accepted horses since 2007, but every year, thousands of ex-racers wind up at abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. North American Thoroughbred foal crops have declined for half a decade, but the 2012 crop still is expected to comprise nearly 25,000 registered foals. Twenty-five thousand foals a year, the average equine lifespan about 25 years: Do the math, and the problem comes into focus. What is to be done with all these horses floating about the land? It’s a question asked more frequently than ever, but with no easy answer.

“Awareness has grown so much in the last five years,” said Diana Pikulski, director of external affairs for the New York- and Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

The TRF is among the most prominent U.S. organizations dedicated, in the words of the group, to the “rescue, retirement, rehabilitation, and retraining of Thoroughbred racehorses no longer able to compete on the track.” But horse “rescue” organizations have sprung up around virtually every racing jurisdiction. Volunteers for local and regional groups stake out auctions through which off-the-track Thoroughbreds pass, looking for horses marked for slaughter. Trainers and owners, Pikulski said, are making a greater effort to place horses in post-racing homes before a situation becomes dire.

“The most common [adoption] scenario now is that somebody doesn’t want to race a horse anymore, so they’ll contact someone at a track, and they’ll be told to apply to go to this facility or that facility,” she said. “There’s some effort made on behalf of the horse at the racetrack. There’s so much talk now. That’s good, but nobody wants to actually jump in and start the process.”

That’s where Heidi Carpenter came in: She jumped. She and her husband don’t have the resources to aid 100 or 50 or even five horses in trouble. But Carpenter decided to try to help one.

“Crossing state lines, talking to people you don’t know, driving all that way without knowing the horse’s condition – she could’ve had horrible legs, a terrible attitude, and Heidi still did it all, unknowing,” said Christine Olsen, who runs a training and re-homing stable called Teener Thoroughbreds and who currently is caring for and riding Oil Money’s Dream at a farm in Woodstock, Ill.

Pikulski said she thinks about the thousands of horses who pass through the TRF, wondering what they’ve been through. “For every one of them I think, ‘If you could talk, you could tell me some unique story of how you got to be here,’ ” she said.

Oil Money’s Dream’s story hangs on the thinnest thread − an obscure sire named Hot Oil.

Hot Oil fathered Oil Money, the dam of Oil Money’s Dream, and also sired a 21-year-old Thoroughbred known as Amanda Bry during her racing days and now called Limerick by Heidi Carpenter, who has owned and ridden her for years.

Shannon Carpenter went to Arlington Park on May 7, 2009, the day Oil Money’s Dream ran the race of her life, winning an Illinois-bred second-level sprint allowance. Carpenter cashed at odds of 10-1, bringing home news of the Hot Oil connection.

“You almost never see that name in a pedigree,” Carpenter said. “That just jumped out at me.”

Heidi Carpenter, 31, loves racing. She’s watched every Kentucky Derby since 1991 and hooked Shannon on racing and betting. But their relation to the sport goes no deeper than fandom and the occasional gamble. The couple lives modestly in Lisle. Heidi writes laboratory reports. Shannon, 36, works at rail yards in Joliet.

“My mom and my aunt are lifelong horse lovers, and I guess it rubbed off on me,” Carpenter wrote of her equine interest. “When I lost my hearing it affected my inner-ear balance, so my mom enrolled me in horseback riding lessons when I was 6. I have never stopped riding since.”

The Carpenters added Oil Money’s Dream’s name to their virtual stable after Shannon saw her race, keeping track of every start. Oil Money’s Dream came close a couple of times thereafter, and she tried hard, but she went on a long losing streak, dropping 20 races in a row following the sharp Arlington win. The mare passed from trainer Owen Rainwater to his son, Brad, after Owen died early in 2011, and Brad said he was trimming cheaper horses from his stable at Ellis Park late last summer when he sold Oil Money’s Dream to Baird at Mountaineer.

“She disappeared last winter, and to be honest I worried about her,” Carpenter wrote. “But then she popped up on the work tab in February, and not long after that began racing in $5,000 claimers. It was very clear that she wasn’t the same horse anymore. She still gave her all but was clearly tired. In April, I had enough of sitting around, doing nothing, so I decided to see if I could buy her and retire her. Since I couldn’t pull the money for this task out of thin air, I worked hard to fund-raise by selling jewelry I make as a hobby. It was a whirlwind few weeks.”

Shannon Carpenter contributed: On May 13, he had a good day betting, turning $20 worth of wagers at Belmont and Woodbine into more than $350.

LIFETIME PPs: Oil Money's Dream's career performances (PDF) 

Meanwhile, Oil Money’s Dream was running out of options. Mountaineer has a rule that any horse stabled there who finishes worse than fourth eight times in a row racing for a claiming price of $5,000 or less must depart the grounds within 48 hours. The track also has an anti-slaughter policy, but a rule pushing non-competitive horses out of such a low-level venue would seem to put the animals at greater risk.

With Shannon Carpenter making phone calls on his wife’s behalf, a tentative purchase price was set. Erler told the Carpenters that Oil Money’s Dream might be bought for somewhere between $300 and $1,000. But Baird wasn’t ready to sell. A fourth-place finish would keep her toiling at Mountaineer. There was also the chance she’d be sold to a trainer at Thistledown, in Ohio.

On June 12, Oil Money’s Dream raced in her usual slot, a $5,000 nonwinners-of-two-for-the-year sprint claimer. At 45-1 she showed moderate brief speed and faded on the turn, her sixth-place finish earning her a ticket out of Mountaineer, one way or another. Heidi Carpenter got word: Come and get the horse.

Lori Cooper, the woman who drove Carpenter to Mountaineer, had never dealt with a horse coming directly off the racetrack.

“I was ready for a horse that was mean, nasty, and who knew what it looked like,” Cooper said. “But this horse was such a peach. Every gas station we stopped at on the way home she’d stick her head out of the trailer, and of course people want to see horses. I let them come over and pet her. She was friendly and inquisitive from the very beginning.”

Olsen, the trainer now caring for Oil Money’s Dream, had been in regular contact with the Carpenters throughout their effort to retire the mare, and she had agreed to take on Oil Money’s Dream if Carpenter could pry her from the track. The idea was for Olsen to help ease the mare’s transition from racing, to teach her to relax and be a regular horse again, and to see how difficult it might be to make a pleasure horse out of her. That turned out to be no trouble at all. Oil Money’s Dream, now called Dara, is docile enough to be held and grazed by a child. A novice could ride her without fear.

“Usually, a horse comes off the track, they think they’ve entered a whole new world when they come to the farm,” Olsen said. “What’s turnout? Why are there other horses next to me? They have no idea what an arena is. But after just one day spent with her, the first thing I told Heidi is that she’s going to be a very special horse for someone.”

The Carpenters can’t afford to keep another horse, and Olsen’s stable is just a stopover. Getting racehorses who have no more to give off the track is only the first part of an evolving equation. Finding humans who can provide permanent homes is the second. But this is one lucky horse. On July 19, a family with three girls visited Dara at the farm and fell quickly in love. Adoption papers were to be inked this week. Oil Money’s Dream has crossed the finish.