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Wednesday, July 23
Keeping others from Ferdinand's fate

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When a thoroughbred stallion abroad has outlived his breeding usefulness, anything can happen to him -- even if he's a Kentucky Derby winner.

That, in a nutshell, is the sad story of Ferdinand.

A report in The Blood-Horse, an industry publication based in Lexington, recounts the final years in the life of Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner. Sold to breeders in Japan in 1994, Ferdinand's life ended sometime last year.

The manner of Ferdinand's death remains a mystery, although The Blood-Horse report said there are indications the horse may have met his death in a slaughterhouse.

"Ferdinand was disposed of during the last year,'' said his former owner, Yoshikazu Watanabe. "He was getting old and was in some discomfort.''

Watanabe, who said he gave the aging horse to a friend two years ago after Ferdinand was no longer effective as a stud, declined to give details about the horse's death. He used the Japanese word "shobun,'' which means to "get rid of'' or "dispose of.''

Telephone calls Wednesday to Watanabe went unanswered.

"This is a horrible story,'' said Dell Hancock, whose family owns Claiborne Farm where Ferdinand was born and stood at stud from 1989 to 1994. "It sickens me to think about it.''

Ferdinand's case highlights the differences in the treatment of champion thoroughbreds after death. At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where two Derby champions -- Triple Crown winner War Admiral (1937) and Bold Forbes (1976) -- are interred, it's common to bury the whole horse, executive director John Nicholson said.

It's tradition elsewhere to bury the head, heart and hooves of the horse. Whichever way a horse is interred, it is considered an honor, Nicholson said.

Contrast that treatment with that of Exceller, a champion horse that died in a slaughterhouse in Sweden in 1997. Exceller's fate caused Staci Hancock, wife of horse breeder Arthur Hancock, to ask about buying back Gato Del Sol, the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner they sold in 1992 to a German breeding operation.

"Gato hadn't done it as a stud over there,'' said Arthur Hancock, who owns Stone Farm in Paris, Ky. "We were able to buy him back and fly him over here. Thank God we did. He is retired and living a good life, with a lot of good bluegrass and shade.''

That's the life all thoroughbreds should have in retirement, said Michael Blowen of Midway, who founded an organization called Old Friends that wants to bring back to the United States champion thoroughbred stallions that were sold overseas and are nearing retirement.

"These horses are very famous and could do a lot to help the industry in their retirement,'' Blowen said. "One of my theories has always been that famous racehorses are tremendous tourist attractions. In retirement, they could generate a lot of income that could benefit their less-fortunate brother and sister horses.''

The goal of Blowen's group is to establish a farm for retired stallions, open it to tourists, and use any money generated to care for lesser-known, less-successful horses and help them avoid the slaughterhouse.

Blowen had three former Derby winners on his short list to start the farm. Ferdinand was one. The others are 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold and 1993 winner Sea Hero, both of which stand at stud in Turkey. Kim Zito, the wife of Strike the Gold's trainer, Nick Zito, is assisting Blowen's efforts.

The goal is to buy the horses through private donations of $50 from people wanting to own a small stake in a retired Derby winner.

Old Friends is one of several organizations working to promote the cause of retired thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation based in Shrewsbury, N.J., has participating farms in New York, Maryland, Kentucky, Florida, Virginia and Missouri.

Five former Derby winners are outside the U.S. Besides Strike the Gold and Sea Hero, Alysheba (1987) is in Saudi Arabia and Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002) are in Japan.

Nicholson said it would have taken "one phone call'' to the Horse Park -- where retired champions Cigar and John Henry are stabled -- for Ferdinand to have found a home in the United States.

"We would have loved for Ferdinand to be here,'' Nicholson said. "I don't understand why no one called us. A Kentucky Derby winner belongs to all of the people of Kentucky. People would have come from everywhere to give this horse adoration.''

Blowen wants to create an "informational clearing house'' so that other horses can avoid Ferdinand's fate.

"The idea that Ferdinand died in 2002 and we didn't know is outrageous,'' he said.

Hancock knows where Gato Del Sol is, and he gives him a little pat each day.

"He may have been fine over there in Germany, but who knows?'' Arthur Hancock said. "He just didn't do any good as a stud, either here or in Germany, but regardless of that, after what he'd done for us, we knew he'd have a great home here.''

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Ex-Ferdinand owner says Derby winner has died