If there is one rewarding aspect of Thoroughbred racing today it is the number of horses whose lives were changed for the better because of people who cared and their determination to make a difference and prevent a horse from meeting an unfortunate fate.
Anna Simms, a small animal veterinarian from Floyd, Va., and her husband were at Aqueduct on April 9, 2011 to see the previous year’s 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo run in the Wood Memorial. Earlier on the card, she watched J J’s Lucky Train just get up at the wire to win the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes in a snappy 1:22 2/5. She was taken with the horse and put him in her Equibase Stable Mail and followed his career.
Their paths would not cross again until three years later, almost to the day, when Simms saw him entered in a $5,000 claiming race at Calder. What was unusual was the fact that J J’s Lucky Train’s previous start had come in a $12,500 claiming race, which he won by three lengths. Because of the drastic drop down off a victory, JJ was sent off as the even-money favorite. The drop down off a win also sent up warning flares.
This wasn’t the first time JJ had been dropped into a bottom-rung claiming event despite showing relatively decent form in higher company. On Dec. 6, 2013, while racing for Fox Hill Farms, trainer John Servis put him in a $6,250 claiming race at Gulfstream even though he had run second for $16,000 two races back.
When Simms saw him in for $5,000, she felt an obligation to do something about it and arranged to have the horse claimed with the intention of retiring him and finding him a good home.
“I was worried that JJ was heading down the same path as Monzante (who had met a tragic and well-publicized end after plunging in the claiming ranks as a 9-year-old and suffering a fatal breakdown),” Simms said. “I did not have any information about the horse other than seeing his results online before I had him claimed.
“After getting him, though, the trainer who was kind enough to claim him for me heard from several people who had been worried about the horse, including the state vet at Calder, who was relieved to hear that the horse would be retired. Once I got him home to Virginia, radiographs showed the damage to his left front fetlock and right carpus. It just looked to me like he was heading to a catastrophic breakdown.”
Before we get to the feel-good ending to JJ’s story and the long road getting there, let’s start at the beginning. J J’s Lucky Train, a son of Silver Train, out of the Thunder Gulch mare Delta Sensation, was bred by EICO Stable. Consigned to the 2010 Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale at Timonium, he was sold to Jeff Heslep for $35,000.
After winning his career debut impressively at Monmouth Park, he was claimed for $40,000 by trainer Bill Anderson. Racing under the name Fresh Start Stable, J J’s Lucky Train went from strength to strength while moving up the ladder from starter allowance company to allowance company to listed stakes company to graded stakes company.
From Jan. 2011 to Jan. 2012, he won the grade III Bay Shore Stakes and Miracle Wood Stakes, was second in the grade II Woody Stephens Stakes and the listed Count Fleet Stakes, Whirlaway Stakes, and Valley Forge Stakes, and was third in the grade III Derby Trial Stakes and the Rise Jim Stakes. In one year, he had won or placed in eight stakes at five different racetracks.
He was then sidelined for six months, and after a pair of sixth-place finishes in the Mr. Prospector and Teddy Drone Stakes at Monmouth, beaten only three lengths each time, he was dropped in for a $60,000 tag by new trainer Jane Cibelli and claimed by Servis for Fox Hill Farms.
After winning that race, he was injured and sidelined for 11 months. When he returned he could manage only a second-place finish in his next four starts, and that was for $16,000. That’s when Servis dropped him in for $6,250.
“I don’t claim many horses, but we spotted this one and thought he could be a stallion prospect if we could move him up some,” said Fox Hill Farms’ Rick Porter. “As it turned out, he had a bunch of chips in one of his knees. We conferred with Dr. (Larry) Bramlage and he said if they had taken them out when they happened at the first signs of lameness, he would have been fine, but now was a different story. Bramlage operated on him and removed all the chips and some other work to make him more comfortable. We turned him out for the period Bramlage suggested and put him back in training.
“Unfortunately, he was never the same horse. Typical of one of the defects in Thoroughbred horse racing, we bought a horse with problems unbeknownst to us. We knew we had nothing to work with and took the loss. He was fine to race without any danger, but just at low level claiming races. I never race one that could cause a breakdown knowing he or she had issues. I just give them away or sell them as a broodmare and make sure the papers are marked that they cannot race.”
When Servis put him in for $6,250, he was claimed by trainer Jorge Navarro, finishing fourth as the 6-5 favorite. Navarro put him right back in for $6,250 and he was claimed by trainer Antonio Sano.
Three weeks later, Sano moved him up to $12,500 at Gulfstream and JJ won by three lengths. Imagine Simms’ surprise when she saw him entered 2 1/2 months later for $5,000.
That brought about a chain of contacts that ultimately led to trainer Sharon McGlinchey,
“I asked my friend Vickie Coomber to help find someone in Florida,” Simms recalled. “She got in touch with her friend Karen Benson who knows people there. I was given Sharon McGlinchey's number by my friend Vickie. I spoke to Sharon on Thursday evening, had to send the money Friday, and his race was Saturday.”
After being told the story, McGlinchey agreed to put in the claim in for JJ.
“There were three people at the claim box and I thought, ‘Oh God, please don’t tell me they’re going in for this horse,’ McGlinchey said. “When they found out I was going in for JJ’s Lucky Train, they said, ‘You’re crazy, that horse has all these problems. I told them he was being claimed to be rescued. Fortunately, we were the only slip in for him.
“The state veterinarian and another vet and a vet technician came up to me after the race and said, ‘Thank God you took this horse. We’re glad he’s going to get a good home.’ He had been on the vet’s list two starts before we claimed him. His ankles were in bad shape and I don’t think he would have made it to another race.
“We shipped him out that same day to go to (Jacaranda Farm) in Florida. Anna had arranged for all the transportation. We just had to claim the horse, bring him to our barn and cool him out. He’s such a beautiful, sweet-natured horse. It’s nice to have these happy endings.”
Anna said, “I truly feel it was a miracle that he did not break down in his last race. JJ had about ten days hanging out in Florida at a friend's farm before shipping north to Diana McClure's farm in Virginia. She and everyone at the farm took great care of JJ for the time he was there. I knew that he would get great care there and be able to make the transition from the track. He was just an absolute gentleman from the moment he arrived. Diana arranged to have her regular vet radiograph JJ's carpus shortly after he arrived since that was the joint with obvious injury. JJ was actually fairly sound until mid-May when his ankle started going downhill. We got films then and saw the damage.”
JJ remained at McClure’s farm for two months. When he first arrived he looked in pretty good shape physically, according to McClure, but upon further examination by Dr. Dan Meagher it was discovered his hind leg wasn’t in very good shape, his knees were “ugly,” and his ankles were large and looked to have quite a bit of arthritis and degradation.
“His coat was shiny and he looked OK when he first came, and Dr. Anna wanted an evaluation, so we did X-rays to find out if there was anything broken, chipped or damaged that might require surgery,” McClure said. “But there was nothing we could operate on. Dr. Anna had a protocol what she wanted to do to start treating him and she put him on Adequan and started doing therapy. When she came to see him the first time she was very worried about his hind end. In the next week or two he kind of started to fall apart.”
But JJ eventually started to show improvement, and it was time to make plans for his future.
“Here you have this story of a girl who saw this horse win the Bay Shore as a 3-year-old and the horse just spoke to her,” McClure said. “For no other reason than that, she put him in Equibase and followed him. She saw him fall down the claiming ladder and pointed it out to me and said she was getting really worried about him; it didn’t look like he was on a good path. Not to be deterred by any claiming rules or claiming issues, she set about to claim him, depleting her entire savings. She just said, ‘I’ve got to go save that horse.’ She is a small animal vet specializing in acupuncture and laser therapy and does everything for the care and the good for every animal she ever touches. The animals just melt in her hands. And this part of the industry is very hard for her. It’s not something she’s really seen, so I had to slap her through a lot of reality checks throughout the whole process.”
McClure, who didn’t have to financial means to claim JJ or provide the transportation, told Simms, “Whatever you do I’m going to donate the rehab and the time to take care of him. I’m definitely going to help you with this horse.”
“When he came to us and started to fall apart, it was quite upsetting to her, realizing what this horse had been through at the end of his career,” McClure said. “The reality of the situation was very hard on her. It became apparent to me what a noble and honorable thing she had done in claiming this horse and getting him off the racetrack. While he was here, I had suggested standing him at stud. I put in a plan to try to figure out how to get this horse to stud for where she could actually afford it. I got a hold of Dr. Kate Painter and Joe Painter at their Blue Spruce Farm in West Virginia. We put the two vets together and it was a match made in heaven. So it all came together. His ankle has locked up and he doesn’t have any pain any longer, so he was good to go.”
McClure went to see JJ at the farm’s stallion show two weeks ago and it did her heart good to see the diminutive Simms put the shank over the horse’s nose and walk this “huge, beautiful animal” out of his stall, and he walks out like the “most perfect, classiest gentleman in the world. It’s just a beautiful story of this woman who fell in love with a horse, and wanted to save him, and he’s such a good soul that she can literally handle him herself.”
Simms added, “I had not been thinking of keeping JJ as a stallion. I thought I would probably just have him gelded and eventually bring him home to live a life of leisure with my five retired horses. I was so impressed with his temperament and good looks Diana and I decided to look for somewhere to keep him as a stallion. We found Joe and Kate Painter and felt great about them -- she is a vet and he is a farrier -- and their farm.
“They nursed him through his difficulties this summer which were mainly related to the ankle. I think some people let this horse down and I am just glad I could help him make it to retirement. I have always felt that we owe these horses the best, no matter if they are a stakes winner or a claimer. JJ has been getting excellent care and attention at the farm. He went through about two months when he was very lame on the left front leg but that has improved greatly as his ankle has locked up. He runs comfortably in his paddock now. He is an absolute pet, despite being a stallion, and is such a class act.”
Kate Painter says JJ is doing super at their Blue Spruce Farm in Kearneysville, which is only five minutes from Charles Town Racetrack, and has high hopes for him as a stallion.
“He’s doing whole lot better now,” she said. “He had a bit of a rough start off the racetrack. He has his routine and never misses a meal. He’s a real character. If his foals have half his heart and personality they’ll do just fine.
“Right now he lives in the stallion barn and goes out during the day and the night. Anna has his special boots and coat for him that he enjoys them immensely. He just hangs out during the day and has a couple of goats in with him. He's such a neat horse, he loves sharing his mints with my little daughter Devon."
Painter said they are currently trying to line up mares for JJ.
“West Virginia is a little slower than some states when it comes to making their stallion selections,” she said. “We had a stallion tour and there was lot of interest him, so we’re really looking forward to getting some mares underneath him this spring. He’s really a neat horse. He’s just so classy and kind-hearted. There’s something about him that makes him stand out. We’re just tickled to have him here and to get to know him a little better. And we’re excited to get him started on his new career. Hopefully he’ll have a great retirement and lots of successful offspring.”
So ends, or begins, another of the little known feel-good success stories that make racing and horse people so special.
As Painter said, “Dr. Simms is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I’m so glad we have people like that in the world.”
JJ at Blue Spruce Farm, taken in August by Simms' brother, Nathaniel Simms
JJ paints a handsome picture - Anna Simms Photo
You can see JJ's problems in his left ankle and right knee - Anna Simms Photo
JJ winning the Bay Shore Stakes - Adam Coglianese Photo
JJ and Anna when he was still sore and had to wear Soft-Ride boots - Anna Simms Photo