Life After Racing: King Mufasa

God’s Gift

King Mufasa is a blessing to the children he teaches in his new profession

Standardbreds are consistently showing their versatility, whether it’s for riding or driving, for show or pleasure. Hoof Beats is happy to share stories from readers about their favorite retired Standardbreds. This month, Kimberly French writes about King Mufasa, a retired racing trotter who now serves as a teaching horse for young riders.

Harness racing is most certainly a business, but horses come along and capture peoples’ hearts for a multitude of reasons. While many horses and humans overcome various types of adversity on a regular basis, there are very few equines that survive a collision with a tractor trailer, make a successful return to the races and then engage in another successful career upon retirement.

King Mufasa, however, is not just any horse. Despite his compact physique, the 9-year-old son of Powerful Emotion – Foxy N Diamonds truly emanates the bravery and valor that not only saved his life, but demonstrate why he is considered a gift from God to his new connections and the children he now teaches natural horsemanship in his new line of work (even though Tim and Georgia Pflederer required a bit of persuading to bring the 2013 Illinois Horse of the Year to his new home at Prairie Creek Ranch three years ago).

“He is a fabulous horse,” said Georgia, a Tremont, Ill., resident. “You could spin a Disney movie out of his life. He represents what Standardbreds can do and is an absolute dream. We are thankful every day he came into our lives.”

Purchased for $12,000 at the 2011 Walker Standardbred Sale by Dennis Lakomy’s Mystical Marker Farms and Bill Wright, King Mufasa went through the ring under the name Powerful Jo Jo. Little did his connections realize how the brown colt would come to illustrate all the characteristics of his namesake from the award-winning 1994 Disney film The Lion King.

As a freshman, King Mufasa did not openly display what he was capable of on the racetrack. While under the care and guidance of trainer Joel Smith, the gelding went to the gate on eight occasions with two wins, a second and $9,542 in the bank.

“The owners were concerned because he had gotten a little rank last year, had some sickness issues and was bleeding a little bit,” his trainer Mike Brink said in 2013. “I don’t think it was one issue in particular, but they opted to quit with him and turn him out because they thought he had potential. They called me around October and asked me if I would take him. All I really did was try to keep him calmed down. We jogged him slowly all winter with a hood on and kept him away from horses to try to keep him relaxed. We did that for a couple months and he just kind of calmed down on his own.”

Whether it was a combination of his owners’ faith in his ability, his new trainer’s care or King Mufasa simply coming into his own will never be known. What became apparent, however, was the dramatic improvement he demonstrated during his 3-year-old season.

King Mufasa collected $238,590 in purses, captured 12 consecutive races and set his lifetime mark of 1:53.4. His triumphs included the $50,800 Cardinal Stake, the $37,100 Hanover Stake, the $51,000 Kadabra Stake, the $45,000 Illinois State Fair final, the $124,000 Su Mac Lad final and the $31,100 Circle City. He was honored as the Prairie State’s Horse of the Year.

“Normally, we sell our horses after their 3-year-old season,” co-owner Wright said. “We were going to put him in the Harrisburg sale that fall, but we thought he was so special. It wasn’t just because he was the Horse of the Year, but because of his personality. We thought as long as he was healthy and happy, we would continue racing him in the Midwest as an older horse.”

Traditionally, a 4-year-old campaign can be one of transition for any horse as they must compete with more seasoned rivals outside of their own age group. King Mufasa commenced his 2014 season with two wins in five starts split between Balmoral Park and Hoosier Park. His connections intended to return the gelding to Hoosier on July 12, but instead of demonstrating his courage against fellow competitors, King Mufasa was waging a battle for survival at the Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“I will never forget when I received the phone call that the truck and trailer with him and Mike’s assistant trainer, Jeff Kirk, was hit by a semi,” Wright said. “They were on the way to Hoosier and there was a rain storm. The accident just happened. Actually, no one really knew the circumstances and Jeff was shaken up very badly. He wanted to stay with the horse and they wanted to take him to the hospital. That’s when I called my son, Craig, because he could get there faster than anyone else, including Mike, so someone could be with ‘the King.’”

Craig arrived on the scene roughly an hour after the accident occurred and was not prepared for what awaited him.

“Before I could even get to the King, the police told me he had to be put down, but he was nowhere in sight,” he said. “The collision was so severe the truck was overturned and the trailer was ejected into a thicket where you could not even see it from the highway. I had to push my way through brush just to get him.

“The roof had been ripped off, the trailer itself was all twisted metal and it was under a tree. He was just standing there still as could be, but there was blood everywhere from all the metal and debris flying that had cut him to shreds. His face was all bloody and the blood kept pouring out, but I just went to him to hold his head. I still cannot believe he didn’t move a muscle.”

Wielding chainsaws and blowtorches, rescue personnel spent five hours freeing King Mufasa from what was previously his trailer.

“I walked him to the horse ambulance,” Craig said. “He could barely move. It was the most pitiful, frightening thing I will ever see and I have never seen an animal show that kind of courage or intelligence.”

The veterinary team from Purdue supplied emergency care on the scene, but they realized King Mufasa’s injuries were much more severe than superficial cuts from the wreckage.

“Once stable, a bone scan was performed and showed no evidence of bone damage elsewhere,” Dr. Caroline Gillespie said. “His wound consisted of a deep laceration to the inside of his left hind pastern. This laceration entered the coffin joint, pastern joint and tendon sheath. The tendons and ligaments that were lacerated included the medial branch of the superficial digital flexor tendon (complete), the medial collateral ligament of the pastern (complete), and the deep digital flexor (partial). He had lacerations elsewhere on his body that were cared for, but that were not nearly as serious.”

The staff at Purdue explained to Brink and Wright that King Mufasa could never return to the racetrack, but neither man cared about continuing his career. All they wanted was to keep the gelding alive.

“I just wanted him to live and we could pamper him for the rest of his days in a pasture,” Wright said. “I told them to do anything in the world they needed to as long as he was not in pain. It was already amazing he was still with us.”

King Mufasa resided at the clinic for 44 days and after responding very well to the treatment provided by the veterinary team defied the grim prognosis that was initially issued. After being discharged, he was sent to Brink’s barn. The goal was not to place him back in training, but merely to restore his health.

The gelding, however, had other ideas. After several months of stall rest, King Mufasa was walking perfectly sound and there was no swelling at the site of his injury. In fact, other than a few grey hairs, the trauma the horse endured was not outwardly evident.

After finally receiving approval from Gillespie, Brink hitched King Mufasa to a jog cart in early February 2015 and the gelding showed he was not ready to retire just yet.

As King Mufasa continued to progress in regaining his physical fitness, Brink had discussions with Lakomy and Wright to determine if the gelding should be pointed to a race. If he showed any signs of distress, the plan was to stop with him immediately.

King Mufasa returned to the races at the Mount Sterling, Ill., Fair on Aug. 9, 2015. With Brink holding the lines, the gelding trotted with no urging to a comfortable victory in 2:02.1 and received a standing ovation from those in attendance.

“He was back,” Brink said. “And he just kept getting better. They gave him another standing ovation when he won at Springfield in 1:54.3 and another at Du Quoin when he won again. I had Mike Oosting, his regular driver, back on him [in his second start], and when he got back with him, he said he felt perfect.

“The word ‘special’ does not do this horse justice. I think he’s the only horse in the world that ever could have done this and that makes him spectacular.”

King Mufasa faced the starter in 20 instances during 2015 and 2016. He compiled a record of 5-4-0 and earned $25,704. His last pari-mutuel appearance was a seventh-place finish at Hawthorne Race Course on July 3, 2016.

It did not make one bit of difference to his connections if King Mufasa did not collect a stakes victory during his return or how fast he trotted. They were merely overjoyed the horse was happy, healthy and still alive.

Now that King Mufasa was officially retired there was no question he would live out his days like any king of his stature. That is when Wright began to chat up Georgia Pflederer, whom he knew through Craig and their associations with the church. He thought her 75-acre farm only 15 minutes away from his home, where he lives with his wife, Maddie, would be the perfect place for King Mufasa. Pflederer, however, was not quite convinced the gelding would make a good fit for her natural horsemanship program, which is offered to beginning students, from early grade schoolers to senior citizens. Wright, however, knew once she met the horse her heart would melt.

“I was familiar with the King because Bill and Maddie always invited everyone to his races,” said Pflederer, who operates a natural horsemanship facility for children from sixth grade to junior high. “And, of course, I knew his story but I wasn’t sure how a racehorse would do with children and how well he would adapt to this type of lifestyle being turned out with a herd.

“But Bill was persistent because he knew once I spent some time around the King I would change my mind and fall in love with him just like everyone else does. So, I went by Mike’s barn at Springfield in August and we took him out for a drive. He was so gentle, intelligent and just had a great personality. That was the last time he had a harness on him and I agreed to give him a try.”

In a very short time, Pflederer realized Wright could not have been more right about placing King Mufasa in her care.

“He made a lovely adjustment and was an absolute delight,” she said. “We introduced him slowly to the herd and he has worked himself up in the ranks to be the second highest horse of them all. It was super fun teaching him to ride because he never had anyone on his back and he could not have been any more perfect. He was and is so willing to please.”

Pflederer’s first time aboard King Mufasa was in November 2016. She rode him herself several times a week for nearly a year before she began to introduce him under saddle to her students.

She could not have been more thrilled with the results.

“Just this past spring four riders have been on him,” Pflederer said. “He is so patient and a wonderful teacher. The youngest student that has been on him is going into sixth grade and King was so terrific with her, like he is with all the children. He loves the attention and making the children happy.

“I let them ride him on the open trails and you can see his emotions while he is with the children; he is so expressive. And his courage always comes through. Whenever he was presented with something new, like playing in the water, he didn’t shy away from it but took it in stride.”

Although Pflederer stresses how much delight King Mufasa brings her students, she also feels he has settled willingly and happily into his new role.

“I think he is having fun too because he has stuff to stimulate him and because he is such an intelligent horse, he requires that type of stimulation,” she said. “He is 100-percent healthy, does not wear shoes and the only way you would ever know what he has been through is the tiny scar on that leg. After we had him for a year, Bill said, ‘He seems so happy here.’ And we are so very happy to have him.

“And he is making so many other people happy. In a world where kids have lots of pressures, this is a place for them to come for some relaxation. He blesses many kids by allowing them to have a release for those pressures.”

Shortly after Wright, who visits King Mufasa regularly with Maddie, was convinced the gelding was in the perfect place, he and Lakomy made an offer to Pflederer that she could not refuse.

“Bill and Dennis actually gave me the King,” Pflederer said. “A gift horse is not always a gift horse, but he is. He is a gift from God. And the gift of ownership of him that Bill and Dennis provided is one I will be forever grateful for.”

Wright has no qualms about what has transpired and what the future holds for King Mufasa’s retirement.

“Georgia has done a wonderful job with him,” he said. “I knew it was the right place for King and they would bond exactly like they have. He has brought so much joy into our lives, it is wonderful to see him continue to do it for others.”

While Pflederer has toyed with the idea of possibly showing the gelding in the future, at this juncture she is just elated at how well King Mufasa has responded to her program and his new profession. Despite Wright’s accolades regarding her horsemanship, Pflederer remains gracious and appreciates the efforts of his previous connections. She also remains astonished at how well- mannered and strong-minded the gelding is.

“He is a quick study,” she said. “I’m thankful for his previous trainers because I’m reaping the benefits of their work with him.

“And I’m still astonished every day how easily he walks into the trailer. It is like nothing ever happened to him. How many horses could ever overcome that and in that way? This is one special horse and reminds us of it daily. I hope King’s story inspires many Standardbred horse owners and enthusiasts to realize the wonderful second career that their horses can have. And what a blessing there is for those who love and care for their animals and share them with others.” HB

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