The Trail Ride of a Lifetime

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There’s an oft-repeated racetrack aphorism that goes something like this: All Thoroughbreds are capable of covering a distance of ground. It’s just a matter of how fast they can do it.

With more than three decades dedicated to finding and retraining off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) for other equine sports and disciplines, Valerie Ashker knows the first part of that old saying rings true.

But having just embarked upon the trail ride of a lifetime–a 3,500-mile OTTB horseback journey across the United States–she doesn’t particularly care about the “how fast” part.

Even though Ashker, 60, and her gentleman friend, Peter Friedman, 53, will be astride two ex-racehorses for most of the next half year, speed will mean relatively little to them. That’s part of what Ashker would like to convey to others–that the versatility of Thoroughbreds extends far beyond how fast they can run.

On Monday, Ashker and Friedman left Ashker’s horse ranch, Crow’s Ear Farm, in Georgetown, California, taking most of the day to cover the first 13 miles of what is expected to be a five- or six-month trek to Middleburg, Virginia. They will trace parts of the historic Pony Express route, then largely follow U.S. Route 50, one of the first major east-west highways in the nation, including the desolate section through Nevada nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America.”

Ashker, an accomplished equestrian, is riding Primitivo (Monashee Mountain), a smallish but athletic 7-year-old she acquired in 2012 in exchange for paying the previous owner’s $350 bill for having him gelded after an 0-for-4 racing career at Golden Gate Fields. Friedman, who only took up pleasure riding three years ago when he met Ashker, is partnering with Solar Express (Bold Badgett), an elegant, broad-shouldered 17-year-old gelding who was given to Ashker after being retired from the Northern California fairs circuit in 2003 with a 1-for-10 record.

On the road, they will be followed by a driver in a combination recreational vehicle/horse trailer. Their horse feed, supplements, custom saddles and horse boots, bandaging, liniments, poultices, and veterinary items have all largely been donated by sponsors that Ashker lined up, including her own mother, who gave $30,000 to buy the secondhand rig. Ashker herself has bankrolled $10,000 for expenses, which she hopes will be supplemented via donations from the public as they clop across America (proceeds after expenses will be donated to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance).

In a Wednesday phone interview while on horseback not far from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and somewhere between the towns of Camino and Fresh Pond, Ashker explained that she decided to embark upon the unique but arduous journey solely to raise awareness for the breed. Thoroughbreds, she explained, helped her transition between careers in the 1980s. They later served as the primary type of sport horse that her daughter trained with and rode as an eventing medalist in the Junior Olympic Games, and still rides now in world-class competitions like the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington.

“I came up with the idea because my daughter is Laine Ashker, one of our country’s leading riders, and OTTBs have put us on the map,” Ashker said. “So it’s about time, after everything they’ve given to us, that I give back to them.”

Ashker had an interest in horses from a young age but spent most of her 20s traveling the country as the lead singer in a band that included her then-husband. When Laine was born 32 years ago, they gave up the music biz; her husband got a “real job” as a stockbroker and Valerie turned to working with horses. A friend introduced her to OTTBs. She bought one, and “one eventually became five…you know how it goes,” Ashker said.

As Laine honed her eventing skills, Ashker said she was astounded to learn how much money people were paying for Warmblood sport horses when capable Thoroughbreds were widely available for a fraction of the cost. She acquired some off California tracks for her daughter to ride, and eventually bred others herself. Ashker has since branched out into purchasing and retraining retired racers for other clients, and the same qualities she looks for in a sport horse are those that she admires in the steeds that will carry her and Friedman across the country.

“You’ve got the best horse, the most versatile, the most courageous, the most athletic, the most strong,” Ashker said, ticking off the virtues of the Thoroughbred. “And beyond all that, the cherry on the sundae: a big-hearted horse that you can find on your own city’s racetrack.”

Ashker and Friedman delivered sport horses to her daughter in Lexington in April, and on the way back to California with the empty rig, they stopped in many of the small communities they plan to pass though this summer to get the word out about their trek. She said people seemed excited at the prospect of having them, and were quick to offer water, hay, food (for both humans and horses), and places in their own homes and barns for the travelers to rest if needed.

“These little towns will embrace this,” Ashker said. “And that’s what this country’s all about–getting off our damned phones and computers and embracing this world that we share together. It takes a village. I could not do this by myself.”

Regardless of the kind offers of help along the way, Ashker is both realistic and blunt about how difficult the journey will be.

“I’m not doing this for pleasure. This is not a vacation for me. And it wasn’t really a ‘bucket list’ item,” Ashker said. “This is a way to raise awareness, and it’s really important that that is stated. It’s exciting, for sure. But quite frankly, riding 3,500 miles, where parts of it will reach 115-degree temps, is probably not a vacation.”

Ashker will hardly be the first person in modern times to cross the country on horseback. For the past two years, she’s researched different routes and talked to people who have done it. One woman who completed a similar trip told her, “I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million dollars. But I wouldn’t do it again for $2 million.”

Ashker said cross-country equine treks are generally done from east to west for two reasons: The rising sun is not in your eyes for the first half of each day, and the flatter part of the country comes first. Coming from California, she and Friedman will be going against the grain on both counts.

“I’m going to tell you, we’re in for some adventure. And not all of it is going to be pleasant,” Ashker said. “People need to know this: My horses will tell me what they can do and what they can’t do. And if they need a break for one or two days in a row–it’s not a race. My priority is starting with the shape that my horses are in now–which is pretty damn good–and ending with the same specimens. Whatever it takes, five months or six months, that’s what we’ll do.”

Ashker said she did not put her OTTBs through any “hard core” training in preparation for the journey. To compensate, she will ease them into the trek, limiting the early going to about 15 miles daily. After crossing the Rockies, that daily mileage could be raised to 20. In the flatter parts of the country, 30 miles might be expected. Farther east, in very urban areas or over dicey bridge crossings, the horses will ride in the trailer. The OTTBs get three meals a day, multiple stops for water, various treats, and electrolyte-infused bran mashes.

Primitivo and Solar Express were chosen for the journey for different reasons.

Primitivo, at 15.1 hands, is compact with a thin-skinned temperament. “But I love the way he moves, I love his character, I love his carriage,” Ashker said (she has competed aboard him in training-level eventing). “And I think he could almost do it barefoot. He’s got the best feet. He’s a terrible little bugger at times, but because of that spunk, I think that’s a trait that will help me finish.”

Solar Express fractured a cannon bone in his last on-track appearance 13 years ago, but recovered well enough to event at the preliminary level. The Bold Badgett progeny, Ashker explained, “are a very, very buxom Thoroughbred. He looks like a ginormous Quarter Horse. He’s very broad across his shoulder, and he’s got he most beautiful hind end I’ve ever seen on a horse. He’s just gorgeous.”

Solar’s size made him a good match for the 180-pound Friedman. But the horse’s spirit will carry most of the load, Ashker said.

He’s got his eye on the next mountain,” she explained. “This is a horse that wants to go in spite of breaking his leg on the track. It’s that kind of character that we will need to finish this ride. I had to include this horse because of his desire of ‘go’. That’s the kind of cantankerousness that will carry us through.”

And how about Friedman himself, a relatively inexperienced rider? How does he expect to hold up?

“It’s going to be grueling, but I’m looking forward to it,” Friedman said via phone, while also on horseback. “I think the biggest challenge is going to be mental–adjusting to the pace of life out there, enduring the heat, and just getting through day by day.”

A machinist by trade, Friedman hasn’t exactly led a life immersed in Thoroughbreds. But he has a goal that is equally as important as Ashker’s.

“I would give up anything–I put my job on hold–just to make sure Valerie makes it across the country safe,” he said.

Ashker is encouraging people to follow the progress of their journey through this GoFundMe page, which will provide daily updates and a secure way for supporters to make donations if they wish.

Non-monetary donations are also welcome (bales of hay take up too much space in the rig, so they can’t carry many at one time, for example), as are offers of services (like a veterinarian or blacksmith who might meet them for health checks). Anyone along the route is invited to flag them down to chat, interact, or even bring their own horse to ride along for a short stretch.

Ashker said she would love to partner with a Thoroughbred racetrack (she suggested Laurel Park, near the very end of the journey) that would give them the chance to parade down the homestretch during a live racing program.

“I am trying to spread the word about these animals, and I figure making a trip across America on these OTTBs is one way to show that they’re pretty fabulous horses, regardless of how their careers on the track turned out,” Ashker said. @thorntontd

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