The Miracle Mile
Thank you to Horse & Rider for covering this story and allowing the EPN to reproduce The Miracle Mile on our website.
Snatched from the jaws of death, this game little filly's success helps a crusade to save other Standardbreds from a similar fate
July 1990 issue of Horse & Rider
By JAN GREER
THE big bay mare shifted her weight uncomfortably in the rumbling truck Her legs were swollen from standing still for so long. The other horses in the trailer were packed in so tightly that moving was an impossibility. Her thoughts were a tangle of confusion; her life had been so peaceful until the day after the auction, when gruff men had forced her and her companions into this strange truck. The mare nosed the stale fodder in the feed bin, listlessly eating a small mouthful. It tasted sour and her throat was dry and parched, but she swallowed it dutifully. The foal within her belly was demanding food, and instinct made her eat to keep up her strength. The demands of the foal had already stripped the rich layer of maternal fat from her body, and the remainder of her weight was dropping rapidly. With her eyes half-closed, she dozed, dreaming of rich, green pastures and clear, cold streams.
The bay mare's eyes flew open, the truck had stopped moving. The strange men surrounded the trailer, opening the ramp. The mare and her traveling partners were rapidly forced out of the trailer. When she was finally standing on solid ground, she looked back into the trailer. There, at the very front, was an old friend, a gelding she had once known from the racetrack. One of his front legs was dangling at a strange angle. And she could tell by the pain in his glazed eyes that he had made the long trip in that condition Then suddenly, they were all being herded into a large holding pen. At the far end of the pen was a long, low building. The closer the mare got to the it, the more her alarm increased She stopped, lifted her head and smelled the air. Fear, death, blood, pain, all of these images became clear to her. She jerked her head around and surveyed the pens on each side of her. They were filled with horses, hundreds of them it seemed, and their eyes were lifeless and their heads hung close to the ground. She whickered a soft greeting, but not even an ear twitched in the adjoining pens.
The bay mare could not have known she was at a slaughter-house, but her feeling of desolation was overwhelming. She ambled her large bulk into a corner farthest from the low building, and let her head droop like the others. Nature urged her to fight as long as possible for the little life that was kicking within her. Her eyes clouded briefly at the sound of the shotgun crack, as if she was saying a quick good-bye to her old friend.
She lifted her head sometime later to the sound of human voices near her pen. A man and woman were talking excitedly to one of the men from the truck, pointing to her and her traveling companions. Once again, she was being loaded into a trailer; this trailer was not as bad as the last, however. She had plenty of room to stand, and a gentle voice brought her some fragrant, clean hay to eat and a big bucket of cool water. The mare began to relax as she moved farther and farther away from the smell of death. After many hours of dozing to the rhythmic sway of the trailer, the mare awoke with a start. She felt the familiar tightening of muscles in her belly, a warning of the contractions soon to come. As she nosed the confines of her small traveling stall, she saw that there wasn't room to lie down. The bay mare flattened her ears at a neighboring gelding. The maternal instinct was already telling her to get away from the herd and find a safe, quiet place to bring her foal into the world.
The trailer shuddered to a stop just as the mare's water broke, streaming down her hind legs and onto the floor of the trailer. She heard concerned voices outside and before she knew it, she was being led out into the night. Giant lights illuminated the ground around the trailer. The man leading her said some quiet words and laid a gentle hand on her sweating neck. A bale of hay was opened in front of her and spread on the concrete, while the encouraging voice urged her toward it. Realizing the rough bed was for her use, she circled the hay twice, dropped to her knees and slowly eased her great weight to the ground. Minutes later, the ordeal was over.
As the bay mare rested her head on the ground, the tiny bay filly took her first, wet look at the world.
When the owners of 28 Standardbred horses consigned them to an auction in Pomona, California in February of 1986, they had no idea that the purchasers were butchers, planning to sell the animals "by the pound."
After the sale, Standardbred breeder Marcie Knittel asked her husband, Dr. Wayne Knittel (who had attended the auction), what had become of a mare that had once been boarded at their farm. "The mare only sold for $100," Marcie recalled, But Wayne talked to the bidder after the sale and the man told him she was going to a good home to be a kid's riding horse in the mountains. It sounded very nice." Unfortunately, it wasn't "nice" for very long. The day following the auction, a strange truck was seen pulling into the sale facility. Instead of a horse van, it was a large "bull wagon," the type of vehicle normally used for hauling cattle. It suddenly became clear that the horses had been sold for slaughter. Marcie was notified, and she immediately went to work. She tracked down enough information on the buyer to contact his wife, who told her "they've already gone to Texas."
More sleuthing turned up the name of the packing plant where the horses were headed. Marcie contacted the plant manager by phone and persuaded him to let her buy the horses back.
Marcie's next step was to contact all of the previous owners that had consigned horses to the sale. She explained what had happened and pleaded with the owners to buy back their own horses. Even if the owners were not interested in possession of the horse again, Marcie asked them to contribute to the fund and give permission for another home to be found for their horse. Her diligent efforts were rewarded - funds for the buy-back were arranged and permission was given to find new homes for the horses sentenced to death. This was the birth of the Horse Care Foundation, a non-profit organization that arranges new homes for Standardbred racehorses to keep them from slaughter. The only remaining problem for Marcie was locating the horses and arranging for their rescue before it was too late.
Enter Mel and Sue Boyce, friends of the Knittels and owners of a horse transportation company Mel Boyce Van Service). "Marcie called Mel and asked him just what it would take to get our vans down to Texas and bring those horses home," recalls Sue. "We figured it would take us a little more than 24 hours driving straight through to get down to Morton, Texas where the slaughterhouse was, so we were on the road as soon as possible." Dr. Knittel jumped on a plane and flew down to Texas to finalize negotiations with the owner of the slaughterhouse. "Of course, the owner was asking a lot more for the horses than what he paid," Sue said' "but we gave him what be wanted. He ended up making a tremendous profit!"
Mel and Sue arrived at the slaughterhouse to find the negotiations had been successful. Unfortunately, what greeted them was not a happy sight. 'The horses were in pretty poor shape due to the trip down there and the time they had actually spent in Texas," Sue said.
"There was a really weird feeling down there. None of the horses had their heads up, they were all kind of drooped. It was almost as if they sensed something wasn't right. We loaded all 26 of the horses into our vans on the evening of February 22, 1986, and began the trip back to California."
A Star Is Born
Two of the original 28 horses sent to slaughter didn't make the return trip. They had already been put down due to injuries that had happened during the trip to Texas. One of the horses had broken his leg and it is assumed that he made the entire trip from California to Texas in that condition. Sue continued,
"Four of the mares we were bringing home were due to foal at any time. Mel said he kept looking over his shoulder hoping the stork didn't come! One of our regular stops is a little truck stop in Kingman, Arizona. We decided to pull in and give the horses hay and water-this was about one o'clock in the morning on February 24,"
Sue fondly recalled.
"As we were filling water buckets for the horses, Mel noticed a lot of water underneath the trailer. He realized that one of the mare's water had broken, so he went into the trailer and found that the mare named Fern's Baby was fussing, fretting, and right on the verge of foaling. It was really a miracle that she waited so long. She must have been willing the truck to stop when it did."
The horses saved from death were so hungry after their ordeal that they had quickly eaten the supply of hay the Boyces had brought with them. By the time Mel led Fern's Baby into the night in Kingman, there was only one bale of hay left. Sue relates,
"While I ran to call a veterinarian, Mel broke open our last bale of hay for the mare to foal on. She made a couple of passes, dropped down, and foaled."
Of course, word of what was happening had reached the cafe at the truck stop, so the little filly had quite an audience when she took her first few looks at the world. The veterinarian arrived, gave the mare and wobbly filly a clean bill of health, and pronounced them fit to travel again.
The lucky new filly was named "On Route 66," since that was the highway that the Boyces were traveling when they stopped for her birth. The filly and her mother made the remainder of the trip into Bakersfield, California with no further excitement. Upon their arrival, the horses were quarantined at the SPCA for 30 days, and were then dispersed to their new homes. Fern's Baby and On Route 66 were lucky enough to find their new home at Dr. Wayne and Marcie Knittel's KB Farms.
"After unloading the horses, we were all admiring the little filly"
"and then Wayne and Marcie turned and asked Mel if we would like to have her. It didn't take us very long to make a decision! It was almost as if by foaling her out we had gone through a type of bonding and we really wanted her.
The Knittels offered us Fern's Baby too, but we felt it would be better if we just kept the filly. We told them we would pay board for the mare until the filly was weaned, and then they could find a nice home for her. We already had 10 horses at the time, and we weren't really looking for another broodmare."
After such a near brush with death early in her life, Route 66 led a fairly normal "childhood." She grew up at KB Farms outside of Bakersfield and was brought in for her first session of training for her future harness racing career in January of her two year-old year. "All we did was barely break her," Sue explained. "We just put the harness on her and did some line driving. As soon as she understood what the bridle and harness were and how to drive when hooked to the cart, we turned her back out to grow up some more.
Off To The Races
On Route 66 was not a model pupil during her schooling for the race track. The determined little filly had definitely been born with a mind of her own. She entered the second phase of her schooling with trainer Steve Desomer of Galt, California in August of her two-year-old year. Sue has worked with Steve since 1975, so he was the natural choice to train Route 66 in the finer points of harness racing. By November of that year, Steve had moved his stable of harness horses to the Los Alamitos (California) racetrack near Sue's home where she could assist with the training.
Some racing Standardbreds, like Route 66, use a particular gait called "pacing" to pull the sulky. The pace is a lateral gait where the left front and left hind leg move together, then the right front and right hind move together. Trainers use a device called "hopples" (not to be confused with hobbles) which attach the front and back legs together on each side of the body. When the front leg moves forward, the hopple urges the hind leg to move forward as well. Although this is an inbred gait in pacing Standardbreds, young horses need this device to help teach them to maintain the gait. The hopples also help support the horse's legs towards the end of the race.
Sue recalls that it took about six weeks to get Route 66 "gaited." "She had a tendency to make 'skips,' which are like little breaks in pace. If this happens during a race, you have to pull the horse up and get him back on stride before you can go on, which can really slow your time." She confides that the filly was not always fond of the sulky behind her, either. "She used to kick the carts a lot. Every morning when we took her out on the track for training she would kick about five times." She was diligent in her training, though, and as Route 66 gained confidence, her pace became steady and the kicking gradually disappeared.
With her training nearing completion, it was time to give Route 66 the final test, an actual race. Her first race was at Los Alamitos on January 31, 1989, with Sue in the cart. She kept the filly in last place until the stretch, where she managed to pass two horses in the race to the wire. Although she didn't win, track observers noticed that she showed good form.
By her third race she started showing her true colors. "Broke his/her maiden" is the term that racehorse trainers use when a horse wins their first race, and that's exactly what Route 66 did. "She was still making little skips through most of the mile, even though she won. I was holding my breath most of the time!" Sue and Route 66 finished the mile race in a time of 2:02 (two minutes and two seconds).
It seems that once the filly figured out what racing was all about, she just got stronger. The race meet at Los Alamitos ended in March. By that time, Route 66 had won her last three races, giving her a record of seven starts with four wins. "Things just started to snowball," said Sue. "I kept threatening to make Steve drive, but he said he wasn't about to touch the filly until I messed up." Needless to say, Sue never messed up. Their next meet was in Sacramento, where the pair racked up three wins and a third out of four starts. Sue is very humble where her filly is concerned, but she finally admitted, "She had to be pretty good to do that. Every time she has to race, she steps up in class, where the competition is harder, and it makes it that much more difficult for her." Another point that makes racing challenging is the filly's diminutive size Sue guesses that "66" is not much over 14 hands, while her fiercest competitor stands much taller. "They really look like Mutt and Jeff when you see them together. My filly has to work a lot harder to even get the same amount of ground covered" Sue had no idea that 66 was going to be so successful on the racetrack. "I nominated her for some stakes races (similar to futurities in the horse show world) on a hope. She was going to get the same chance as any of my other horses." Even Sue's trainer, Steve, was skeptical about the filly in the beginning. "He'd say, 'Now Sue, don't get your hopes up. She'll make a nice raceway mare, but I don't think she's stakes quality.' Of course, he told me this two weeks after I had made my final stakes payment."
Steve's initial doubt stemmed from the fact that the filly had trouble adjusting to increases in speed. "Every time we would ask her to do a mile in less time, it was not a smooth drop. She never gave any indication that she had a lot of ability, she showed a lot of determination and fire, but not a lot of smoothness," Sue explained. The determination paid off, and so did Sue's stakes payment. Route 66 won her stakes race, bringing in a quick $10,000 for her efforts. Recalling the exciting win, Sue said, "We were flying down the track and I passed the horse that was in second place. I was headed toward the lead horse when I thought 'I think I can catch them.' I tapped her with the whip and 66 just kept inching up on the other horse. 'Can we do it? Can we really do it?' I kept thinking. When we actually won the race, the elation was incredible. I let out a deep breath and thought 'We did it !' and then I threw my whip right up in the air!"
Route 66 has taken Sue to winner's circles she thought she would never see as a driver. "I've driven a few horses in my life, but certainly not a lot. It's kind of tough to be a woman-it can be hard to get drives because they always want the top full-time drivers for the top horses, which is understandable. I only drive a couple times a week, and some of these guys are driving four and five times a night so their timing is bound to be better than mine. Before 66, I had never won a race in less than two minutes. With her, I've had a win at :57 (one minute and 57 seconds) and one at :56.3." Route 66's :56.3 time tied the all-time track record for three-year-old fillies in Sacremento. "I wasn't even pushing her when we made that time," Sue said- "We were way out in front, and I was just sort of letting her coast. Had I known how close we were to breaking the record' I would have given her a little more gas!"
Her strong racing ability has gained 66 plenty of recognition around the track, and that recognition grew even stronger once the story of her amazing birth became known. After some urging, Sue finally admitted that the filly has quite a strong fan club. "She's the talk of the town. Many people feel she's also doing a lot of good for the Standardbred industry as a whole. So many times, you only hear about us when something 'bad' happens. The fact that people are hearing about 66 is great, because it shows the good aspects of our industry-that we're a loving, caring group of people who have the best interests of the horses in mind. People shouldn't think of Standadbreds only as racehorses. They are a very versatile breed. I've got a gelding that used to race, but now he's the best trail horse you could ask for-he'll go all day long. They also make top endurance horses, jumpers, and they are fantastic with kids."
Sue plans to race 66 until she is five or six years old, and then retire her from the track to use for breeding. "I already have a stallion in mind for her. His name is Nero's Story and he should be a good cross. He's a large stallion, and his babies are really easy to gait. If we combine that with 66's abilities, we should get a very nice foal." The broodmare barn is a long way down the road for 66, though. For a determined filly who gets stronger each time she races, the future promises to be exciting. "This whole thing has been like a dream. I keep wondering when I'm going to pinch myself and wake up," said Sue.
Actually, 66 could have a bigger impact on the Standardbred industry than ever dreamed The story of her life has already been chronicled during an ESPN special about harness racing and the little filly has even been featured in the National Enquirer. The retirement of these bold racehorses is an item of growing concern in the Standardbred community. More horses are going to be sentenced to the slaughterhouse unless horse enthusiasts are made aware of the versatility of this breed. A market must be created to allow these animals to bring happiness into the lives of horse lovers, even after their days on the track are over. The Horse Care Foundation is still trying to solve the problem (see "More On The Horse Care Foundation"), and Route 66 is doing her part-she becomes more famous and draws more attention to the Foundation's cause with every race she wins. And win she does, it's almost as if she's running for her life!
The bay mare stood in the shade of the big tree nibbling rich, green grass. She heard a shout from the house and turned her head to see her mistress running through the pasture, waving something over her head. They had already finished their daily trail ride, and it was too early for supper, so the mare was quite curious about this commotion.
"Oh Fern, your baby is a star!"
the teenager cried as she threw her arms around the mare's neck.
"Just look at her picture in the magazine. Now everybody knows how special you are!"
The mare nosed the pages of the magazine that was being held open before her, gave her mistress a gentle nudge and then turned her attention back to the lush new shoots growing at the base of the tree.
This is Outtie Girl and her foal, Its Filly Time, who own a lady called Wendi. Wendi does Standardbred Adoptions and would be happy to talk about Standardbreds and how wonderful they are! .
Outtie Girl was pasture pals with On Rte 66 and they became fast friends.
Note - the Horse Care Foundation is now is no longer in existence, but it left of legacy of more humane laws in the state of CA.
More on the Horse Care Foundation
The story of On Route 66 spurred the beginnings of the Horse Care Foundation. Organized by Marcie Knittel, the foundation has representatives at the various California racetracks that feature Standardbred harness racing, Racehorse owners now have an alternative for those animals that have become too old or don't show enough speed to be competitive For a $25 processing fee the Foundation will place that animal in a new, recreational home. But the purpose of the Foundation goes much deeper than that, the main thrust of the organization is to pursue legislation demanding safe and humane shipping guidelines for horses being transported to slaughter.
"Nobody wants to think about these horses," Marcie explains. "But just because they're headed to a slaughterhouse doesn't mean they're already dead. These animals deserve humane treatment:' The Horse Care Foundation, in conjunction with the United States Humane Society and their attorney, are lobbying for a few simple guidelines that could make a world of difference One of their first requests (and the one meeting the strongest opposition from cattle truckers) is for specialized vehicles for hauling horses. Currently, many slaughterhouse purchasing agents are cattle truckers during the week and on weekends they hit the horse auctions, picking up the lowend sale horses and selling them by the pound for a healthy profit. The horses are then hauled in the "possum belly" (double decker) trucks designed for cattle. The horses are run up to the truck where they have the option of going into the upper or lower section," Marcie explained. "But, because these carriers are made for cattle, the entrances and overheads are too low Every horse we brought back from Texas had a gash on his forehead from being loaded into this type of truck.' In addition to regulated shipping guidelines, the Foundation is also requesting that the horses' metal shoes be pulled off to give them better traction on the slippery metal floors and to prevent shoe-related injuries
"One filly that was traveling with Fern's Baby got her foot caught while being loaded and tore off half of her hoof;" Marcie recalled. "She was still alive when she got to Texas, but she had to be put down immediately." (The Foundation would also like to see rubber mats on the trailer floors) Their next request seems simple as well, it calls for segregation of the horses by age and sex. Imagine the horror of packing a truck full of horses,young, old, mares, stallions, and geldings, and hauling them that way for several days. And, last but not least, comes the most basic of all the guidelines, adequate rest, water, and food. Marcie's husband, Dr. Wayne Knittel, a veterinarian, guessed that each horse shipped from California to Texas had lost at least 100 pounds' some even more. Loss of weight can be attributed to stress during shipping, lack of water, and poor food. Many of the horses transported to slaughter are fed a rough corn-silage ration. It fills them up but they derive little nutritional benefit, whereas cattle, being ruminants, fare much better on this type of feed. The truck containing Fern's Baby and her companions traveled all the way to a large packing plant outside of Lubbock, Texas one of only a few plants in the United States where horses are slaughtered solely for the purpose of human consumption in Europe. Horses sold to these plants bring higher prices than those sent to local rendering plants, and the fact that there are so few plants processing horse meat for human consumption means that the horses must be hauled incredible distances, another dilemma withwhich the Foundation is concerned.
As mentioned, these proposed changes are being met with strong opposition. Proper care of these horses would require more time, effort, and financial commitment from the slaughterhouse agents The job of the Horse Care Foundation is not easy and involves remembering those horses that have already been forgotten. But it is clear that with a few simple changes, the last days of these condemned animals could be made much more humane.
Please send your tax deductible donation to:
Equine Protection Network, Inc., P. O. Box 232, Friedensburg, PA, 17933