by Mary Eddy
When a graded stakes-placed dark bay gelding named Digger crossed the finish line third in the 2011 Mister Diz at Pimlico Race Course, his connections knew it was time for the veteran of 39 starts to turn the page and look to a new life beyond the racetrack.
It was then that he was sent to New Vocations - a non-profit that retrains and rehomes retired racehorses - and adopted by Verena Brassfield to spend the rest of his days on a tranquil 600-acre farm in Tennessee.
“I’ve always had a thing for thoroughbreds and I couldn’t ask for a better horse,” said Brassfield. “I had a thoroughbred before him who passed away, and at first, I didn’t want another horse. But then someone gave my husband the website for New Vocations, and the first picture I saw was my baby. I said, ‘That’s him.’ A week after I applied, I got a call that I was approved.”
Digger, a Maryland-bred son of Yonaguska, made his first outing as a juvenile in 2006 and graduated at fourth asking by an impressive 9 1/2 lengths that December at Laurel Park. As a sophomore, he captured three more stakes at Laurel in the Deputed Testamony by a dominating 11 3/4 lengths, the Northern Dancer and the Jennings Handicap to close out the year.
In 2008, Digger moved north to the NYRA circuit, where he scored a pair of victories at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. The following year saw his greatest Empire State successes when he earned four victories at NYRA tracks, led by a determined score in the Gravesend to cap his productive campaign.
Ridden by Rosie Napravnik, Digger showed his typical frontrunning tactics and raced with Pashito the Che tracking close in second. Digger put 1 1/2 lengths between him and Pashito the Che at the stretch call and was able to fend off his determined rival by a nose in a final time of 1:11.66 for six furlongs over the inner dirt.
Digger earned one more stakes victory to kick off his 2010 campaign with a 3 3/4-length victory in Laurel Park’s Fire Plug, and visited the winner’s circle for the last time in March 2011 before owner Repole Stable and trainer Bruce Brown decided to retire the evergreen veteran at age 7.
“I watched the replays of his races and if someone had told me then that one day he would be mine, I would have told them they were crazy,” Brassfield said. “He was a good racehorse, and he could run, and still can. When he takes off in the paddock, he leaves everybody behind.”
Digger was sent to one of New Vocations’ Ohio facilities where he was cared for until Brassfield saw his posting and applied for adoption in the spring of 2012. It was not long before she was approved, and Digger found his forever home. While Digger needed a great deal of patience and commitment to learn how to be ridden beyond racing, Brassfield was determined to help the beloved gelding settle down and enjoy his retirement.
New Vocations, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was founded by Dot Morgan in 1992 and is one of 81 facilities accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), an accrediting body that fundraises and awards funds to its accredited organizations throughout the year.
The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) and its horsemen support the efforts of the TAA with each owner who participates at a NYRA racetrack donating $10 per start to thoroughbred aftercare. Additionally, horsemen donate 1.5 percent of the purchase price of horses claimed on the circuit to the TAA and to the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s (NYTHA) TAKE THE LEAD program, which provides veterinary exams and the funds for transportation and retraining costs for horses at NYRA racetracks.
“Digger was donated to our program on February 5, 2012, by Mike Repole and was in our program for four months before he was adopted,” said Anna Ford, the Thoroughbred Program Director for New Vocations. “He was a very classy guy.”
Brassfield said Digger has been the best teacher she could ask for.
“He’s so happy, but in the beginning, he was crazy,” said Brassfield, with a laugh. “He was headstrong and if the boy doesn’t like you, you’ll know it. He’s honest, and I said, ‘Even if I can’t ever ride him, he has his forever home.’ He gives me everything I need just by being here. He taught me more than any horse could have taught me.”
10 years after stepping off the racetrack and with much patience and gradual improvements, Digger enjoys some light riding and flatwork and has settled in beautifully to his retirement. Brassfield describes Digger as “a puppy,” his gentle nature and intelligence allowing him to teach even the youngest of horse lovers.
“I started training him and working with him every day,” said Brassfield. “He’s good with kids – another boarder at the farm says Digger is the only horse she trusts with her 3-year-old daughter. He’s not spooky, he’s willing and there’s nothing I can’t throw at him that’s he’s not willing to accept. He has a sense of humor and likes things a certain way.”
Digger, who once ran Beyer Speed Figures exceeding 100, leads a quieter life these days, enjoying his time out of the spotlight and with his devoted owner. Though he is a bit limited in his abilities under tack, Digger enjoys the occasional trail ride and flatwork, along with his time to himself in his large paddock with a herd of friends.
“He does trail riding and we did lessons for a little dressage, but other than that, he’s leisure and pleasure. He has 30 or 40 acres to roam with about eight other horses. He loves it and loves being out there,” Brassfield said. “All the mares in the pasture are his according to him. He has made one friend that came two months ago, a quarter horse that he gets along with. But really, he gets along with all the horses.”
Brassfield said her relationship with Digger has been one of the greatest privileges of her life.
“I call him ‘Schatzi,’ which in German means ‘treasure,’” said Brassfield. “When I go out to get him, I call him the love of my life. I’m the lucky one to have found him. I swear to God, he gave me a chance, and that’s the only way this worked. I count my blessings that I’ve had him for over 10 years now. We have a good time and I’m so happy I have him.”
*New Vocations, which operates nine facilities in six states with their main office located in Lexington, K.Y., is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization accredited by both the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) and the Standardbred Transition Alliance (STA). Since its inception in 1992, New Vocations has placed over 8,000 retired thoroughbred and standardbred racehorses into new homes at the conclusion of their racing careers. To learn more about New Vocations and/or to make a donation, visit www.horseadoption.com.