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Duck tales

Amanda Duckworth takes a ride with former racehorse Duesenberg. Courtesy Amanda Duckworth

I like stories with happy endings. However, because the old journalism adage "if it bleeds, it leads" is still very much a popular thought today, sometimes the good gets lost in the shuffle. And by sometimes, I mean most of the time.

So, the following are three mini-stories that all have happy endings. Someone stepped up. Someone cared. Someone did the right thing. Because for all the bad in the world, there is a lot of good, too.

You might also notice a thread between the three stories … they all trace back to a duck reference somehow. With my last name, I can't help it. Ducks tend to stick out in my memory. Hopefully you will enjoy these duck tales.

Rubber Duckie

To say Rubber Duckie had modest success as a racehorse would an overstatement. He raced seven times, never hit the board and earned a paltry $1,900. In other words, he had no success as a racehorse.

Not surprisingly, Rubber Duckie never made it onto my radar during his racing days. The now 8-year-old gelding did, however, grab my attention earlier this spring. Although he was given away as a pleasure horse after his career was over, somewhere along the way Rubber Duckie landed on hard times.

"For some reason, he ended up being kept in a garage in a suburban/commercial area in New Castle, Delaware, and apparently was not fed," explained Beverly Strauss, the co-founder & executive director of the MidAtlantic Horse Rescue. "When we picked him up, we did all sorts of tests and there was no medical cause for his emaciated condition."

The good folks at the MidAtlantic Horse Rescue took their time with their new charge. It is key to slowly reintroduce food to an emaciated animal, so Rubber Duckie started out with a very small amount of feed as he worked his way back to health.

Although Rubber Duckie showed that he had a resilient constitution, there was a scary moment when he decided to lie down in his paddock but didn't have the strength to get back up. As a last ditch effort to avoid having to euthanize him, his caregivers got a horse sling and hoisted him up using a tree.

"We all really thought he was gone, but then he came back to us, regained his feet--albeit shakily--and within 10 minutes was able to walk and was looking for food," said Strauss. "He is a very smart horse and didn't try to lie down again for well over a week. By then he had gained enough muscle to be able to get up again. Then we knew he would be OK."

Fast forward to this summer, and Rubber Duckie is in much better condition and is now in search of his new home. His caregivers describe him as kind and honest with no bad habits. He is sound and has potential for both jumping and dressage.

"He is very wise and very proud," said Strauss. "Even the day we picked him up from that garage, he picked his head up and showed us he was not ready to give up. He is very people oriented, which is surprising after the neglect he suffered, and tries very hard to do what is asked of him."

Any one who is interested in Rubber Duckie should be sure to check out www.midatlantichorserescue.org. Even if he isn't the horse for you, another horse might be. Or perhaps check out a rescue that is closer to you geographically.

"Not all rescue horses are old and at the end of the line," said Strauss. "You can find perfectly sound, useful, loving horses in a rescue. But be careful to do your homework about specific programs, as there are programs that are not legitimate and take advantage of well-meaning individuals."

Mr. McDuck

Mr. McDuck's story is a little different, since he was never a racehorse. Instead, he assists racehorses. When he feels like it.

I have known about Mr. McDuck for years, I just didn't realize it. He came into focus for me this spring when I did a story about trainer Carl O'Callaghan's efforts to raise awareness for Wish Upon a Teen.

O'Callaghan is an ambassador for Wish Upon a Teen, and this summer released the book Wish's Derby. All proceeds from the book will go to the charity, which provides resources and opportunities to teenagers dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or recovering from injury or chronic illness. Although the story is a work of fiction, O'Callaghan's best known charge, Kinsale King, served as the model for the story.

Kinsale King made a name for himself when he won the 2010 Dubai Golden Shaheen. Until Animal Kingdom won this year's Dubai World Cup, Kinsale King was the only American horse to find success on Dubai World Cup day since the richest event in racing moved to Meydan Racecourse.

So how does that relate to Mr. McDuck? Well, once upon a time, he was Kinsale King's pony horse.

"He did travel with Kinsale King before Dubai to Golden Gate," said O'Callaghan. "He escorted him around the race track a bunch of times and was on live TV. He's a great pony, but he doesn't like to work a lot."

That might sound like a funny thing to say. After all, a pony horse who doesn't like work might make a lot of owners unhappy, but O'Callaghan has found another role for him.

"He is not the greatest work pony because he is more into standing around looking pretty, so that is what we use him for," said O'Callaghan. "My owners' grand kids like to ride on him, and a lot of kids like to come pet him and bathe him. A lot of sick kids come to see him. He is a big pet is all he is."

So how did this personable pony get such a memorable name? Well, unfortunately for him, it is due to another one of his short comings.

"He walks like a duck," said O'Callaghan. "He jogs pretty and he gallops pretty, but he walks like a duck. He is a terrible walker. His legs go every which direction except the right direction."

It doesn't make a difference to O'Callaghan, who is fond of Mr. McDuck. He has other ponies in the barn who enjoy working so it all balances out. Not much is known about Mr. McDuck's past, as he was a rescue, but it is certain he has found himself a good home. Making sure horses end up in a good place is a passion for O'Callaghan, who routinely rescues horses.

"These horses give us everything, even the slow ones," he said. "I feel bad for the horses that end up in a bad place. I have rescued a bunch of horses and found homes for them. I can't do it every week, but I do what I can, when I can, with what I have. Obviously the horses I train myself, we keep track of when they leave here so they don't end up in a dark place."

Duesenberg

Duesenberg may have been named after a luxury car manufacturer, but he himself was not quite as speedy. An honest enough runner, the Belong to Me gelding won 12 of 40 starts and earned just shy of $75,000, but it took him six years of racing to do it.

"Duesy" came into my life last spring. I happened to mention to friends that I missed riding. During this conversation, they asked if I had met their friend, Dusty "Duck" Bonner.

During his college days, Bonner was the quarterback for the University of Kentucky and then Valdosta State University. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2003 but never saw regular season action. He eventually returned to Kentucky to play for the Lexington Horsemen, and after making the move, Bonner started volunteering for the Kentucky Equine Humane Center. That is when he met Duesy.

"I've always loved horses and used to show when I was younger," said Bonner. "Duesy hadn't been there long when I started, and he was more than a handful. I was drawn to him. He scared me, especially since I had just started to get back into horses, but for whatever reason, he gave to me a little, too. We developed a bond, and I adopted him."

My friend called up Bonner to see if he would be interested in having someone ride Duesy on occasion. Bonner takes fantastic care of the grumpy gelding, but he also has a young family which takes up a fare bit of his time, so it seemed like a good match. To Bonner's credit, he warned me that Duesy was a bit of a challenge, and more than a year later, that remains true. He will probably never be a push-button horse.

"Owning Duesy has been interesting," Bonner said. "Nothing has been too easy, which has made it more fun. I've learned a lot about horses and myself. I'm not a patient person, but that doesn't work well with a headstrong horse. When you take a look at why they act the way they do, it makes it possible to have compassion and understanding even for bad behavior. Horses can change. People can change. It just takes the will to want to and possibly someone helping show you how."

It amuses me to no end that I borrow a horse from a man who answers to the name Duck. However, while I have fun with Duesy, he is clearly Bonner's horse. They have bonded, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact they can relate to one another. Given his less than ideal temperament, Duesy is lucky to have found Bonner. In his owner, he has found a sympathetic friend.

"I think the similarities between retired racehorses and former athletes is kind of funny, said Bonner. "I remember when football was over feeling like what's next? You go from a strict regimen of exercise and work and complete focus on specific goals to … nothing. It was great for me personally to find that next chapter in life with work and my wife and kids. I have new responsibilities and new goals.

"I can see where it would be hard for the horses to go from a scheduled life down to the smallest detail to standing in a field day after day. It makes sense to me that these horses typically do better with a second career. They are winners. They are bred to compete. They are trained to compete. They may not be Kentucky Derby caliber, but they are athletes all the same. They need something to do. They're happier that way."

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.