Lovable loser: Winless thoroughbred farm’s top promoter
GEORGETOWN, KY. A horse that never posed in the winner’s circle is living the good life this summer on a scenic Kentucky farm, and his losses could mean a big win for retired thoroughbreds.
Zippy Chippy belied his name during a remarkable winless streak, failing to win even any of his 100 starts during a career at track in the Northeast. His futility earned the hapless loser a spot on People magazine’s list of the most interesting personalities.
Now, the 21-year-old dark brown gelding who last raced in 2004 has emerged from the pack as a lovable ambassador for the humane treatment of old horses no longer able to bring in money from racing or breeding to pay their feed and veterinarian bills.
Nicknamed Zippy, the horse is spending a few weeks lolling in a paddock and munching carrots and grass at Old Friends, a central Kentucky farm for retired thoroughbreds.
Zippy arrived in bluegrass country last week along with his constant sidekick, fellow gelding Red Down South. They share a spacious paddock at the 92-acre farm that’s home to past stakes race winners, Triple Crown also-rans and the offspring of Kentucky Derby champions.
But it’s Zippy who’s quickly passing them as a star attraction.
Old Friends, which relies on donations to care for dozens of horses, is hoping to capitalize on Zippy’s notoriety. A fundraiser is planned next month along with a line of Zippy-inspired merchandise. The farm plans to start selling caps, T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with a cartoon drawing of Zippy along with the motto “Winners Don’t Always Finish First.”
The marketing campaign may show that Zippy isn’t such a loser after all in a region that reveres thoroughbred champions.
“I guarantee you that within a year Zippy Chippy will earn more in retirement than he did on the track,” said Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends farm.
Zippy earned just over $30,000 in racing.
All the money from Zippy-inspired merchandise will go to support the farm, which has about $600,000 in yearly expenses despite a stable of volunteers including veterinarians, Blowen said. The farm is home to 46 horses.
Blowen, a retired movie critic for The Boston Globe, said Zippy’s life script resonates with people.
“I think more people can identify with a horse that loses all the time than a horse that wins all the time,” he said. “I think that’s part of the fun of it. Because there are more losers in the world than winners.”
Blowen bought Zippy for $5,000 a couple of years ago from the horse’s longtime owner-trainer, Felix Monserrate.
Zippy eats about $50 worth of food each week, a diet that includes hay and a special feed that includes grains plus molasses and bran oil to help with digestion, Blowen said. But the investment could pay off for the farm and its mission to give horses a comfortable retirement.
Blowen said he sees Zippy as an ambassador in the campaign to find suitable homes for the thousands of thoroughbreds no longer able to race or breed. It’s an endeavor that resonated with farm visitor Pam Machuga of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
“They deserve some respect,” she said. “Work hard your whole life, this is what you deserve—a big pasture.”
Zippy kept his distance from a recent tour group, lazily grazing with his pal Red Down South. But Zippy drew a chorus of sympathetic “ohs” when the visitors were told the horse went 0-for-100 in racing.
Machuga, a race fan visiting with several relatives, said there’s a lesson of perseverance to be learned from Zippy.
“The most you can do is try as hard as you can and do the best you can,” she said. “Think about regular, every-day people in life. We don’t always win, but you get back up and keep going.”
Once their racing or breeding days are over, some horses are retrained for riding programs, and others end up at retirement farms like Old Friends. Adoption programs seek good retirement homes. Some racetracks help to match retired racehorses with people wanting thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation sponsors several farms where retired horses are cared for by prisoners.
But the need outpaces available space for the retirees. And some still end up in slaughterhouses outside the U.S.
“There’s a lot of horses in a lot of situations where there isn’t funding to care for a horse that … made a lot of money for people,” said Diana Pikulski, a director with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“Some of them are sound and can be used for riding. But many of them, although they’re sound enough to live in a pasture and be happy, they’re not sound enough to be a show horse or a solid riding horse. And they need a place to go.”
Zippy’s futility carved out a lasting legacy in the ultra-competitive thoroughbred racing industry.
He was banned from a New York track after failing for a third straight race to leave the starting gate with his competitors. His plodding ways inspired exhibitions. He outran a minor league baseball player and a standardbred horse, though the horse was given a head start.
Zippy clocked his 100th straight loss with a last-place finish in an eight-horse field at the Three County Fair in Northampton, Mass.
Still, Zippy fell short of the futility record of 105 consecutive losing starts set in the 1950s by Thrust, another gelding.
Zippy seemed to be fitting in quickly at his temporary Kentucky home. He stretched his head over the plank fence recently to munch carrots hand-fed by Blowen. Red Down South was constantly at his side.
But even in retirement, Zippy is behind his sidekick when trotting to the food trough.
“He lets Red Down South eat first,” Blowen said. “I guess he knows where his bread is buttered. He’s afraid to win at anything.”