The Horse Comes 1/ST Presented By 1/ST Racing: Gunderson Has Done It All, And Shows OTTBs Can, Too - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

The Horse Comes 1/ST Presented By 1/ST Racing: Gunderson Has Done It All, And Shows OTTBs Can, Too

Olivia Lefferts and Cowboy’s Hero at the Summer Sizzler Horse Show

This is the first in a new monthly series spotlighting the behind-the-scenes work of people at accredited aftercare organizations who are helping horses begin the next phase in their careers.

When Raina Gunderson began her foray into the world of horse racing, she never thought it would lead to a vital role in Thoroughbred Aftercare.

“When I got on the backside in 1980, aftercare wasn't even a thing,” said Gunderson. “If a horse didn't work out on the track, they left. There was no discussion of a second career. Many of them went on to become ponies and riding horses.

“I did everything. From hot walker and groom to exercise rider. I was an exercise rider for some of the best in the business: John Veitch, Nick Zito and David Whiteley.”

During her time on the back side, Raina would occasionally find homes for horses that weren't suited for the track.

While still galloping as an exercise rider, Raina began working on the front-side at Gulfstream Park. She started in customer service, where her hard work earned her the role of Director of Customer Service and (Horseman's) Relations. In that role, Raina says she learned a lot about owners and how much people love horses. It was during this time that aftercare would come to the forefront of racing consciousness.

“I was galloping and working the front-side when I learned about Ferdinand going to slaughter in [Japan],” said Gunderson. “It was a tragedy and the horse deserved better. A son of his, El Gran Fernando, came my way as a horse that needed a home. He lived with me until he passed away at the age of 31.”

It was a perfect fit when The Stronach Group (now 1/ST Racing) reached out to Raina in 2020 for a new role as Thoroughbred Aftercare Liaison at Gulfstream Park.

“I was recommended for the position by Stacie Clark-Rogers of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA). At the time, another aftercare organization, FL TRAC, had an overflow of horses and Stacie and I worked together to help place horses using TAA accredited facilities,” said Gunderson.

As an aftercare liaison, Raina is often the first point of contact for a trainer or owner looking to place their horse. Other times, exercise riders and other backstretch workers will tell Raina about a horse they know of that needs placement. That means Raina is always on call.

“The job is very demanding, but the rewards far outweigh that. I love to find horses their new homes,” Gunderson said fondly.

Gunderson galloping a horse for Butch Reid at Saratoga

A recent success story is one that Gunderson is very proud of.

“I was told that a horse named Cowboy's Hero was slated to leave Gulfstream for Camarero Racetrack in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico. The girl who had been galloping him came up to me and told me that the connections were planning on sending him to Camarero,” said Gunderson. “We were concerned because the horse had been on the vet's list and as an 8-year-old gelding, he deserved a soft landing.”

Gunderson, along with the help of Aidan Butler, 1/ST Racing's Chief Operating Officer approached the connections of Cowboy's Hero and explained that it would be better for the bay gelding to be retired and that Raina would be more than happy to find him a home where he could begin a new career. After the connections agreed, the challenge was to get Cowboy's Hero situated at a farm until he could be adopted.

“We had to move him immediately, so I called my friend Maureen Benashski, who has a farm in Davie [Florida], where he could go for the time being,” recalled Gunderson.

While on the farm, Benashski noticed Cowboy's affable nature and quiet demeanor. She had a friend, Olivia Lefferts, who was looking for a horse that was quiet that she could take to English shows and do Dressage with.

“The stars were aligned for this horse. He was an absolute sweetheart of a horse who was a 'been there, done that type of horse,' so when Olivia met him, it was meant to be,” explained Gunderson.

Since retiring from the track, Cowboy's Hero spends his days with Lefferts where the pair show in the Dressage Ring. Recently, they competed at the Intro Level in dressage at the Southeast Horse Shows Summer Sizzler 2 in Newberry, Fla., where they earned two blue ribbons. Lefferts hopes to build on this success when the pair compete in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover this fall.

“When adopters reach out to me to share their success stories and I see the horses blossom in the next phase of their life, that's the greatest feeling, knowing I played a role in that,” Gunderson said. “This is the kind of happy ending that Gunderson and 1/ST Racing strives for.”

[Story Continues Below]

This piece is co-authored by Raina Gunderson, Thoroughbred Aftercare Liaison for Gulfstream Park and Jeanne Schnell,  Thoroughbred Aftercare Liaison for Santa Anita Park.

At the end of each edition of The Horse Comes 1/ST, we will spotlight a different TAA-accredited facility that could use your support. The Paulick Report will donate up to $100 to each facility featured, and encourages our readers to do the same.

Aftercare Facility Spotlight: Second Stride Inc.

Located in Prospect, Kentucky Second Stride is a 501(c)(3) TAA accredited organization made up of horsemen and industry professionals who are committed to thoroughbred aftercare and educating the public and racing industry on retiring a horse safely. They offer many programs including castration clinics and retraining and rehabilitation for horses coming off of the track and broodmares. To learn more about Second Stride or to donate, please visit their website:

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More