By T. D. Thornton for The Thoroughbred Daily News

Tracy Planck and her 16-year-old daughter, Lily, spent the better part of the winter and spring of 2017 looking for a suitable sport horse. They are not big racing fans, but they were leaning toward acquiring an off-the-track Thoroughbred to compete with Lily in eventing and dressage, both because of the breed’s reputation for athleticism and because they liked the idea of giving a former racehorse a shot at a second career.

The family pony could no longer be ridden because of Lyme disease and arthritis, and another promising equine partner for Lily, a Thoroughbred mare, had recently been returned to its previous owner because of ongoing hormonal difficulties. The Plancks searched every horse placement organization near their home in Elkton, Maryland, but had no luck until they got a tip from a pony club connection early last summer that a “nice little Thoroughbred” was available about 25 miles north in Unionville, Pennsylvania.

On July 2 they made the short drive to a tidy farm owned by Dr. Christopher Lyons, an orthopedic surgeon who competes in fox hunting and usually has eight or 10 ex-racehorses stabled on his property. The doctor led the Plancks to a plucky bay with a splotchy white star atop a meandering white blaze that looked like an upside-down exclamation point.

Dr. Lyons disclosed that the gelding had been rescued from dire circumstances in Kentucky the previous year but had rebounded tremendously. He would have liked to keep that Thoroughbred to ride himself, but the 8-year-old was a little too small for him, so the doctor had promised the gelding’s initial racing owner he’d try to find someone who might be a better fit size-wise and in terms of compatibility.

“It was just all the stars aligning,” Tracy Planck explained in a phone interview just prior to Thanksgiving. “We went up on a Sunday morning. My daughter’s trainer rode him, then my daughter rode him. And she wasn’t even off of his back yet when she said, ‘Mom, go home and get the trailer.’ It was really just love at first sight.”

Lily had been saving up to pay the adoption fee for a Thoroughbred, but Dr. Lyons wouldn’t take any money for the gelding, who was named Z Camelot (Smart Strike). He did, however, hand over a letter from the owner who had first raced the horse, which explained that if whoever adopted Z Camelot could not care for him for any reason, he wanted to know and would take the Thoroughbred back, no questions asked. The signature on that letter belonged to Ahmed Zayat.

“We did not know the horse’s history when we went to see him,” Planck explained. “We knew that he was a rescue. But it wasn’t until after I Googled his name that we were just shocked. We just didn’t know how horrifically neglected that he was.”

One year before the Plancks adopted him, Z Camelot had been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons: In June 2016, he was among 43 emaciated horses removed from a Mercer County farm after having been deemed “abandoned” by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. In multiple news reports, Z Camelot was described as the worst-off of all the animals at that farm, which was leased by Charles “Chuck” Borell in partnership with his daughter, the out-of-work Thoroughbred trainer Maria Borell.

At the time of intervention, Z Camelot was found locked in a stall, about 400 pounds underweight, with sores and significant hair loss all over his body, subsisting only on remnants of soiled shavings. By the time he was placed at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF)’s prison inmate care program at the Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington a few days later, it was iffy that the gelding would survive the ordeal.

Working backwards from that point in the news cycle, Planck Googled further, and was even more surprised to learn how precipitously Z Camelot had fallen in terms of Thoroughbred status: Zayat Stables had bought him for $550,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling auction, and the gelding had competed in prestigious races like the GI Florida Derby.

Eventually, Z Camelot (4-for-35 lifetime, with $72,547 in earnings) drifted downward through the class structure, was claimed on three occasions (the last time by Maria Borell), and finished his career as a tenth-place, 98-1 long shot in a $16,000 claimer at Indiana Grand Race Course on Oct. 21, 2014.

Zayat, by that time, was still nine months away from achieving fame and glory as the owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile).

Despite little experience as a licensed Thoroughbred trainer, Borell was a year away from training the GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Runhappy (Super Saver). Later, in the winter and spring of 2015-16, a series of training job dismissals, lawsuits, and alleged personal problems would contribute to the derailment of her ability to care for the horses at that leased farm in Kentucky.

“Lily looked back and found some of Cam’s old racing videos,” Planck said, using the nickname they have bestowed upon Z Camelot. “It was just amazing what he did, and then so sad what happened to him.”

Linda Dyer, the farm manager TRF Blackburn, vividly recalled the summer day in 2016 when Z Camelot arrived at the prison stabling area, where 18 assigned inmates care for 50 to 60 ex-racehorses.

“I was dumbfounded when they dropped that trailer door and I saw this horse,” Dyer said. “Then the rage set in on how someone could be so cruel to do this to an innocent animal. The horse had no muscle. I had never seen a horse that had no muscle left. The vet warned the guys not to even give him one treat, because it would kill him. His guts couldn’t take it. The vets came out almost every day to check on him because they didn’t think he was going to be able to live. The inmates and I worked so hard to keep him alive.”

TRF Blackburn also took in five other horses from the Mercer County farm (the 37 others were placed in various other farms around the region). Two of the mares that shared the ride with Z Camelot were accompanied by what authorities figured were two older weanlings. When the TRF checked their status against The Jockey Club’s registration database, it turned out those offspring were actually very emaciated Thoroughbred yearlings still trying to nurse off their mothers.

The caretakers had to start the malnourished Z Camelot in a prison paddock that was eaten down a bit so he wouldn’t immediately gorge himself on grass. The gelding was understandably leery of people at first, especially if they tried to put salve on the sores that lined his back.

“It was a really slow process,” Dyer said. “At first he pinned his ears, but then he realized we weren’t going to hurt him, so he was good boy after that. He was strong-willed. Even though he was starved, he still pulled people around on his shank.”

Diana Pikulski, the TRF’s Director of Major Giving and Endowment Development, made a trip to Kentucky from her home in New England to check on Z Camelot. Even in his weakened state, a spark in his gaze signaled to her that he was going to pull through.

“In his eye, when I saw him, you just felt like he was going to be okay,” Pikulski said.

“He wanted to live. He is such a little character,” Dyer added.

Both Dyer and Pikulski commented on how in all of their years overseeing the prison program at Blackburn, they had never seen the inmates react so emotionally toward a horse.

“For them to be so dramatically on the other side of the law, so to speak–I mean, they’re incarcerated, after all–they really took it to heart that it was going to be their job to nurse this horse back from the brink of death,” Pikulski said. “It was a true labor of love for them, and it probably opened up some aspect of their recovery that would never be touched any other way.”

On Sept. 29, 2016, Chuck Borell’s attorney negotiated a deal that resulted in a plea of guilty to animal cruelty charges (without an admission of guilt) and two years of probation. To this day, Maria Borell still has an active warrant out for her arrest on 43 counts of cruelty to animals. But Kentucky law enforcement officials believe she long ago fled the state, and have acknowledged they don’t have the resources to chase down Class A misdemeanor fugitives in other parts of the country.

By October 2016, Z Camelot started to fill in. His weight and skin had improved vastly. Zayat had stepped in and helped to make arrangements for the gelding’s eventual placement in Pennsylvania.

“When it was time for him to leave nobody wanted to let him leave,” Dyer said. “He refused to load and I had to pick up each foot one at a time to get him up the ramp. He just kept looking at us and I was wondering if he thought he would go back to hell again.”

That was hardly the case. A bloodstock agent for Zayat placed Z Camelot at Dr. Lyons’s farm. Dyer said the inmates kept pestering her to email for updates because they were worried he’d regress. They were thrilled to receive word about a month after placement that the gelding had been fitted with front shoes and was relishing learning to jump obstacles.

Fast-forward another eight months, and that’s when the Plancks took Z Camelot home to Elkton, where he now shares a barn on their property with a Quarter Horse buddy companion.

“He had training for about four weeks when we first got him, then Lily took him out to a combined training show and he won his division, so that was pretty exciting,” Planck said. “Since then, he’s done a DerbyCross at Fair Hill International and he did his first field trials at Plantation at the end of October. He does great with the jumping. It’s just come naturally to him. Dressage has been a little bit of a challenge. So we’re going to have a winter of dressage, and hopefully in the spring we’ll just take off with the eventing.

“He is honestly one of the sweetest horses. I have dealt with horses all my life. He just appreciates everything,” Planck continued. “He has just really attached to Lily. We were at a pony club rally, and she walked out of his sight while I was hand-grazing him. And he forcefully indicated to me, ‘We’re going with her!’ He dragged me over the hill where Lily was going, then once he got to a spot where he could keep an eye on Lily he just started grazing again. They’ve really developed a nice bond. And when Lily’s riding him, he’s willing to try whatever she asks him to do. Whenever the trainer says to try something new or to jump something, he does it. He’s brave, and he just seems to really appreciate everything you do for him.”

Pikulski said that aspect of Z Camelot’s turnaround is what resonates the most with her.

“Seeing the horse’s recovery to the point where he can be peacefully turned out in a pasture is one thing. But to see him having gone from being in such a horrible shape because of people, and now being so willing to do whatever people ask him to do is truly amazing,” Pikulski said.

“Words cannot describe how unbelievably thrilled I was to see that he has gotten such a great home,” Dyer said. “I smile from ear to ear when I look at his new picture from his new owner who loves him so much, and they look like they are having the greatest fun together. How could you ask for more for him? Boy, did he deserve it.”

Planck said that Lily is working on putting together a pony club fundraiser next spring to raise money for the TRF. When asked if her family has a message to give back to everyone who had a hand in Cam’s recuperation and eventual journey to her home, Planck grew emotional.

“Look, I told myself I was not going to cry talking to you,” Planck said, taking a deep breath and a moment to compose herself. “But we are so grateful. We’re just very, very grateful for everything people did for him. We hope that we can continue to bring him along and kind of give back whatever we can so they can save more horses like him. The TRF is just such a great program, and we’re very grateful for it.”

When ‘Thanks’ and ‘Giving’ Resonate as One