Posted as appeared in New York Times, August 5, 2012 page SP14
“Work hard your whole life, this is what you deserve — a big pasture”
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — A horse that never posed in the winner’s circle is living the good life this summer on a scenic Kentucky farm, and his losses could mean a big win for retired thoroughbreds.
Zippy Chippy belied his name during a remarkable winless streak, failing to win even one of his 100 starts during a career at tracks in the Northeast. His futility earned him a spot on People magazine’s list of the most interesting personalities.
Now, Zippy, the 21-year-old dark brown gelding who last raced in 2004, has emerged from the pack as a lovable ambassador for the humane treatment of horses no longer able to bring in money from racing or breeding to pay their feed and veterinarian bills.
He is spending a few weeks lolling in a paddock and munching carrots and grass at Old Friends, a central Kentucky farm for retired thoroughbreds. He is scheduled to return in September to his permanent home, another Old Friends retirement farm in Greenfield Center, N.Y.
Zippy arrived in bluegrass country last week along with his constant sidekick, the gelding Red Down South. They share a spacious paddock at a 92-acre farm that is home to past stakes race winners, Triple Crown also-rans and the offspring of Kentucky Derby champions.
But Zippy is quickly passing them as a star attraction.
Old Friends, which relies on donations to care for dozens of horses, is hoping to capitalize on Zippy’s fame. A fund-raiser is planned next month along with a line of Zippy-inspired merchandise. The farm plans to start selling caps, T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with a cartoon drawing of Zippy with the motto “Winners Don’t Always Finish First.”
The marketing campaign may show that Zippy is not such a loser after all in a region that reveres thoroughbred champions.
“I guarantee you that within a year Zippy Chippy will earn more in retirement than he did on the track,” said Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends.
Zippy earned just over $30,000 in racing, mostly from a number of second- and third-place finishes.
All the money from Zippy-inspired merchandise will go to support the farm, which has about $600,000 in yearly expenses despite a stable of volunteers including veterinarians, Blowen said. The farm is home to 46 horses.
Blowen, a retired movie critic for The Boston Globe, said Zippy’s life script resonated with people.
“I think more people can identify with a horse that loses all the time than a horse that wins all the time,” he said. “I think that’s part of the fun of it. Because there are more losers in the world than winners.”
Blowen bought Zippy for $5,000 a couple of years ago from the horse’s longtime owner-trainer, Felix Monserrate.
Monserrate acquired Zippy in a 1995 trade with Zippy’s breeder for an old van.
Zippy eats about $50 worth of food each week, a diet that includes hay and a special feed that includes grains and molasses and bran oil to help with digestion, Blowen said. But the investment could pay off for the farm and its mission to give horses a comfortable retirement.
Blowen said he saw Zippy as an ambassador in the campaign to find suitable homes for the thousands of thoroughbreds no longer able to race or breed. It is an endeavor that resonated with Pam Machuga, who was visiting the farm from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
“They deserve some respect,” she said. “Work hard your whole life, this is what you deserve — a big pasture.”
Zippy kept his distance from a recent tour group, lazily grazing with his pal Red Down South. But Zippy drew a chorus of sympathetic “ohs” when the visitors were told the horse went 0 for 100 in racing.
Machuga, a race fan visiting with several relatives, said there was a lesson of perseverance to be learned from Zippy.
“The most you can do is try as hard as you can and do the best you can,” she said. “Think about regular, everyday people in life. We don’t always win, but you get back up and keep going.”
Once their racing or breeding days are over, some horses are retrained for riding programs, and others end up at retirement farms like Old Friends. Adoption programs seek good retirement homes. Some racetracks help to match retired racehorses with people wanting thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation sponsors several farms where retired horses are cared for by prisoners.
But the need outpaces available space for the retirees. And some still end up in slaughterhouses outside the United States.
“There’s a lot of horses in a lot of situations where there isn’t funding to care for a horse” that made money for people, said Diana Pikulski, a director with the T.R.F., which is based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“Some of them are sound and can be used for riding. But many of them, although they’re sound enough to live in a pasture and be happy, they’re not sound enough to be a show horse or a solid riding horse. And they need a place to go.”
Zippy’s futility carved out a lasting legacy in the ultracompetitive thoroughbred racing industry.
He was barred from a New York track after failing for a third straight race to leave the starting gate with his competitors. His plodding ways inspired exhibitions. He outran a minor league baseball player and a standardbred horse, though the horse was given a head start.
Zippy clocked his 100th straight loss with a last-place finish in an eight-horse field at the Three County Fair in Northampton, Mass.
Still, Zippy fell short of the futility record of 105 consecutive losing starts set in the 1950s by Thrust, another gelding.
Zippy seemed to be fitting in quickly at his temporary Kentucky home. He stretched his head over the plank fence recently to munch carrots hand-fed by Blowen. Red Down South was constantly at his side.
But even in retirement, Zippy is behind his sidekick when trotting to the food trough.
“He lets Red Down South eat first,” Blowen said. “I guess he knows where his bread is buttered. He’s afraid to win at anything.”