Take the Lead Marks A Milestone: 1,000 Horses to Safe Retirement

Edited Press Release

On New Year’s Eve, 2022, Fight On Lucy loaded onto a van at Belmont Park and headed north, leaving her racetrack career behind her. It was a moment to celebrate. At the end of a very busy month and a near-record year, TAKE THE LEAD was hitting a remarkable milestone of 1,000 horses retired through the program since it launched nearly 10 years ago.

The TAKE THE LEAD Thoroughbred Retirement Program was unveiled by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA) in 2013 to assist the owners and trainers at the New York Racing Association tracks in finding accredited aftercare for their horses. TAKE THE LEAD serves as a liaison between the horsemen and women and the aftercare organizations, gathering the necessary information, diagnostics, and paperwork on each horse, then finding a placement with a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-approved partner and arranging for transportation from the track. The initiative is funded primarily by NYTHA and through a portion of the claiming surcharge on horses claimed at NYRA racetracks.

“Rick Violette started the program when he was president of NYTHA, and it has really blossomed,” the organization’s president, Rick Schosberg, said. “The word has spread; we get calls pretty much daily about horses that need retirement homes, and we go to work. Our team is small – myself, our Executive Director Andy Belfiore, our Aftercare Coordinator Kristen Mason and our bookkeeping guru Dionne Johnson – but we are all dedicated to making sure our horses have the very best chance of happy and healthy lives beyond the track.”

Fight On Lucy is a fitting representative of the 999 horses who came before her. Bred in New York by the venerable Bongard family’s Rojan Farm, she earned $314,429 the hard way, making 39 starts over five seasons. She was raced by a partnership of Ellen Bongard and her sister Barbara, Carla Skodinski, Ellen Petrino, and Kathleen Condon. Her trainer, Pat Kelly, is a founding member of TAKE THE LEAD and its sister program, TAKE2. 

The decision to retire Lucy was, in part, a legal one. Sadly, Ellen Bongard passed away unexpectedly two years ago, and the estate needed to be closed. But it is also in keeping with TAKE THE LEAD’s mantra of retiring “one race early.” The connections made the decision to send Lucy on to her second career, rather than to sell or continue to race under a different ownership, while she was 100-percent sound.

“We had a big powwow up in Saratoga last year to talk about her,” Kelly explained. “Lucy was still competitive, and the owners loved watching her run and keeping Ellen’s memory alive. It was heartbreaking from that standpoint, but Lucy was turning seven, and the owners wanted to do right by her. It was time to make a plan.”

Cindy Norton, who served as Rojan Farm’s manager for many years, added, “The owners were never going to run her in a claiming race, and we wanted to see her retired while she was sound and happy.”

Coming Full Circle…
Fight On Lucy traveled from Belmont Park to New Vocations in Gansevoort, NY, just a short drive from where she was foaled. Waiting to greet her was Amanda Vance, who oversees New Vocation’s New York operation. It was a special moment for Vance, who had played a pivotal role in Lucy’s life when she was just two weeks old. 

While the end of her racing career was carefully orchestrated, the start to Lucy’s life had not gone so smoothly. As Norton explained, “Her dam got colic two weeks after Lucy was born. We tried surgery, but it was not successful.”

Nurse mares were in short supply, but the Bongards had gotten to know one of the team at the equine clinic where the surgery was performed – Amanda Vance. As it happened, Vance had an older pony mare on her farm that she thought might serve as a companion to the now orphan.

“The pony’s name was Bella – she was retired from riding, and she’d had foals in the past,” Vance said. “I thought, ‘we can give it a try.’ We shipped her over and at first she was not so sure about Lucy, but then she accepted her, and they were together until Lucy was weaned. Bella’s last job in life was to bring up Lucy – and she did a good job of it.”

Lucy made her racetrack debut at Belmont in October of 2018 and finished third. She never earned headlines, but, as Barbara Bongard enthused, “She tried hard every time.” Over her 39 starts, the dark bay New York-bred won three times, with four seconds and nine thirds. 

“She was a very enthusiastic racehorse,” Kelly said. “She loved what she did.”

The team gave Lucy one final start in the Bay Ridge Stakes at Aqueduct Dec. 17, but it was a tough spot and, after a rough start, Lucy finished last. It might not have been the fairy-tale victory hoped for, but it is still a happy ending for the mare – as is the goal for all of the horses who go through the TAKE THE LEAD Program. 

Lucy is now enjoying a little R&R before embarking on a second career.

“We’re giving her a little time to hang out,” Vance said. “She’s turned out with other mares, and she thinks that’s the best. She loves her girl gang.

“When she’s ready, we will get her started and evaluate her under saddle,” she continued. “We see what type of rider would best suit her and what she might want to do for a second career. She’s willing and brave and she could go in any direction, but we will tell us what she wants to do. When she’s ready, she will be available for adoption by one of our approved adopters.”

Vance is honored to be part of the Lucy story once again.

“I didn’t think I would be as affected, but it’s pretty special having her here at New Vocations,” she said. “It’s been great to spend time with her again, and to be able to tell a future adopter her story first-hand, and share the photos of Lucy and Bella? That’s going to be fun.”

Barbara Bongard, Cindy Norton and other members of the partnership have already been out to visit Lucy several times, and they plan to remain in touch no matter where the future takes her.

“Everyone is really attached to her,” Norton said. “We’re excited to see what she might do next – hopefully she will make someone a nice little hunter or jumper. Amanda will figure it out. It’s up to her now – it is pretty cool to see the story come full circle.”

Kelly concluded, “It really has been kind of a magical journey.”