07/29/2013 4:10PM

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.”