CENTERVILLE — As bettors and the general public study equine bloodlines to prep for their possible Kentucky Derby wagers, Bourbon County horse owner Marilyn Montavon is trying to solve a mystery that could cost her thousands of dollars.
On April 15, tax-filing deadline day, two new dependents showed up on her farm in the form of two foals — a colt born to the mare Goldie and a filly born to Mert.
The babies were a surprise to Montavon because she has no studs on her farm, and she hadn't bred the horses.
Then she noticed another newcomer making use of her pasture: a 3-year-old stud horse that she had not seen before. He'd apparently been busy, because at least five other mares were pregnant.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
A sixth mare, Snuggles, had a dead foal inside her, and Montavon said she and a veterinarian agreed it was more humane to euthanize her than to try to remove the foal from the womb.
With two foals on the ground and more on the way, Montavon is left trying to feed more hungry mouths.
"I think somebody just figured they didn't want to send the horse to the (slaughterhouse) and they thought, 'Oh, here's a field full of horses. He'll get lost in the herd,'" Montavon said. "But they were irresponsible in putting a colt out with a field full of mares. It's going to cost me big bucks" in additional feed and veterinary costs.
The gestation period for a horse is about 11 months, so the stud — which Montavon nicknamed Mystery Man — had been on the farm for at least that long without her knowledge.
"I know it sounds crazy," Montavon said. But she said she doesn't go out onto her 50 acres every day to personally check on her herd of more than 20 Thoroughbreds. A helper on the farm tends daily to the herd of mares and a few geldings, but he didn't notice Mystery Man until Montavon pointed him out.
In addition, Montavon is often away from her farm because she owns lead ponies that escort horses onto the tracks at Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Ellis Park.
In any case, she put the stud horse into a barn stall and then tried to track down his owner. Kentucky State Police told her that they had no record of anyone reporting a missing or stolen colt.
A detective told her, "'As far as we're concerned, he's yours,'" Montavon said.
So she had Mystery Man moved to a friend's farm in Illinois. The friend discovered that Mystery Man made no fuss when a light saddle was put onto him, so someone had taken time to break him before abandoning him.
Dr. Victor Torres, a Bourbon County veterinarian who has known Montavon for years, said he has not encountered a similar situation.
It's possible that someone dropped off the stud at Montavon's farm and knew that it would receive care, Torres said.
"Normally, she's not there most of the time, depending on when she's working at the race track," Torres said. "So it's possible somebody dropped that horse there. Whoever did that didn't measure the consequences. He thought he was doing some kind of good."
Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement center in Scott County, said he has heard stories of horses being left on farms but said that has never happened to him.
"To go to the trouble of putting a horse on your trailer and moving them someplace, what's the advantage?" Blowen said. "I guess some people think about it like dropping a cat or a dog off by the side of the road and hoping they can survive or somebody will pick it up. But a horse is so much different."
The expense of feeding and caring for horses has led to increased reports of abandoned horses across the country.
Karen Gustin, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, a horse rescue organization in Jessamine County, said she is dealing with a woman who has three horses "that just showed up" on her Kentucky property.
"We will eventually take those horses because they're labeled as abandoned," Gustin said. "There's no information as to where they came from or who they belonged to. So that happens from time to time."
Before sending Mystery Man to Illinois, Montavon pulled some hairs from his mane. She has sent those to the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California-Davis to determine the parentage of Mystery Man.
The lab there is known for its work in parentage verification, genetic disease screening and diagnostic testing not only for horses, but also for cats, cattle, dogs, and even water buffaloes and yaks.
Montavon said she believes that learning the genetics of Mystery Man will give her clues as to who might have put him on her farm.
Cecilia Penedo, director of genotyping at the UC-Davis lab, said the DNA profile can be used to determine whether Mystery Man is a Thoroughbred, as Montavon suspects.
If it turns out that the stud is a pure Thoroughbred, the lab will not be able determine specifically who its parents are without the permission of The Jockey Club, which owns a national DNA database, Penedo said.
"If they give us approval to do that search, then we can try to see if this horse has been tested before, and that would establish who that horse is. Another possibility is to search for a parent of that horse," Penedo said.
The results might be back within a couple of weeks, Penedo said.
Whatever the outcome, Montavon resents the predicament in which she finds herself.
"If you're going to dump a horse somewhere, do something more responsible than this," she said. "If they had put the horse in my barn, I would have taken care of him, found him a home, done something."
But "sticking him out in a field with mares? This is going to be a very expensive deal," Montavon said.