What it took to save the life of a stakes winner

JR Caldwell made a phone call as he undertook the seven-hour drive back home in January 2020. On the other end of the line was Fred Taylor.

“How’s he doing?” Taylor inquired of the trainer.

Caldwell had no real answer for the managing partner of Mojo Racing, who was asking about the horse in the trailer behind the pickup truck barreling back toward safety.

“I know it’s him,” the trainer, who had not done a thorough examination in the dead of night.

When he arrived back home, Thermistor was in good shape, other than a “scruffy coat and a sour disposition,” according to Taylor. The former stakes winner had just been rescued out of a kill pen.

The next day, Taylor arrived and wrapped his arms around the horse, relieved to see one of Mojo’s top runners safe and sound.

After some love and care, the horse known to his connections as Mr. T was back to being himself. He was ready to stay at Caldwell’s home before eventually moving to a second career.

A glorious moment

Based in Fort Worth, Texas, Caldwell and the Mojo Racing Partners found Mr. T in 2017. Bred by Golden Goose Enterprises, the Frost Giant colt out of the Old Forester mare Sinister Quill was available at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

He fit what the partners were looking for, so they bought him for $15,000. The colt was one of three purchased at the sale by Mojo.

When he got to training, Caldwell was immediately impressed with Thermistor’s speed and maturity. There was one caveat: He thought the colt might be a bit precocious.

“JR knew that he probably was going to peak early,” Taylor said.

Thermistor debuted in July 2017 at Lone Star Park. With Danny Sorensen in the irons, he got to the lead before proving to be much the best down the stretch and winning the 5 1/2-furlong race by 3 3/4 lengths.

His connections were impressed. So much so that Caldwell entered him in a stakes race for his next start, the $100,000 Gold Rush Futurity at Arapahoe Park in Colorado.

When the race came around in August 2017, Taylor was in attendance. Caldwell was not.

The trainer’s mother had recently passed away, and he was attending her funeral on race day.

“A lot of sentimental value to me,” Caldwell said.

Thermistor made good that day. After taking an early lead in the six-furlong race, he faced a relentless challenge from a colt named Fortified Effort. They battled closely until the final sixteenth, when Thermistor gained back the lead for good, winning by three-quarters of a length.

It was the first stakes victory in Mojo Racing Partners’ history. Caldwell’s mother’s name appeared on the winning photo.

“It was just an exciting race to watch,” Taylor said. “It was a glorious moment for us.”

How can we get him out of there?

Slaughter is a major problem facing the racing industry. No level of the sport is immune.

Even stakes winners like Thermistor have the potential to slip through the cracks in the system. According to Lynn Sullivan, CEO of Thoroughbred Athletes in Guthrie, Okla., an organization that trains racehorses for new careers, many have a minute monetary value after they are done racing.

That often leads them into the hands of those who would sell them into slaughter.

“Somebody swears they’re going to give it a good home,” Sullivan said. “But nine times out of 10 that person is going to turn around and take it to an auction to make a quick $500.”

After the colt’s win in the Gold Rush Futurity, he tried two more stakes races, fourth and fifth finishing. Then he tried an allowance race before dropping into claiming company.

He was claimed from Mojo at Oaklawn in February 2019. After bouncing around barns in West Virginia, he ran his last race in October that year.

Soon, Sullivan got a call from one of her scouts watching a kill. Thermistor was there, destined to be shipped to slaughter in Mexico.

Normally, Sullivan said she does not call owners. However, Joe Alexander had previously been the president of Thoroughbred Athletes, so Sullivan had some measure of faith.

“I knew Joe,” Sullivan said. “I’ve worked with Mojo. I knew they would do the right thing.”

When he got the news, Alexander was horrified. He said he knew he had to take action, and he made contact with Taylor.

“How can we get him out of there?” Alexander said. “What can we do? There has to be an answer. That’s the first thing that goes through your mind is how can we stop this from happening?”

It was New Year’s Eve, and Taylor was sitting down to dinner with his family when he got the message from Alexander. After reading it, he called his capital partner to get the details immediately.

After they hung up, Taylor got back on the line, reaching out to Caldwell to fill him in. That was when the trainer got to work.

Taylor said the horse was in a bad place, but he had faith in Caldwell to make it right.

“Never tell JR he can’t do something,” Taylor said. “He always finds a way to prove you wrong.”

The trainer said leaving the horse in peril was never an option.

“I was not going to lose this situation,” Caldwell said. “I was doing all that I could.”

The next five days were harrowing for the trainer. He made calls in an attempt to locate Thermistor.

Eventually, he got in touch with the people in possession of the horse. Even then, it was a tricky situation.

Caldwell said he had to convince the holders that he was not out to get them. He had to gain some measure of trust. In the meantime he made plans in case he was unsuccessful bargaining, moves that turned out not to be needed.

“Went that far to make sure I had this covered,” Caldwell said.

After agreeing to a fee, Caldwell was off. He hitched up his trailer and began the journey with his niece in tow.

Despite the situation, the trainer said he was not scared as he made the trip.

“I’m just like, ‘Man, I’m glad this five days of on the phone 24/7 making phone calls, finally making it happen,” Caldwell said. “It was good. Now let’s just seal this off and get it done.”

When he arrived at the location, the transaction did not take long. Thermistor was led down a hill and loaded into Caldwell’s trailer.

The parties shock hands, and the trainer left.

Thermistor was saved.

The colt’s connections were relieved.

“A sense of elation goes over you,” Alexander said of the moment he heard the news.

‘A better way’

These days, Mr. T spends his days on Caldwell’s farm. The plan is to eventually turn him into a stable pony.

“We’ve roped with him and rode him and done babies with him when we’re breaking babies,” Caldwell said. “I just haven’t had room at the barn to take in a new pony.”

His owners also remain fond of their former star.

“We go visit and spend time with Thermistor,” Taylor said. “… He’s just a happy, productive part of Mojo.”

The connections waited until 2022 to tell the story. Caldwell was concerned that going too fast would jeopardize his chances to save another horse should a similar situation come up again.

Mojo Racing Partners has continued operations, although none of the partnership’s horses since Thermistor have hit the board in a stakes race.

According to Taylor, the partners made a vow to keep their runners safe after retirement, even offering other owners who end up with Mojo horses.

“We stand by our horses,” Taylor said. “Even if they’re claimed from us, we’ll come and get them, and we won’t just dump them. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

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