Former claimer Mr. Changue is one of those horses who is remembered best by many Fort Erie racing fans for what he overcame. The son of Gottcha Gold made headlines in the summer of 2019 when a sinkhole opened underneath him while he grazed on the backstretch of the racetrack, caused by a broken water main. It took a coordinated effort by trainer Ken Albu, his fellow horsemen, and the Fort Erie Fire Department to get the chestnut out of the six-foot hole. He entered – and won – a race just 12 days later.
Albu announced in October 2021 that he believed the time had come to retire the horse after 65 starts, nine wins, 17 seconds and eight thirds, including a runner-up effort in the Bob Summers Memorial Cup Stakes in 2017.
Now known as “Jeff,” Mr. Changue has moved on to a new phase of life. Kelly Wright acquired Jeff soon after his retirement announcement and has taken her time with him. Their goal for this year will be to compete at the 2023 Thoroughbred Makeover in October.
The Makeover is an annual event designed to showcase the propensity of off-track Thoroughbreds for retraining into new careers. Participating horses are only eligible once, and must have raced or posted a timed workout within a certain timeframe ahead of the Makeover. Horses may be trained for one in a range of different equine sports, and compete within their chosen sport with the champions of each facing off for a cash prize.
“After he retired, he had a lot of new things to get used to: a new home, new people, getting gelded, learning how to be turned out with other equines, and his feet needed some time and attention to be able to support the change from race horse to show horse,” said Wright. “At his age, I felt it would have been unfair to him to push for last year’s Makeover, so he got to spend all last year hanging out and being a horse.”
Wright spent that downtime working closely with her farrier, Paul Brick, to adjust the balance on Jeff’s hooves. They started with glue-on shoes that had to be reset every four weeks, and now have him up to a typical six-week shoeing cycle.
Wright has been happy to take his training slow; Makeover horses may not have more than 15 rides prior to Dec. 1, 2022, but they can be handled on the ground as much as desired.
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“Currently we are working on getting fitness back because he had been out of work since October 2021,” she said. “I don’t have an indoor arena on my farm so we have been doing a lot of ground work, hacking (weather and footing permitting), and introducing him to obstacles. Once the warm weather arrives I will be taking him for regular lessons with my coach, Victoria Ulloa-Caldwell at Endless Journey Farm.”
Wright and Jeff plan to contest the show hunter and competitive trail divisions.
“I am excited to be working toward the Thoroughbred Makeover with Mr Changue,” said Wright. “I adore him! He has such a quirky personality, and for anyone wondering…. Even though he is now a gelding, he can still be very cheeky!”
For those wondering about his new name, Jeff’s stable name comes from a parable Wright used to tell about the challenges for Thoroughbreds transitioning to new careers. She explains it this way:
Well, Jeff got his nickname from a random conversation I was having one night with my partner, John, when we had just started dating. John has a background in Western events and has experience with horses, mainly Quarter Horses. One night, we were chatting about horses and I started talking about how I wanted to get my own horse (I was leasing one at the time) and that it would likely be an off-track Thoroughbred and he grimaced and said he didn’t like Thoroughbreds. I questioned him a bit further as to why, and learned it was because any of the Thoroughbreds he had come in contact with were (in his experience) poorly behaved. Instead of outright calling him wrong, I tried my best to explain what the Thoroughbreds he had interacted with may have had to deal with and how the life of your average Thoroughbred was a lot different than the life of your average Quarter Horse. So I made up a completely fictitious story about an OTTB from a typical racing stable named “Jeff”. (As an aside, I do realize that this isn’t every horse’s experience and that there are many different ways that OTTBs are handled and trained at the track. I was embellishing a bit for effect.)
In my story, Jeff is a racehorse at the end of a successful racing career who isn’t a world beater and is not destined for the breeding shed. He showed up for work every day, stayed reasonably sound, picked up enough checks to make money, and is respected and loved by his people and handlers. As such, Jeff has earned his retirement and his racing connections put some extra effort into finding him a great home.
Said new home belongs to New Owner, a successful 30+ adult who took lessons as a kid, owns their own property with a barn, has a couple of horses that want for nothing, maybe has some success in the show ring or belongs to some type of horse riding club, rides two to four times a week, and has a vet and farrier reference.
Sounds like the perfect retirement home for a champ like Jeff! Unfortunately, New Owner glossed over the fact they have no experience with racehorses and doesn’t have a trainer.
The story started in the shedrow on Jeff’s last day at work. Over breakfast, served promptly every day at 5:30 a.m., his stable mates are wishing him congratulations and speculating what his new life might be like. Everyone is very happy for Jeff’s retirement and excited for him. Even though it’s his last day Jeff still goes to work. When it is his turn to head out for exercise, he is tied in the back of his stall and saddled, he waits a minute or two then his groom bridles him and leads him out into the shedrow to the group of exercise riders. Jeff’s rider is ready to mount and, without stopping, Jeff’s groom gives the rider a leg up. Jeff, and the horses he is exercising with today, head to the track passing manure bins being dumped, water trucks being filled, trash blowing, and all of the bustle of the backstretch in the morning. About half way there, Jeff realizes how great he feels! He gives a couple little jumps and a squeal, his rider laughs and gives him a pat and isn’t bothered when Jeff jigs the rest of the way to the track.
When they return to the barn, Jeff’s hot walker leads him over to the bath stalls and holds him while his groom removes his tack and gives him a bath, his hot walker then leads him around until he is cooled out before bringing him back to his freshly cleaned stall. He has a drink from his bucket and chews a bite of hay. His groom ties Jeff in the back of his stall to put him away, using his favorite soft brush and shining him up with a grooming cloth, he gets extra mints and pats from his groom who is going to miss Jeff dearly. His legs aren’t wrapped because New Owner is picking Jeff up later today. At lunch, Jeff cleans up his feed and munches away at his hay net while listening to his neighbor, Claimer Mare, complain about her New-to-racing Groom. Claimer Mare’s stall was not cleaned today when she arrived back from cooling out and New Groom does really bizarre things like stepping to the outside of the shedrow when horses are walking by, or forgetting to secure the lead chain properly on the halter when Claimer Mare goes out for grass. Finally one of the more seasoned grooms took New Groom aside, pointed out the dangerous behavior, and asked if they were trying to get people killed! New Groom also got a warning from the trainer for Claimer Mare’s stall not being clean after exercise. Claimer Mare doesn’t think New Groom will last long in racing. After lunch, the barn is quiet, all the horses have finished working for the day, and Jeff gets his daily afternoon nap before New Owner picks him up.
Jeff arrives at his new home in the late evening; the trailer ride was loud, stressful,l and lonely, New Owner did not give him anything to make him comfortable in the trailer and didn’t bring any bandages for his legs. Jeff is put in a stall for the night and given supper, it tastes weird and his stomach hurts. He doesn’t eat it. The next morning Jeff is fed breakfast, at an extremely late 7:30 a.m., he picks at it morosely, missing his groom.
Jeff is turned out for the entire day — pro: there is a lot of grass, con: there is no lunchtime. He tries to make friends with the other horses but they have been stable mates for four years and tend to stick together. It is late in the day, well past exercising hours, when New Owner comes back to the barn. New Owner is excited about Jeff and wants to start working with him. New Owner puts Jeff in the crossties in a nylon halter and starts brushing him with a plastic curry. The crossties make him feel claustrophobic and the brush is too hard. Jeff crowds New Owner to demonstrate his displeasure. New Owner ignores him. Jeff tries to get away. New Owner ignores him and keeps on currying. Jeff bites New Owner, New Owner gives Jeff a swat on the nose for biting.
This is completely incomprehensible to Jeff. He rears up and flips over in the crossties because his new halter doesn’t break. New Owner curses people at the track for the abuse Jeff has obviously suffered and puts him back in his stall. Jeff feels bad because he doesn’t understand what just happened. He is confused and lonely. The next day New Owner is determined to ride Jeff. New Owner brings a friend with similar equine experience to help.
Jeff is tacked up and brought to the arena to lunge. New Owner doesn’t realize that a 7-year-old horse might not know how to lunge. Jeff’s response to New Owner waving a lunge whip at him is to gallop away. New Owner gets dragged across the arena. Despite lunging going badly, New Owner still wants to ride because their friend can only make it out to help today.
New Owner takes Jeff to a mounting block. Jeff does not stand still and is stressed out about how long it is taking New Owner to get on. Friend finally comes over to hold Jeff and New Owner, who weighs at least 50 pounds more than any rider Jeff has ever had, hops on. New Owner is a decent enough rider on a well-trained horse. However, Jeff doesn’t understand what New Owner is asking. He starts to get anxious and jig. New Owner pulls on the reins. Jeff leans into the bit and picks up the pace. New Owner can’t stay with him and slams into his back. Jeff is extremely confused and leaps in the air. New Owner falls off. Jeff and New Owner are now terrified of each other. New Owner tries for a few more weeks to work with Jeff, becoming more scared of him. Jeff becomes pushy and reactive as he loses confidence in New Owner.
If this is a happy ending, Jeff is sold to someone that understands where he came from and helps him learn a new job. (In the original story it was an eventing barn). If this is an unhappy story, Jeff gets passed around until he ends up as a pasture puff. He is cared for well enough, but he has a list of ‘typical Thoroughbred’ behaviors that really frustrate his new caretaker, John, who keeps comparing Jeff to his Quarter Horses. John, who has no background in racing, concludes Thoroughbreds are bad horses and he doesn’t like them.
The original story was actually a lot longer (drinks may have been involved) and we ended up spending the evening making up random scenarios for horses coming off the track and narrating them from the horse’s point of view. As I am typing this email, I realize how ridiculous it sounds, but it was a fun time.
Anyway, I did change John’s mind about Thoroughbreds, mainly because he had no comprehension that racehorses weren’t trained for anything other than racing, and the way they were trained and cared for was vastly different than your average riding horse.
About six months after that night I saw Mr Changue’s jog video randomly on Facebook. I thought, oh he’s cute, why hasn’t he been snapped up yet, I scrolled up to re-read the ad and saw he was a 9-year-old stud and thought, ah, that’s why. Then I read all the comments on his ad from people who knew him at the track saying how great he was, and how cheeky, and how he deserved a good home. I messaged the agency (Southern Belle Thoroughbreds) and inquired about him. That’s when I learned he was the sinkhole horse. It had been mentioned in his ad, but I didn’t know the significance of it until after I put my name in to adopt him. I was very grateful that his racing connections chose me for Mr. Changue’s retirement home. We picked him up from his trainer Ken Albu, and it was obvious to me that he cared a lot for the horse.
Mr. Changue is sweet, honest and smart, he is willing and tries hard, he has such a personality and does the most random quirky things. But he can also kick out lightning fast, it took time for him to stop being bitey after he was gelded. He can get a bit stressed when he doesn’t understand what is being asked of him. He has some arthritis in his ankles. All these things that might have put him in a bad spot if he was in a home that didn’t have an understanding of his past.
So, to arrive at your original question, Mr Changue’s nickname is Jeff because he is like the Jeff in my story, just a typical Thoroughbred off the track that deserved a good retirement home. I’d like to think he has a good one with me, and hopefully Jeff feels the same.
Fans can follow Jeff’s journey on his Instagram account here.