10/13/2009 11:00PM

Sad story manages a happy ending


Those lucky enough to be at Longchamp on the afternoon of Oct. 4 were able to witness the final, glorious competitive appearance of Europe's most celebrated racehorse, Sea the Stars, as he galloped into retirement by winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Ribot, Sea-Bird, Allez France . . . move over.

Sea the Stars, presumably sound as a euro, trots off to stud now with the fanfare attendant to the coronation of a king, ready to spawn a robust new line of Thoroughbred. In an attempt to anticipate the economic impact of Sea the Stars at stud, bookmaker William Hill was offering 6-4 that his fee would end up in the $133,000 to $163,000 range. Greg Wood of The Guardian was quick to put this into perspective, suggesting that Sea the Stars would be earning more per week than Real Madrid's Critiano Ronaldo, the world's highest paid soccer player.

The story of Sea the Stars is more the stuff of fairy tales and fantasies than horse racing as the rest of us know it. Fans who spent the evening after the Arc at Remington Park, in Oklahoma City, were treated to the more subdued farewell of Watchem Smokey, who finished third while running for a $4,000 claiming tag and then had to be vanned off with damaged ligaments.

Smokey began his career with Cecil Borel, Calvin's brother, down Louisiana way, and won his first six starts. That was enough for Bobby Frankel, who bought him for client Edmund Gann and got a quick return. California fans will recall Watchem Smokey rolling past Our First Recruit to take the Vernon O. Underwood Handicap at Hollywood Park in November 2003. Julie Krone, the lady of this house, was aboard.

The win put Watchem Smokey among the West's best young sprinters at the time, but the following March he went down in the Potrero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita when unable to avoid another fallen horse. Six months later, Frankel brought Smokey back to the races with a win in New York, but he was never the same. Eventually, Gann lost Smokey in a $100,000 claiming event at Keeneland. That was April 2005.

Watchem Smokey ended up back in Louisiana and did just fine. He won handful of stakes and allowance races before descending, almost inevitably, into the claiming world. He had not won a race since January 2008, and was spending most of his time in the $25,000 range, but as recently as Aug. 30 he tried a stakes event restricted to Oklahoma-breds at Remington Park, running for the Steve Asmussen stable. Five weeks later - after 13 wins from 49 starts and earnings of more than $500,000 - Watchem Smokey was dropped into that $4,000 claimer. Blown ligaments and all, he was still beaten only a length.

He was also claimed, by owner Kelly Benjamin, who was advised that euthanasia was her best alternative. In the words of Robin Brookins, of the Oklahoma Thoroughbred Retirement Program, "They had the pink juice ready."

Instead, Benjamin reached out to Remington Park stakes coordinator Royce Clay, who has been working with Brookins to make the OTRP a viable alternative to slaughter sales and euthanasia for Oklahoma's racing industry.

"It's a well-known fact around the track that Royce is a sucker for horses like this," Clay said with a laugh. "But he's 9 years old. He doesn't need to race again, and he deserves a good retirement. He's just a classy old gentleman."

The Oklahoma Thoroughbred Retirement Program is one of those privately funded regional groups with a long, official sounding name that is basically operated by a small group of selfless individuals with access to just enough land and barely enough money to provide sanctuary for a handful of retired racetrack warriors.

"We're brand new, only in our second full year of operation," Brookins said. "We rehab the horses ourselves, then take them out to satellite farms, who get paid a per diem for their care. Most of our retirees are at Circle E Farm near Stroud, owned by Bill and Gail England. They do a fantastic job with the horses."

Once Clay has nursed Watchem Smokey through his latest trauma, he likely will join a small herd of fellow Sooners at Circle E who go by names like That Tat, The Niner Account, Bullion, Master of the Sea, and Thirteen Colonies, all honest old racehorses who must be counted among the lucky. Oklahoma breeds fewer than a thousand Thoroughbreds each year - 805 were registered with the Jockey Club from 2007 - but from time to time a champion does emerge. The all-time list is led by Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, Horse of the Year Lady's Secret, and Breeders' Cup winner Kip DeVille.

In his own way, Watchem Smokey was performing in their spirit, but the reality of hard competition, physical infirmities, and ruthless economics intervened. In the end, the fact that Clay, Brookins, and their supporters were at the right place at the right time only makes Smokey the exception to the practice of use and disposal that gives Thoroughbred racing its darkest tales.

The lip service paid to the plight of retired racehorses will only grow in frustrating intensity as racetracks, ownership groups, and state breeding programs plead poverty during these uncertain times. It is a fact that horses, though they may cost less to purchase, are still expensive to maintain, and those who can't earn their way will face increasingly sorry fates. People like Brookins and Clay, women of limited means, carry more than their share of the burden.

"We have to beg and grovel, and a lot comes out of Robin's and my pockets," Clay said. "But somebody's got to do it. And a horse like Smokey is always a bright spot in my day."