The Captain bows out in the Bluegrass

cover photo by Dean Hoffman

by Dean Hoffman

Captaintreacherous, last season’s Pacer of the Year, will retire on Thursday in a ceremony at The Red Mile, the historic harness track in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass.

Retirement for a race horse of his stature doesn’t mean that he gets awarded a gold watch and spends the rest of his life in a rocking chair. To the contrary, Captaintreacherous will be a busy boy in his retirement as he begins breeding duties next winter at Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania. He is almost assured of breeding about 150 mares.

It is altogether fitting and proper, as a famous Kentuckian once said on another occasion, that Captaintreacherous should retire at The Red Mile because he raced there four times in his career and won all four of those races. Last fall he was nothing short of spectacular in winning in consecutive weeks in 1:47.1 and back in 1:47.2, the latter effort coming in his courageous victory over Vegas Vacation in the Tattersalls Pace.

In his career, “The Captain,” as he is widely known, won 23 of 33 starts and earned more than $3.1 million.

Lexington’ Red Mile racetrack has hosted many retirement ceremonies as it provides a showcase for the stars of the harness sport. There is always an appreciative audience of horsemen, breeders, and fans at the races there each fall.

Not all horses merit a retirement ceremony when they retire, of course, just as few baseball players are feted upon their retirement as Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees has been recently. Much like Captaintreacherous, Jeter is an athlete whose career was filled with extraordinary accomplishments. Superstars have earned the accolades and applause they get upon retirement.

It’s wonderful when tracks, such as The Red Mile, make the effort to salute a champion as it leaves the sport. Often the retirement ceremony is timed to coincide with the star’s final race. When the retiring hero wins, that makes the moment all the more special. Every star likes to go out on the top his game, as Jeter did with his game-winning hit in his final appearance at Yankee Stadium.

Sometimes, however, planning a retirement ceremony for a horse’s final race can backfire. Bret Hanover was the greatest pacer of the 1960s, named Horse of the Year each of the three seasons he raced. He came into his final race in the American Pacing Classic at Hollywood Park in California as the winner of 62 of his 67 career starts. The track had the retirement party all set to go.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line. Bret Hanover got beat. He got beat by True Duane, who was a year younger than Bret. You’ve never seen a sadder looking group of celebrants in the winner’s circle than Bret’s connections at his retirement party.

Females and less famous horses usually don’t get retirement ceremonies, but when the resplendent mare Moni Maker left the track (again at The Red Mile) for the final time in 2000, she was given a rousing send- off by her adoring fans.

The vast majority of racehorses, like most people, retire with little fuss or fanfare. When they are no longer competitive at the races, they simply quietly disappear from the track. Historically these horses have been out of sight and often out of mind.

In recent years, however, the racing community has rallied to assure that Standardbreds have a comfortable and dignified retirement. Just because a horse can no longer rip off a fast mile on the track doesn’t mean that its useful years are behind it. Standardbreds are amazingly adaptable animals and can be “employed” in many areas, including simply serving as a companion for other horses.

Some retired Standardbreds serve gallantly as pleasure horses in many different ways and there are special horse shows restricted to registered Standardbreds. Standardbreds have competed in endurance riding, dressage, barrel racing, and jumping.

Many Standardbreds have served as mounts for urban police officers. They can be relied upon by law enforcement officials to be dependable and safe in chaotic conditions.

The equanimity that most Standardbreds display when in a crowd or unusual environment is an asset that many riders have come to value.

A Standardbred horse even participated in the funeral cortege of President Reagan in 2004. Allaboard Jules, a pacer that won five races in 23 starts on the track, was assigned the role of the riderless horse walking behind Reagan’s casket in the procession.

So the “second careers” of many Standardbreds are extremely varied. They may not be making headlines on the track, but they are making people happy in other ways. And they are enjoying a dignified and productive retirement.

Captaintreacherous will make his contributions to harness racing by siring champions of the future.

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