By Dick Jerardi
Back in 2008, Turning For Home was just an idea that was formulating in former PTHA Executive Director Mike Ballezzi’s mind. It went from thought to action so rapidly that TFH, Parx’s model race horse retirement program, marked its 15th anniversary on Labor Day.
A race track’s ecosystem includes owners, trainers, jockeys, backstretch workers, management and bettors. But there is no game without one essential element – horses.
Turning For Home Day at Parx is an annual celebration of all those that contribute to second careers for the horses. And it is a way to remember all the nearly 4,000 horses that have gone through the program.
Owners contribute $100 per start to TFH and that money becomes a vast majority of the TFH funding. The PTHA and Parx make an annual contribution of $50,000 each. The jockeys give $20 per win and $10 per place, an annual outlay of around $30,000. The two-year old golf tournament at Bensalem Country Club is a new fundraising mechanism.
When Parx-based horses are injured and can’t race or are no longer competitive, they come to TFH and are eventually sent off to one of 19 partner farms. The process includes retraining and then rehoming. The owners can follow along to see how their old horses are doing in their new careers which could include hunter/jumper among other disciplines or just a life of leisure at a farm with owners who will care for them.
“I had 32 horses come in (to the program) in the month of August,” program administrator Danielle Montgomery said. “We’ve been averaging 300 horses a year for the last 7 years.”
Ballezzi passed away a year ago, but the program he championed lives on.
“It’s just a tremendous program,” said PTHA president Bob Hutt. “I’m a very large supporter of doing something for our brave warriors who give so much for our enjoyment.’’
Jeff Matty is starting his 21st month as Ballezzi’s successor.
“You don’t realize how much of a village it takes to get a horse over to the races and into the winner’s circle,” Matty said. “It takes that many more for a successful aftercare program.”
The most rewarding part for Montgomery is: “when I see horses that had slim to no chance and I talk to my farms and they found a perfect home, especially for those horses that can only do a little bit.”
Matty, also a horse owner, has had several horses in the TFH program.
“Once they’re done racing , that’s basically the start of the next life,” he said. “That’s a lot longer duration than the time they were racing so to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that our horses are in the best hands with people that cherish them as much as their owners and trainers cherish them on on the race track, how could you not be proud of that?”
Trainers John Servis and Phil Aristone are both in the Parx Hall of Fame. Each has been a big TFH supporter from the start.
“Everything we accomplished as an organization, the pension and the health insurance, the thing that we (and I know Ballezzi) were proudest of was Turning For Home,” said Aristone, who was very close with Ballezzi and said he follows some of the horses in TFH that he once trained. “We set the gold standard that every race track in the country looks to use when they are trying to form a (TFH-like) program.”
Servis loved the idea when he first heard about it, but “thought it would be very difficult to get done.”
But he was on the board that got it done. And, 15 years later, it’s still getting done.
“Without the horses, we have nothing,” Servis said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of my horses retired and do really, really well in the show world so that’s exciting.”
Trainer Marya Montoya is still hearing about horses she put in the program 15 years ago.
“One horse actually went (to a farm next to the original farm),” Montoya said. “They got divorced. I got a call. The neighbors took the horse. Five years later, they’re moving; he went back to his original home. They send me pictures. I’ve put probably a dozen horses in and I follow all of them and they’ve all excelled in new careers because they had that chance through Turning For Home.”
Parx Hall of Fame jockey Frankie Pennington is unquestionably one of the best to ride at the track in its nearly 49-year history.
“The program is unbelievable,” Pennington said of TFH. “It means everything to me and all the other riders here because of everything these horses do for us…Everybody wants to come see the horses. Everything that they put on the line for us so we can enjoy life. We give back… and that way they can have a good (after racing life).”
And that is the TFH bottom line. The horses run for everyone’s pleasure. Now, after they are finished running, they get to have a great second life.