From Warhorse to Warrior Princess – Aftercare Spotlight

Thursday, August 17th, 2023

Puparee under saddle in her new career. Photo courtesy of Corinne Gagnon.

By Teresa Genaro

Corinne Gagnon describes herself as someone who loves equine projects. Her Frazier Farm in Connecticut offers riding lessons, equine boarding, horse shows, and summer camps, and she trains horses, specializing in young horses that come to her as a clean slate.

Puparee was quite another story. Gagnon saw the 10-year-old mare listed for sale on a Facebook page, and at first glance, the daughter of Congaree didn’t look like much. She was thin. She didn’t look well cared-for.

“But I really liked her build,” said Gagnon, “and her movement caught my eye. When I went to see her, I could see that there was a really nice horse under that surface.”

Puparee didn’t make her first start until she was four years old, unusual for a Thoroughbred. She finished seventh in her first race, at Aqueduct on January 2, 2015, and then didn’t race again for five months. Trained by Domenick Schettino, she won her second start by three lengths at odds of 43-1 at Belmont Park, and then Puparee was, quite literally, off to the races.

Over the next seven years, the bay mare ran 62 times, compiling a record of 6-5-4. She ran for Schettino and her owner/breeder Joemar Racing Stables for 11 races, and in a race at Finger Lakes on Oct. 25, 2021, she “dropped far back, lost contact with the field, was distanced but did cross the wire,” reads the Equibase chart.

Puparee breaks her maiden at Belmont Park for owner/breeder Joemar Racing Stables. Coglianese Photos.

What happened between that race and her being posted on Facebook is unclear. So yes: part of Puparee’s story is a cautionary tale about what can happen to Thoroughbreds when they’re done racing, and we’ll come back to that.

But first:

Puparee presented Gagnon with challenges unlike the ones she was used to. Puparee was far from a blank slate; she was a veteran, and she had a mind of her own.

“She was a warhorse,” said Gagnon. “She knew her job and she’d been doing it for a long time. She was so determined, and she knew her job was to go fast. It was hard to convince her that her new life could be quite different from that.”

Gagnon focused at first on getting Puparee back to a healthy weight, and once the mare looked like an athlete again, she realized the potential that Gagnon had seen in her.

“She was just a powerhouse,” she said. “She raced for a long time, and she has that spark and that heart; she wasn’t going to dumb herself down for anyone. That’s why I appreciated her: she was a powerful mare on a mission, and so fun to work with.”

As much as Gagngon enjoyed that spirit, she also knew that the mare couldn’t be ridden by just anyone, and at first, she intended to keep her as an eventer. When her other responsibilities prevented her from riding “Puppy” often, she offered her for adoption.

Gagnon’s ad showed up in Samantha Dyche’s Facebook feed, and just as Gagnon was smitten the first time she saw Puparee, so too was Dyche. Now 18, Dyche lives in Indiana and couldn’t make the trip to Connecticut, so after watching lots of videos and Facetiming during vet examinations, she bought her.

“I’d never done that,”  she said. “I’d never bought a horse like that. But I took a chance. She’s a really pretty mover.”

Dyche knew little about Thoroughbred racing, but she looked up her new horse on Equibase and posted in a Facebook group trying to learn more about her. She was impressed at how many times Puparee had raced and won, and she heard from both Schettino and his daughter, who remembered her fondly.

Puparee under saddle in her new career. Photo courtesy of Corinne Gagnon.

Earlier this month, Dyche headed off to college to study nursing, and Puparee, now named Xena, like the warrior princess, went with her.

“She’s something else,” said Dyche. “‘Xena’ suits her. She just wants to gallop, or she’ll go into a super-fast trot, and she definitely doesn’t like to be confined.”

She also tends to get in trouble; Dyche jokes that her new mare has given her plenty of opportunity to practice nursing and first aid.

“She got mad at her neighbor and she kicked the stall,” she said. “Another time, out in a paddock, she either got bitten by another horse or she reached her neck over the fence and cut herself. In February, she was getting shoed and she stamped her foot with a shoe partly off, injuring her hoof on the nail.”

As Gagnon put it, “Relaxation is kind of tough for her. I’m happy that she’s with someone who appreciates her for what she is.”

On Thursday, Aug. 17, the New York Racing Association, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and New York Thoroughbred Breeders will host the third Aftercare Day at Saratoga Race Course. Among the highlights will be a retirement ceremony for Drafted, a nine-year-old gelding trained by David Duggan for his last 22 starts. Drafted raced on three continents and retired with 10 wins and $1.1 million in earnings, and he was retired through NYTHA’s TAKE THE LEAD retirement program. He will be retrained at New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program before going on to a second career.

“We used to hope that horses would end up in a good place when they retired,” said Duggan. “Now we know they do, thanks to everyone in New York coming together to make aftercare a priority. We want to promote all that’s being done, and Drafted is the perfect poster boy for this event.

Soaring Star, bred in New York by Patricia Moseley and a graduate of New Vocations, participates in last year's inaugural event. Susie Raisher photo.

Soaring Star, bred in New York by Patricia Moseley and a graduate of New Vocations, participates in the inaugural event. He’ll be back this year. Susie Raisher photo.

Four other retired racehorses will strut their stuff on Thursday, demonstrating their post-racing versatility in everything from Revolutionary War reenactments to hunter/jumping to dressage to carrying small children and inexperienced adults in lead-line classes at local horse shows

Established in 2012, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance accredits and funds retirement, retraining, and sanctuary facilities across the country, ensuring that horses have reputable, safe options for their lives after the racetrack. NYTHA’s own TAKE THE LEAD has retired and rehome more than 1,000 horses since it was created a decade ago

And so there is no reason for any horse that races in New York to face an uncertain future, as Puparee did. Horses don’t, and shouldn’t, need the sort of luck that landed her first with Corinne Gagnon and then with Samantha Dyche, and while there is still work to be done events like Aftercare Day and horses like Xena continue to highlight the positive pathways open to horses, trainers, and owners.

Aftercare Day will also provide options to donate to aftercare organization. On- or off-track, people can text AFTERCARE2023 to 44321 to donate to TAKE THE LEAD, and on-track, anyone cashing a winning ticket on an AmTote International self-service betting terminal will be given an option to donate to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. All donations are tax-deductible.

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