PLYMOUTH, Mass. -- Four retired racehorses from Suffolk Downs moved into their new home on Tuesday, stepping into sawdust-covered stalls built for them by prison inmates at a 90-acre farm not far from the rocky coastline where the Pilgrims first stepped ashore.
The horses will live at the Plymouth County Sheriff's Farm, where the prisoners converted part of an unused dairy barn into a stable for thoroughbreds that otherwise might be destined for slaughter. Sheriff's officers aboard Clydesdales and Shires -- part of Boston's Mounted Unit before it was disbanded this summer for budgetary reasons -- led the racehorses to their stalls.
"These are great athletes," said Suffolk Downs majority owner Richard Fields, who through his family foundation has committed $135,000 to build and operate the stable. "The horses are the real stars of our great sport and they deserve to be taken care of appropriately when they are retired from racing."
Along with saving the horses, the program gives inmates a chance to learn how to care for the animals and gives them a chance to be licensed as a groomsman, hot-walker or other job on the racetrack's backstretch. Inmates who care for the animals also get out of the prison for the whole day, and qualify for good-behavior time for their work.
"The land still exists in the spirit in which it was set aside many years ago," Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald Jr. said, noting that the farm is no longer big enough to supply food for a prison that has grown to 1,650 beds. "It gives a new lease on life not only for the thoroughbreds but also a new lease on life for the inmates. In caring for the thoroughbreds, hopefully they will learn to care for themselves in the community."
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has found homes for 3,000 retired racehorses over the past 26 years, finding them adoptive homes or farms where they can live out their retirement. About 600 have gone to prisons in nine states, according to executive directory Diana Pikulski.
Among them are Future Fantasy, which earned $236,860 in his five-year racing career and won nine of his 11 victories at Suffolk Downs before retiring to Plymouth on Tuesday. Red Miah, an 10-time winner on the track, frolicked outside in a pen, while Energy Center and Charlie Business nuzzled inside the stable in stalls made of freshly cut pine.
Fields has been a leader in thoroughbred racing's no-slaughter movement since he bought into Suffolk Downs in 2007. If a horse that ended its career at the East Boston oval winds up slaughtered, the trainer and owner will lose their stalls at the track permanently.
But Fields knew that taking a stand wasn't the end of the problem.
"Once you put in a no-slaughter policy, you have to find a home and another life for the horses," he said. "I can't think of a better use for them than to be here as part of this therapeutic program."