Thoroughbred racing has changed quite a lot over the years, some for better, some for worse. But one of the ways it definitely has changed for the better is the number of horses who have found new homes following their retirement, some discovering hidden talents and given a second career.
All of this has been accomplished thanks to numerous horse rescue organizations and the donations of so many racing fans and horse lovers that have enabled horses all over the country to find new homes, many becoming pleasure horses and being boarded and cared for by their new owners. These horses are more commonly known as OTTBs, or Off The Track Thoroughbreds. Sometimes, horses go beyond being pets and riding horses.
The whole concept of Off the Track Thoroughbreds has created new stories and new love affairs between people and horses.
One of these people is Melissa Pappas of Hamburg Township in Michigan. Melissa first became friends with Peg Ryder through horses when Melissa lived in Georgia and owned horses on a small scale and Peg lived in Kentucky.
Through all of Melissa’s racehorses and all the ups and downs, Peg was there. When Melissa finally gave up horse ownership in the late 1990s, Peg swore she’d find her a horse she couldn’t refuse; one she was destined to own.
In 2009 after Melissa and her husband moved to Michigan, Peg found a Michigan-bred yearling at the Keeneland September sale that was perfect for her.
Melissa recalled, “He was a bright, golden chestnut with a wide blaze and two white hind legs. On top of that, he had the blood of three Triple Crown champions (Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Citation). Peg knew that I had been lucky enough to be able to visit with A.P. Indy and both Slew and Secretariat several times in my breeding days, as she had visited them with me. This was the horse she said was meant for me. Since my husband and I had decided there would be no more breeding or racing, I promised Peg that we could follow his career together and it would be as though he belonged to us.”
So Melissa and Peg watched as Hip No. 3831, a son of Golden Missile--Atlantic Cat by Stormy Atlantic, sold for $10,000 to Ed Moger Jr. He was sent to California and named Runaway Wildcat.
In 2010, Runaway Wildcat, who Melissa and Peg started to call Wiley, began his racing career. Sadly, Peg was now suffering from throat cancer and kept fighting it for as long as she could. Together they continued to follow Wiley’s career.
“I have absolutely no doubt that her love of racing and horses, particularly Wiley, kept her going much longer than she normally would have,” Melissa said. “Near the end I promised Peg that I would do everything in my power to keep track of ‘our’ horse and make sure he had a good home when he was through racing. We lost Peg in April of 2011.”
Runaway Wildcat proved to be a hard-trying horse who gained the admiration of many trainers, as evidenced by the fact that he was claimed 11 times. Moger, who was part owner of the horse, lost him for $32,000 in his 10th career start and wound up claiming him back three times. The last trainer to claim him (and who also owned part of him) was Lorenzo Ruiz, who raced him 13 times. When Wiley finally was retired at age 9, he had raced 53 times, finishing on the board in 36 of those races.
Melissa, meanwhile, kept contacting his trainers to keep abreast of his racing career and make sure he was in good health.
“Most, understandably, they thought I was something of a kook and dismissed me,” she said. Then, in February of 2015, something terrifying happened. Wiley was in a race where he finished second, but there was a comment in the footnotes that he was ‘vanned off.’ My heart sank. I feared the worst, but could not bring myself to take him out of my watch list.
"Out of the blue, in early 2016, I got a notification that Runaway Wildcat had worked. I ran through the house screaming and crying, ‘He’s not dead!’ At that point, I vowed I’d try again to reach out to Wiley’s trainer, a gentleman I had not previously attempted to call.
“I reached Mr. Lorenzo Ruiz at Los Alamitos in California. Mr. Ruiz didn’t dismiss me. He listened to my story. When I finished telling him the whole story, he told me that he doesn’t sell his horses. I thanked him for listening and asked if he’d take my telephone number in case he changed his mind when it became time for Wiley to retire. He then changed my life. He told me that I didn’t understand. He would not sell me his horse, but when he was through racing he would GIVE me the horse. I still remember the feeling of my brain exploding.”
Over the next several months, Melissa and Ruiz kept in close contact and after his last race Jan. 1, 2017, Runaway Wildcat was given to Melissa as promised. She proceeded to work with two of her good friends in Michigan to bring him home. Runaway Wildcat returned to his home state in early January 2017.
“Without the help of my friends, Brandy Frost and Vicki Henderson, it would have taken much longer for him to come home,” Melissa said. “Brandy is a friend who has worked extensively with (Thoroughbred Afterecare Alliance-accredited) Beyond The Roses rescue. She has a barn at her home in Leonard, Mich. about 1 1/2 hours away. She has lots of experience in ‘letting down’ Thoroughbreds coming off the track. She offered me a stall and her experience to help Wiley adjust to ‘civilian’ life.
“Vicki Henderson is Double HH Ranch Transport and also a friend. She’s done a lot for Beyond the Roses and came highly recommended as a legitimate long-range, equine transporter. It just so happened that she had a couple of horses going to Arizona right after Wiley’s last race and had planned to come home with an empty trailer. She charged me an extremely modest sum to bring Wiley back to Michigan and was right there when she needed to be. Without them, it would have taken much longer to find the right place for Wiley to start his new life and for arrangements to be made to bring him home.”
In May 2018, Melissa moved Wiley to a barn closer to where she lives. He had been given time to relax and learn to adjust to retired life. Wiley, though, had always loved ‘working’ and seemed to thrive on racing and training. Melissa had watched his amazing trot and movement as he went to the gate in his races and wondered if dressage would be for him. She hadn’t ridden in over 20 years, but she was determined that she and the horse that Peg strongly believed was meant for her to own would become riding partners. She found a terrific coach and trainer through Arbor Acres Farm in Ann Arbor, which had become Wiley’s new home.
Arbor Acres Farm was managed by Mike Walls and his wife, Kristi Lynn, and is only about 20 minutes from Melissa’s home. Melissa asked them about dressage trainers and they had business cards from a couple of trainers. One of them was Sue Machin. She had worked with other horses in the barn and came highly recommended. The more Melissa looked into her history and credentials, the more she was convinced she would be a good fit for Wiley.
“After Wiley and I met her, I was certain she was who I wanted us to learn from,” Melissa said.
“Melissa asked me if I was familiar with OTTBs and interested in training him,” Sue said. “I told her I have had the pleasure of re-training three horses to new careers, and would be happy to do an assessment of Wiley.
“From the very first day I worked with Wiley, I knew he was a kind and gentle horse. He was willing to accept my training methods, and within a few rides was already showing his ability to change his career path. I first watched Wiley move on the lunge line to see the quality of his gaits. For dressage they need to be freely forward in their strides, and since so many OTTBs are tight in the trot after racing, I had assumed this would be the case for Wiley as well. It was not. He has a very free hind end, with an amazing eight-inch over stride at the walk, and tracks up naturally in the trot.
“I started teaching him what a half halt is (which is slowing down the front end and teaching him to carry the same amount of weight on his hind legs as he was on his fronts). And I also asked him to ‘carry’ himself. We call this a level balance, or self carriage, and the horse needs to stay in that balance while performing dressage movements. Wiley was very willing to try every time I rode him, which is all I can ask. It takes time for the muscles to change, so some days the tasks are more difficult, but he always tried to do what I asked. He is absolutely one of the safest horses I have ever ridden. He doesn’t buck, bolt or rear ... ever. He rarely spooks, and doesn’t put up much of an argument when learning something new. These qualities are hard to find in any horse, and it makes each training session productive, because I am never worried about Melissa or I getting hurt.”
Last November, Sue had shoulder surgery, and then Wiley came down with a stifle injury this past winter, which put their training sessions on hold for 4 1/2 months. Sue continued his training at the walk and trot in March, but it wasn’t until mid-April that he was able to canter a 20-meter circle. Sue was confident that Wiley had the talent for the dressage arena, but what she discovered when they went to their first show, was that everything she had taught him at home was the best it had ever been on show day.
None of this came as a surprise to Melissa. She knew that Wiley was a horse who always wanted to please and was quick to learn. On June 9, 2019, Wiley was entered in the Woodbine Farms Dressage Show in Chelsea, Mich.
“Since Wiley raced for seven years, he is used to all kinds of commotion,” Melissa said. “Helicopter flying low overhead? No problem. Screaming children? No sweat. Trailering to a strange barn where you spend the night, get out and perform, and then trailer home? He did it all the time on the California circuit. Off the Track Thoroughbreds can excel in all kinds of arenas.”
Wiley was entered in three classes: Intro Test A – Walk/Trot; Intro Test B – Walk/Trot (a bit more complicated); and Intro Test C – Walk/Trot/Canter.
“Racehorses are never really taught to ‘canter,’ Melissa said. “Trot is a normal gait used in warm-up, and then there’s gallop and run. Canter, especially learning to use the right lead in that gait isn’t something racehorses usually need. When Wiley learned so quickly to canter, Sue knew she had something pretty special. The questions remained, however. Would he stay in the perimeter of the arena and would he go to the canter (especially on the right lead) and come back to the trot on command in completely new surroundings? That would remain to be seen.
“Sue helped me by filling out the entry paperwork since she was the rider, but the rest was on me. I made certain that the Coggins results, the entry paperwork and fee payment was in to the show secretary in time. My husband, Mike Walls, and I drove out to the showgrounds the evening before to prepare Wiley’s stall and get all my tack there. Sue brought Wiley in her trailer along with the horse belonging to another of her students. We all made sure that Wiley’s stall had plenty of hay, water, and grain ready for him while Sue did a practice ride in the arena, which, by the way, was very different than any other arena he’d ever been in. It features a very low barrier (less than about a foot high) around the perimeter. If a horse steps out, he’s disqualified.
“Sue also wanted to be certain he could scope out the surroundings to ensure he didn’t see anything to surprise him the next day. Sunday, we got to the showgrounds by 7 a.m., fed and watered, cleaned the stall, put down fresh hay, and groomed Wiley. As it got closer to his first ride time, we tacked him up and Sue took him out to warm up. His first class was around 8:30. His second was around 9:40, and the third about 10:50. After each class, we brought him back to his stall, took his bridle off so he could have a good drink, and let him rest.
As it turned out, Wiley won every class with extremely high marks, an amazing feat for a horse in his very first show. He was named Champion in his division.
“I have to tell you, there were lots and lots of happy tears shed that day,” Melissa said.
The next show for Wiley will be in July at the same level, but at a bigger show. Then they will consider moving him up to the next level after that. Unlike the first show, this next one is a TIP (Thoroughbred Incentive Program) show and it is expected that the competition will be much tougher.
“Still, the yearling from Michigan (who surprised a bunch of people when he raced and won in California–causing Trevor Denman to once remark that they don’t see many Michigan-breds in California) has come full circle,” Melissa said. “No matter how he does going forward, he will be a most beloved family member. The way he’s working, though, I wouldn’t bet against him.”
More importantly, Wiley will forever be a very special link between Melissa and Peg, who left her friend with a life-altering gift. That gift was her firm belief that Melissa and an unheralded Michigan-bred selling at the end of the Keeneland sale were meant one day to be part of each other’s life. Despite Wiley’s immediate success in the show ring, his relationship with Melissa is worth more than all the blue ribbons in the world.