Fuego the Viral Claimer Lands his Forever Home

Fire King breaks his maiden for Jose Camejo and Corms Racing Stable Coglianese

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Assistant trainer Nikki Kaye was not exactly thrilled when she learned that Fire King (Palace Malice) was joining her barn. According to her best friend, jockey Madison Olver, the 2-year-old was appropriately named. Olver rode for Christophe Clement in the mornings and knew that Fire King had a big attitude and a major stubborn streak.

The colt lived up to that reputation when he arrived at Jose Camejo's barn at Aqueduct.

“He comes in and he's just shiny, gorgeous and muscular, but he was so mean,” Kaye recalled. “He didn't want anyone to come near him.”

At this point Fire King was unplaced in three starts. What could Camejo and Kaye try that hadn't worked for a top operation like Clement's?

Gelding him was the first step, but as Kaye watched Fire King in the mornings, she noticed how sensitive he was in the mouth. In the bay's fifth career start early last year, she and Camejo removed most of his equipment and put him in a simple rubber bit. They told jockey Manny Franco not to mess with his face during the race. Fire King took the lead early and won wire to wire in a New York-bred maiden claimer on Jan. 8.

Kaye prepares to give her good friend Madison Olver a leg up before Fire King runs fourth at Aqueduct on 2-9-23 | courtesy Nikki Kaye

While Fire King was working toward that maiden win, he started to come out of his shell.

“At first he would hide in the back of the stall with his ears pinned back,” said Kaye. “I started to entice him to come to the front of the stall. I would give him balls and salt rocks and he started to come forward. Clement obviously does a fantastic job, but I only had 10 horses at this point so I was able to hang out with him all day every day. He became the biggest beggar and you had to pay the treat toll every time you walked by. He started doing goofy things. He would pick up his polos and wrap them around his head. He would destroy his toys. You couldn't walk by with a baseball hat or it was gone. He was just so quirky.”

Kaye wasn't the only one who fell in love with him. She posted a video to TikTok showcasing a day in the life of Fire King and to her surprise, it received 330,000 views and over 62,300 likes. Nicknamed 'Fuego' by his groom Julio, Fire King continued to amuse his social media following through his hat-stealing exploits, an obsession with his “emotional support jolly ball,” and his ongoing efforts to win over his stablemate, an Into Mischief filly who “cost 400,000 carrots.”

@nikkikaye21#trickstervoice #pov #petpov #horseracing #jockey #horse #equine #fuego #KAYKissCountdown #newyork♬ original sound – Nikki Kaye

“I had no idea it would take off,” Kaye admitted. “I really did it to show people what kind of life racehorses had. It enlightened so many people to the sport who had a negative connotation with it before, but then realized that these horses are treated like kings.”

Kaye answered questions from viewers like if Fuego ever got turned out and how they could tune in for his next race. She showed footage of Fuego relaxing in his ice boots, getting a massage and rolling around in the round pen–all things that aren't worth a glance for track regulars, but are beyond fascinating to those on the outside looking in.

Fuego's fame grew even on the backside.

“Everyone would come in the barn to see him and give him treats because he was this popular guy,” Kaye said. “Even Javier Castellano came and was like, 'Oh my God, my kids are watching him on TikTok.' I took a picture of Javier and Fuego thinking, 'Are you kidding me? This guy just won the Kentucky Derby and he wants a picture with this claimer.'”

One day, the steady stream of videos with Fuego came to an end. Fire King had been claimed. He bounced from the Meadowlands to Mountaineer to Mahoning Valley, oftentimes making weekly starts but never getting to the winner's circle. Kaye kept in touch with the gelding's connections, letting them know that she had a home ready for him when his racing career was over.

On the day before Christmas Eve, she got a call from his trainer at Mountaineer. He was planning on sending the horse to Puerto Rico unless Kaye could offer up the same amount of money and have him picked up in the next 24 hours.

@nikkikaye21#horsesoftiktok #horseracing #trickstervoice #fuego #fire #fireking #newyork #petspov #pov #horse #equestrian #equine #athlete #equestrianlife #equestriangirl #athlete #racing #sports #athletic #veterinarian #vetsoftiktok #vetmed #vetmedlife #vettechlife♬ original sound – Nikki Kaye

Fire King's co-breeder Lucas Stritsman had kept in touch with Kaye throughout the gelding's time in the Camejo barn and after. When he heard the news, he offered to pay the amount in full.

Fire King is special for Stritstman as well, being the first horse Stritsman ever bred and named after his father, who started up their family's fireplace company. Fire King raced in Stritsman's Corms Racing Stable silks until he was claimed last fall.

“It's been an adventure for sure,” Stritsman said of the journey with the gelding. “I was talking to Nikki the whole time he was with Camejo. She would send me pictures and you could tell she was in love with that horse, which was great because as an owner you know he's getting taken care of. I couldn't be happier that he ended up in the right place and with the right person.”

Finding a van driver that could get a horse from West Virginia to Kaye's home in New Jersey the day before Christmas Eve proved to be a challenge. After dozens of inquiries sent out and one failed attempt with a driver who committed but never showed, Kaye finally landed a van. Fuego arrived at his new home on Christmas Eve morning.

From the trailer, Fuego checks out his new home | courtesy Nikki Kaye

“It was the best Christmas gift,” said Kaye. “He looked like he hadn't had a bath in three months, but the second the trailer arrived he had his head out the window with his ears up.”

Kaye had just adopted her first horse. Even though her experience in the equine industry doesn't extend all that far back, for her it was a dream come true.

Kaye first got involved in racing in 2018, when she took on the role of assistant director of marketing at Monmouth Park. Her interest quickly sparked and she spoke with a trainer there, admitting that she had no experience with horses or racing, but he offered her a job anyways. She worked from four to eight every morning on the backside and then from nine to five on the front side.

Her passion for racing blossomed and she eventually landed a full-time job with Camejo. She worked for him for several years, spent another stint with Danny Gargan, and then returned to Camejo to run his barn at Belmont.

“I'd never had my own string of 30 horses and that was when HISA was coming in so I was trying to learn all these new rules, but we did well. Those 60-hour weeks were so worth that minute and 20 seconds of pure happiness and joy after a win. I owe so much to Jose and to Danny and Carol Fisher [assistant trainer to Gargan]. I wouldn't know anything without the three of them.”

Kaye recently took a step back from racing for a job as the marketing director at a large orthopedics company on the East Coast. The offer to utilize her two master's degrees was too good to turn down. Even so, she doesn't plan on leaving the sport any time soon and hopes to get involved in a bigger way again eventually.

She is currently working on a dissertation for her journalism degree examining the overall impact media has on society's perception of horse racing and she's now taking on another task of educating the public on Thoroughbred aftercare now that Fuego has returned to social media. Followers were enthusiastic about his reappearance as they were introduced to his new home and saw him trotting placidly around a riding ring. Fuego's latest success was accurately predicting the winner of the Super Bowl.

“There were so many people happy that he was back, people that were wondering where he was,” Kaye said. “I gave him a lot of time off for the first two months. We did a lot of manners and groundwork. He's super intelligent to the point where he is almost too smart for his own good. He's very nosy and curious, but he has been an angel with me on his back.”

@nikkikaye21FUEGO PREDICTS THE #BIGGAME #superbowl #horsesoftiktok #fireking #foryoupage #fyp #fuego #horsegirl #racehorse #racehorsesoftiktok #ottb #thoroughbred #kentucky #newyork #newjersey #saratogasprings #churchilldowns #derby #football #taylorswift #traviskelce #49ers #nfl #chiefs #mahomes #trickstervoice #farmlife #veterinarian #vetsoftiktok #equine #equestrian♬ Nfl Theme – Official Sports Bar Version – Playin' Buzzed

Kaye has seen both the good and the ugly sides of horse racing and she has had her heart broken once before with a horse she hoped to adopt one day. When she was with Camejo at Monmouth, her favorite horse was Grade III winner Chublicious (Hey Chub), who had a similar personality to Fuego but tragically broke down at the quarter pole with Kaye looking on.

“I wanted to take Chublicious when he was done but it didn't work out, so I think that Fuego came into my life for a reason. He was happy as a racehorse, but it was different. Now he doesn't have to be competitive and he can just relax. They call him lazy all the time at the farm.”

Kaye said that she eventually hopes to travel to Kentucky with Fuego for the Thoroughbred Makeover, competing in either hunters or competitive trail.

“It is so special to have a horse that I have such an amazing bond with,” she explained. “He is still his quirky self. He reminds me of a toddler that walks up and pokes you. We're taking our time to learn a second career and he has a spoiled life. All he does is eat, play with toys and run around his paddock all day, but he would go to battle for me, that's for sure.”

And so the horse with one maiden claiming win from 17 lifetime starts was never meant to make headlines as a racehorse, but the role he'll play as an ambassador for the sport will hopefully continue long after his final start.

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