WHEN HIS RACING DAYS WERE NUMBERED, TAKE DOWN TWO FOUND A HOME
By Francis LaBelle
Take Down Two’s numbers are enough to confuse Rain Man.
When the 11-year-old Thoroughbred finished his last race at Mountaineer Park on August 24th, he had made 128 starts, finished with a career record of 20-26-21 and earnings of $567,356. He had raced at 11 different racetracks. . . in eight different states. . . for 26 different trainers. . . with 38 different jockeys.
He had been claimed 25 times.
This time, however, he found his final owner in Susan Smith. Or rather, she found him.
Now, Smith wasn’t in the market for a horse when she opened the morning paper two summers ago. As was her custom, she was just catching up on the local news and whatever story would pique her interest.
And boy, did she find one.
The story that grabbed her was a feature on Take Down Two and the fact that at that time – this was in August, 2014 – the then nine-year-old, Maryland-bred son of Not For Love was enjoying his best year as a racehorse. He had won but once, but was earning more than $8,000 per start, more than twice as much as his career average.
Take Down Two was a throwback horse, pure hickory, as the old-timers would say, and his consistent performances made him a darling in claiming races.
Claiming races are the backbone of racing, and simply mean that horses that compete in these races are for sale. A trainer claims a horse for an owner for a set price, and if his claim is uncontested, that horse will head to his barn when the race is over, regardless of the outcome. If more than one claim is entered for the same horse, the winner is decided by lottery, otherwise known as “the shake.”
Shrewd trainers will move horses up and down the claiming ranks in an effort to make money for their connections. In December, 2013, for example, Take Down Two was claimed for $20,000. He ran fourth. In his next four races, he ran for no less than $25,000 with a win, a second, and a third in that span. He was finally claimed for $25,000 in May of 2014. Thus, he had turned a profit of $5,000 plus purse earnings for his previous owner.
Take Down Two made money, and he was always attractive when he was entered in a claiming race. In fact, in 2012, he was claimed in consecutive races by three of New York’s top trainers: Gary Contessa, Linda Rice and Bruce Levine. He won all three of those starts.
But Susan Smith knew none of this.
“I had taken a backstretch tour at Saratoga, and that sparked my interest in Thoroughbreds,” Smith said. “I asked what happened to these horses after they were done racing, and there were some dark answers. When I read about Take Down Two, he just seemed like such a nice and honest horse that it became my mission to make sure he ended up in a good place.”
Smith, a data architect by profession, not only decided to follow Take Down Two, but to learn as much as she could about Thoroughbred racehorses. She tracked Take Down Two’s whereabouts through different resources, including Daily Racing Form, Sky Sports and Equibase. She followed a number of horse rescue organizations, and she was moved after reading the book Saving Baby by Jo Anne Normile.
“I learned a great deal,” she said, “Most importantly, I learned that if you are going to work with people in racing, you need to understand what they do and respect it.”
Smith began taking riding lessons “to learn to connect with and care for horses” and became an active volunteer for the Saratoga Springs, NY-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the world’s oldest and largest Thoroughbred rescue organization.
“Sue is one of our more trusted and loyal volunteers,” said Jennifer Stevens, the TRF’s assistant director of development and horse sponsorship. “She has such a big heart, you can see it in everything that she does for the TRF. She works hard for these horses. We are so grateful she found us.”
For his final race, Take Down Two was entered for a $5,000 tag at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia. He ran fifth in a field of seven, and the comment line on his past performances read “Played No Factor.” Although Take Down Two had two wins and a third in six starts for the year, Smith figured he was nearing the end of his racing career.
“I had called different trainers that had him, and they all said he enjoyed what he did,” Smith said. “But I wanted him to have a home before something bad happened to him.”
Smith tried in vain to contact Take Down Two’s owner/trainer, Jay Bernardini. Her efforts proved fruitless. Fortunately, Smith’s riding instructor, Casey Coyle, had worked on the racetrack for years and used her contacts to put Smith in touch with Paul Umbrello of Charles River Racing Stable. Umbrello had partnered with Bernardini in other horse ownerships.
“I had been told that they were either going to keep racing Take Down Two or make him a lead pony,” Smith said.
Smith finally persuaded Take Down Two’s connections to sell him to her. She paid full price of $5,000 – what it would have cost to claim him — plus the cost to transport him from West Virginia to Placid Hills Stable in Brunswick, just east of Troy, NY.
On September 9, Take Down Two arrived at Placid Hills Stables. The 110-acre farm is owned by Joseph Sessa, and hosts equine events, clinics, educational program and boarding. Awaiting him were Smith and Coyle.
“Without Casey, I would not have been to do this, “Smith said. “I can’t even put on the wraps myself, but at least he has the patience as a well-trained racehorse to deal with me being a rookie. And he knows Casey will always come to his rescue. He absolutely loves Casey.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I passed my hands over his legs, and I was amazed at how clean his legs were,” Coyle said. “He was still fit when we got him, and when he saw other horses, he would act like he was ready to race. When I take him out, if he sees a camera, he strikes a pose as if he’s in the winners’ circle. He just has the class of a good racehorse.
“That’s the point I want to make: Take Down Two is not a rescue. He is a sound, healthy horse who was well taken care of. Now, he is ready for another life after racing. I hope to use him to help educate people about Thoroughbreds and destroy the myth that racehorses are all crazy and hard to deal with. I want people to bring their children here to see him; all they have to do is call ahead.”
Take Down Two has picked up a barn name since his arrival. They call him “Lucky,” a moniker suggested by Smith’s husband.
“He’s not lucky because we found him,” Smith said. “He’s made us all lucky in the sense that now we have the opportunity to educate people about racehorses and what they can do after they are through racing.”