For a five-week stretch starting in early May, the Greater Boston horse-racing community was captivated by Wicked Strong as he and owner Donald Little Jr. took aim at the Triple Crown.
The pride of Beverly-based Centennial Farms finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and then tied for fourth in the Belmont Stakes. On July 26, Wicked Strong broke the million-dollar mark in winnings with his victory at the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in New York. He now is prepping for the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 23 at Saratoga.
But for every success story like Wicked Strong, there are thousands of Thoroughbreds that are too slow to earn their keep. Along with other breeds that are abandoned by their owners, some former racehorses end up at Nevins Farm, a Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals facility in Methuen.
“Nevins Farm takes unwanted horses and cares for them, and that’s almost unheard of,” said Boston Bruins principal Charlie Jacobs, a Weston resident who will compete in the Grand Prix event at the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament, now underway through Sunday at Fieldstone Show Park in Halifax.
“That just doesn’t happen in many places in this country, really,” said Jacobs. “There are a lot of postings’’ seeking placements, he said, “but many horses that are unwanted end up in kill shelters or sent over the border for harvest. As a horseman, I hate to see that happen. It’s a tragedy. It breaks my heart to even think about it.”
Sunday’s $75,000 Grand Prix — which has attracted a field that includes US Olympians Margie Goldstein Engle, Peter Leone, Peter Wylde, Norman Dello Joio, and Leslie Howard — also will shine a spotlight on the MSPCA’s work at Nevins Farm.
The Adopt a Champion parade on Sunday will showcase horses being kept at Nevins Farm. Last year, when the Silver Oak tournament was held in Hampton Falls, N.H., three of the four MSPCA horses on parade were adopted. The showcase doubles as a public service announcement, highlighting the need to care for abandoned animals while promoting volunteer work and fund-raising.
“What they do at Nevins really means really a lot to me, and I’m happy that Silver Oak is supporting such a worthy cause,” Jacobs said. “The horse community is incredibly tight-knit, and by and large, we all share the same values. We try to do what’s right by the horse, first and foremost, at every turn, to the best of our abilities.”
By bringing some of the rescued horses to Fieldstone, MSPCA officials hope to increase awareness of the plight of the animals within the equine community.
“If you’re at a horse show, you probably love horses, and there’s lots of great opportunities for people,” said Jacobs’ wife, Kim. “It’s a beautiful forum within which to call attention to the fact that there are these animals out there that really need someone to take care of them.”
Rescued horses present a particular problem for the MSPCA because they fall into a niche category, said Melissa Ghareeb, manager of the Equine and Farm Animal Center at Nevins.
“Horses walk the fine line between livestock and pet, which is why it’s such a complicated issue,” she said.
Ghareeb said the farm has accepted horses that have been injured, neglected, or sometimes simply the victim of circumstance.
Nevins placed about 50 horses last year. With the economy slowly rebounding, the number is trending slightly higher this year, Ghareeb said.
“In 2008, I took over the program, and that year was when the economy tanked,” said Ghareeb. “Prior to that, a big year would have been 20 horses a year. Then that year, we took in 40, and it just kept getting worse and worse.”
On a recent visit to Nevins Farm, Jeff Papows and Gregory Mangan got to meet two healthy Thoroughbreds — Bailey, 9, and Mikey, 12 — that represent the horses at the rescue. Papows, an Essex resident, is chairman of the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament. Mangan is a native of Ireland and a world-class show-jumper now living in Hamilton.
Bailey came from the South Shore, while Mikey was rescued near Worcester, said Ghareeb.
Mikey “was in a local school program this past winter, so a lot of kids rode him. The thing with Mikey is that he’s talented, but he’s also very smart. Too smart to be a school horse, because he figures the kids out. He does what he wants,” said Ghareeb, laughing. “But with an individual owner, they’d have a lot of fun with him, because he’s the type of horse that will develop a relationship with you. He’ll do anything for the rider.”
To keep the numbers of horses at Nevins at a manageable level, the MSPCA has established some innovative assistance programs. Those include financial assistance to help families in economic hardship continue to take care of their horses, and temporary foster homes that will nurse injured or malnourished animals back to full health.
“We also use our foster homes for training, and that’s one of the really neat things our foster parents do for us,” said Ghareeb. “They might [take] a 13-year-old Thoroughbred, but it never got any training off the track. So having people who can work those horses is invaluable to us. You make sure they stay sound, and you get to increase their chances of being adopted because they’ve been cared for.”
The MSPCA staff also helps owners network with the goal of finding new homes for horses so they do not end up at Nevins. Most fit, mild-mannered horses are easy to place, said Ghareeb, because of the demand from training barns and therapeutic riding facilities. But placing a horse who is more of a character — like Mikey — can be more challenging.
The Adopt a Champion parade was the brainchild of Candace Fitzgerald, a public relations professional who often works with the equestrian community. Fitzgerald said she brought the idea of the parade — and an MSPCA fund-raising lemonade stand — at the Silver Oak show to Papows, who immediately agreed.
“Being a top international horse show, we’re all overly passionate about these animals as individuals,” said Papows. “It’s just been a perfect marriage.”
The Silver Oak tournament represents “this very affluent demographic,” said Papows, with some of the top horses “worth millions of dollars apiece. So you get an affluent group that are animal people by design together with an organization like the MSPCA, and good things just happen.”
Fieldstone Show Park hosts some of the largest equestrian competitions in New England. It stretches across 106 acres, with an array of barns and show rings, about 41 miles south of Boston.
Events for children and adult riders will be held through Saturday — some for prize money, and others for ribbons — leading up to the $75,000 Grand Prix on Sunday at 1 p.m. (opening ceremonies, including the Adopt a Champion parade, start at 11 a.m.).
Mangan, who runs Mangan Sport Horses at the Canter Brook Equestrian Center in Hamilton and will be competing in the Silver Oak Grand Prix, said he also likes the link between the sport’s elite and horses that need owners.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s fantastic to see these horses that have been abandoned get new homes. Jeff has given Nevins Farms a great opportunity of promoting their facility here. I think it’s fantastic. A lot of these horses would be wasted, or sent to slaughter. So they’re doing a great job.”
Asked whether the horse community has a sense of shared responsibility for abandoned animals, Mangan replied: “Definitely. The show-jumping fraternity is well aware of it. They do their best to help out good causes like this.”
Papows said the tournament, while focused on a number of the world’s finest jumpers, also illustrates the juxtaposition that not all horses are so fortunate.
“Show jumping is extraordinary,” said Papows. “The horses that can do it are freaks. It’s one in a million. Or one in 800,000. Then there are all these other beautiful animals who just want to be giving. They just need a person to attach themselves to, so they can be happy.”
Brion O’Connor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.