Here’s a story of a horse who isn’t a star. His retirement didn’t make news. But his journey says a lot about a certain kind of horse. Horses who once thrilled racegoers, once earned nicely for connections and bettors, but later face an uncertain future. Here’s a story of how people worked together to gain one horse a secure retirement.
Johannesburg Smile, foaled in New York in 2007, won the 2011 Noble Nashua Stakes at Belmont Park at 4 years old. At 5 he won the Lemon Drop Kid Stakes. At 6, he reached the top of his game when claimed for $100,000 by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, he nearly won the 2013 Toboggan Stakes (G3). Have a look at the determined heart of this horse when he was in his prime.
2013 Toboggan Stakes. Johannesburg Smile is on the inside, post position 1
His body language says it all. At 6 he was into what he was doing and gave his all. He was what the game is all about.
He ran some more good races, but by age 8, time had caught up with him. When he ceased to appear on the track, his apparent retirement made good sense. Then, at age 10, Johannesburg Smile reappeared on the track. This time his claiming tag was $12,500.
You see two kinds of horses racing at that age. One kind, like John Henry, Cetewayo, or Old Friends resident Flick (1992-2016; raced to 2002), stays on top of their game and their competitive urge keeps burning bright. They’re still into it, they can still do it, and that’s great. The other kind isn’t so lucky. For an older has-been, having “back class” can be a double-edged sword. Some people hope the horse will regain some form, or if an ungelded male, might interest a breeder. But by age 10 his former 114 speed figure had dwindled to a dull 80 (Equibase). He was racing hard to nowhere.
Old Friends began trying to retire Johannesburg Smile in early 2017. It’s a long, frustrating story, so I’ll fast forward to June, and his drastic drop into a $4,000 race. But for Johannesburg Smile this became a stroke of luck when Old Friends was contacted by Ginny O’Malley. Turns out other folks had also noticed this horse’s situation. Better yet, they backed their concern with positive help.
So on June 14th, Johannesburg Smile ran his $4,000 race. He no longer had it in him to win even this, but thanks to the teamwork of more than a dozen people, he won a secure retirement. Ron Paolucci of Loooch Racing Stables, Inc. claimed him on our behalf, Ginny cared for him at her farm, then personally trailered him down to Old Friends in Georgetown (Your visit was fun, Ginny. Come back and see him soon!). I’ve seen Facebook posts mentioning more than a dozen people who helped, and I’m aware of still others. If you’re among them, I hope you’ll understand when I don’t attempt a list for fear of leaving out some deserving people. All of you, please accept Old Friends’ heart-felt thanks for your part in getting the job done at last. And please, come visit Johannesburg Smile so we can thank you in person!
In fact, everybody reading this post, you’ll love meeting this hard worker who gave his all, as much when he was a low level claimer as when he was in his prime. Of course, at 10 he’s hardly a senior resident at Old Friends. In fact, some of us call him Junior. Or Johan Junior, because he looks so much like his dad, Johannesburg. When he first arrived he was angry. He thought that after his wonderful weeks with Ginny he was back at a track. He looked us right in the eyes and told us exactly what he felt about that—loudly.
But he soon figured out there’s no race track on the farm. He’s so smart, playful and kind that the barn staff and tour guides are already in love with this resourceful charmer. You will be too, when you meet him.