Second Stride board member Paul Rutherford works with Wicked Cool, a retired racehorse, on Sunday afternoon.
Second Stride board member Paul Rutherford works with Wicked Cool, a retired racehorse, on Sunday afternoon.

May 9, 2017

Louisville, Ky.

Even a wicked cool horse needs a friend. The pageantry of the Kentucky Derby, the draining of mint juleps and showcasing of stylish hats, the strutting of man-as-peacock suits, is at its 144-year-old core built on the heavy-hoofed work of horses — celebrated animals in the sport of kings.

But life is not all finish-line roses and stud-farm duty for Kentucky racehorses. The business is rough and tumble and racing is at times cruel.

So what happens to the horse with a bum leg, spent career or a missing eye?

Some outcomes aren’t so storybook.

But many injured and older racehorses end up at the nonprofit Second Stride, a horse farm east of Louisville, in the rolling Kentucky countryside where thoroughbreds are as common as corn along Highway 30 in western Iowa.

At Second Stride, these horses, whether rich in pedigree or long on odds, are retrained and rehabilitated for a life off the track.

“They are either injured or slow or just too old to compete,” said Paul Rutherford, secretary of the Second Stride Board of Directors, and a frequent volunteer at the farm.

Last Sunday, Second Stride housed 11 horses in recovery. (The farm can keep a couple of dozen.) Once they are ready, the horses are sent to adoptive farms across the United States, including in Iowa.

“Iowa would be perfect because it is so cool up there,” Rutherford said of the preferred climate for thoroughbreds.

Which brings us to Wicked Cool, a 4-year-old thoroughbred gelding bred in Kentucky.

“He’s super cool,” Rutherford said.

The horse endured a fractured hip, meaning this once promising super horse (which never raced) is now on the hunt for lighter work, say as a trail horse for equine lovers who’d love nothing more than to ride him on a farm.

Second Stride placed 150 horses around the nation in 2016. Costs to adopt the horses now available on the recovery farm can range from $350 to $1,600.

One fan favorite at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday was Patch, a one-eyed horse who finished out of the money, but inspired millions of race fans.

“We have a one-eyed horse, just like Patch,” Rutherford said. “One-eyed horses have big hearts.”

As Rutherford showed off 7-year-old Beat the Storm, he observed that, like people, the horse has a preferred angle for a profile photo.

“That’s the good side,” Rutherford said of Storm’s appeal from the right. “The other side, he looks like a pirate.”

Most of the horses at Second Stride were bred for the track, and habits and biology are challenging to break. Beat the Storm won $53,000 for his owners before succumbing to injury.

“At the racetrack they go fast and they turn left and that’s all they know,” Rutherford said.

But, Rutherford said, these animals are smart, adaptive and tough. An Iowa winter may be just the ticket for Wicked Cool or Beat the Storm.

Editor’s Note: Paul Rutherford is a 1991 graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and an assistant county attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. He attended college with Douglas Burns, the author of this article. Burns and Rutherford regularly attend the Kentucky Derby.