Zee Oh Six was quite a successful racehorse, by any standard. The big chestnut Thoroughbred has a long list of wins to his name, multiple stakes races, over $400,00 in earnings, and a 2005 Oklahoma-bred horse of the year statue with his name on it.
Zee Oh Six was also a troubled soul. He was known for his nasty demeanor on the track, his unpredictability and ability to become a danger to those around him in a split second. The daunting, big horse retired to his breeder’s where he spent his days at pasture for eight years, lucky enough to have a breeder who would even entertain bringing him home. Today, Zee Oh Six is a much different horse; he’s a school pony, teaching at risk youth horsemanship and riding at Thoroughbred Athletes in Guthrie, OK and he’s proving that OTTBs are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.
“I didn’t chose to do what I do now, it chose me,” is how Lynn Sullivan starts her conversation with me. The founder & CEO of Thoroughbred Athletes, Inc. was once a racehorse trainer herself, now turned OTTB rescuer, rehabilitator, and advocate. “I grew up in a racing community,” she says. “We had three major tracks in the area in my hometown: Hialeah, Gulf Stream, and Caulder. I knew that first time I set foot on the racetrack, that’s where I wanted to be. I think I was 6 years old.”
Lynn trained on the track for years, she broke babies, started horses in the gates, and galloped in the early mornings. She admits that she still dreams of days atop her pony horse, watching horses work over the track. But when her own barn started to be more retirees than active racers, Lynn had to solve her own problem, one many trainers face every day – what to do with her retired athletes.
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Lynn was extremely well versed in riding a racehorse – but she had never learned the “finer points of equestrianism,” as she puts it, and no one wanted racehorses straight off the track without some kind of vision for their potential in the future. So, Lynn began to seek out lessons, lessons in all other disciplines that she could utilize and pass on to her horses before re homing them. “I had to pretty much make them into champions in order to be able to give them away,” she recalls.
Her move from Florida to Oklahoma didn’t make her mission any easier – everyone in her new community rode Quarter Horses. After trying everything she could think of to promote the potential of OTTBs, to little success, Lynn decided to put on the first Thoroughbred Horse Show in Oklahoma and the Sport of Kings Competition was born in 2011.
Lynn never had the intention of becoming a not-for-profit organization, but when the very prominent Oklahoma breeder of Zee Oh Six got wind of the horse show he gave Lynn a visit and, with a little extra nudging, persuaded her to open Thoroughbred Athletes’ doors. Lynn admits it hasn’t been easy since she declared Thoroughbred Athletes a not-for-profit, but her organization has been responsible in those few years for successfully re-homing many OTTBs and changing the attitudes of many Oklahomans regarding the viability of retired racehorses.
The horses that come through Lynn’s organization come from everywhere, she says, about half are responsibly retired straight off the track and half are truly rescues – horses Lynn pulls from the feedlots, where they have ended up for any number of reasons, before they are shipped to Mexico for slaughter. Sometimes she brings them home knowing it will only be a few days before they cannot continue on in life anymore, but Lynn is determined to give them a more dignified end than the one they would otherwise receive in a feedlot. The rescue horses are the toughest cases, Lynn admits, they come with all kinds of unknown physical and emotional problems; “they’re pretty freaked out,” Lynn says of the rescued bunch.
Rio was a feedlot rescue that has always stuck in Lynn’s heart; she had gone to the feedlot one day to pick up a couple horses and spotted the sickly colt in a different pen.
“He didn’t have a tattoo but obviously was a Thoroughbred,” she recalls of when she first laid eyes on Rio. “He was so poor, his tail was filled with cockleburs, there wasn’t any hair, it was just a big mat and every time he swished his tail they ripped the skin on his bum. When I walked over to the pen he was in he walked right over to the panel and put his head on my chest and just leaned on me. There was no doubt about it, he picked me out.”
When Rio came home to Thoroughbred Athletes his rehabilitation was nothing short of a miracle. Not only did he have to overcome emaciation, abandonment, emotional and physical pain but he also contracted Strangles in the middle of an Oklahoma winter – an upper respiratory tract infection that is highly contagious and also deadly to old or sick horses. Through it all, Rio touched the lives of everyone at Thoroughbred Athletes and, miraculously, survived to go on and become a functional working partner to a trainer in Texas. “He’s got a great life,” Lynn says of her old friend, and you can just hear the adoration in her voice.
The rescues are the hard part, but the track horses? The Thoroughbreds straight off the track are the easy ones for Lynn; those are the ones she knows and understands from her years as a trainer. ” I know their flight instinct is pretty strong – they have to have a high flight instinct to succeed on the track. We just try to take that out of them because, really, Thoroughbreds are pretty lazy…”
Even Zee Oh Six, as he is today, is pretty lazy. The local hero was offered to Lynn eight years ago, but when she first heard his name she balked at the idea – she was all too aware of the reputation he had. There were stories of the 16+hh horse picking his groom up and slamming him to the ground during his racing days, and Lynn had no room for a dangerous horse at her farm. “I don’t know why I [took him], but I did,” she says. “He’s 18 now and we still have him – he’s our poster boy. He has taught many kids horsemanship lessons that they can’t learn anywhere else.”
Maybe there’s something in Zee Oh Six that the kids see in themselves, and vice versa – Thoroughbred Athletes’ volunteers are partially comprised of a group of youth who, at a particularly sensitive time in their lives, trade horse chores for horsemanship lessons to stay out of typical teenage troubles. Their poster boy was a misunderstood, troublesome, youth himself. The horse and the kids seem like the perfect combination – although how that partnership ever succeeded still baffles many of those who knew Zee Oh Six in his race days. But, as Lynn puts it, that’s the way Thoroughbreds are, and it’s what inspires her and her work.
“[At] the heart of a Thoroughbred.. they just have something…I wish I could put my finger on it. They dig deep to try to please and once you connect with them they try their hardest for you. They’re capable of doing so much more than [racing].”
Lynn’s biggest mission, and the reason behind the name “Thoroughbred Athletes” is that she looks for horses that can excel in any number of professional sports after racing that highlights their athleticism. The success of that mission relies heavily on the responsibility of owners to retire horses while they are still in a condition to continue on into another profession. ” I love racing, don’ t get me wrong, it’s in my blood and I’ll always love it,” Lynn says, “but I feel like sometimes people need to be kinder to the horses. They need to stop running them on time, before the horse is so broke down they can’t go on to do anything else.” And in doing so Lynn hopes that one day she will never have to make another trip to the kill pen, that all OTTBs will find a new, functional, purpose after their racing days are over – as so many of her adopted horses have.
As long as there is racing, Lynn will love the sport and the horses who have held her heart from the very beginning. She will also continue to support and promote owners who responsibly retire their horses, like Zee Oh Six’s did, in that fateful moment when she decided to take him home. And she will continue to be the voice for the horses who don’t have one, who have found themselves in the worst situations possible, who have been let down by the humans before. Like so many people in the industry, Thoroughbreds have given her her life, and this is her repayment.
“Horses saved me; I had a very difficult teenage time and horses saved me. Thoroughbreds are the only breed I’ve ever been around my entire life, so I feel like I owe to them the living that they gave me – the life they gave me.”
Learn more about Thoroughbred Athletes on their website, where you can learn about the upcoming 2017 Sport of Kings Challenge, see available horses, more success stories, and donate to their organization’s mission.