By Francis LaBelle (published 2015)

     When his son nearly lost his life to a murderous gunman, John Evans knew he had to come up big.

     Evelyn Cole just needed somebody to show her that she was much bigger than she realized.

     Shake You Down just wanted attention. He always knew he was big in the game.

     On April 24, this trio figures to be a large part of the Second Chances Farm Open House at the Lowell Correctional Facilty near Ocala, Fla. when it celebrates its 15th anniversary.

      It was here that Evans, Cole and Shake You Down found one another and each grew into their own.

      While the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances programs use former racehorses to teach equine care as a vocation for inmates, Lowell is the only such program run exclusively for women. Through the combined efforts of the TRF, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, Florida Thoroughbred Charities, Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, Gulfstream Park, Calder Race Course, Tampa Bay Downs and the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Lowell has graduated approximately100 inmates.

     “I try to keep around 20 women in the program at one time,” said Evans, Lowell’s Equine Program Director. “That way, if some are called away for medical or other reasons, we can maintain our graduation rate of 15 a year.”

     For Evans, each graduation is a testament to success.

     A Kentucky native and lifelong racetracker, Evans worked many jobs including stints as a trainer and racetrack steward. He also served as farm manager at Arthur Appleton’s Bridlewood Farm near Ocala, as well as Stoneway Farm in LaGrange, Ky.  

      In August, 2005, Evans’ life took a major turn when his son, Jeremy, was shot while working on a highway construction project near Ocala.

     “They were working on the highway, and this man came along one day and was screaming and ranting and holding up traffic and the work,” Evans said. “My son called the Sheriff’s Office, but the next day, this guy came back. Some of the road crew told him he had to move along because he was holding up traffic. They started arguing, and he came out of his car with a .357 magnum.”

     According to Evans, the assailant, Gary Kenneth Monroe, held the gun to Jeremey’s head.

     Foster “Pete” Maloy was the head of the highway project and in addition to building roads all over Florida, including the I-84 “Alligator Alley,” he was a deacon who was well known for his philanthropy. He was also known as a successful Thoroughbred breeder; in fact, just four months earlier, Buzzard’s Bay had won the Santa Anita Derby, scoring a major Grade 1 victory for Maloy’s Hidden Hill Farm. In that race, Buzzard’s Bay defeated a field that included Giacomo, who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 with Buzzard’s Bay running fifth.

    An ex-Marine, Maloy tried to wrest the gun away from Monroe. Maloy was fatally wounded, and Jeremy Evans was shot in the torso.

     Monroe was charged with murder and attempted murder. Jeremy Evans survived the attack, but still carries 17 fragments in his body.

     “It tore my son up, and certainly affected his quality of life,” Evans said. “At about the time this happened, this job came up at Lowell. Initially, I turned the job down. I had worked with top horse farms; I didn’t want to go to work in a prison.

      “But I had worked in Florida before for Appleton, and when my wife took a job as a professor at the University of Central Florida. I took the job.” 

     The transition was relatively easy for Evans, and it wasn’t long before he thought of a way to improve the program.

      “I knew what I was doing as far as taking care of the horses was concerned,” Evans said. “I only had to learn about security. This was a big difference than working for the big farms.

    “Originally, I was hired to take care of the TRF herd horses. At the time, Second Chances was offered for men and the program wasn’t graduating that many because there weren’t that many men that stayed in the program. I saw what was going on, and they were building a women’s facility across the street. I advised them that they should change the program to make it just for women.”

     Evans took immediate charge of Lowell’s Second Chances program, and he had a special horse for inmates who proved they wanted to make the most of this opportunity.

      Enter Shake You Down.

      There are 45 horses at Lowell, including 20-year-old Forbidden Apple, a Grade 1 winner and Florida Horse of the Year who earned more than $1.6 million, and 26-year-old Carertista, a graded stakes winner who made 102 starts.

     It is Shake You Down, however, who became the measure of how well an inmate had taken to the Second Chances program.

     A son of Montbrook, Shake You Down earned more than $1.4 million in his 65-race career. Among his victories, he counted graded-stakes wins in the Bold Ruler and True North Handicaps at Belmont Park and Aqueduct’s Gravesend Handicap in 2003; and the Count Fleet at Oaklawn Park in 2004. He even ran a troubled third in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.

      But his races in Florida, particularly the Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder in 2003 and the Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream in 2004, made the most lasting impression on his favorite jockey, Mike Luzzi.

      “He was all racehorse,” said Luzzi, who is recovering from a fractured left leg and broken pelvis suffered in a fall at Aqueduct last fall. “And he really liked racing in Florida. What I remember most about him was him actually getting bigger while I was riding him.  I had heard other riders talking about horses that did this, and it was pretty rare when it happened, but at the three-eighths pole, I could actually feel my legs spreading further apart. It was like he took a deep breath and made himself bigger. I thought the saddle would fly off.”

     Shake You Down’s last race was in 2007. Two years later, he met Evelyn Cole.

     She had been arrested for her part in a bar fight when she was only 16 years old. Sentenced to five years in prison and five years probation, she was not immediately eligible to join Second Chances because of her age. Instead, as a juvenile offender, she was sent to a different place.

     “I had to go to this juvenile center, and that was tough because it was run like the military,” she said. “I was scared. I was alone. I had no self respect, no family and no friends. I was broken down.”

     She was also away from her son, Erick, who was born when she was 15. Now in the care of her uncle and aunt, Erick’s monthly visits were punishment in themselves.

    “He couldn’t understand why his Mommy couldn’t go with him,” Cole said.

    Cole decided that she had to head in the right direction. She availed herself of all opportunities. She earned her GED and eventually was promoted to “Blue Hat,” which is described by the Florida Department of Corrections as: “A youthful offender who is promoted . . . (as) a role model for other youthful offenders and is expected to be a positive example to his or her peers.”

    When she came of age, she was finally eligible for Second Chances.

    “There comes a time when you have to make a decision to keep on the same path and keep stumbling and falling and getting nowhere,” Cole said, “or to stand up big and tall and take another path. I had worked hard, and now I had a chance to work with horses. I had been around horses when I was little, running backyard rodeos and stuff like that, so I was excited about Second Chances.

    “This was still a major change for me. Every day, I knew that there was someone depending on me.  There were no excuses; the horses had to be taken care of. Then came that one day when John Evans told me to take care of Shake You Down. That was a pretty big deal, because only the most experienced  people take care of him. He’s ornery, and he would try to bite you when you walked in front of his stall.”

    Their first session was rocky but successful.

   “I was very much afraid,” Cole said. “I thought I would die. I rode him in the arena, and he was great. He did so well, that I decided to ride him back to the barn. But he didn’t want to go back to the barn. He started running and acting like a jerk. But I didn’t fall off and no one got hurt, so my confidence level got pretty big.”

    Gradually, their relationship blossomed.

    “He is skin-sensitive and no one had taken the time to find that out about him,” Cole said. “He was hard to groom because he would try to bite you. But he wasn’t being mean, he was just hurting. I found that out because I spent a lot of time with him. Once I figured that out, I was less aggressive with him and he became less aggressive. We struck a deal that we would always be nice to each other. When I went to see him a few months ago, he wouldn’t let me out of his stall. He stood in front of the door, and I had to tell him, ‘Shake, I’ve got to go!”

     According to Cole, Evans later told her that he knew she was ready for Shake You Down before she did. She has nothing but fondness for Evans, whom she calls “Pap.”

    “I owe everything to him and Shake,” said Cole, who is married and has a three-month-old son named Ryder.

    Evans also got something in return.

      “There are people that train horses that make a lot of money and have a lot of fame,” Evans said. “I don’t think, with all that success, they have as fulfilling a life as I have here. The horses do it all, as far as developing the relationships. And you can see it make a difference. I am still in touch with women who graduated from here 10 years ago.

      “I love what I am doing because I discovered through all of this that I really like building people up.”

     The bigger the better.