07/29/2013 3:10PM

Suffolk Downs puts priority on retirement security

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Chip Bott Photography
Convocation, a $340,000 yearling purchase, wound up being entered for a $4,000 claiming price.

EAST BOSTON, Mass. – When Suffolk Downs had a hand in the recent retirement of Convocation, a 7-year-old gelding once owned by Centennial Farms who had dropped to the bottom of the claiming ranks at the track offering the lowest purses on the East Coast, the horse got his happy ending. Although Convocation’s story is wonderful, it is nothing out of the ordinary at this track.

Not only is Suffolk a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety Alliance, but in 2008 it became the first track to implement a zero-tolerance policy toward any owner or trainer knowingly selling a horse for slaughter. One year later the track, in concert with principal owner Richard Fields and his Fields Family Foundation and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, established a home for deserving equine athletes no longer able to compete.

The horses are retired to the Plymouth County (Mass.) Sheriff’s Farm, where a program to successfully rehabilitate inmates as well as Thoroughbreds was initiated. In the four years since, 16 former racehorses from Suffolk Downs have been well cared for by 10 specially selected prisoners.

The Fields Family Foundation made an initial contribution to help set up the program and refit the farm at the prison so it was ready to accept and accommodate the horses. Suffolk also makes an annual contribution to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which supports the program.

“I’ve been at this farm for 27 years, and I definitely see a big difference with the inmates who care for these horses and are responsible for them, and I also see it with the horses,” said correctional officer John Maguire. “The horses and the inmates form a strong emotional bond, and it benefits both.”

One example is the Sonny’s the One, who is known as Sonny at the farm.

“When Sonny first came here, you couldn’t even touch him,” Maguire said. “He was very nervous, and he was nasty. Now look at him.”

Sonny puts his head down right on cue to allow a visitor to rub his nose and stroke his neck before taking a peppermint from an extended hand like a perfect gentleman. He began his career Aug. 20, 2007, in a maiden-claiming race at Saratoga, and started 62 other times, mostly for a progressively declining claiming price, at Belmont, Aqueduct, and then Suffolk before winning his ninth race running for the final time for $4,000 at Suffolk on Sept. 5, 2011.

Now 8, Sonny and St. Augustine, who is a son of 2001 Preakness and Belmont winner Point Given and was once trained by Nick Zito, are the farm favorites.

“Auggie and Sonny are awesome,” said one inmate, who was six weeks into a lengthy prison sentence. “I had never been around a horse before, and this is a wonderful and exciting new experience for me.

“The horses definitely have strong personalities, but they’re very responsive to love and kindness. I feel a strong sense of responsibility because they depend upon us for everything. When you’re responsible for their every need, your affection for them keeps growing. They are changing me for the better and making me a better person.”

Over the years, two of the horses in the program were transferred to other prison programs out of state for more extensive rehabilitation, and two other have been adopted and are enjoying second successful careers as trail riding horses. St. Augustine is suitable for adoption, but the other nine will live out the rest of their days at the farm.

It can be difficult to determine who is helping whom more.

“I can say that over the years we’ve had guys who have come from hard times and rough circumstances,” said Capt. Dan Callahan, the officer in charge of the program. “Some of these guys at the farm had never seen a lawnmower before, let alone a horse, and especially a Thoroughbred. Now they will sit out in the field with them and talk to them, because the horses never judge them. Some of the guys feel that no one has ever heard them before. They can be as personal as they want and the horses always listen to them.

“When they get here, the inmates feel they have to be tough all the time, but by caring for the horses, they learn to be gentle. Some of these guys had never helped anybody in their lives. Now that they are helping these animals, it is extremely rewarding for them.”

The program is working just as it was designed.

Michelle Jeffrey, Suffolk’s safety and Thoroughbred retirement coordinator, facilitates the process for owners and trainers wishing to retire a horse who has competed at the track. She assists by making sure that horsemen know about the program, are aware that they must complete an application and return it to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, and helps them fill it out and file it if need be. She also may initiate the conversation if she sees a horse who she thinks might be a good candidate. She can suggest to an owner or trainer they consider the option.

“Suffolk Downs is committed to the health and safety of our equine athletes not only while they are competing here, but also after they have retired from racing,” said Suffolk’s COO, Chip Tuttle. “Our partnership with the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Farm is a great example of our collective commitment to Thoroughbred retirement.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Centennial Farms principal Donald Little Jr. and two partners were in the final stages of executing the bill of sale for Convocation, a 7-year-old gelded son of Pulpit whom Centennial originally purchased for $340,000 at the 2008 Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale.

Convocation raced during his career for trainers Jimmy Jerkens, Todd Pletcher, David Jacobson, and David Cannizzo, and ran in the 2008 Grade 1 Woodward. Jacobson sent Convocation to trainer John Assimakopoulos at Suffolk earlier this year. Convocation worked once over the track and was entered for a bottom-level $4,000 claiming price July 14.

Suffolk’s vice president of racing, Sam Elliott, and Little took notice. Assimakopoulos was notified Centennial would retire the horse and all immediately agreed.

“I’ll probably pick him up at the track tomorrow,” Little said. “He’s going to a friend’s farm, which is beautiful, here on the North Shore. I know for sure that he’s going to be well loved and well cared for. My friend was actually going to go to Suffolk Downs to find a horse to adopt when this happened. She breeds and raises sport horses and he’s going to be retrained as a field hunter. My two partners and I are very happy this all worked out for the best.”

Susan Miller More than 1 year ago
when MIke Gill was sending his horses to the Killers because he got caught using who knows what on them & he had 40 head at Suffolk Downs, I got a horse named Famous Woman - she is just a wonderful mare - just wonderful - I thank Tammi Campbell all the time for the job that she did in saving Famous from the meat dealer - good for Suffolk Downs for placing horses that cannot race any longer - I just got another mare by Imperial Falcon - mare is blind in one eye and has repor problems - the previous owners gave her "hay" and she did not like it - Good job Suffolk!!!!
Frank Leverone More than 1 year ago
Ms. Snierson, thank you for writing this article about Suf. I think the track management does deserve alot of credit for doing their very best under extremely adverse business conditions. As your article stated, they have the lowest purse structure in the east, most of the horses are dumped there as a last resort and the plant is old, old, old. This mgmt. team still tries to do everything right. We have gone to Suffolk a couple of times this summer with my dad and had a good time. No you can not bet alot on their races but, it is still a good show; they have so many horses that can't compete elsewhere but they try their best to be humane (and human); the grandstand floor and steps are dangerous but the bathrooms were clean. They deserver a break. I hope they get the casino license and I hope the state puts the provision for using some of the casino profit to promote horse racing back in. I know Boston would support good racing ( hopefully a short meet) and I think Suffolk has earned a shot at success.
Louise Martin More than 1 year ago
Nice job Don, I would not expect any less. Dan Martin
Sherry Finn More than 1 year ago
I am soooo tired of these racetracks "committing" themselves to saving the race horses. I have race horses. I raced at Suffolk for years and years. I also took care of my horses and loved every one of them. I found homes for them when they were done racing. We had to be very careful that the people we gave them to would not send them to the killers. People come into the track and look for horses they can buy cheap or get for free and give you a story of how they will give the horse a great home and them take it to the killers. Who can you trust? Then there are the racetracks. They have a write up in a national publication of how they "saved" a horse. A horse. A horse that sold for big money as a baby or was at a big track and now is reduced to running for bottom dollar. It makes them look good. They "care" for the horse. That also applies to the retirement foundations. Well let me tell you I tried to retire a horse to a retirement home back in the mid 90's and I filled out an application they reviewed it. Refused. He wasn't good enough. He hadn't made enough money (About $60,000).This horse had given his all, he had an injury that was almost healed and he was not a good candidate for a riding horse because of his nature but he would have made a great companion horse. He would have been a good candidate for a prison program. Instead I had to end his life. Even though it's been almost 20 years, it's hard for me to read these articles. Remember, there are thousands of horse going to be looking for homes and you only read about the few "rich" ones that end up at the bottom and are saved by the track so they can get a good write up.
James Madden More than 1 year ago
Im sure if you really loved that horse with some effort on your part you wouldn't have put him down!!!
Rachel Harding More than 1 year ago
gunna have to second this, this isnt the only retirement program out there...
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
There's always one... why is it always YOU?
Justin Stygles More than 1 year ago
Suffolk is also very supportive of working with interested folks (Horse owners from other fields) in adopting low-level claimers for new careers in other disciplines. There are very bright sides to Suffolk Downs. Convocation should have been retired before landing in a clm4000n1y. That is not Suffolk Downs fault. They did the right thing.
Vincent Spathanas More than 1 year ago
I could not agree with you more Justin.
Wabstat More than 1 year ago
If horse racing doesn't get this right, making sure the horses are not abused on track and given a decent retirement, it will continue to die a slow death. Number one issue.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately, Suffolk is the place where these type of horses end up. Shouldn't blame be placed on some of the originators? Tracks like Belmont, Saratoga, etc. And trainers like Pletcher, Zito, etc. These are the entities & people who profit greatly from horses and they dispose of them so quickly when they cannot cut in their barns. They are at fault. I just read about Marylou Whitney putting in a clause on sales of her horses, where owners can contact her when they want to retire horses bred by her, she will take them back. Good work Marylou.
John Flynn More than 1 year ago
This is Very Misleading. Suffolk Downs has always been the Home of Crippled Horses. The purse structure - dictates. I am very happy for Convocation. Wasn't Convocation involved in the Spill with Dominguez?
martymar . More than 1 year ago
how is that misleading when they are trying to catch the at risk horse and removed them before a fatality occurs, maybe an improve comprehension might help you understand the article. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/24/us/for-horse-and-jockey-risks-vary.html it's an old article so data is not up to date but they have a low break down rate compare to some of the bigger track, lower purse doesn't have direct correlation to more break downs.
Matthew More than 1 year ago
Most times low purses= slow horses
martymar . More than 1 year ago
what the heck, why can't all the track implement this type of changes to their track instead of greediness and mostly little regards for the equine athlete. I personally avoid betting on tracks with high break down rate and knowing that suffolk downs actually taken initiative and look out for high risk horses. I will consider placing a wager on that track.
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
Stupid, then you will be betting on a track where the calk wins 50% of the time. And just love those 6 and 5 horse fields.
Stephen Stankiewicz More than 1 year ago
This is exactly what every race track in America should and I repeat should be doing! Why we do not make this happen all across America I will never know!
Matthew More than 1 year ago
Greed