by Susan Salk, Off Track Thoroughbreds
A young woman who learned to ride and care for horses while participating in a prisoner/OTTB program at the Lowell Correctional Institution of Florida has returned to society with a promising career, a happy relationship and a horse of her own.
Nicole Mason-Suares, 30, of Ocala, says that her life completely turned around after she began working with ex-racehorses.
On the prison grounds where the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) runs a unique program offering care to Thoroughbreds while teaching inmates horsemanship and life skills, Mason-Suares says she felt a spark of hope return to her; it was something she hadn’t experienced since her youth, when her competitive gymnastic career ended in injury.
And with it came motivation to, as she describes it, “suit up and show up” everyday to face all challenges. And at the same time she discovered she had a natural gift with horses.
“I remember the first time I really felt (the desire to ride). I was on this cool, gray horse named Notably Frosty. And there was this flat stretch between the paddocks where … I urged him into a lope,” she says. “I remember looking down at the ground and it felt like I was flying. It was the coolest thing, and that was it for me. When I loped that horse, I was hooked. I hadn’t been that passionate about anything since I was a gymnast.”
Her aspirations to be a gymnast ended in a vaulting accident, which triggered a downward spiral of prescription painkillers and bad choices leading to prison, she says. But all of that faded as she pressed forward into a new career and life full of promise after leaving prison in January 2014.
“When I share my story I have to pinch myself when I think about all the opportunity that I was afforded … and how fortunate I was to be put in the TRF program,” she says. “Before I wound up in Ocala, I had made some poor choices in my life, and I’d had such a promising future. I was a good kid, made good grades, and was this little gymnast. I never thought I’d feel that passionate about anything again. But these horses, and everything that has come with them, have changed my life.”
Soon after leaving prison, Mason-Suares worked for several Thoroughbred farms, prepping Yearlings for sales, and galloping horses. She first went to work for Nick and Jackie Demeric, and so impressed them with her work ethic, that she was quickly referred to several other barns until she began working with her boyfriend and former jockey Dean Purdom. Together they resell 2-year-olds, and are prepping now for the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale.
And just when life couldn’t get any better, last November she walked into her boyfriend’s 10-stall barn and noticed a new horse poking his head out over the stall door. “That’s your new pony!” her boyfriend told her as the handsome bay gelding Exporter stared back at her.
Exporter had been claimed and retired from racing through the efforts of former owner and Thoroughbred advocate John Murrell and race trainer and TRF board member Carl Domino. Claimed for Domino after his last race at Gulfstream Park 14 months ago, Exporter was welcomed to the TRF’s Ocala facility, and quickly adopted by her boyfriend. (Please see an earlier story about the work of Murrell and Domino here: http://offtrackthoroughbreds.com/2015/05/27/horsemen-thats-it-were-getting-her-out/
John Evans, the TRF’s Ocala farm manager, says that when Dean Purdom called him looking for a prospect for Mason-Suares, his immediate reply was, “I think I’ve got him.”
Helping unite one of his star pupils with the handsome bay was an effort he was thrilled to participate in. “I’ve worked for three billionaires in my professional racing career before the TRF,” he says. “But I never got the feeling of accomplishment like I get when I see women like Nicole get out of here and change their lives. That’s more important than winning the Derby for me.” (Please see an earlier story here about Evans and his race career history: http://offtrackthoroughbreds.com/2015/08/14/forbidden-apple-trainer-reunite-in-retirement/
And that same feeling resonates with John Murrell, an oilman and horseman who swooped in to help retire Exporter when the time came. When he learned that Exporter would continue his next chapter in life with a former inmate who was starting her own fresh chapter, he said he couldn’t be happier.
“I just wanted Exporter to be out of racing. He was a nice horse, who was always nice to me, and, I wanted him to have a good home,” Murrell says.
And so it is.
Exporter now lives on Purdom’s 22-acre farm, which is situated across the street from Ocala Stud, and three miles from the TRF facility where Mason-Suares found a path to a life she never imagined.
“I’d never been around horses a day in my life before I went into the TRF program,” Mason-Suares says. “It’s so crazy when I think of the opportunities that have come to me because of the program. I’m getting chills just talking about it. I feel so blessed.”