By: Fran LaBelle
Valerie Fisher Lassman had taken the two-hour drive from Gainesville, FL, to her home in
DeLand many times over the years. This time, she was looking for a diversion.
She was certain she had found it in a shortcut that would not only save her time and miles,
but would allow her to take in the scenic central Florida countryside.
“I got off of the main highway and just wanted to enjoy the ride,” recalled Valerie, a retired
professor of American Literature and English for Foreign Language Students at Mercy College
in Miami and later, Seminole State College. “It was very rural, very pretty and as I was driving, I
noticed all of these beautiful horses on this hilly property. I pulled over and walked over to the
fence. This big chestnut horse walked over to me, and we just stared at each other. We connected
The horse had made an impression, even if Valerie didn’t know his name. When she got
home, Valerie set out to learn more about these horses, and this one in particular. She discovered
that they belonged to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Farm at the
Lowell Correctional Institution just outside of Ocala.
When she also learned that TRF offered adoption, sponsorship, and foster programs for its
herd members, Valerie was hooked.
“I contacted Lowell’s farm manager at that time (Betty Bock) and said that I wanted to find
out the name of the horse I had seen over the fence,” Valerie said. “We went up there and she
took us by the paddock. It didn’t take long for me to yell out, `That’s the one!’”
Dancing Demon wasn’t all that hard to find. He stood 17.1 hands tall.
What also stood out about Dancing Demon was how sweet a horse he was, despite having
been put to the test during his career and again after he was through racing. He had made 50
starts with a record of 11-6-4 and more than $106,000 in earnings. His retirement started out well,
but then got worse.
“He had been passed from a good farm to a mediocre farm to starvation to a slaughterhouse
parking lot before winding up with the TRF,” Valerie said. “He had been involved in a
devastating fall on the track, had broken his jaw and fused his fetlock. Yet, it wasn’t until he
joined TRF that his jaw was fixed; he had gone a long time with a broken jaw. He was skin and
bones when he joined the TRF. As soon as he joined the TRF, he was sent to the University of
Florida and his jaw was repaired there.”
All of this happened before their chance meeting in 2003, two years after `Dancing’
joined TRF at Lowell. Valerie and her husband, Harold “Harry” Lassman, a prominent eminent
domain attorney who has since retired, adopted him from Lowell and brought him to a farm near
their home in Deland. They spent the next several years making sure that `Dancing’ was happy,
“We couldn’t go a day without seeing him,” Valerie said. “We would go after work and stay
until around 10 at night. He couldn’t stand to be in his stall and needed an open paddock and an
open shed. His veterinarian lived next door and when they put `Dancing’ in the big paddock, the vet would bring his son over and they would just sit and watch `Dancing’ because he liked to
race around and then slide to a stop.”
But trouble found him at his new home as well.
“I always looked him over, and one day, I noticed that his left eye was very red,” Valerie said. “It turned out to be cancer in his eye. He had to have surgery, and during the surgery, he suddenly
woke up and took off, with the surgical clamp still dangling from near his eye. But he got
through that, too.”
Dancing Demon remained close to Valerie, but that changed when the farm’s owner suffered
an injury and had to shut down operations in 2010. Fortunately, once a horse joins the TRF herd,
it is always welcome back if situations change. Dancing Demon returned to Lowell, and the
Lassmans became his sponsor. They visited him regularly, and always with plenty of snacks.
Dancing Demon died on March 26, 2017, of a heart attack. He was 22 and his passing was
heartbreaking for Valerie.
“There was a prisoner at Lowell named ‘Hogan’ who cared for Dancing Demon when he first
came to TRF,” Valerie said. “He was released right before we took `Dancing’ and he left us a
note saying how taking care of `Dancing’ had changed his life for the better.”
Valerie was still feeling the loss of her horse when John Evans called. Evans had taken over
as Second Chances Farm Manager at Lowell in 2005, and had become good friends with Valerie
and her husband over the years. A lifelong horseman, Evans had worked for the late Arthur I.
Appleton, owner of Bridlewood Farm. Appleton had bred and raced more than 90 stakes
winners, including, Forbidden Apple, Florida’s 2002 Horse of the Year. Now 27, Forbidden
Apple has been at TRF’s Second Chances at Lowell since 2013.
Evans knew a good horse when he saw one.
“It wasn’t even a year after `Dancing’ passed away. John told me he had another horse for
me,” Valerie said. “John told me that he was the nicest horse at Lowell, so, we went up and he
introduced us to Dirtymoposse. He was not as big as `Dancing,’ but he ruled the paddock”.
What he lacked in size, Dirtymoposse, made up for in color. His former trainer, Greg Griffith,
a big NASCAR fan, named this Florida-bred after driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘s nickname for his
fans. The horse became his trainer’s favorite, at one time owning two records at Tampa Bay
Downs and winning the Reappeal Stakes at Calder Racecourse in 2006. He made 49 career
starts and earned just under $180,000.
`Posse’ is now 21 and gets regular visits from the Lassmans.
“We visit `Posse’ and take him tons of apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, and peanut butter
sandwiches,” Valerie said. “He was just what I needed after `Dancing.’ I always look back on
that shortcut I took years ago as `The Road to Dancing’ that eventually led us to `Posse.’
“Taking that shortcut was the best thing I have ever done because my years with `Dancing’
are precious and unforgettable. When he died, I turned my grief into continuing to go and be part
of the farm I love so much. And then `Posse’ came into my life. He helped ease the pain of loss
and he is my comfort and joy.”
Valerie’s experience as an adopter and sponsor has naturally turned her into a volunteer and
advocate for TRF. She enjoys her visits to Lowell, which is now an all-women facility, and she
appreciates the quality of care given to the horses.
“I have a particular fondness for horses that have retired from racing, and I want to share
Dancing’s legacy,” she said. “We have heard from so many inmates that took care of Dancing
how much he affected their lives. All of them have said that they couldn’t believe all that
`Dancing’ had gone through and yet he still remained kind and forgiving, He showed them that,
maybe, they could do that, too.”