Chichakly: The Shandian Case Should Be A Reminder That 'The Horse Owes You Nothing' - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Chichakly: The Shandian Case Should Be A Reminder That ‘The Horse Owes You Nothing’

Shandian near the start of his career with Chichakly, three years before his death.

On Nov. 18, 2022 we published a story tracing the story of Shandian, who was euthanized after being diagnosed with serious chronic injuries soon after running at a Pennsylvania racetrack. Trainer Amira Chichakly submitted the following guest editorial this week looking back on her time with the horse prior to his death.

Nothing can turn my stomach faster than reading a sad story about a horse but I never expect to read one about a horse I've known, or worse, a horse I've had. I don't want to talk about that yet. For a moment I want to remember the positives.

I met Shandian after he shipped in from the 2-year-old OBS sale in March in 2019. A beautiful little black colt with a lot of chrome on his face. I was working as an assistant for Gary Contessa and oversaw this horse as he first went to the track. And his first training partner? An American Pharoah colt soon to be named Another Miracle who would go on to the Breeders' Cup.

My connection with Shandian became more intimate when I took him with a small string to Tampa for Gary the following winter. I really started to see his character. He would make weird noises and shake his head at you and I swear he rolled his eyes. Anything to get attention.

He got very accustomed to grazing every afternoon and then when we got sand in, he was more interested in rolling and sunbathing. I'll never forget one day when he was so comfortable and refusing to get up no matter how I pulled on the shank. He kept his eyes closed and ignored me. Then moved his legs to rest in an awkward, unnatural position. I called my vet via FaceTime, the most believable look of panic on my face and cried “You have to come help me, I don't know what to do, he won't get up.” She waited a moment but I didn't blink. I turned the phone to show him to her and she said she would be right there. I burst out laughing. By the time she came I think I was laying next to him. That was almost every afternoon.

I took out my trainer's license in March. He was the first horse I got on after that. Technically the first one in my care. When COVID-19 hit I had to wait to ship him back from Florida to New York, but he was one of the first horses to come back in. I rode him because I knew the male riders could easily get in a fight with him. He wasn't crazy, just sensitive. He was the last horse I galloped when I was pregnant, and he was the last mostly because when I was five months pregnant, a groom yanked on his head as I got legged up and catapulted me sideways off him. I landed on my ankle and it broke. It wasn't Shandian's fault, of course.

Shandian snoozing in the sand during a restful afternoon with Chichakly. Photo courtesy Amira Chichakly

I remember the owners seeing my belly in Saratoga. The looks on their faces. I remember getting the phone call that he was moving. I remember fighting it. I remember saying they were going to be responsible for that horse landing in a bad spot. It was said out of anger and concern for that sensitive but finicky colt. It was said from my gut, not from any true belief anyone would put him in that situation. But I had that feeling just the same. He went through many hands before that happened.

Randomly I would look him up. The last time I did I saw he ran terribly for $5,000 at Parx. I started trying to get in contact with the trainer. On April 29, 2022, I spoke to his trainer, saying I would love to retire him without even a plan of what I would do if I got him. He told me the breeder was already taking him. On a whim I asked if I could visit him. He said the horse had already left and was going to be part of a riding program in upstate New York.

(Editor's note: Our reporting revealed that Shandian left his barn at Parx a week later.)

No one told me the truth. No one called me later on to tell me, not even the people who had put me in touch with that trainer. I didn't find out until the article on Shandian was published. In my mind he was upstate, living a life I didn't think he'd like but was probably fine and I'd get him some day. That's what I always thought, I'd get him back some day. I'm sure his breeder thought the same.

People were there for this horse. People within the racing industry. And yet the system still failed him., making another black mark on racing for us all. The breeder had asked to take him multiple times before I had the intuition to look for him, but she was always pushed off, told to wait another race.

What is the obsession with running a horse repeatedly that can't hit the board in the easiest spot out there? It isn't fiscally prudent. Is it pride? Is it punishment?

The horse owes you nothing.

I have this conversation with people a lot. Not always the people you would think. I retire a lot of horses myself, hoping to keep spaces open for others in official programs and to keep my ex-horses close enough to keep an eye on. Every once in a while one doesn't settle well in their placement or the new connections look to “get back what they invested.” I have to explain how that horse's previous connections, invested tens of thousands, and still gave him away for free. The horse owes them nothing. He brought entertainment, awe, experience, exercise, and in some instances financial gain (shows/lessons); what more did they think he owed them? Why does a last minute profit need to be squeezed out when the horse no longer fits their needs?

Owning horses is a privilege. I was taught they are always a liability, never an investment. That doesn't mean horses can't be profitable but this obsession with thinking every horse has to give a positive financial return leaves horses in bad situations.  It happens off track as often as on it. Blame your investment. Blame sheer luck and living creatures being what they are, which is not invincible. Don't blame the horse — the bystander in YOUR plans.

Chichakly, who is also an artist, drew this portrait of Shandian in the first weeks she knew him

This happens every day, across disciplines. Across breeds. To animals that are put through so much before their brains and bodies are even mature. I don't think these horses are given enough credit for what they give to us.

I wish the “but I put so much money into him” mentality would change. Then put him in the right situation to stop costing you money, don't try to grab a last fistful of dollars for him while risking his welfare. Any real horseman knows, there is no such thing as a free horse. Yet licensed horsemen who should know better won't release an animal for “free” to good homes when it is costing them daily to keep it.

Shandian was paid for. And begged for. His breeder didn't have a profit to gain from him. She just wanted her horse.

As did I. Shandian, named for lightning, by people who could not have possibly realized the weight of their choices. But how accurately it fit him. A hot fire whose image is still on our eyelids. Here one second, gone the next.

Amira Chichakly is a trainer based in New York.

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