Jul 10, 12:00 am ED
By JIM SUHR Associated Press Writer
MILLSTADT, Ill.(AP)‚ÄîAs the other thoroughbreds broke from the gate, dark bay Buck awkwardly started his first race with a jittery hop and wobble that left him running last among the 11 horses.
That the gelding‚Äôs thundering strides down the homestretch rallied him to a fourth-place finish may not have been the most remarkable thing that day last September at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago.
The miracle is that Buck lived to race at all.
Just two years earlier, he was a yearling packed among dozens of other horses in a trailer destined for slaughter in Mexico. Horse-loving Margo Sutter bought him, sparing him and two of the other animals.
Gimpy from a swollen ankle and punctured shoulder, Buck didn‚Äôt have much value and few imagined he would stage such a remarkable comeback. But this is a testament to the power of second chances.
Buck isn‚Äôt living out his days in a pasture, a perhaps typical destination for a rescued horse.
Once timid but now oozing with confidence, the dark brown thoroughbred with black points is a racehorse – an average one but one whose best showing in five races came in May, when he finished third at Arlington Park while running as Letdetrumpetblare. And he has become the face of Sutter‚Äôs horse-rescue operation near Millstadt, outside St. Louis, with his more than $3,000 in winnings funneled back into Sutter‚Äôs cash-strapped efforts to find loving homes for some 50 horses.
Dozens of horse-rescue ranches dot America‚Äôs landscape, each intent on sparing animals a trip to a rendering plant. Efforts to save horses have gotten increasing notice in recent years, often from animal-rights activists pressing for a U.S. ban on exportation of horses for slaughter. The plight of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who broke down during the Preakness and spent the next eight months battling for his life, brought the issue nationwide attention.
To Sutter, Buck‚Äôs story offers the hope of a modern-day Seabiscuit, the undersized thoroughbred that buoyed the spirits of a Depression-era nation.
‚ÄúFrom his journey from where he started to where he went with this professional career, I couldn‚Äôt be more proud if I owned Secretariat,‚Äù Sutter said.
Fathered by a one-time racehorse, Buck‚Äôs prospects looked perilous in 2007 when Sutter caught wind that nine horses, including the injured Buck, had been bought for $200 piece at an area paddock sale by a supplier under contract to a Mexican slaughterhouse.
‚ÄúBecause of the foot being injured, him limping and the swelling, nobody wanted to take a chance on him,‚Äù Sutter said.
She called the hauler, wanting to buy seven of the horses. The man told her she could have only three for $1,000 apiece – an $800 markup on each animal. Sutter laid down the cash for a mare she named Little Red Ferrari and two baby horses she fiercely protected – Buck and a 2-year-old she dubbed Sassifrass Gal.
The deal propelled Sutter into starting Mid America Horse Rescue. When she sleeps, she ‚Äúcan still think of the faces of the four horses that I couldn‚Äôt get.‚Äù
Rescuing Buck ‚Äúwas a life-altering moment for me,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúI saved Buck, and Buck saved me.‚Äù
Sutter found the colt instantly endearing.
‚ÄúHe had these big, soft, soulful brown eyes,‚Äù she said. And a big head and big feet that seemed unmatched with his long, lanky body, fanning Sutter‚Äôs belief that Buck was destined to be a behemoth.
‚ÄúI just fell in love with him,‚Äù Sutter said.
Over time, Buck grew into that big noggin. And he kept growing. To Sutter, a racehorse was born.
‚ÄúThe older and bigger he got, the bigger his personality got,‚Äù Sutter said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs terribly affectionate, very confident and loves being the center of attention.‚Äù
After being sent off in August 2008 for about five months of conditioning in Oklahoma, Buck returned to Sutter and eventually was sent to be trained for racing near Chicago.
Buck‚Äôs coming out party came in the seventh race at Arlington Park last Sept. 24, when the rookie wobbled out of the stall like a drunken man‚Äôs stumble. Buck ran dead last until the final turn, when Sutter thought the horse had an epiphany.
‚ÄúYou could see from where we were that it clicked in his eyes. It was like, ‚ÄòI am a racehorse. This is what I‚Äôm supposed to be doing,‚Äù‚Äô Sutter said. His homestretch rally for fourth – and a $1,740 check – left Sutter jumping in tearful pride.
‚ÄúIt was amazing,‚Äù Sutter said. ‚ÄúHe loved it. If he would have been hanging his head like, ‚ÄòUgh, I was forced to do this,‚Äô that would have been a different story. But Buck was fully engaged. His neck was arched, his eyes were bright.
‚ÄúHe had this big goofy look on his face like he was so pleased with himself. He just pranced in like, ‚ÄòHow‚Äôd I do, how‚Äôd I do?‚Äù‚Äô
His races since have run the gamut – a fifth-place showing, followed by a last-place finish in December. In May, Buck grabbed third and earned $1,155.
‚ÄúIf the third-place finish is the best Buck will ever do, Buck has won the Breeder‚Äôs Cup in my eyes,‚Äù Sutter said.
Yet exactly a month later at Arlington Park, in a race following one won by another rescued horse, Buck finished next to last after jumping as the gates opened to start the eight-horse run.
It just wasn‚Äôt Buck‚Äôs day, his jockey shrugged.
‚ÄúIt was like he wasn‚Äôt ever in it,‚Äù James Graham said. ‚ÄúHe didn‚Äôt shift gears. That‚Äôs not like him.‚Äù
No biggie to Sutter.
‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt matter in my eyes if we win, lose or draw. It‚Äôs about the horses, their mission, their calling,‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúHe is never going to be a major winner on a race track and we know that. He enjoys his sport, gives it his all, and he comes back happy.‚Äù
Mid America Horse Rescue: http://www.midamericahorserescue.org