War horse. It’s a hot button term in the racing industry, meant to denote a Thoroughbred with a lengthy–and most often blue-collar?–history on the track. Statistics can frequently list starts in triple digits, and bankrolls of a few hundred thousand dollars are not uncommon.
Should the concept ever seek a poster boy, it can look no further than Irish Majesty. The 13-year-old son of Arch from the His Majesty mare Joy of Ireland has a race record resembling the rap sheet of a career criminal. From his first start as a 2-year-old in 2005 to his final outing at 10 in 2013, the bay gelding entered the gate 102 times. He inked a resume of 18-22-10 while earning $526,052. As is often the case with such seasoned veterans, the horse who finished fifth behind Deputy Glitters and Bluegrass Cat in the 2006 Tampa Bay Derby-G3 ran his last race for a $4,000 claiming tag at Penn National.
The space between was filled with trainer and owner changes that placed him in some of the top barns on the New York circuit. Bred in Kentucky by Phillips Racing Partnership, he was purchased as a short yearling for $25,000 by Ken and Sarah Ramsey from the Keeneland January mixed sale in 2004. Sent to the barn of Dale Romans, Irish Majesty lost three starts as a juvenile, breaking his maiden in the second start of his 3-year-old campaign. The connections thought enough of him to try for black type and protect him in allowance company until the second start of his 4-year-old season. He was immediately claimed for $20,000 at Gulfstream Park by Norman Pointer for Roy and Alma Lomas. . . and the revolving door was set in motion.
After only two starts for Pointer, Irish Majesty was claimed by Rick Dutrow ($35,000) for Sullivan Lane Stable and Vincent Scuderi in April 2007. For Dutrow, Irish Majesty won a $50,000 claimer at Saratoga that August.
Five months later, Gary Contessa and Winning Move Stable took the horse for $40,000 at Aqueduct. He won a starter handicap and ran well in allowance company. Dropped in for $35,000 at Belmont in September 2008, he was immediately claimed again–this time by David Duggan for Louis Zito.
After seven starts for Duggan and Zito, Bruce Brown dropped a $25,000 slip for Mike Repole at Aqueduct in March 2009. A month later, Irish Majesty made his first start for his new barn in a $12,500 claimer. He won that one and was haltered by David Jacobson for Jacobson Racing.
During August 2009, Jacobson ran the horse four times at Finger Lakes. The trainer of record was Oscar Barrera Jr. The following month, Irish Majesty was back at Belmont, running under Jacobson’s name for a $7,500 claiming price. And just three weeks after that, trainer Bruce Alexander and owner James Riccio got him for $5,000 at Meadowlands. His only start for Alexander and Riccio was a winning one. William E. Hamer Sr. claimed the horse for Carlo Dethomasi for $5,000 in November 2009. Six-year-old Irish Majesty had been to the gate 18 times that year, winning four.
Dethomasi moved the horse to the barn of Cal Lynch midway through 2010, and he strung together a four-race winning streak at Parx Racing from November 2010 to February 2011. But the claiming slips continued to drop like leaves off the autumn trees: Ney Pessanha in June 2011; Steve Cardone in August 2011; Richard Alexander in December 2011.
At Penn National on May 9, 2012, Irish Majesty was claimed for the final time when Allan Shuchman took him for himself. That race would also prove to be his final career win. Shuchman kept the horse busy in the claiming ranks at Penn until his final outing in August 2013. He finished a dismal 10th, running for $4,000.
Irish Majesty had by then come to the attention of two rescue advocates in the region. Sue Smith of CANTER Pennsylvania contacted Bev Strauss of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, relaying that the 10-year-old needed to get off the racetrack, but the price was firm at $1,000. At around that same time, journalist/blogger Dan Tordjman ran an online fundraising challenge in honor of Monzante, the 9-year-old graded stakes winner who was euthanized at Evangeline Downs after breaking down in a $4,000 claiming race in July 2013.
“It was called the MMFC–Monzante Memorial Fundraising Challenge. Monzante was a horse who’d competed at the highest levels,” Tordjman said. “He’d had all the trademark signs, had been pulled up in his previous race. There was a big outcry on social media after he broke down. I do have a fairly big following, and so many people had reached out to me and wanted to raise awareness. So we thought we’d get some people together and cause a little bit of a stir by raising money for these rescues to help these horses. It really just kind of snowballed; within a 10-day period I’d had close to a dozen different rescues reach out and say they wanted to participate. We challenged people from all over the U.S. and Canada to raise money for their local rescues. I was living in Silver Spring, Md., at the time so I chose MAHR.”
Tordjman’s efforts raised $2,030, and he sent a check to Strauss
“Dan’s check was used to buy Irish Majesty and ship him here to MAHR. When he came in, he fell apart physically and mentally. It took months and months before he started to come around.”
A friend of Strauss’ named Judy Ochs had been watching Irish Majesty online and made him her project.
“She would come and visit with him, only give him as much attention as he wanted. He realized that nothing was going to be asked of him, and gradually started looking for her visits,” Strauss said. “She would maybe groom him, lead him around the farm, or just feed him carrots–basically let him do whatever he wanted to do–then he started wanting to do more with us.”
In May 2015 Jane Rhoades, a joint master of the Wicomico Hunt on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, made the trip up to MAHR in search of a hunter.
“When Jane came to look for a hunt horse, she watched a few go but kept looking at Irish. He wasn’t quite ready for adoption. We warned her he could be strong at the canter, but she knew he was the one. She hopped on him and rode him at a walk and trot and decided to adopt him.”
“There was something about him I just liked,” Rhoades said. “When I saw him go, I knew he was unhappy about something. Then when I got on him, after I’d ridden for maybe five minutes, he decided that maybe I was OK. And he just dropped that head and went straight to walking like he was really going somewhere. I like a horse to walk that way. I said ‘I really like him.’ So that was how I ended up getting him.”
Rhoades knew nothing about the gelding’s past. It wasn’t until she got him home to her farm in Denton, Md., that she had a look at his papers and researched his history. Given all he’d been through, she was even more impressed with his kind, willing attitude.
The daughter of a Pennsylvania huntsman, Rhoades grew up riding Thoroughbreds. Now in her 70s, she rides regularly and very rarely, if ever, misses the opportunity to foxhunt.
“Hunting is my life–that’s all I want to do. I’ve ridden a lot of ex-racehorses and I find him very kind and very smart. He’s a very forward, very willing horse. You just let him do what he’s going to do. He doesn’t shy, he goes over the countryside, through the woods, with deer running all about. Water, ditches, whatever. You just go along and encourage him and he goes great. He doesn’t like anyone on his mouth. If you ride him gently, if you just trust him, you’re fine. Irish is a gentleman. He’ll stay on this farm with me now. . . he’ll be buried on this farm.”
“When you step back and you look at this horse’s story,” Tordjman said, “it’s powerful because it proved that people do care and will give everything they have to save a horse from a fate like Monzante. All of these horses deserve the opportunity to live the life that Irish Majesty now has.”