GREENFIELD CENTER -- For the uninitiated, it seemed like an absurdly small amount of feed for a big horse.
It was Kim Weir's turn to look after the four horses' meal, and she carefully measured scoops into a tub. Trouble was, although these animals had been neglected and starving for months, with an "over-the-top" parasite count in their guts stealing nutrients, dietary recovery wasn't going to happen overnight simply by foisting large quantities of food on the horses. In fact, that would have been dangerous.
It was March, there was snow on the muddy ground at the farm on Route 29 between Saratoga Springs and Schuylerville, and the rescue horses, hundreds of pounds underweight, had been there for only a few days, distended, ribby bellies and a shaggy, unkempt, patchy drabness to their coats revealing their condition.
We have the luxury to fast forward in stories, but there was nothing fast about this one. There was, fortunately, a forward.
And the thoroughbreds Uptown Joe, Supurb Suprize, Candyman E and Call the Iceman, all former racehorses, are ready for their closeup.
They'll serve as this year's crew of "Herd Ambassadors" during the four Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Open Barn events, starting 5-8 p.m. Monday on the polo grounds at Bloomfield Farm a few miles north of downtown Saratoga Springs.
On Friday morning, Danielle Beinars of Foxborough, Massachusetts, a member of the Cazenovia College equestrian team who is working as a TRF summer intern, brought Call the Iceman, an 8-year-old bay gelding, and Supurb Suprize, a 13-year-old bay mare, out of the barn and into a hilly paddock for some outdoor time.
Iceman was purchased for $20,000 at auction as a yearling in 2012, but yielded just $690 in purse earnings in two career starts, both at Finger Lakes, and Suprize was winless in five races at Finger Lakes. So neither was much of a runner, but both are lookers, certainly for the purpose of the TRF Open Barns, and especially now that they're well on the road to good health.
That's reflected in their shimmering coats out in the sunshine, and what Beinars describes as Iceman's "hay belly." "I swear, he's put on 40 pounds just in the last few days," she said with a chuckle. So they'll be the face of the TRF on Monday, when the public is invited to visit the horses and get an idea of what the organization and the complicated and challenging issue of racehorse retirement, aftercare and -- sometimes -- rescue is all about.
The TRF began the popular Open Barn last summer during the Saratoga Race Course meet with five horses temporarily relocated from its vocational program at Wallkill Correctional Facility. This time, the stars of the show are part of a group of about 40 neglected horses who were collaboratively rescued from a farm in New York state by the TRF; ReRun: Thoroughbred Adoption; Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue; Equine Rescue of Aiken; and the Thoroughbred Charities of America.
"This is a totally different story [from the Wallkill horses]; this is definitely what we do," Weir said. "This is rescue. So when they came to us, they weren't coming off the track, they weren't coming from the career that didn't work out for them, they were coming from starving for six months. And it was neglect.
"It's pretty miraculous. It just shows how they respond to care. And I've always said this -- not to sound cheesy -- but from the minute they arrived back in March, their eyes changed immediately. Maybe they just trusted us, that we weren't working with horses that were afraid of us. They seemed to believe in us. Having Danielle has been the magic ingredient, but these horses have actually wanted to get better."
The Saratoga Springs-based TRF, which was founded in 1983 and has a herd of 650 retirees at locations throughout the country, has benefitted from pro bono medical work from the Equine Clinic at Oakencroft and veterinarian Dr. Suzanne Jaynes, who is using the Herd Ambassadors as test subjects for veterinary interns to get hands-on instruction.
Beinars, who has trained the four horses in a variety of ways, including "ground-tying," whereby they'll remain stationary in certain spots with a lead rope dangling loose on the ground, was hired by the TRF's program development manager Chelsea O'Reilly.
"I first saw them when I interviewed at the farm in April, and, I mean, they were pretty atrocious," Beinars said. "Joey still had lice. They were all super-underweight. I couldn't recognize any of them from then to mid-May. They were all just bland figures out trying to eat. Now, nobody would look at them and think that they're unhealthy horses. They all have shiny coats. You can see a few ribs, but they're thoroughbreds; they're lean animals."
The TRF is devoted to providing a home to as many retired racehorses as it can handle, and they'll adopt them out under the proper circumstances.
In fact, four of the five Herd Ambassadors last summer found new homes, and Weir is optimistic that all four of this year's horses have a good chance at that future, even though they have various degrees of ride-ability based on lingering physical problems.
Uptown Joe, for example, has a chronically dislocated pastern joint, but would make a good support/therapy horse (for humans or horses), since "he is the most mellow of all of them," Beinars said. "You could probably set him loose, and he wouldn't go anywhere. So he's just chill."
Candyman E, meanwhile, still has pretty good spring in his step despite injuries.
The 12-year-old chestnut gelding with the perfect white diamond on his forehead actually had a distinguished racing career, winning 10 of 34 lifetime starts for purses of almost $600,000, including the 2014 Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct. He raced twice at Saratoga, finishing second in the 2013 Kid Russell Stakes.
"He is perfectly sound at the moment, but he has two screws in each of his front fetlocks from fractures, which sounds kind of like a death sentence for a horse, but the type of fracture that he has actually is fairly common, and he'll heal fairly well," Beinars said. "He's sound, healthy and happy with no deformities and has a pretty calm temperament.
"I think he would make the perfect walk-trot lesson pony, because he just pokes his nose out and trots around, and he's so adorable."
For now, though, the TRF, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization that relies entirely on public money donations, just wants to show off a small portion of its herd to illustrate its mission and generate more support.
After this Monday, Open Barns will be held from 5-8 on July 29, Aug. 12 and Aug. 26. Because Bloomfield Farm is a private facility, it's off-limits to the public outside of the Open Barn hours.
The TRF will keep two horses in the barn and bring two others outside for groundwork demonstrations during the events.
On Friday morning, Beinars, who has been in the saddle on all four to gauge their potential in that department, brought Candyman E out to show his ground-tying expertise, and Supurb Suprize and Call the Iceman were coaxed up a hill in the paddock.
"So much grooming," she said. "The first three weeks, I think all I did was groom them."
"Compared to last summer, their adoptability is 100 percent better even though they came in 100 percent worse," Weir said. "It's so exciting to have them as our ambassadors. In this case, it's a very vivid story of rescue, but now it's much more than a story of rescue, it's about how they can go on to their next career."