Updated on 09/16/2011 9:25AM

Tragedy's pastoral last act


WASHINGTON - The popular racehorse Tragedy seemed indestructible when he competed at mid-Atlantic tracks for the better part of a decade. But no horse can withstand the stress of the sport forever, and Tragedy's career came to an anticlimactic end on a recent morning at Penn National Race Course.

A gelding, Tragedy had been training to make a comeback from a tendon injury, and had just completed his last serious workout before he was scheduled to race. But when Tragedy returned to his barn, trainer John Zimmerman saw that the old, troublesome tendon was so badly inflamed that no comeback would be possible. After making 96 starts, winning 28 races, finishing in the money 65 times and earning the respect of every trainer who had been associated with him, Tragedy was finished at the age of 11.

He had earned a comfortable retirement, but battle-scarred old Thoroughbreds don't always get what they deserve. When I wrote about Tragedy two years ago, his trainer at the time was Robert Siravo, who explained the harsh realities of the business. "I've never sent a horse to the killers," Siravo said. "But there are some trainers who just look at the bottom line and treat animals like inventory on a shelf. It depends who ends up with them last."

In the wrong hands, a horse like Tragedy could be sent to the notorious horse auction in New Holland, Pa., sold for a few hundred dollars, killed and shipped to a country where horse meat winds up on the dinner table. But largely because of trainer Robert Seeger, with whom he had his greatest success, Tragedy's story will have a happy ending.

Tragedy started racing in 1993, and he was an undistinguished $10,000 claimer when Seeger acquired him in late 1995. Seeger discovered that the gelding had been miscast by running in sprints. He was more effective running at longer distances; he loved to go to the front and try to lead all the way. When challenged, Tragedy would fight back with determination.

He had another special talent, too; he relished running in the mud, and seemed to glide over sloppy tracks. Tragedy became the scourge of Philadelphia Park. There, among his many successes, he won a two-mile race and set a track record that still stands.

The life of a productive claiming horse is necessarily itinerant, and Tragedy couldn't stay with Seeger forever. Another trainer claimed him for $50,000 in 1997; Seeger took him back for $14,000 the next year and lost him again a year later. As Tragedy grew older and developed his tendon problems, he descended into bottom-level claiming competition; the nation's top race-winning trainer, Scott Lake, bought him for $5,000 in 2001 and ran him once at Laurel Park, where Tragedy tore his tendon. Lake thought he could be rehabilitated one more time, and the horse's owner decided to send him to Penn National, where Zimmerman became the 14th person to train Tragedy.

For six months, Zimmerman worked with the gelding, and developed great respect for him. "He carried himself with class. He had a lot of spirit," the trainer said. "He was training fantastic - but the old wheels wouldn't let him go on. He deserved to be retired; he'd been good to everyone who had him."

Zimmerman told Lake what had happened, and Lake's stable contacted Lisa McKee, the Philly Park representative of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), which has created a system to keep Thoroughbreds from being sent to the killers. When a racehorse can't compete any more, the owner can donate him to the TRF (getting a tax deduction); the TRF will attempt to rehabilitate the animal so he can be adopted as a pet or a riding horse. In any event, the organization will find a place for the horse to retire at one of its five farms. But in the case of Tragedy, there was no need to search for someone to adopt him. McKee immediately called Seeger.

"I've been trying for the last couple years to get the horse back," Seeger said, and he was thrilled at the prospect of being reunited with his old pal. A little over two weeks ago, Tragedy returned to Seeger's barn at Philadelphia Park.

"I put him back in his old stall," the trainer said. "We've been working on his legs, and he's jogging around the barn like he's going to run tomorrow." Soon Seeger will send Tragedy to his farm in Ocala, Fla., where some of his other former campaigners are spending their golden years.

"When I go to Florida, I can see all those old horses," he said, "and it's a joy."

In a tough business where dollars-and-cents considerations usually take precedence over sentiment, it is rare to hear a trainer cite "joy" as a basis for his actions. Tragedy was lucky to have had such a trainer, and now he can look forward to a joyful retirement.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post