From The Brink Of Death, Former Neglect Case Shines En Route To Thoroughbred Makeover - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

From The Brink Of Death, Former Neglect Case Shines En Route To Thoroughbred Makeover

Hoosier Artist with one of her youngest new humans

In the spring of 2021, Lonnie Winkelspecht came upon then-4-year-old filly Hoosier Artist in her worst hour.

“She was basically laying in a mud puddle,” Winkelspecht remembered. “She couldn't get up.

“She had a body score of a 0. She was literally dying, laying there.”

Winkelspecht had been called in to help move and stabilize horses that were discovered at a leased portion of a farm in Bourbon County, Ky., in what would become a larger-scale horse neglect investigation. Xavier McGrapth later entered a guilty plea to 13 counts of second-degree animal cruelty after he failed to care for Thoroughbreds who were boarded with him.

Winkelspecht has a farm south of Lexington and also runs a transport company. He had been contacted because many of McGrapth's clients were based out of state and unable to get to the property along with law enforcement to identify and transport their horses back home.

It was a gruesome scene. Horses hadn't been consistently fed in an undetermined amount of time, and what little water was available to the starving animals was filthy.

“That's definitely going to be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Winkelspecht said. “Some of the things I saw that day, I'll never be able to erase from my mind.”

Veterinarians on site wanted to euthanize the 4-year-old chestnut filly who was down in the mud, but Winkelspecht says he stopped them. He wanted to give her a chance, or at least figure out who her owners were before letting someone else put her down. Luckily, they were able to get her to stand, and Winkelspecht volunteered to take her to his farm while they worked to identify and contact the owner. Ultimately, he would take seven or eight adult horses and another five yearlings to his farm, some of whom stayed weeks while others stayed months to regain weight and recover from the neglect before they could safely travel back to their owners.

The filly, who was identified eventually as Hoosier Artist, was small – no more than 15.1 – and had already completed an uninspiring 2020 season on the track, finishing last or second-last in all three of her starts. The owner told Winkelspecht he could keep her.

“She got numerous baths — she was covered in lice,” he said. “Her skin was horrible. We had to give medicated baths and treatments, trying to get rid of the lice, the sores, the rain rot. It was bad. I've never seen a horse that bad in my life.

“My wife fell in love with her that day. She had that look in her eye that she wanted to live. We gave her every opportunity to do it.”

Winkelspecht snapped this photo of Hoosier Artist on the day he picked her up from McGrapth's operation in 2021 to document her body condition.

The bills piled up, but the diet – initially hay and later carefully-chosen grain – and the care worked. Three or four months into her recovery, Hoosier Artist was glowing. As more time went by, Winkelspecht thought she may still make a racehorse and sent her to the track in September. After several disappointing outings, he got concerned about her condition and decided it wasn't worthwhile to push her after what she'd been through.

Winkelspecht brought her home and turned her out, believing that one day she'd find her perfect second career.

In 2022, Taylor Tricarico began a search in earnest for her very first Retired Racehorse Thoroughbred Makeover project. Despite coming from a horse-oriented family, she didn't get bitten by the bug until well into adulthood and was still trying to navigate what she wanted to do and how she wanted to approach training her own.

Tricarico saw a Facebook ad Winkelspecht posted for a Makeover-eligible gelding he had for sale on his farm. She went to look at the horse and liked him, but just didn't feel it was the right match. She found herself wandering over to a nearby field where a group of mares were standing by the fence.

“[Hoosier Artist] came right up to me and sniffed my whole face and my neck and rested her head on my shoulder,” Tricarico remembered. “The joke is I bought a horse because she hugged me.”

The next day, Tricarico came back with her vet, and three days later, Hoosier Artist (now known as Frida) was in her backyard. At feeding time that first day home, Tricarico's 7-year-old son climbed onto the top fenceboard while his mother's back was turned. She looked back to see the child patting the mare as she calmly munched her grain.

Hoosier Artist as she prepared to return to the racetrack for a 2021 campaign

That, she thought, seemed like a promising start.

“She was just so dead quiet from the beginning,” Tricarico.

The two started with groundwork, and then, “faster than I'd thought I was going to,” Tricarico found herself climbing aboard Frida with no saddle or bridle and walking her around the field.

Tricarico knew she'd need help to get a green horse ready for the Makeover, so she put out a call on Facebook, asking for someone who may want to help her with training. (Makeover entrants may compete as training pairs or teams with a single horse.)

Blakely Releford happened to be on social media that day and came across the ad. She had gone to her first Makeover in 2021 with her first off-track Thoroughbred and had so much fun she'd made it her mission to attend each year, embracing the project of bringing along a new young horse and selling them afterward. She'd had an entry in 2022 but had to scratch at the last minute and was looking for a 2023 prospect. When she saw Tricarico's ad indicating she wanted someone to lease Frida, it seemed like the perfect solution. She didn't know Tricarico, but found out they lived about 20 minutes apart. It seemed like it was worth a shot.

“I have a problem with taking resale horses and then never selling them,” Releford joked. “I didn't really have my hopes up because I thought this horse could be crazy. But then she was just as Taylor described. She was perfect. I'm not even a mare person but she was just amazing.”

From the first minutes of their meeting, Tricarico knew she was witnessing a special bond in the making.

“I could see the sparks fly from the edge of the round pen,” Tricarico echoed.

Frida and Releford after a recent competition

The first time they loaded the mare into the trailer was an affirmation for both women. It took 30 minutes, and both of them noticed how similarly they reacted to the challenge – with quiet patience and persistence.

“I knew this was a good match before but after that I said now I know it's perfect because our styles are so aligned and our goals are so aligned — putting the horse first and using as little pressure as we need to get the result we want,” Tricarico remembered.

The layers of kismet got even thicker when Releford realized she'd actually known Frida before. She had done nightwatch for Winkelspecht when he had Frida on the farm, although since the mare wasn't in foal, Releford didn't handle her much. She vaguely remembered that she would sometimes bring in the horses in Frida's pasture and that she'd gravitated toward the chestnut mare because she was the easy, steady one in the group.

Frida lives in what the pair describe as a co-parenting situation – she spends some of her time in Tricarico's backyard, where she enjoys ground work, lots of time with children, and casual walks around the farm, and every few weeks she moves to Releford's boarding barn 20 minutes away, where things are a little busier and her schedule is a little fuller.

Releford dabbles in a little bit of everything with Frida, from trail clinics to dressage basics to ground pole classes at hunter/jumper shows. They have their sights set on the competitive trail discipline at the Makeover, in which horses are graded and timed as they make their way around a set of obstacles similar to what they may see on a longer trail ride through open country including water, gates, bridges, and more.

Frida is a sensitive soul – Releford said her first exposure to something new can be shock and awe, but when introduced a second time, she becomes curious, takes a breath, and gives it a try. After that, she moves forward with confidence and perfect quiet, which are great qualities in a trail horse, or in a child's horse, which is Tricarico's ultimate goal for her. Each of her training experiences is done with that future in mind, and the hope that if she sees everything there is to see, she can lead a child through almost anything. So far, Tricarico says she shows a great propensity for children and is almost too quiet when they're on her back.

Frida with Tricarico

All of this, they believe, should carry well into competition in October, but that's not their main focus.

“The [Kentucky] Horse Park is everything she's already seen but on steroids,” said Releford. “A lot of people say it's one of the most difficult places to show because there's so much happening all the time. My goal for her is really just for her to go in there and not bat an eye. I think if we do that there's no question about how well she'll do in competition. I'm not really worried about the placings as much as seeing everything we've done pay off.”

Whatever comes from their Makeover experience, Frida has already created a far-reaching legacy. Releford and Tricarico are not just training partners but friends, linked not only by one event, but by their relationships with their equine teammate.

“The first time around doing Makeover, I was all on my own,” said Releford. “It was very, very hard. When I found Taylor and we hit it off from the beginning, she was telling me about all these people Frida had behind her. I knew from that moment we would have support the entire way, and we have.”


Tricarico agreed.

“It's been a breath of fresh air to find someone who has the same ideas as me,” she said.

Winkelspecht was inspired to expand the retraining and rehoming portion of his business in part by Frida's incredible comeback. He now operates as a satellite facility for the Pennsylvania-based Turning For Home, helping them with an overflow of horses who sometimes need surgery or lay-up before they can go on to their next careers. Last year, Winkelspect said he helped the group adopt out 60 horses.

For Tricarico, Frida has deepened her appreciation for the aspect of horses that has made so many people before her fall in love with the species – their endless capacity to see the best in us.

“She is incredibly trusting for everything she went through,” she said. “The fact that humans caused her such harm and yet she came back from that being affectionate and trusting and looking to us for confidence and guidance…that's one of the things that has blown me away about her. Her faith in humans and trust in humans, and her overwhelming desire to please even though she could have a different attitude after everything she went through.”

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