By Francis LaBelle


    When he died in 2014, Joe Dziegielewski was alone and indigent. He was interred in the Pauper’s Cemetery in Louisville, Ky, where at least, there was respect and dignity at graveside. Students from the University of Louisville and  Bellarmine University as well as local high schools attended the service and acted as pallbearers as part of an on-going program in cooperation with  the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.

     That could easily have been the end of Joe’s story.

      Just a few weeks ago, however, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation received a donation of $8,052.92 from the Kentucky Racetrack Retirement Plan. Now in its 35th year, the non-profit TRF relies on donations to support the 780 former racehorses in its care. Many of these horses are part of the TRF’s innovative Second Chances Program, in which inmates at various state prison are taught horse care as a vocation.

     All donations to TRF are appreciated, but this one was particularly touching as well.  Joe had bequeathed his retirement account to the TRF to help horses have a better life.

     It was a most unselfish gift.

     Joe had worked for years as a hotwalker, and his primary job was to turn left, leading Thoroughbreds around and around inside the shedrow until they had cooled down after returning from the track and their morning training. It is far from a glamorous job, but a necessary one that must be repeated daily, in all kinds of weather and in morning’s early hours.

     “Joe was a hotwalker for me for a few years, and that has to be at least 10 years ago,” said trainer Eddie Kenneally. “I didn’t know much about him other than he was a good worker and a good horseman. He was a typical racetracker, and I bet he was probably one all of his life. He was a hard worker, very polite and he very likely lived paycheck to paycheck.”

     Joe worked long and hard for his money and opened an account with the Kentucky Racetrack Retirement Plan, which is run under the auspices of the non-profit Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund (KRHWF).

     “Around 2001, the Kentucky State Legislature passed legislation that created the funding mechanism for the Kentucky Racetrack Retirement Plan for backstretch employees,” said KRHWF Director of Operations Karen Pehlke, the administrator for the plan. “Our funding comes from uncashed pari-mutuel tickets at Kentucky’s Thoroughbred racetracks, and we usually fund the Retirement Plan with about $250,000 a year, which is split among the enrollment.

     “Last year, 336 people shared in the contribution from the Fund to the Retirement Plan.”

      Since its inception, about $6 million has been available in the Kentucky Racetrack Retirement Plan, yet, according to Pehlke, it is not unusual for a person to forget that they had enrolled. She has often tracked down people to make sure they received their retirement benefits.

     “Mail will get returned to us for several reasons, including a change of address or someone simply forgetting that they had enrolled,” Pehlke said. “We try to locate these people, because we would prefer it went to the people who are entitled to it.”

      When Joe’s mail kept coming back to Pehlke, she put in the extra time, including hours on social media, to try to locate him. When she did, it ended with the sad news of Joe’s death four years ago.

     It also led to the fact that Joe, who had not provided for his own funeral, had chosen to help the horses. The TRF’s Second Chances program began in 1983 at the state prison in Wallkill, NY and is currently available at nine prisons in nine states.

     One such prison is the Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, Ky. And to help commemorate the 35th anniversary of its founding, the TRF has decided on a thoughtful way to remember Joe and his final act of generosity.

     “We are so grateful to Karen (Pehlke), who instead of just turning over everything to the State of Kentucky, tried to do the right thing by finding Joe,” said Diana Pikulski, the TRF’s National Director of Major Gifts, Planned Giving and Endowment. “We wish we could have thanked him in person.

    “So, instead, we have named a paddock at Blackburn in his honor.”


For more information on how to include the TRF in your estate plans, please click here