Megan Gaynes noticed the horse when she pulled up to the auction in Mira Loma. He was standing in a pen, his head down, his right hind leg swollen.
Gaynes, who runs a horse-rescue organization, feared the gelding was in such bad shape that he might hurt himself further if ridden during the auction. So she went to the organizer of last month’s event and bought the horse for $300.
“It probably wasn’t worth that much, but it looked like it was suffering so much, I just wanted to get it out of there,” Gaynes said.
Gaynes thought he might have been injured during illegal rodeos where horses are intentionally tripped. She took him to a veterinary hospital, where doctors gave him painkillers and treated his legs.
When Gaynes went to visit the horse the next day, she sat in his stall and he put his head in her lap.
“He’s almost more like a dog than a horse,” she said. “You can tell he’s been loved.”
Gaynes took a photo of a tattoo on the animal’s upper lip and texted it to a friend, who used it to identify the horse.
His name was Return of the King.
A few days later, Gaynes realized she knew who his former owners were. Theirs was a story of terrible loss and now she had found that their prized thoroughbred, who had once stood in the winner’s circle at Santa Anita, was on the verge of death from overwork.
“Oh my God,” Gaynes said. “It’s that horse that belonged to that poor family.”
Return of the King was supposed to be a champion. He was born in spring 2002 with hopes he could compete for the Triple Crown.
It wasn’t clear what kind of racer the chestnut foal would be, said his breeder, James Keogh. But the horse liked being around humans and got upset when his schedule was disturbed. If his handlers were late for a training session, he would throw his feed around his paddock.
“It was clear that this guy had an awful lot of personality about him,” Keogh said.
The horse was sold that October for $50,000 to a group of racing aficionados from the New York area. One of his early fans was Tony Sirico, the actor who would go on to play “Paulie Walnuts” on the HBO series “The Sopranos.”
“He loved playing with the horse,” said Sirico’s manager, Bob McGowan.
But Return of the King didn’t live up to his bloodlines — “Unfortunately, he wasn’t that caliber of a horse,” Keogh said — and he was eventually sold several more times and never won more than $6,000 a year before 2006, according to the Daily Racing Form.
James Ortega thought the horse had potential. He had been a lifelong racing fan, often going to the track with his father, Joseph, and brother, Charles.
Joseph bought several thoroughbreds after he moved to Covina, where he lived with his wife, Alicia, and family. The father of five also opened a successful industrial paint company in Baldwin Park.
In the late 1990s, the Ortega men decided to sell their animals and take a break from the business.
“You need a little luck to stay in the game,” said James Ortega’s son, also named James.
But, after nearly a decade, Joseph suggested the family give racing another try. He was 78 by then and his family thought their patriarch deserved another shot, the younger James, 32, said.
He said his father, James, began spending hours at the computer, researching potential horses and filling a notebook with candidates. “I think I found one,” he told his son one day. “His name is Return of the King.”
The family bought the horse for $16,000 in October 2006.
For his first race, the whole family came to Hollywood Park to watch and stood against the rail. Return of the King, a 14-1 long shot, was in the middle of the pack for most of the race, but when the horses approached the last turn, the elder James said, “Here he comes, here comes the King.”
When Return of the King crossed the finish line first, the elder James said, “We’ve found our diamond in the rough.”
The horse had his most successful year in 2008, when he earned nearly $84,000, according to the Daily Racing Form. The Ortegas began going to the track more often.
“Looking back, those are moments I cherish,” James said. “It was my father who taught me how to read the racing form and it was something we could all talk about.”
On Christmas Eve of that year, much of the Ortega family gathered at Joseph’s home in Covina. Around 11:30 p.m., a man entered the house dressed as Santa Claus, and armed with four semiautomatic guns and an incendiary device. He killed nine people, including Joseph, Alicia, the elder James, his wife, Teresa, and Charles.
The killer, Bruce Pardo, was the former husband of the elder James’ sister Sylvia. He fled and later shot himself to death in Sylmar.
The younger James, who had left the party shortly before Pardo arrived, found himself in charge of the clan’s prize racehorse.
After looking over the books and talking with his sisters, Ortega decided it didn’t make financial sense to keep the thoroughbred.
“There was just no way we could do it with everything going on,” said Ortega, who was taking over his family’s painting supply business while also dealing with his grief.
Although James decided to sell Return of the King, he wanted to race the horse a few more times. The first race was at Santa Anita on Jan. 8, 2009, and James was too emotional to attend and decided to stay at work.
But his friends took him to the Pomona Fairplex, where they watched the race on television. Return of the King came from behind to win.
“It was like he knew, like he was doing it for my family,” James said.
When the horse was sold, Ortega wept. “It was a piece of my dad,” he said.
The remaining members of the Ortega family gather every Christmas Eve at an aunt’s house in Glendale.
“We continue to laugh and to smile. We promised each other we’d always stay together,” James said.
James said he thinks of his parents and other family members lost on that Christmas Eve often, but especially when he got married last year, and when his first son was recently born. “You never really get over it,” he said. “But you learn to deal.”
Over the years, James would occasionally wonder what happened to Return of the King, searching the Internet to see if he’d run in any races. But there was never any sign.
Then, last month, James got a phone call from an uncle who told him an animal rescue worker had bought the horse.
“My heart dropped a little,” James said.
Gaynes, who runs Auction Horses Rescue, said X-rays showed Return of the King had arthritis and an old fracture in one ankle.
“He can’t be ridden again,” she said.
Keogh, his old breeder, knew he had been owned by the Ortegas and worried about him after their deaths. Because Return of the King was a gelding, Keogh knew there was a higher chance he’d be mistreated because he couldn’t be bred. “It’s one of the dark sides of our industry,” he said.
So when Keogh heard Return of the King was alive, he volunteered to take him back so he can live the rest of his life on a pasture. Gaynes and others are raising money to send him back.
“I brought him into this world, and I feel like I’m still responsible for him,” Keogh said.
But before Return of the King returns to his birthplace, James said he’d like to see the animal one more time.
“He was our favorite,” he said. “He was part of our family.”