Friday, October 24, 2014

Just Wait Til Next Year: Shoes Off, On, and Off Again as Shoeless Senior Racehorse Tahoe Warrior is Claimed and Re-Claimed

Barefoot Thoroughbred Synthetic Surfaces
Some older horses race once or twice a year. It's a big deal when they run. Tahoe Warrior started 11 times between April and September in his 11th year. 

Once upon a time there was a barefoot racehorse.  Now, that's interesting.

Once upon a time there was an 11-year-old racehorse who started 11 times in his 11th year.  Now, that's interesting, too.

What's even more interesting is that they are the same horse. 

What a year 11-year-old Tahoe Warrior had in 2014. For some reason, I started following this particular older runner when he won the last race of the day on a Wednesday at the end of the Keeneland meet in October 2013. I thought no one was paying attention but me; he paid $40 on a $2 bet.

Fran Jurga
As soon as I reported on the fact that an aged gelding without shoes named Tahoe Warrior had won, I found out that I wasn't the only one watching. 

As it turns out, lots of people remember Tahoe Warrior, even if they met him for the first time last week or last month. But with others, the memories go way back.

On the backstretch, everyone knows him. They've either trained him or ridden him or cleaned his stall or hotwalked him or shod him or hauled him to the next track--or know someone who did.

He's like one of those Sixties rock stars playing the small town clubs, but he's still showing up and once in a while, he breaks into a heck of a solo, earns a respectable paycheck, and creates a little feel-good buzz around the backstretch or on the Internet. Tahoe Warrior is good for what ails the public image of horse racing.

Tahoe Warrior's lifetime earnings are almost up to a tidy half million and he's earned at least half of it the hard way, in small checks. His lifetime starts are almost up to a nice round 100. In his career, he has been trained by such notable conditioners as Todd Pletcher and Linda Rice, been ridden by top jockeys like Edgar Prado, and has raced from New York to Florida and everywhere in between.

Rock and Racehorses Delaware Park Sarah K Andrew
Tahoe Warrior as a four-year-old at Delaware Park in 2007, when he was trained by Todd Pletcher. Photo courtesy of Sarah K. Andrew/

He was a credible contender in the Lane's End Stakes, a Kentucky Derby prep race, in 2006 for Pletcher. In 2010, he won the $100,000 Umphrey Turf Sprint at Calder while earning his stall in Rudy Rodriguez's barn. In less than ten years on the track, he's lived in ten different trainers' barns, according to trainer Wayne Rice, who came to own Tahoe Warrior through his sister, New York trainer Linda Rice, in the spring of 2011.

Off came the shoes, and three years of artificial surface training and racing extended his career under Rice's unorthodox program. According to Rice, removing the shoes and rehabilitating the feet is a lot like the Greek slave Androcles pulling that thorn out of the lion's paw in the old Aesops Fable.

At both Keeneland and Presque Isle, Tahoe Warrior ran on an artificial surface, ideal for a horse that runs best without shoes, for a trainer who prefers not to shoe his horses and maybe for an older horse who needs all the help he can get. In the winter, he can condition on an artificial track at Ocala Breeders Sales in Florida before returning north to begin the cycle again.

A twist of fate

Like clockwork, Tahoe Warrior's name showed up as an entry in a race at either Keeneland or Presque Isle Downs every three weeks. I tracked his entries online after that October 2013 race, and watched his races in the middle of weekday afternoons while at work via

But then the strangest thing happened.  On August 4, Wayne Rice sent Tahoe Warrior to the post in a claiming race at Presque Isle. He finished fourth, but he went back to a different barn that night. Trainer Dale Capuano claimed Tahoe Warrior for $7,500 for owner Richard Vermilion.

Wayne Rice wasn't happy. Dale Capuano claimed four of Rice's 30 runners this year. Rice admits that he takes chances with losing his horses whenever they run. "I run my horses where they can win," he lamented, referring to the lower claiming prices that put a horse at risk. "But I claimed three out of four of them back."

The gelding continued to run on the Tapeta surface at Presque Isle under Capuano's management, which apparently included shoes, because his name no longer appeared on the shoeless declaration list.

There went my story. With shoes on, Tahoe Warrior was just a curiosity, an aged racehorse who should be over the hill, but keeps showing up.

On August 26, exactly according to schedule, Tahoe Warrior ran in Capuano's silks; he finished third. But then came a shorter turnaround: he was entered in a race two weeks later, again wearing shoes on the Presque Isle Tapeta surface. 

And he won.

This story could end right here. Could Tahoe Warrior win an award for being the only horse to win races with and without shoes in the same year?

But the punch line is that after that victory, Wayne Rice claimed him back.

Tahoe Warrior was a little sore at first when Wayne Rice pulled Capuano's shoes off him, but he was able to squeeze in one last shoeless race with Tahoe Warrior in his colors before the Presque Isle meet ended. He finished a credible fourth to end the year.

Have you ever seen a 10-year-old horse win a race? How about a barefoot horse? Here's Tahoe Warrior, ridden by his able jockey Arienne Cox, winning at Keeneland a year ago, when he was ten and shoeless.

Winter quarters

Wayne Rice told me later that he once had a 13-year-old racehorse, Blue Mon, claimed from him. Tahoe Warrior doesn't seem old to him. In fact, he'd like to race Tahoe Warrior until he's 15. "I'm very fortunate to get to play with horses like him," Rice said.

How much does age matter? The winningest Standardbred pacer in the United States last year was 14-year-old Anvil Raider, who is available for adoption, by the way, after forced retirement when he turned 15. At 14, he won 23 races.

According to the Daily Racing Form, in 2010 we had 169 11-year-olds, 54 12-year-olds and 14 13-year-olds starting at least once at Thoroughbred tracks in the United States. It would be interesting to know how many are running on synthetic tracks. 

Tahoe Warrior is only one of many senior horses in 2014, but he is one who has been racing regularly, without long layoffs. 

With the return of Keeneland to a dirt surface this fall, Wayne Rice and Tahoe Warrior had nowhere to run when Presque Isle's meet ended on September 25. It meant an early start for the annual winter layoff in a field somewhere in Florida for the old man. 

He finished 2014 with two wins,  two seconds, two thirds, and two fourths out of 11 starts. He earned $37,765. He has now started 95 times in his career, and earned $470,011. He had 15 starts in 2013, including the fall meet, which had to be missed in 2014 because of the surface change.

With every article I write about Tahoe Warrior I think, "This one will surely be the last one." Each time he runs, I try to post his race results and shoe status on the Hoofcare and Lameness Facebook page, in case it turns out to be his last or in case there is anyone else out there who remembers his name, or in case there is someone who wants to learn about this horse for the first time.

Because it's never been too late for Tahoe Warrior. Just wait until next year!

In part 2 of this article, you'll read about trainer Wayne Rice and his shoeless (unless they're needed) management, training and racing of 30 horses at Keeneland and Presque Isle Downs.

To learn more:
Shoeless in Lexington: Polytrack Podiatry at Keeneland's Last Artificial Surface Meet
Oldest Living Thoroughbred Tells All by Eliza McGraw on Raceday 360
How old is too old for a racehorse? by Marcus Hersh in the Daily Racing Form
Those beloved battle tested warriors! thread on the Chronicle of the Horse forum
Winningest pacer of 2013, Anvil Raider N, now ready for his second career
Androcles and the Lion (Aesop's Fables)

Thanks to Wayne Rice, Arienne Cox, Wendy Uzelac Wooley of Equisport Photos, Sarah K. Andrew of Rock and Racehorses, and so many others at Keeneland who helped with this article or remembered Tahoe Warrior.
Denoix Biomechanics book
Click here to go to reference book ordering information

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