The New York Times August 10, 2003

Partners, Horse and Man, in Prison Pasture


WALLKILL, N.Y., Aug. 7 About nine years ago, a chestnut thoroughbred named Creme de la Fete was assigned a new groom, Efrain Silva. He gave the horse antibiotics, scrubbed his mane and forelegs, dewormed him and, in Mr. Silva's estimation, prolonged his life for about three years.

But when Creme, as he affectionately called the horse, grew old and weak, Mr. Silva was not ready for it. Creme had become his second family, the only living being he had any meaningful relationship with on many afternoons.

Told that Creme, a former racehorse, had been euthanized while he was at lunch one afternoon, Mr. Silva wept openly in front of his fellow inmates in the mess hall at the Wallkill Correctional Facility, the medium-security state prison here.

"I fell in love with that horse," said Mr. Silva, who was sentenced to 15 years to life for shooting a man to death while intoxicated in front of a Bronx liquor store in 1981. "The day I met him, I looked into his eyes. I says: `I'm going to take care of you, Creme. You watch.' "

Through a partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the nation's largest and oldest thoroughbred-rescue operation, the prison has operated a work program for the past 18 years for inmates to care for the former champions, runners-up and perennial losers. Most of them no longer have practical economic value other than the $600 a meat buyer might pay before they come to a pasture in upstate New York to live out their years.

Some of the horses had been discarded, left for dead in their stables before being rescued by the foundation and turned over to the program's director, Jim Tremper, and his 18-inmate crew.

"If we didn't get to them, they would be pet food or on someone's plate in Europe," Mr. Tremper said.

He said he had seen the thoroughbreds change the prisoners' lives as much as they changed the horses'.

"Especially the more violent guys," Mr. Tremper said. "A lot of them have intimidated people with their size in their lives, and they seem to respect the power and strength of the animal. It humbles many of them."

The program is less rehabilitation therapy than hard labor on many afternoons. Still, the inmates who care for the horses need to exhibit good behavior, usually for two years, and have three years or less before their earliest release date to be assigned to the program. Wallkill is their last or next-to-last place of incarceration before parole.

At Wallkill, amid meadows strewn with clover and dandelion and the looming guard tower of the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, an adjacent maximum-security prison, men who had never seen a horse now feed and wash Quick Call, a well-mannered Saratoga favorite who won at least one race two hours north of Wallkill every year from 1987 through 1990. In 86 starts, he won 16 races and earned $807,817.

"Yo, Quick got to be tired of all this fame," said Lorenzo Parker, tugging gently on the stud shank by which the horse is led. "We did Reader's Digest last week." Mr. Parker, who is serving time for an attempted robbery conviction, walked the horse toward a burbling hose on a humid, sticky afternoon, stroking Quick Call's chin. "If you never make a million in life, at least you can stand next to a million," he said.

Promised Road, the first horse rescued by the foundation in 1984, is still at Wallkill a gentle, regal bay at 27 years old.

Klabin's Gold, son of Strike the Gold and Splendid Launch, resides up the hill. Few horses represent the unseemly side of the industry more than he does. Klabin's Gold was found 100 pounds underweight with three fractured legs in December in his stall at Suffolk Downs, a minor track in Boston. His hooves were so long that the horseshoes had imbedded themselves in the bottom of his feet.

"When the farrier came to take the shoes off, he had to gradually work the foot back to a normal shape," said Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

None of the prisoners knew of Klabin's Gold's past, just as the horse has no conception of the inmates' past.

"Neither of them care," Mr. Tremper said.

Klabin's Gold had won the 1998 Hirsch Jacobs Stakes at Pimlico and ended up with career earnings of $346,179. In 55 starts, he won 11 times, finished second 13 times and finished third 7 times. He last raced in March 2002, finishing last of seven in a $6,250 claimer.

His story is like most of the horses here who stopped winning, placing or showing.

Banker's Jet, who earned close to $1 million, was found standing up to his knees in manure at a riding ranch in upstate New York before he was rescued and found a better life in a pasture of inmates.

Concerns about the fate of retired thoroughbreds grew last month when it was reported that Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic champion, was slaughtered last year in Japan, where his carcass was most likely used for pet food.

Exceller met a similar end. He outran Affirmed and Seattle Slew to win the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, becoming the only horse to defeat two Triple Crown winners. But after a failed breeding career, Exceller was killed in 1997 and sold for horse meat in Sweden.

In 2002, a federal bill that would ban the sale, transportation and slaughter of horses for human consumption was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill has been assigned to an Agriculture Committee subcommittee, where it remains under consideration.

According to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the number of horses of all breeds slaughtered in the United States has been steadily declining for more than a decade from nearly 350,000 in the late 1980's to about 60,000 in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. But the federal government keeps no records of equine abuse.

"Nobody in this business wants to treat their horses badly, but there is an economic low point at these smaller tracks and fairs," Ms. Pikulski said. "In the case of Klabin's Gold, the fact that the guy held on to the horse so that we could take the horse from him is to his credit."

About 30,000 thoroughbreds are born each year, but the racing industry does not keep an accurate count of horses retired. The foundation estimates the number to be 3,000 to 5,000 in any given year. Only the famous are likely to get comfortable retirements.

"John Henry and any horse that made someone $6 million are fine on some farm in Kentucky," Mr. Tremper said. "Do they have a horse that made $140? They're not going to take any old cripples that don't race anymore."

Wallkill's facade looks more like a gothic monastery than a prison. Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of an architect, designed the prison, which was completed in 1932. Canada geese, fox and pheasant were its most unpredictable animal life until the thoroughbreds arrived in 1984.

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was founded by Monique Koehler, who owned an advertising agency in New York before moving it to New Jersey. She persuaded the breeders and owners of Secretariat, Kelso and Forego to contribute to a fund for less-fortunate retired thoroughbreds. Seed money came from a $200,000 fund-raiser at Belmont Park in 1983.

When the foundation began looking to buy land, Ms. Koehler learned that prison systems owned thousands of lush and sometimes unused acres. From there, the marriage of inmates and retired racehorses seemed perfect: rundown souls in need of a second chance.

The foundation also has partnerships with the Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, Ky., and the Marion County Correctional Institution in Lowell, Fla.

The inmates in the program at Wallkill earn 95 cents a day or $9.50 every two weeks to take care of the thoroughbreds. Inmates working Wallkill's dairy farm, which produces milk for the prison, can make up to $65 every two weeks and that rankles those in the horse program.

Four former inmates have gone on to work at racetracks and a few went to private stables, Mr. Tremper said.

Mr. Tremper said he had not had many problems with inmates in the program, although he said two squared off with pitchforks several years ago. Most of the time, he sees connections made that he was not sure were possible in this environment. Most of the inmates who care for the horses are from the inner cities.

Mr. Silva stood in a pasture Wednesday afternoon, massaging iodine shampoo into the infected hoof of Extended Forecast, a horse with one victory in his career. He and other inmates gently bandaged the horse.

Mr. Silva said he used to be a drinker who had no control over his rage. About 6 a.m. one day in 1981, after he had been up all night drinking, Mr. Silva said, he fired at least three shots into an unarmed man waiting for a liquor store to open. Mr. Silva said the man kept fidgeting and reaching into his pocket, and in his drunken state he convinced himself the man had a gun.

"That was 22 years ago," Mr. Silva said. "I look back, I wish he would've shot me."

Now he is 66. The young man whose life was drowning in alcohol is now an elderly man stroking the underbelly of a horse.

When Creme de le Fete was near the end, with a tumor in his thyroid, Mr. Silva spent more time with the horse. "I used to take him out, bathe him, whatever he needed," Mr. Silva said. "I knew he knew me. I still miss him."