A Quick Study On Track, Celestial City Now Teaches at Lowell

Women’s TRF Second Chances Program at Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala, FL.

By Francis LaBelle

Celestial City learned how to be a racehorse by continually proving himself against top competition. Each time he raced, he showed that the lessons he was learning were taking hold. Celestial City became a graded stakes winner, but just when his promising career was finally taking flight, he sustained an injury that ended his days as a racehorse. Now, he has a new home and a new purpose.

On February 12, Celestial City joined the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) herd at the Lowell Correctional Institution for Women in Ocala, FL. He will provide vocational training in equine care and stable management as part of the TRF’s Second Chances Program. The TRF is the nation’s oldest and largest Thoroughbred rescue organization.

Forty years ago, the TRF started Second Chances at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York. The idea was that inmates would learn how to take care of horses and maintain the stable and grounds, while the horses got daily, supervised care. Many Second Chances graduates have gone on to find careers as farriers, veterinary technicians, and even farm managers. Since its start in 1984, Second Chances has expanded to several states. TRF expanded to Lowell in 2002 and has since added a Second Chances Youth Program located near the women’s prison. Both the women’s and youth programs have achieved deserving praise for helping horses and people find better lives.

Adam Coglianese/NYRA

At five years old, Celestial City is the youngest member of the TRF’s national herd, half of which are 20 years or older, and average a stay of 15 years. Unlike the majority of other horses, Celestial City had a standout pedigree, terrific connections, and every reason to succeed.

A son of Uncle Mo, Celestial City’s racing education was the responsibility of Hall of Fame trainer Claude “Shug’’ McGaughey. Under McGaughey’s management, Celestial City had a record of 3-2-2 from 10 starts and earnings of just under $350,000. Two years ago, Celestial City came up short in a pair of stakes races at Saratoga Race Course. Both times, Celestial City’s efforts were encouraging. He was figuring out racing while McGaughey was figuring him out.

Then in late October of 2022, Celestial City overcame a stumble at the start and posted a 2 ¼-length victory in the Grade 2 Hill Prince S. at Aqueduct. There was plenty of reason to be optimistic about Celestial City’s 2023 racing season.

“He was doing well, and we gave him a blowout,’’ McGaughey said. “He was on the training track at Belmont and he fractured his right-hind ankle. He had surgery, and he would look like he was doing good, but then he would have a setback. We finally decided to pull the plug and not race him anymore.”

Celestial City’s ankle was operated on by Dr. Patty Hogan, a noted veterinary surgeon who works with Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. She is also a staunch advocate of aftercare for racehorses and encourages owners to include an aftercare plan for each horse they race. McGaughey had such a plan already in place.

Since Celestial City had his early racing education at Niall Brennan Stable in Ocala, he was assured a safe landing after he could no longer race. Niall Brennan and his wife, Stephanie, have developed racehorses since they went into business 33 years ago. In 2009, they started their own non-profit Thoroughbred aftercare program, Final Furlong Horse Retirement, to make sure that any horse that had been in their care for any length of time would find a decent home and, perhaps, a new career.

While most of McGaughey’s retirees join Final Furlong, Stephanie had her own plan for Celestial City. As a TRF board member since 2022, she felt that Celestial City would be a perfect fit at TRF’s Second Chances at Lowell.

“The inmates would learn how to ‘let down’ a racehorse and down the line, he will be a great horse for their riding program,’’ Stephanie said.

While TRF and Final Furlong are independent of one another, the chance to work together for the good of a horse will always be accepted.

“Later on, if Celestial City gets adopted, his connections will know that he is guaranteed a lifetime placement with TRF,’’ she added. “So, if circumstances should change, he can always come home to TRF. That is a huge selling point. Very few aftercare programs offer that safety net.’’

Celestial City wasted no time in winning over everyone over at Lowell.

“The women are used to working with much older horses,’’ Stephanie said. “Along comes Celestial City and he is young, slick and fit. They were excited to meet him and they have taken good care of him. Now, they are helping him get used to being around other horses.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. He has always been such a cool horse.’’

About Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation

Founded in 1983, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is a national organization devoted to saving Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete at the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse, and slaughter. As the oldest Thoroughbred rescue in the country, the TRF provides sanctuary to retired Thoroughbreds throughout their lifetime.

The mission of the TRF is to save Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete from possible neglect, abuse, and slaughter. 

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