By Diana Pikulski
When Eric Hamelback, currently the CEO of the National HBPA, read a story in the TDN two weeks ago about how high school students from Mechanicville, N.Y., were benefitting from a program with ACTT Naturally, Inc., he was so thrilled to see that the horse in the program was MGSW Harlem Rocker (Macho Uno) that he became emotional.
“Stacie [Rogers] told me that Harlem Rocker was going to a charity program,” said Hamelback. “But, I hadn’t kept up with what he was doing. It made my day to say the least.”
Harlem Rocker, bred by Adena Springs, was a yearling at Adena Springs South under the care of Hamelback, who was yearling manager at the time. He suffered a serious injury and his future was uncertain.
“I got a call on a holiday that one of the yearlings had jumped the fence and hurt himself,” said Hamelback. “I rushed in to see Harlem Rocker, who had obviously fallen and landed on his neck, scraped up and dragging his toe. Nothing was broken so we treated it as radial nerve damage which meant long-term stall rest.”
“”Fast forward and he matured into a stunning 2-year-old,” said Hamelback. “We were kind of shocked.”
Harlem Rocker missed his 2-year-old season, but impressed everyone by winning his first start easily even after breaking badly and circling the field four-wide. In only 12 starts, he won four races and close to $600,000 in purse money. Harlem Rocker won two graded stakes and the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. He crossed the wire first, but was disqualified to second in the GI Cigar Mile behind Tale of Ekati.
At that point, the gray was forced to take another year off for successful tie-back surgery. He returned to racing for just four starts. Upon retirement, he went to stud at McMahon’s in Saratoga Springs.
After one season at stud, Hamelback who was then at Adena Springs in Kentucky, received a call that Harlem Rocker was showing signs of neurological problems. Hamelback brought him to Kentucky where he underwent spinal surgery.
“He recovered and we wanted to put him back in service,” said Hamelback. “We test bred him, but saw a weakness that could, in the stress of breeding, be risky to handlers or to mares. So, we pensioned him in 2013 and turned him out. I felt terrible for him. He had no job and he really wanted one.”
His exercise rider, Valerie Buck, never forgot him.
“I rode lots of great horses, but he was one of my favorites,” said Buck, who rode racehorses for more than 25 years. “He loved his job. He was always happy to go to the track and he knew when to work hard and when to take it easy. It was always fun to ride him.”
“In 2013, I called McMahons to ask if I could visit him and they told me that he had been moved to Adena Springs in Kentucky,” said Buck. “I learned that he was just turned out and not breeding because of his condition. So, I called Stacie Rogers to ask if I could have him.”
“Her husband Mike Rogers told me to write a letter to Mr. Stronach,” said Buck. “So I did. I really poured my heart out. They got a recommendation from Todd Pletcher and called me right away to say yes. They gelded him for me, gave him some time to recuperate, and then I picked him up on my birthday. He’s my unicorn.”
Harlem Rocker’s new fan base is not only high school students. He is the star of programs for veterans, families of veterans, and most recently, employees of the Hilton Hotel in Saratoga Springs. The hotel group is engaged in team-building and personal growth through horsemanship.
“Hanging out with Harlem Rocker for the day was a pick-me-up for my soul, “said Emma of the Saratoga Hilton group. “He is playful and forgiving and much more personable than most people I know.”
“It’s so wonderful to see a horse like Harlem Rocker do so much to help people in his second career,” said Stacie Rogers of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. “I’ve seen Harlem work with Valerie and her clients. It’s the kind a feel-good story we should be telling in horseracing all the time. It shows how those in the business love their Thoroughbreds.”
“At one time, as a racehorse, he was at the top of his game and Harlem Rocker is proving that even an older stallion, if properly trained, will do everything he can to serve people. He is at back at the top of a new game. The sensitivity and the willingness of a horse like Harlem is typical of the potential for all thoroughbreds after racing.”
“He was always a good horse and always a smart horse,” said Hamelback. “That he persevered after two more surgeries and ended up so happy is a great story and telling about Frank and Frieda Stronach. The horse always comes first for them and by giving this horse the chances he deserved to keep going got him to this meaningful second career with someone who really loves him.”
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.