When John Henry was retired in 1985, there were people lined up at owner Sam Rubin’s door with offers of a home for the old gelding.
Joe Taub, Rubin’s friend, said the two-time Horse of the Year would be welcome at his farm in New Jersey. Hollywood Park and Santa Anita both inquired about making a place for John Henry.
John Henry finally was sent to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., a financially strapped tourist facility that needed drawing attractions. After an ill-advised attempt to revive his racing career ended in August 1986, John Henry, now 12, is back in Kentucky with Forego, a three-time Horse of the Year, and a few other notable horses.
But for every John Henry, there are hundreds of horses like Perry Cabin, a 10-year-old gelding who was better bred than John Henry and ran in more races.
Perry Cabin, a son of Arts and Letters, the 1969 Horse of the Year, ran 111 times, won 18 races and earned almost $350,000. For most of his career, Perry Cabin was what John Henry resembled as a young thoroughbred--a horse who could run in the claiming ranks and earn his owner an occasional paycheck.
John Henry went on to win million-dollar races. The pinnacle of Perry Cabin’s career was a $21,000 victory at the Los Angeles County Fair one summer. Last year, Perry Cabin’s ankles would take no more of the pounding and he had developed arthritis as well.
Now Perry Cabin lives with nine other geldings on a six-acre farm owned by Dick and Jane Harris in Temecula.
Three of the horses have only one eye each. Another is a 14-year-old pony named Cody, who has spent most of his life on the track, escorting horses to the post, but who now serves as sort of an equine sergeant-at-arms. Cody makes sure that Goldy’s Commander doesn’t make a daily snack out of One Eyed Romeo, a pussycat who needs help defending himself.
If Grace Belcuore has her way, this motley menagerie will grow.
Belcuore, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher, drives the round-trip 220 miles to Temecula once a week, showing up at the Harris farm with two plastic bags of the biggest carrots you ever saw. Not big enough to choke a horse, though, because they don’t last long. Even with only half of their vision, One Eyed Romeo, Perry Cabin and Rough Rider can see her coming. So can the others.
Earlier this year, Belcuore founded the California Equine Retirement Foundation (CERF), a nonprofit group whose only purpose is to prevent old, retired geldings from reaching inhumane ends.
Without corporate help, Belcuore has come far in just a few months. The Harrises have donated half of their land as a home for the horses, although this location could be short term, since the farm is for sale.
A 20-acre ranch being built by Jim and Kathy Hoffman in Moorpark, Calif., will also be used for the geldings, and Don Mead, a developer who is building a 2,000-acre training center in the Santa Ynez Valley, has allocated 100 acres to CERF.
Right now, CERF could be considered land-rich and coffer-poor. Belcuore has never owned a horse, having come to racing about 15 years ago as a racegoer, so there are no automatic answers to her knocks on the door. She has, however, rounded up several dozen volunteers, and Mary English, who works for Western Saddlery, is CERF’s liaison with horsemen on the backstretches at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
Belcuore got the idea for CERF when John Henry was pulled out of retirement. She talked with Greg Ferraro, a veterinarian; then Ron McAnally, John Henry’s trainer, allowed Belcuore to spend about six months at his barn, to learn the inner workings of the horse business.
“The questions I had were about what happens to these geldings when they can’t run anymore,” Belcuore said. “They don’t deserve to be forgotten. Locally, many of these horses had the popularity of a John Henry. There’s a real need here to take care of them after their racing days are over.”
Belcuore got started with a 6,000-name mailing list that was supplied by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Assn. The Harrises read about CERF in Southern California Land, a magazine, and the first horse accepted was Pecos Pippin, who was owned by Greer Garson and her husband, Buddy Fogelson. Pecos Pippin, who has the same parents as the stakes-winning Truce Maker, never made it to the races because of injury and he was gelded before CERF took him.
Others that have followed Pecos Pippin here include Menswear, who won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park; Rough Rider, who won 7 of 8 races in 1982; and Coyotero, who began winning minor stakes races when he was a 7-year-old and won the Albany Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. The entire group earned an estimated $2 million on the track.
The other day here, Belcuore and Jane Harris talked about insurance rates, which are doubling. It costs more than $1,000 a year just to minimally feed a horse. And although some veterinarians have donated their services, there are eventually bound to be bills, because these are old horses, probably older than their years.
Rough Rider, who lost his eye when he was accidentally struck by a whip, was in training until he tore the skin on his leg from the knee to the ankle. Menswear has bad legs, a plate in his knee and has suffered from pneumonia.
Belcuore estimates that the Santa Ynez tract has the potential to accommodate 80 horses. Developing the property will cost $270,000 and such a population would easily drive CERF’s needs to more than $100,000 a year.
The money now in CERF’s till has been arriving in trickles. Lisa Blackburn, a 14-year-old girl who especially likes One Eyed Romeo, has been saving her baby-sitting money and sending in a few dollars.
Belcuore is developing an honorary “adoption” system, with donors receiving a certificate and a racing picture of the horse if they specify him by name.
Belcuore, is planning a fund-raising casino night at the Pasadena Hilton Nov. 8. There will be an auction that includes riding boots from Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay, whips used by Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens, an autographed photo of Eddie Delahoussaye with Kentucky Derby winners Gato Del Sol and Sunny’s Halo--and even a dinner date with jockey Corey Black.
Another horse that Belcuore is trying to add to her band in Temecula is Item Two. The 9-year-old gelding won 23 races but his 78th start was his last when he broke down at Fairplex Park last month. In Bradbury, veterinarian Skip Parks is trying to nurse Item Two back to health, but the horse’s condition has been guarded.
On the track, Item Two really made the rounds. He was claimed three times just this year, the price dropping from $20,000 to $3,000. The day he was injured, he was running for $6,250. Time made him a cheap horse, but one that’s earned a happy retirement if he lives to get the chance.