By Francis LaBelle
Ferdinand’s Star, believed to be the last living son of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and ’87 Horse of the Year Ferdinand, was humanely euthanized at Shoo-Fly farm in State Road, NC on September 5. He was 26.
Ferdinand’s Star never came close to matching his sire’s Hall of Fame career. His odds of duplicating his Dad’s Kentucky Derby victory were astronomical, as he was foaled in Ohio. The Buckeye State has only produced one Kentucky Derby winner – Wintergreen in 1909 – so Ferdinand’s Star’s chance at following in his sire’s footsteps was a longshot at best.
Ferdinand not only won the Kentucky Derby the same year that Churchill Downs was placed on the register of National Historic Landmarks, but he won it from the dreaded 1-post. He made Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, 73 at the time, the oldest trainer to win the “Run for the Roses.” Whittingham would win the Derby again three years later with Sunday Silence, but Art Sherman, at age 77, became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby when California Chrome delivered in 2014.
Ferdinand was also the last of four Kentucky Derby winners for then 55-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, Bill Shoemaker, who would also guide the horse to a neck victory over Alysheba in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. Ferdinand would be elected Horse of the Year by a single vote over Theatrical, with Alysheba finishing a distant third.
Six years after he was voted Horse of the Year, Ferdinand became the catalyst for a new awareness for Thoroughbred aftercare. Unsuccessful as a stallion, Ferdinand eventually wound up in Japan, where he reportedly had been euthanized a year before his whereabouts were known.
The years were much kinder to Ferdinand’s Star who won just one of 11 starts and earned just under $3,500 on track. Fortunately, he wound up with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, specifically at Russell and Melissa DeCarlo Recknor’s 11-acre farm in Northwestern North Carolina, about 30 miles from the Virginia border.
“In the days leading up to us saying good-bye, I told ‘Ferdy’ about his Dad, and how, because of him, people became more aware of the need for Thoroughbred aftercare ” Melissa said. “I told him how proud his Dad would be of him and that I always aimed to give him the life after racing that his Dad never had.”
That life included daily visits to an apple tree. “Ferdy learned how to raise his leg to beg, and even when he was sick, he made it out to that tree for his favorite snack,” Melissa said – and leisurely days with Melissa’s other TRF adoptees, Fly Lite and Meteor Shot and Sydney’s Emerald, another TRF horse who Melissa fosters.
Melissa’s dedication to providing a decent home for Ferdy and other horses began while she was a Music Education student at the University of Kentucky. She has since earned her Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Appalachian State University in North Carolina and is currently working virtually on her doctorate in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
She had learned of the TRF through social media, and that led her to the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (MMSC) at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. At the time, TRF partnered with MMSC and Melissa soon became a volunteer.
“That turned into a job as the Adoptions and Volunteer Coordinator, and I worked there from 2009-2012,” Melissa said. “Ferdy came to MMSC in 2009 and he was there until 2011, when he was sent to Blackburn to rehab from an injury he suffered out in pasture.”
The TRF’s Second Chances Program at the Blackburn Correctional Complex near Lexington is one of several similar programs offered by the TRF in eight states. There, horses are teachers and work with handlers to provide vocational instruction in horse care to students/inmates.
“I always used to tell (then Director) Susanna Thomas that, if I ever had my own farm, Ferdy would have to come with me,” Melissa said.
Melissa and her husband relocated to North Carolina and got their farm in 2016 as home to another TRF horse, Fly Lite, who was Melissa’s competition horse for 10 years. Fly Lite had befriended Ferdy at MMSC, and once Melissa got her settled, she kept her promise to take Ferdy along.
Ferdy not only made himself at home, but he made himself in charge.
“He was a bit of a curmudgeon and a tiny bit stubborn,” Melissa said. “He really didn’t like to be ridden; he really didn’t like to do much of anything. But he loved attention. He loved to be groomed with hands-on gloves. He loved to do things on his terms, so being a free-range horse with a fan and a barn was the life for him. He would spend most of his days out grazing until it got too hot. Then, he would come inside to stand under his fan. Fans and grooming gloves—I bet he’s found both of them in Heaven.”
Melissa credits Ferdy’s personality for saving his life on more than one occasion. In 2018 and 2019, he developed severe cases of cellulitis, a skin infection that produced lameness in his left-hind leg.
“Every summer, and each time he got it, I thought ‘Oh, boy, this is it,’ but he came through with flying colors,” Melissa said. “It wasn’t terrible in 2020, and this year, he came through it better and quicker than ever. But his advanced age and other ailments took their toll on him.”
According to Melissa, Ferdinand’s Star enjoyed an idyllic post-racing life. He certainly found the right person to spend it with.
“When I worked for the TRF, I loved the adoptees like my own,” Melissa said. “I probably could name all of them, but a few of my favorites were: Nobucksfortuck, Twitchy Witch, Ma Jouet, Proper Authority, Heisasheis, Robin’sonaroll and Ringaroundtheson. Hap’s Online was originally going to come live here, too, but she is too good of a teacher at Blackburn. I have often joked with Sara (TRF Herd Manager Sara Davenport) that I need a huge farm just for the horses I love at TRF.
“But Ferdy was just so special. He just had this aura about him, and everyone who met him loved him. We brought in a new mare who was a bit snarky, but he won her over. They would even scratch each other over her stall door. He had a great personality. His body work lady loved him and even donated her time to work on him. His vet, Dr. Mary (Gochnauer, Tryon Equine, Troutman, N.C.), also went out of her way to help him. He was her favorite because she knew that no matter what he had to overcome, he was always willing to put up a fight. He was a pretty funny dude, and everyone loved him.”