Midnight Billy scores big as Family Gift
With the approach of autumn, Thoroughbred racing takes on another level of excitement as the Breeders’ Cup will cap an already historic season.
American Pharoah became racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first in 37 years when he swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the spring, but was beaten at Saratoga Race Course in the Travers on August 29. The “Graveyard of Champions” ended his eight-race winning streak, but American Pharoah still may make his final career start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, KY on Halloween.
The talent that could possibly assemble for that $5 million contest on Halloween is scary in itself.
Among those who could be in that field are Honor Code, winner of Saratoga’s Whitney and Belmont Park’s prestigious Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile); Keen Ice, who defeated American Pharoah in the Travers and the dazzling filly Beholder, who defeated males by more than eight lengths in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on August 22.
Horses like these are truly gifts to all racing fans. But not all Thoroughbred ascend to such lofty heights. Some never come close, while others flash promise and keep moving forward.
Until something happens.
And something happened to Midnight Billy.
He had already established himself as a “useful” horse, an endearing term used to describe a competitive racehorse who keeps showing up and keeps making money for his connections. In 34 career starts, he had a record of 5-4-4, with earnings in excess of $180,000.
On average, he earned more than $5,000 per start and that is the kind of horse any trainer would want in his barn.
But when he fractured a sesamoid bone in his right-front leg, Midnight Billy was finished as a racehorse; however, he was far from finished.
He was put up for adoption, and in spite of his injury, he landed on his feet.
Midnight Billy was adopted by Wayne Senecal, a Saratoga Springs resident, for the sole purpose of giving his granddaughter, Jenna, a birthday present.
“Jenna calls me ` Pop-Pop,’ and she had been working on me since she was three to get her a horse,” Senecal said.
Not that Pop-Pop was a hard sell. His family had settled in Saratoga Springs from Vermont in 1904, and horses were always a big part of their life. His family owned the Nott Farm in Rexford, NY and later, when business took him to Greece and later to Texas, Senecal made sure there were horses aplenty for his own children.
Jenna was simply carrying on the tradition, and she had her grandfather right where she wanted him.
“Jenna’s favorite book is Ponyella, which is a take on Cinderella,” said Jenna’s mother, Michelle Senecal-Hunt. “She began asking for a pony when she was three, and one day, her grandfather told her he had a surprise for her. That surprise was ‘Billy.”
What was particularly rewarding for “Pop-Pop” was that Midnight Billy was not only a former racehorse, but one that had local ties to Saratoga. He even won a race at historic Saratoga Race Course by a neck in 2011.
“He was foaled here,” said Kathy Barraclough, who runs the 77-acre Saratoga Glen Farm in nearby Schuylerville, NY. “We try to stay in touch with our clients, and it is not unusual for a horse like ‘Billy’ to come back here. When he got hurt, we realized that he was not going to be the good horse that he once was. We had him for about a year.”
Barraclough’s connections also included Amanda Vance, whose Rerun at North Country Horses specializes in re-training former racehorses.
Midnight Billy became part of the extended Senecal family in 2013.
“He was in training at Honor Way Farm with my cousin, Linda Orton, a professional dressage rider and trainer,” Senecal said. “He transitioned very well and easily from a racehorse to a riding horse.
He was also ridden frequently by Laura Stulberger at Honor Way to keep him in good shape. We moved him out to Spruce Meadow Farm in Clarence, N.Y. to be with Jenna and continue their joint training in the Fall of 2014.”
Naturally, Jenna fell instantly in love with the horse she always wanted.
What was totally unexpected, however, was the effect he had on her mother, who commutes more than an hour daily each way from her home in North Tonawanda to Rochester, where she is a social worker.
“Anyone can see that Billy and Jenna have a special bond,”
Michelle sad. “You can even see that as soon as Billy sees Jenna, he immediately becomes gentler and looks out for her.
“But Billy is not just for Jenna. He’s Jenna’s horse, but they use him to teach others how to ride. I love him, too. I am a social worker and have a very stressful job. I find that seeing Billy and just going to the barn is very therapeutic for me. I find just even getting out of the car and having the horses seeing me and greeting me very relaxing and calming. I love spending time helping Jenna groom Billy and it is a part of my week and weekend that I look forward to.”
Midnight Billy, it seems, is a gift for the entire family.