VERSAILLES — In December, as the days get short, life on Central Kentucky's Thoroughbred farms slows back down. At Three Chimneys Farm, stallions return from the Southern Hemisphere to reacquaint themselves with winter, and horses whose productive lives are over are eased into retirement.
If horses dream — and there is no reason to think they don't — then Three Chimneys Farm is where they must dream of riding off into the sunset.
A lucky few do.
Some, like late star stallion Dynaformer, who died in April, are ridden as long as they enjoy it and get visits from peppermint-toting fans right to the end. Others are less famous but no less loved.
There is Gallatin's Run, a racehorse that sportscaster Jim Rome couldn't forget.
Last year, around Thanksgiving, Rome and Three Chimneys' president, Case Clay, arranged to buy him surreptitiously out of a claiming race and brought him to the farm, where the gelding slowly recovered from a hard-knock final year on the track and soon will be looking at a new career as a riding horse.
At Blackwood Stables, a nearby rehab facility where Three Chimneys sends horses, there is a retired son of Point Given named Point of Impact, who sold at Keeneland as a yearling for $800,000. Now known as Boomer, this summer he gave riding lessons to Hope Hudson, a 12-year-old Missouri girl who was befriended by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another's connections and Three Chimneys through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Just outside Three Chimneys stallion complex, there is the herd of rescued Thoroughbred (mostly) mares, now sterilized, that serves as "practice mares" for young stallions and those returning from down South.
They work a few weeks a year and spend the rest of their time keeping down the grass on some of the nicest real estate in Central Kentucky.
There are also the "ladies of a certain age," retired Three Chimneys broodmares who mostly just eat and sleep in the sun at the broodmare division. They include Chapel of Dreams, a three-quarter sister to champion stallion Storm Cat, the first horse Case Clay ever bought with his father, Robert Clay.
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"The thinking here is that these girls have given so much to us and to our clients. We owe it to them to let them hang out here for as long as they want," Case Clay said.
That isn't a universal sentiment, but most farms have come to recognize the need. Many support the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which is working to adequately fund quality retirement options.
"There are lots of breeders of horses, and everybody has a different view of their responsibilities, which we respect," Clay said. "At Three Chimneys, we feel like the horses that we breed — if we own the mares, if we do the mating, if we breed the horse, if we raise the horse — that it's our responsibility to look after the horse. To make sure it has a good home, a good situation, for the rest of their life."
But not every horse will find a path to golden pastures. For many, even a modicum of racing or breeding success is no guarantee that the owners or trainers or breeders who once feted them in the winner's circle will fund their retirement.
"There have always been a lot of horses that didn't have a place to go," said Sandy Hatfield, Three Chimneys' stallion manager. "Not only Thoroughbreds. It's other breeds, too. People don't know what to do with them. They lose interest. I think Thoroughbreds — because they end their racing career so young — they have a whole other life to do something. People don't think about that. If they weren't good enough racehorses to be broodmares and stallions, what happens to them?"
It is a question that the racing industry has been confronting publicly more and more after racing fans, many of whom are horse lovers, turned away in droves in recent years from a sport they perceived as treating its most beautiful athletes as a disposable commodity.
Of the nearly 25,000 Thoroughbred foals born in North America this year, many will never race. Those who do likely will compete for only a few years; most racing careers are over by the time a Thoroughbred is 6 years old. But a healthy horse could live for two more decades, if given the chance.
To some in the industry, responsibility stops once a horse has left their hands. So inevitably, as a racing career sunsets, horses move farther and farther down in the racing ranks until they bottom out in lower-level claiming races, break down or are sold for slaughter.
According to a 2011 report done for The Jockey Club, many members of the public find it abhorrent that horses built into marketable personalities are treated like livestock. The racing industry began turning serious attention to aftercare options although no mandatory financing mechanism has been put in place.
Three Chimneys Farm was one of the first major breeding operations to address the question of what happens to all those horses afterward.
Three Chimneys stands 13 stallions, who sire 800 to 1,000 babies each year.
"We just feel like it's our responsibility as breeders. We put them on this earth; we need to see them all the way through," Case Clay said.
In 2011, the farm announced that it would help any Three Chimneys-bred horse or horse sired by their famous stallions.
Jen Roytz, the farm's marketing director, spearheads efforts to find new homes and get Three Chimneys horses out of at-risk situations. She calls the plan the Protecting Our Own Protocol. The farm pledged that the stallions, mares and racehorses they own or breed will always have a home through Three Chimneys, even if someone else owns them when the time to retire comes.
Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who began his stallion career there before he was moved to Japan, will come home to Three Chimneys one day.
The farm also has played a big role in finding new homes that give off-track Thoroughbreds second or third careers. They help an average of two to four horses a month, Roytz said. Over a period of years, that has added up to hundreds of horses.
Sometimes it is just a matter of making the right match, Roytz said.
"We just try to help our clients if they have horses coming off the track that aren't going to be stallions or broodmares or breeding stock, help them find good second careers and transition their horses into those careers responsibly," Roytz said.
Other times, the situation is much more dire.
"It's horses we get a call about at 8 o'clock on a Friday night that are in a kill pen at New Holland (an auction in Pennsylvania) that's going to be potentially bound for slaughter," Roytz said. "We'll help with those, too."
Many in the industry welcome the spotlight on medication issues, horse slaughter and retirement that has resulted from the increase in public awareness, Roytz said.
"People who were doing right by the horse are more comfortable being public about what they are doing," she said.
Three Chimneys has been contacted by several other horse farms asking for advice on how to do the same thing, and publicizing the philosophy has brought in like-minded clients, as well.
"At the root of everything, we're all horse people. We're in the industry because we're horse people," Roytz said. "We all want to do right by the horse."