Horse saved by TRF and racing exec, thrives in show ring
by Susan Salk, Off Track Thoroughbreds
A racemare saved from the slaughter pipeline by a former Suffolk Downs official, who later found sanctuary and then a new owner through efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, is today a young girl’s pampered show pony.
Arrested Gatorgirl, now a charming show horse with a penchant for bearing her teeth in the dressage ring and for her enthusiasm for polocrosse (lacrosse on horseback) was once about as far as a horse could get from the world she knows today.
Failed multiple times in the low-claimers at Suffolk Downs, the lovely bay mare was said to be headed for certain death by way of Pennsylvania’s New Holland Auction, a place frequented by horsemeat buyers, when she was saved by Suffolk’s then-vice president of racing, Sam Elliott.
Acting on a tip that several Suffolk Downs horses had turned up at New Holland in October 2008, Elliott and others quickly enforced the East Boston track’s zero-tolerance policy on slaughter, buying the imperiled horses, including Gatorgirl, and punishing the horses’ connections.
Elliott recalls, “We got the word about Arrested Gatorgirl shortly after Suffolk enacted its no-slaughter policy. There was a story going around that Gatorgirl and the others were going to a kid’s camp when they were discovered at New Holland. I remember that the horses left the backside on a Sunday and turned up at New Holland on a Tuesday.”
In short order, a story that could have ended so badly turned around.
Gatorgirl was shipped with the others to the TRF’s Montpelier, Va. facility, where she was cared for and trained over the course of four years. And in 2012, the mare who showed her dislike of racing several times on the track—she once refused to leave the starting gait when it clanged open— pulled out all the stops for young Virginia equestrian Madisyn DeCant.
Madisyn’s mother Sharon DeCant remembers the first meeting so clearly. After trying two other horses, the young girl climbed aboard Gatorgirl and almost immediately, her face lit up, DeCant says. “I remember that my husband (David) was not thrilled about the idea of getting a Thoroughbred,” she says. “But it was clear to us both after she rode her that the two just hit it off. I could see it in her face. They rode so well together, and we got her that day. It didn’t take long for my husband to change his tune about Thoroughbreds.”
The mare’s manners were impeccable, her work ethic strong. She was sound as a bell and was game to try everything from beginner/novice Eventing to dressage and even polocrosse.
The pair has shown, ribboned and won, competing in rated and unrated shows in Virginia and North Carolina. And now they are working at improving their performance in the dressage ring, where Gator has the habit of bearing her teeth. “I’ve got one funny picture of the two of them, and it looks like the judge made a joke and Madisyn and Gator are both laughing” DeCant says.
Watching her daughter and the mare work so well together, DeCant still can’t forget a time that wasn’t so pleasant for the horse. Though safe from the slaughter pipeline now, DeCant always remembers the photos she saw of Gator, with a USDA sticker stuck to her coat.
“I think about it all the time, where she came from. It was such an alarming image. And I know Madisyn thinks about it too. That’s her baby now,” she says, noting that they’ll never forget the sad circumstances of the mare’s early life.
Elliott, who left Suffolk Downs to take a vice presidency at Parx Racing, continues to leverage his position to advance the issue of horse welfare. Citing the strong efforts made by Parx Racing’s in-house Thoroughbred advocacy group Turning For Home, and the quick work by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to assist, Elliott notes that horses like Gatorgirl continue to underscore the importance of supporting Thoroughbreds and charities who help them.
“Gatorgirl was saved as the result of one of our early enforcement efforts” of the Suffolk Downs no-slaughter policy, he says. “She got very lucky. Prior to that policy, she probably would have wound up dead. Instead, she’s a good show horse, and she has someone who loves and takes care of her.”