Even in the sport of kings, a world highlighted by trips to the winner’s circle, blankets of flowers, gleaming trophies, crowds of cheering fans and proud connections joined together in victory, tragedy strikes. Hard and fast, like a lightning strike, with enough force to break hearts, raise questions and deplete faith.
But just as resilient Thoroughbred racehorses rally to win races or persist despite tiring, the people behind them can turn the darkness of loss into a beacon of hope. And no story better exemplifies that than the one of Wasabi Ventures Stables, Shamrock Kid and Spooky Moon.
A different kind of horse
As Monmouth Park’s 2020 race meet neared its end in October, Shamrock Kid caught the eye of Wasabi Ventures trainer Jesus “Jesse” Cruz.
Bred in New York by Margaret Carrothers, the Dublin gelding out of the stakes-placed Freud mare Good Habits sold as a yearling for $4,000 at Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company in 2016. Sent back through the OBS ring as a 2-year-old, he joined Zilla Racing Stables for $57,000 the next June and made his first two starts that year at Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Switched from trainer Chad Summers to Brad Cox for his 3-year-old season, Shamrock Kid broke his maiden by a nose in his fifth start, a $40,000 maiden claimer at Aqueduct Nov. 7, 2018. Going into 2019 with a record of 1-2-1 from six starts, he continued his good fortune with in-the-money finishes as he moved to the allowance level, picking up a second and two thirds prior to his second win. The gelding won a $30,000 claimer May 12, 2019, and was claimed by trainer Rick Schosberg.
Shamrock Kid made eight starts for Clear Stars Stable and Schosberg, highlighted by an allowance victory at Belmont and a second in an allowance at Saratoga in 2019, before he changed hands again, claimed back by Zilla and trainer Orlando Noda last February for $25,000. He was claimed twice more, and moved from New York to New Jersey, before Cruz and TK Kuegler, Wasabi’s founder and managing partner, took the chance to add him to their stable.
“He’d run really good numbers earlier in his life and then would sporadically run really well,” said Cruz. “So with a horse like that, we went back and watched some replays, and the main reason I sold TK on claiming him was because he was still eligible for an a-other-than condition.”
Claimed for $5,000 at Monmouth, where Shamrock Kid finished second by a head, he officially joined the Wasabi stable Oct. 10, 2020, with the plan to race him at Charles Town through the winter. But it wasn’t just his speed figures and 24-start record of five wins, five seconds and five thirds that intrigued Cruz.
“I won a four-way shake on him or something like that, and one of my good friends, trainer Nick Caruso, drove me back to the barn area to pick him up. Honestly I know this sounds crazy but I was like, ‘I think this is the best horse I’ve ever claimed,’ ” said Cruz. “I don’t know what it was about him in the paddock but he was just a really nice horse and I kind of fell in love with him right away.”
No one fell harder than Cruz’s assistant trainer, and girlfriend, Grace Smith.
“I met him as soon as I started dating Jesse and I was just really attached to him, he had a personality that you were blessed to be around,” said Smith. “Watching him break from the gate was so exciting, it gave me the chills, he was amazing to watch. He trained so easy all the time and he made everything look so easy.”
Racing for nearly 50 co-owners as part of Wasabi’s syndicate, Shamrock Kid won his first start off the claim, a 41⁄2-furlong allowance, at Charles Town Nov. 20. Two weeks later, he moved up to 6 1/2 furlongs and won a starter in early December, before closing out the year with a second, by a neck, in a 7-furlong starter allowance Dec. 19.
“In horse racing it’s hard to get all those wins and to have this new-to-our-barn horse who’s winning, you know back-to-back, it’s exciting,” said Michele Kuegler, TK’s wife and Wasabi’s director of aftercare and community. “He had personality and he had wins, and you know we love all of our horses, but he just had that something special.”
Quickly earning the role of barn favorite, Shamrock Kid spent his nearly two-month winter break at Charles Town with Smith and Cruz.
“He was very different, in the sense that he was a very good racehorse, but he was [also] the most laid-back horse you could possibly see in the barn,” said Cruz. “I know one day it was an absolute blizzard outside and Grace took him out and had reindeer ears on him and was taking pictures with him and stuff, while it was literally pumping snow, and he stood there like ‘OK, whatever you want to do.’ ”
Returning in February for his 6-year-old season, Shamrock Kid started as the favorite in a 7-furlong starter allowance and finished fourth.
But a little over a month later, the dark bay gelding suffered a catastrophic injury while training the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and he was euthanized. In his 28 starts between 2017 and 2021, Shamrock Kid collected seven wins, six seconds and five thirds to earn a total of $262,687.
“I know exactly where I was, in my living room, and TK had just gone out to go on a walk and he came back like in 10 minutes and then I saw his face and I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he’s like, ‘Shamrock, he had to be put down,’ ” said Michele. “It was like, ‘Oh man.’ What bad karma, on of all days, and it was so awful but it was the right choice. He’d broken his cannon bone, but just a fluke, a simple fluke, and it was just a very dark day for our stable.”
The news was a blow to Wasabi, but particularly to Smith and Cruz, who spent each day with Shamrock Kid since he’d entered their stable.
“He was an incredible, incredible horse and it broke our hearts, it broke me for a really long time. It was awful, I don’t wish that on anybody. He just had a presence about him, he was really an amazing horse. He’s one of those horses that you’ll never forget,” said Smith. “It’s hard because you spend what feels like all day [with them], and with the night racing at Charles Town it technically was all day that you’d spend. Jesse would pull me out of his stall every night, like I’m sleeping with him there on the ground, so it just breaks my heart. But I was so lucky to be around him.”
For 27-year-old Cruz, who grew up in the Charles Town area and went out on his own as a trainer in 2016, the loss of Shamrock Kid was a major blow, but also a lesson.
“As a trainer and a young trainer, you learn from every horse that you train. You learn. We can do this moving forward, we do this if this happens, we do this if that happens, if the horse has something here you can kind of try to do this, and you learn from your experience, and after the Shamrock situation, I told Grace, ‘Shamrock, to that point, was the easiest horse I’ve ever trained,’ ” said Cruz. “He made me look really smart and I really didn’t do anything different with him. There was never a question of, ‘Oh let me change this and maybe it’ll work,’ he kind of went with the flow of everything and became a really good horse for us.
“So when he did have his injury, it was a situation where this is what he’s teaching me, this is what I’m learning from him, and it’s how to handle this, and it’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve had as a trainer. I tell Grace all the time that he makes us better. I know it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to go through in my career and very much so for her as well, but like I said, he makes me better in trying to read the signs and understand things a little differently.”
Paying it Forward
Since taking over the role of Wasabi’s director of aftercare and community, Michele has made efforts to engage and educate the club’s nearly 900 members on the importance of aftercare in the Thoroughbred industry. Starting out by connecting with and writing about many of the Thoroughbred aftercare facilities east of the Mississippi, she has since implemented a system where she requests $5 donations from each co-owner when a horse leaves the stable with a positive return on investment.
“In our program, people buy into our horses and then that’s it, we don’t do monthly bills, and when a horse leaves our program and it’s a negative return, [meaning] they’re getting nothing back, it’s just done, we don’t charge them. But if a horse leaves having made money, then [the co-owners] get that money returned,” said Michele. “So I started asking, I think about two years ago, ‘When you get your money back, would you leave $5 for aftercare?’ And it’s really, really grown. For every horse that leaves our barn it’s never less than 85-percent of the co-owners that donate $5 and then some of the other co-owners up theirs to $10 or $25.”
Wasabi sends the money as a stipend to help support the horse when he or she enters an aftercare facility. In recent years, it has become more common for Wasabi horses to leave when claimed, and in that case, Michele pays it forward by sending the raised funds to an accredited aftercare facility in the state the horse raced in while part of the stable.
“We make donations to facilities like Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue and Foxie G when we run in Maryland,” she said. “When we run in New Jersey we give it to New Beginnings, and those groups are always amazed that they’re getting a check for $250 and there’s no horse tied to it, you know it’s just, ‘Here’s free money.’ I really try to promote how vital aftercare is and at the stables, we really do try to make the best decisions for our horses and retire them safely.”
Shamrock Kid’s co-owners immediately started sharing ideas of how they might do something special with the money they’d get back from him, in hopes of honoring his memory by supporting a worthy cause. The idea of giving money to research was tossed around, but Michele encouraged the group to stick to Wasabi’s practice of donating to a local aftercare facility and the contributions started rolling in from there.
“When I had all of the financials in place, I don’t even know how much money people got back from him honestly, the very first person said, ‘I’m giving $50,’ and then the next person said, ‘I’m giving $50,’ and there was kind of this thread [from there],” said Michele. “Of course everyone’s financials are different, but I didn’t care if it was $5 or $50 or whatever.”
The whatever turned into $1,450, and Michele reached out to Georgiana Pardo, president of Aftercare Charles Town, an organization founded in 2013 to help the track’s horsemen find homes for horses retiring from racing.
“She reached out to me in late March about Shamrock Kid, and said that they had a relatively large donation and she asked me whether there was any kind of a special project that that could go toward,” said Pardo.
The conversation went back and forth.
“Maybe your owners could translate that into helping with the rehab needs of a different horse,” Pardo said.
“Do you have any that you’re working on like that right now?” Michele asked. Pardo had a couple, but brought up 4-year-old filly Spooky Moon specifically. The Wasabi partners handled the rest.
A dainty bay filly by Ghostly Minister out of the Numerous mare Numerous Moves, Spooky Moon was bred in West Virginia by Charles “Buck” Woodson Jr. The half-sister to multiple stakes winner We’re in the Money made her debut last year as a 3-year-old, making five starts for owner Randall Conrad and trainer Javier Contreras, with her best finish a third in a $5,000-$4,500 maiden claimer at Charles Town Sept. 26.
Returning in January for new owner/trainer Stephen Reggetts, Spooky Moon finished second in her 4-year-old debut and followed up just over two weeks later with a maiden win while racing for a $4,500 tag. In early February, she finished second in her third start for Reggetts, but came up sore. A visit from the veterinarian and a fresh set of X-rays revealed a minimal shin fracture in her right front leg. With a prognosis of a full recovery without limitations, Reggetts decided to retire the 4-year-old filly and contacted Pardo to initiate a transition into one of ACT’s partner aftercare facilities. Reggetts kept her on stall rest at his racetrack barn throughout the rest of February and March.
The stall rest took place around the same time Michele had contacted Pardo about donating the funds raised by Shamrock Kid’s co-owners. But Wasabi’s fundraising efforts were far from over. With $1,450 earmarked for Spooky Moon, Michele reached out to the 900 club members – not just Shamrock Kid’s 50 or so owners.
“I wanted our whole club to know,” she said. “I thought the rest of the group should hear how awesome this is.”
Wasabi members jumped at the chance to help, and raised a quick $450 more. Michele called Pardo again and asked about the total cost of retraining and rehabilitation.
“She may need multiple sessions, but the first period of time there will be $2,500, maybe a little more,” Pardo told her.
Michele went back to work, telling club members they were nearly there. After Wasabi raised enough money to cover the remainder of Spooky Moon’s rehabilitation, the filly was sent to ACT partner Thoroughbred Retirement, Rehabilitation and Careers in West Chester, Pa., to continue her recovery and take the next steps toward finding a new home.
“Hearing that the sponsorship was there, it was a no-brainer, I said, ‘Yes, if she has that backing we’ll take her in and get her everything she needs,’ ” said Nina Lyman, co-founder of TRRAC. “It was kind of emotional hearing the story of how the sponsorship came to be, and just knowing that there were a lot of caring owners and people that really wanted to contribute, which I think is really important in aftercare, especially in racing right now, to show that there are people that are really willing to sponsor horses and get them to where they’re supposed to be.”
Spooky Moon arrived on April 1 and quickly proved to be a star patient throughout a month of light hand-walking and stall rest, followed by a month of round-pen turnout and eventually a transition into a larger paddock. Her ability to rip off her bandages was the only bad habit the TRRAC staff found with the filly, whose sweet demeanor and calm nature impressed everyone that laid a hand on her.
“She was really quiet to handle, we never had more than a rope on her. We would take her out and she really loved to be groomed and loved peppermints, she ate really well, and she did fall asleep during her X-rays,” said Lyman. “We have a 3-year-old son and he would go bring her hay and grass and she’d put her nose down. We also get visitors that’ll donate to come visit the horses, kind of like Old Friends but we do it on a smaller scale, and they had a 9-month-old and she’s just nuzzling him over, was very gentle with him, and it was like ‘Wow, this is a really special filly, like one in a million.’ She acted really calm and she was very well taken care of coming off the track.”
After a final set of X-rays May 27 showed great healing, with the crack in Spooky Moon’s shin hardly visible, a friend of Lyman’s stopped by the farm and mentioned she knew someone looking for a horse, preferably a small mare. Proudly sporting the TRRAC freeze brand and microchip, Spooky Moon was officially adopted and loaded onto a trailer to move to her new home 20 minutes away by early June.
“She did very, very well with the sponsorship she got and the care [she received] and now being in this aftercare safety net, she’s going to have a very bright future and a very good outlook on life,” said Lyman. “We thank Wasabi Ventures very, very much for all of their team sponsoring, it really did mean a lot to us.”
A Lesson in Healing
They say time heals all, but for those who work with Thoroughbred racehorses, losing one is a wound on the heart that never entirely closes. For the Wasabi team, turning grief over losing Shamrock Kid into a project to ensure Spooky Moon’s success in her second career jump-started the healing.
“I was emotional of course at first, but it made me feel so happy that we could help a horse like that who [deserved] the chance to succeed,” said Smith. “I would’ve given any amount of money just to save Shamrock, so it was nice to be able to help another horse like that, who deserves to go on and have a second career and go on to do whatever she is meant to do with her new person. I love Wasabi for that, so much, they care so much as owners about the horses and where they are going to go next.”
Though Shamrock Kid and Spooky Moon had nothing in common outside of both being foaled in April (two years apart) and racing at Charles Town, the impact they’ve had on people who knew them is inspirational. And Wasabi’s efforts to honor one of its own by helping another only exemplifies the group’s passion for horses.
“It makes you put into perspective that your job is more than just trying to get them over and getting them to run fast, you know it’s a situation of when I look at a horse and say, ‘Hey this is what we need to do, maybe he’s not going to make it as a racehorse,’ where I’m not hesitant to call my owners and tell them that,” said Cruz. “When Michele texted that the group donated all this money to the aftercare program [for Spooky Moon], it made me feel that our group is the kind that you want to train horses for. They understand that each horse is an individual and each horse is more than just a racehorse.”
Michele plans to continue growing the group’s support of aftercare while also working on a new project: The Horse Fund. As of early summer, she was in the process of building the future non-profit to focus on educating the public about and raising funds to support Thoroughbred aftercare.
“I try to make sure the club understands how overwhelmed I am by their generosity, it’s one of the most amazing things we’ve done as a club.
“We’re a fine racing group but we’re not like this crazy, high-end [partnership] where it’s no big deal for people to give money. Our horses are fairly affordable is what I would say, so our club members have all sorts of salary ranges but as a group, to donate so generously, it’s so amazing,” said Michele.
“If I didn’t have a club that supported it this way, I couldn’t do the things we do. It’s only because I have people that believe so firmly in aftercare, that truly love the horse, and it’s not just the horse who’s running, it’s the horse when it’s a foal or the horse that’s going to retire and become a polo pony, or it’s even just a horse in the field who can’t do anything. “It’s only about the animal at the end of the day.”
To learn more, visit TBAftercare.org, OTTBs.org or TheHorseFund.org.