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Former Racehorse a Potential Olympic Star

Blackfoot MysteryThe hurdles on the road to Rio de Janeiro for a 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding named Blackfoot Mystery (Out of Place), nicknamed “Big Red,” began just a few miles away from the Kentucky Horse Park, at a place called Milestone Farm. That’s where John O’Meara bred the ex-racehorse turned Olympic-bound champion named to the 2016 U.S. Eventing Team.

O’Meara purchased Blackfoot Mystery’s dam True Mystery for $72,000 at the 2002 Keeneland November Mixed Sale.

“[True Mystery] set a track record at Colonial Downs going a mile,” O’Meara said. “I wanted to put more stamina into the mare. That’s why I bred her to Out of Place.”

That pairing produced Blackfoot Mystery. As a yearling, “Big Red,” RNA’d at the 2005 Keeneland September Sale for $24,000. So the lanky chestnut went back to O’Meara’s Milestone Farm for a while.

“My father bred a horse called Milestone, who has become influential in the pedigrees of nearly all of the Irish Draughts and sport horses in America; that’s why I called it Milestone Farm,” said the Irish native.

O’Meara eventually sold Blackfoot Mystery to Thoroughbred owner Christopher Drakos.

“He has a big farm out in Blackfoot, Idaho,” O’Meara said. “That’s how Blackfoot Mystery got his name.”

Drakos subsequently sent Blackfoot Mystery to Southern California trainer Jesus Mendoza. Blackfoot Mystery raced three times as a 2-year-old at Hollywood Park, finishing at the back of the pack by a combined 44 lengths in all three of his starts.

“He didn’t have any desire to be a racehorse,” O’Meara said. “But it was good that somebody could take a horse like that off the track and turn him into something useful.”

Enter Leigh Gray, president of the non-profit Thoroughbred Rehab Center in Los Angeles.

“Jesus Mendoza called me one day and said, ‘I have this big, chestnut gelding that I think you’ll really like. He’s not fast, he’s not a racehorse, but I think he’ll be a good sport horse,'” Gray said. “So I went over to Hollywood Park and took one look at him and said, ‘He’ll be great, thank you.'”

Gray took Blackfoot Mystery, who had an abscessed hoof and popped splint, back to her rehab center and gave him some time off.

“Just because they’re retired, it doesn’t mean their career is done,” Gray said.

Gray has been taking horses off-the-track and transitioning them into new careers for 20 years. She has helped nearly 600 horses find new homes and disciplines. Gray not only has her own foundation helping OTTBs, but she also helps run a Thoroughbred rehab center called Winners’ Circle Ranch, a facility minutes away from Santa Anita Park. She even worked as an exercise rider for Charlie Whittingham and has fond memories of tack-walking the great Ferdinand.

“My life has completely revolved around the Thoroughbred racehorse,” Gray said. “They are just amazing animals.”

When asked about her latest OTTB success story in Blackfoot Mystery, now a bona fide three-day eventing sensation competing in dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping in the Olympics, Gray responds with giddiness and excitement.

“This is just a dream come true. I hope he can bring home a medal [from Rio],” she said.

The Thoroughbred once dominated the show ring many hurdles ago, but they are making a comeback in the eventing sport thanks to non-profit Thoroughbred rehab centers like Gray’s. In recent years, the European-bred warmbloods, bigger boned versions of the Thoroughbred, have been the breed almost exclusively used in eventing.

But due to the influx of Thoroughbred horses exiting the racing industry, the goal for Gray and like-minded horse activists is to reinstitute the Thoroughbred in the eventing ring.

“There are a lot of off-the-track-Thoroughbreds out there and they can all do something; you just have to find out what that is and match them with the right person.”

Gray eventually sent Blackfoot Mystery up to Northern California, where her friend Shirley Aronson started teaching him the basics needed to become an event horse. From there, “Red” passed through the hands of Sonoma County eventer Lisa Peecook, who stabled him in her backyard barn. Always a playful horse, Blackfoot Mystery would try to pick up the stable goats and carry them around the shedrow.

Blackfoot Mystery’s re-training included regular trips to a neighboring horse farm in Petaluma as well. That’s where event rider and trainer Kelly Prather took notice of the eye-catching chestnut.

“I thought he was the real deal,” Prather recalled. “He was big and gangly when I first met him as a 3-year-old, but he had the most amazing gallop I had ever felt underneath.”

Prather couldn’t shake the thought of talented “Big Red,” even when taking a sabbatical to the U.K. to train and ride for William Fox-Pitt, an English equestrian and three-time Olympic medalist in eventing.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that horse I rode back in California is nicer than these top-level horses I’m riding here in England,'” Prather said.

Prather purchased Blackfoot Mystery from Lisa Peecook and took him to the East Coast to train in Unionville, Pennsylvania. Enter Olympic three-day eventer Boyd Martin, a resident of the neighboring town Cochranville and Prather’s riding coach. Martin will be riding Blackfoot Mystery in the Rio Olympics.

“I had my eye on Big Red for many years,” Martin said. “As soon as [Prather] said she would sell him, I got on the phone and rang everyone I knew to put together a syndicate to buy him. Lucky for me, I found a group of people to buy him and the rest is history.”

Born to Olympian parents, Martin’s own storied career began as an athletic child growing up on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia.

“I grew up in a very sporting family,” Martin said.

Martin’s parents met while competing in the 1968 Winter Olympics. Boyd’s father, Ross Martin, was a cross-country skier for Australia in the ’68 Games and he met his wife Toy Dorgan, an American speed skater, in Grenoble, France, where the Games were held that year. Dorgan later moved to Australia and the two married and started a family.

“We had a few acres of land and had horses in the backyard,” Martin said. “I’d get off the school bus, jump on my horse, and take him galloping around. I was a terrible student, so it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to be an accountant or a doctor. So as soon as I finished high school, I packed my bags and moved into a bunkhouse of an equestrian training facility up in New South Wales, Australia.”

Martin moved to the United States in 2006 and continued to ascend up the ranks in the eventing world, which ultimately took him to his first Olympics in 2012.

“It was an amazing experience, with so many people watching and cheering from around the globe,” said the 36-year-old Aussie-American.

But that first Olympic experience for Martin came not without trial and tribulation. A year before, in 2011, Martin’s father was killed in a cycling accident. Also that year, Martin’s stable suffered a fire that killed six of his horses. Ironically, it was the last off-the-track Thoroughbred Martin owned, named Neville Bardos, who was saved from the fire. Against fire marshal orders, Martin dashed into the burning building with his friend Phillip Dutton and saved the horse.

“You just did what you had to do in the moment,” Martin said about that night. “There was a moment where we decided to have a crack at it and we managed to salvage a horse or two.”

But Martin would rather put heroics aside and leave that horrific scene behind him.

“I hope I don’t get remembered for running into a burning building; I hope I get remembered for a big performance at the Rio Olympics,” Martin added.

At a little over 17 hands tall, Blackfoot Mystery, Martin said, is probably one of the biggest horses he’s ever taken to competition, but added that he is much more than just a big, chestnut Thoroughbred.

“[Blackfoot Mystery] has unbelievable heart and determination,” he said. “He’s one of those horses when you put him in a championship scenario he always tends to step up.”

Martin and Blackfoot Mystery finished well in a number of three-star events earlier in the year, catapulting them to the top on the road to qualifying for the Rio Olympics. But the highlight came in April, when Blackfoot Mystery surged from 34th place to finish sixth at Rolex Kentucky, a four-star event, the highest level of competition in the sport. That performance sealed the deal for Blackfoot Mystery to make the U.S. Olympic Eventing Team.

“We got [to Rolex] and it had been raining and the ground was muddy and heavy and he was going at the end of the day,” Martin said. “A lot of the other riders were shaking at the knees, but I had absolute confidence in Red.”

Martin added, “I’ve got a number of horses in training and they’re all different breeds. But a good moving, good jumping Thoroughbred like Blackfoot Mystery would be, in my opinion, the best horse in the world to tackle the sport of three-day eventing.”

There to cheer on Big Red at Rolex Kentucky, sitting in the stands at Kentucky Horse Park, was breeder John O’Meara–not far from his Milestone Farm where he bred Blackfoot Mystery 12 years ago.

“I like to go every year to Rolex Kentucky when it’s on because it’s nice to watch top-level horses do anything,” O’Meara said. “It was wonderful to go watch Blackfoot Mystery to see how he’d matured and grown up, just was proud that I’d raised a big, strong horse good enough to get there.”

Blackfoot Mystery competes in the eventing portion of the Olympics, which compiles dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The event will be held Aug. 6 thorough Aug. 9 and shown on select NBC broadcasts throughout the week.

by Jonathan Murrietta/



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