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Barbaro inspired fans to rescue Thoroughbreds

He was just another racehorse on his way to die.

The once-vibrant Thoroughbred had passed through the hands of a succession of people who didn't find him worthy of any more time or money. He'd landed at a livestock auction in Ohio notorious for shipping the injured and used-up to a Canadian slaughter plant.

The guy in charge of the auction gave the OK to the nice women who did some horse rescue work to wade into the pen and start "flipping lips." That's rescue lingo for identifying Thoroughbreds by lifting their upper lips and reading the Jockey Club number tattooed there.

And just like that, a little bit of leftover love changed another horse's life.

Kathy Beagle and her daughter, Rachel Paris, have always been horse lovers, but since the January 2007 death of Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, they had become politicized and educated by the deeply passionate Fans of Barbaro online community about saving the animal refuse of the racing industry.

Since then, they have snatched more than 100 horses out of the Sugarcreek Livestock Auction, usually buying one at a time.

As Fans of Barbaro searched for ways to make Barbaro's untimely death meaningful, the online community forum run by Alex Brown Racing evolved into the Internet's clearinghouse for equine rescue and anti-slaughter work. (Find the chat forum at Alexbrownracing.com; click on discuss, then go to FOB chat in the lower left corner.)

What the Fans of Barbaro community gave Beagle and Paris was support. It also gave them confidence and contacts. And it gave them access to money to buy horses.

They didn't start out as the kind of women you'd describe as "on a mission," but by the time they saw that particular horse in January 2010, things had taken on a "this was meant to be" feel.

As the mother and daughter stood inside the Sugarcreek pen, Paris looked at the bay gelding and saw something oddly familiar about the horse.

In a tent overfilled with listless and needy horses, horses that had not had the largesse and love that Barbaro had been gifted with, this skinny bay stood out.

To Beagle, it was his carefree, playful attitude. To Paris, it was something else altogether. It was the mark on his face. It was almost an exact replica of the one that had graced Barbaro's.

The younger woman flipped his lip and checked his tattoo. The rescue network went to work, typing numbers into a Jockey Club Web site set up for the purpose. Then he had a name: Short Squeeze.

And it didn't take the quick-fingered rescuers long to figure out that Short Squeeze had run in 41 races and earned $199,236 on the track.

The 11-year-old gelding had moved down the rungs of race tracks and purses, accumulating untold injuries along the way, so that his last race was a $5,000 claimer at Mountaineer in November 2009.

Beagle and Paris bought him back from the killer buyers for the relatively stiff price of $655.

It is a desperately short distance between the heralded horse with a statue at the entrance of Churchill Downs and the one that stood before Beagle and Paris that day.

Like the beloved Barbaro, Short Squeeze was a son of Dynaformer.

There was a way

This probably will be Barbaro's most enduring legacy: that he saved other animals. To date, according to Fans of Barbaro, the group has rescued 3,700 horses and raised more than $1.4 million to do so. There is no independent outside agency to verify those numbers, but no one within the horse rescue world refutes the group's power.

Dr. Dean Richardson, Barbaro's veterinarian from the day he was injured at the Preakness until his death, said, "I can't tell you how many people got involved in horse rescue who had never been involved before. I think they recognized the beauty and nobility of the horse and were trying to help."

Alex Brown, the former exercise rider, and originator and continuing administrator of the site, said the community made its own decision about where it would go after Barbaro's death. That the group is diverse — it still has its spiritual and fun sides — is obvious, he said, but "after Barbaro died, there was this raising of awareness of horse welfare issues for everyone everywhere, and we got to be the center of that."

Brown, who is on a book tour for his recently released Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy, said the group is more like a "tribe" that fronts many initiatives, all related to keeping a watchful eye on the horse sports they support.

Numerous new horse rescue operations have grown up in the past five years in multiple states — Nevada, Minnesota and North Carolina, to name a few — all products of those who first met on the Alex Brown Racing site.

And it's one-stop shopping, explained Bev Dee, who worked with the site in various ways to find Short Squeeze a home.

Dee, of Bright Futures horse rescue operation in Pennsylvania, was able to raise the money to help Beagle and Paris pay for Short Squeeze, who went first to a quarantine facility in Ohio and then to the Kentucky Horse Park.

In Lexington, veterinarians were able to diagnose and find Short Squeeze's serious track injuries, including pins in a hind leg that meant he could never be ridden again. Dee found "Shorty" a home as a "pasture pet" for Nicole Shaw of Johnstown, Pa.

Dee said the link to other horse fans on the Fans of Barbaro site was critical.

"I was a fan of Barbaro, but I've had a horse rescue since 2000," she said. "I wanted to work with other people who have the passion for Thoroughbreds that I do."

She found them.

Deb Jones, a horse rescuer who helped coordinate the saving of Short Squeeze and many others, said the sudden taking-up of the cause on the site has "got a little bit crazy over the years."

While Fans of Barbaro has ridden the grass-roots wave, the racing industry has rushed to catch up. As awareness of the problem of unwanted horses has grown nationally, racetracks have realized that race fans find ignoring the issue unacceptable.

Now there are after-care programs and retirement farms. Many mares become professional mamas; other horses go on to second careers as eventers, jumpers or trail ponies. But every year, 27,000 more Thoroughbred foals are born, and all stop racing, one way or the other.

Out in the desert

In December, another son of Dynaformer was found in the baking Arizona desert, dumped there apparently, too hurt, too lame and too malnourished to even qualify for state auction.

Judy Glore, who saved him, said he was "a day away from being shot and on the way to the tallow factory."

Eight times in 56 races, he stood in the winner's circle at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. But last Christmas, his feet were so abscessed, he couldn't stand.

Today, just four months after being put in Glore's care, Dyna King runs a little, and "he's not even limping." His prognosis, while limited, shows promise. Glore, the president of Heart of Tucson, a rescue facility in Arizona, credits Fans of Barbaro "with coming up all the time with the necessary money and information I need to do my job."

Their entrance into the rescue world has made a real difference, the longtime equine rescuer said. "Because they have a wide reach in the horse world, and that matters sometimes."

Glore said Fans of Barbaro has taught her how to look for other Thoroughbreds in the desert.

They are schooling the very experienced rescuer in even more intensive networking, outreach and what she says is really important to her when it comes to racehorses like Dyna King: that they come home to Kentucky, where they belong.

Going underground

Last year, Kathy Beagle bought so many horses at Sugarcreek that the state of Ohio told her to get a broker's license, just like the killer buyers. She hasn't been back this year. She's lost her heart for it — for having only $1,200 in cash and too many horses that need saving.

"It's OK for awhile, but then you start feeling bad for the ones left behind," she said. "And it just got too hard, in this economy, to find homes to place them."

Ironically, there might be fewer to place. That's because awareness of the lack of retirement or after-care options has been both good and bad for Thoroughbreds.

To receive National Thoroughbred Racing Association certification, tracks must have an affiliation with an after-care program. But there are few standards for what that really means and no system to ensure horses have a place to go. Often, horses are raced until they literally cannot run any more. If they are lucky, they stop racing before they break down.

But a horse that is "run into the ground" has little chance of a second career as a riding horse.

Most tracks will ban a trainer caught selling a horse directly off the track for slaughter. So now, instead of coming through a place such as Sugarcreek, Thoroughbreds are routed into a shady "underground" network of buyers who sell straight to the slaughter plant, rather than through auctions.

"It's a straight pipeline to slaughter," Beagle said. "It's kind of the downside of everybody trying to help them. We don't have the chance to save the ones that are dumped now."

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