Magna Fortuna, a nearly 3-year-old gelding, ran his first race Dec. 26 at Hawthorne Racecourse, coming in ninth in a field of 12.
His 16 owners include Cynthia Cherry-Schif of St. Charles, who said she never dreamt she would be part-owner of a racehorse, let alone one of such a grand lineage.
“I volunteer at the Illinois Equine Humane Center,” Cherry-Schif said. “I was involved with horses 20 years ago [and now] that my son is in college, I said I just want to be with horses. I don’t care if I have to shovel … and carry water buckets. I just want to be around them ... My husband said, ‘Don’t you come home with a horse.’ ”
But when a rescued thoroughbred named Lulu had a colt, Cherry-Schif was all in.
“The minute I saw that fuzzy little chocolate colt, I knew my life was never going to be the same,” Cherry-Schif said. “And that was before we ever knew where he came from. I just knew how lucky he was to be alive.”
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Horse rescuer Gail Vacca regularly goes to what is known as a “kill auction,” where unwanted horses are sold to bidders who will deliver them to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered.
Vacca, president of the Illinois Equine Humane Center based in Big Rock, went to such an auction in 2009 to see if any thoroughbred horses were being put up for auction.
“It was in June 2009 when I went to Shipshewana, Ind., for this livestock auction,” Vacca said. “We were doing a humane investigation to see if anybody from the track was still sending horses there against the policy. We were trying to catch somebody in the act.”
Vacca zeroed in on a mare that was obviously a thoroughbred.
“Thoroughbreds have distinctive traits apart from other horses. She was standing in a pen with 40 other horses already sold to slaughter,” Vacca said. “The way she was standing was indicative of a horse with rear foot trouble.”
She tracked down the buyer and asked him to check under the horse’s lip because thoroughbreds are marked with an identifying tattoo. The buyer said he checked and there was none, but Vacca did not believe him.
When he was not around, she went to check herself.
“I knew he was lying,” Vacca said. “There were all these horses in there, kicking and it was absolute chaos and sure enough, she was tattooed on the upper lip. So I was determined to get her bought.”
The man did not want to sell the mare, but by the end of the auction, under Vacca’s persistence, he sold her for $300.
“He probably paid $25 for her, she was so crippled,” Vacca said.
She brought the mare, whom she named Lulu, to the rescue group’s quarantine facility to keep her separate from healthy horses until they could make sure she did not have anything contagious.
“We had her feet X-rayed, and she had several different hoof ailments,” Vacca said. “We had our horse-shoer come out and do some corrective shoeing and medications. Then we got her back to the center a month later.”
Vacca said she looked at Lulu and saw her belly was getting large.
“The vet palpated her, and she had a foal in there,” she said. “So then we had to manage her lameness so she could carry the colt to term because painkillers could hurt the baby.”
Vacca said the tattoo on Lulu’s lip was not clear, so they could not find the thoroughbred’s pedigree in a registry.
Lulu gave birth April 15, 2010.
“It was a gorgeous colt,” Vacca said. “I knew the minute he hit the ground, he was all thoroughbred. If we had put her down, her baby would have been put down, too. I started renewing my effort to find out who she was. We needed to find out her pedigree.”
They named Lulu’s baby Taxi for tax day.
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Vacca found a consignment slip from her purchase of Lulu and found the seller on Facebook. She put out a question: Did he know who the mare was and what horse was sire to the colt she just had?
Within a day, Vacca got a call from a trainer and small-time thoroughbred breeder, the Facebook man’s boss. He had owned Lulu and could not believe she was pregnant because two vets had told him she had lost the foal.
“The guy says to me, ‘Do you have any idea who that mare is?’ And I said, ‘That’s what I’m trying to find out,’ ” Vacca said.
Her Lulu turned out to be a well-bred mare named Silver Option. Taxi’s sire was a legendary stallion named Magna Graduate that had just been put out to stud at Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky. Magna Graduate earned $2.5 million his racing career and now was earning $5,000 a stud.
Magna Graduate colts were selling for $25,000.
While Vacca still was reeling from the news of Lulu’s and Taxi’s true identities, the former owner hit her with another stunner: He wanted to buy Silver Option and her foal.
“He said, ‘Name your price,’ ” Vacca said. “I told him, ‘Listen, there is not enough money on this planet for you to buy that horse back.’ And then I hung up on him.”
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After getting Taxi’s pedigree settled and giving him the thoroughbred name of Magna Fortuna, Vacca said she and her board thought that would make him more adoptable.
And then they thought again.
“I would like to be able to have Taxi in a career in racing,” Vacca said to her board.
So they set up a partnership called Rescue Me Racing, divided among 16 owners for Magna Fortuna, including Vacca and Cherry-Schif. But as horse advocates, this horse will not be doped or made to run when it shouldn’t.
“You can still make money at racing by treating horses the way they should be treated,” Cherry-Schif said. “There is a group of race people who never drug their horses and they increased their wins by 50 percent. None of us cares if he has a huge racing career or if he does not win. If he is not competitive, our job is done.”
As a group, Cherry-Schif said, the owners are banded together to provide for Magna Fortuna until his dying day.
“This little horse is never going to be in danger another day in his life,” Cherry-Schif said.