Dancing Spunky

PunkieMarylandMillioncrop[If you visit Leighton Farm, home of Thoroughbred Placement Resources, you will have the special opportunity to meet the best horse in the world.

Dancing Spunky was foaled in Glyndon, Maryland in 1988. He was bred by Bobby Adams and his wife, who raced their own horses with Bobby acting as trainer. Both had high hopes for this guy since he was out of their Stakes producing mare Plumly Solo and by Dancing Count. Dancing Spunky entered race training late at the age of 3, for no other reason than they just hadn’t gotten to him. Until that time he had lived on a beautiful farm in a field with other horses, a turn out shed as shelter. He didn’t come into the barn much.

“The Punk” entered race training at Pimlico. He liked the shelter and service, offered by racetrack living, but he did not like other horses near him on the track. This is not a good trait in a racehorse. The there was the other issue – he would not pick up his feet for the blacksmith. Just as Bobby was losing patience with Punkie, he became unsound. So Bobby started looking for someone to take him on.

Retired jockey and longtime friend, JK Adams told me about this horse because he knew I loved Dancing Count, Punkie’s sire. JK said Bobby thought the horse was sore because he had a chip in his ankle, but JK thought it was his hind feet. They were really long.

I was just an exercise rider, with limited finances so Bobby agreed to sell Punkie to me for $500. I was so poor, I had to make payments. Punkie stayed at Pimlico with Bobby, while I paid him off and JK galloped him.

Early on I began to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Within the first week of making the deal Punkie showed his distaste for training around other horses. As JK galloped him, some horses were breaking off to breeze and JK found himself on the inside of them. Punkie didn’t want to be there, so he flipped over the inside rail of the track. Not good. Bobby agreed we should take him to the farm. We spent the next two months forcing Punkie to train between two other horses. He hated it but soon accepted it. It wasn’t long before I had him paid off and training like a champ on the farm, so I decided he should return to the track.

He was elated to be back at the track. He loved the people, the action and the comfort of stabled living. Punkie wasn’t hard to ride, he liked to romp and play, always staying under me. He was one of those horses that made you look good because people thought he was tough, but in reality, he was a pussy cat to ride. He still didn’t care for horses in his space, but he begrudgingly accepted their presence.

Punkie was a barn favorite and loved all of the people in barn 10 where he was stabled. On one occasion a hotwalker in our barn searched for the powdered donuts he’d had in his pocket. He learned their fate when he discovered on the ground in front of Punk’s stall a wrapper and incriminating powdered sugar on Punk’s face. From that day, he always shared his donuts with the Punk.

It was finally time to find Punkie a race. I had only trained one or two horses before him so I was green. I entered him at the two day meet held at Marlborough, now Show Place Arena. Evidence of the track is still there, but they haven’t had racing for years and never will again. Punkie drew the outside post. This can be good or bad for a first timer. Maidens rarely leave the gate straight, so he had less chance of being hit by another horse out there, but he also wasn’t within the pack to get the idea it was a race. Since he didn’t like other horses around him, I viewed it as an advantage. JK was in the irons. Punkie must have thought he was very important because his jockey also helped take care of him. Not many jockeys do that.

JK sat on Punkie in the starting gate focusing on the start of the race. Punkie stood there focused on the tractor that pulls the gate into place. You see they leave it running because as soon as the horses break, they pull the gate to the side of the track. I stood on the front side of the track recovering from the excitement of saddling “the PUNK”.

They broke and I stood there thinking “Where is Punkie”. Then the ugly truth set in as he finally came out of the gate. I knew it was over. This was a very short race, 5 furlongs, there was no way he was going to catch up now. I looked down at the ground, with disappointment. We had worked so hard. My friend Ann Merryman came over and said, “Wow, look at your horse go, he’s really running.” I looked up to see a gray horse with blinkers running like a mad man. He was catching and passing horses. I looked at Ann and said, “Where’s the wire?” He ended up 5th and they were paying back to 6th, so he got a check in his first race. Better than that, he loved it. He pranced all the way back to the receiving barn as if he had won.

Punkie’s race career wasn’t long. He ran only seven times, but never missed a check. He supported me through one of the toughest times in my life financially. He set me up in the breaking business by providing the funds to get established with a clientele. I told him often that I would keep him forever. I adored him and I think he adored me. He loved his life and loved to race.

By far his favorite day was race day. He knew by the way we were acting that it was race day and he’d start to wind up. The Punk couldn’t get on the trailer fast enough. Once at the receiving barn he’d prance and rear in the stall, but never touch a wall. On the way to the paddock he’d bow his neck and dance but never pull on the shank. I think Punkie thought he was a Stake horse. After all, his jockey was also the person who cleaned his stall and took care of him. JK is the only jockey Punkie ever had.

Except for the first race, Punkie was always the first horse from the gate. All of his races began with “And it’s Dancing Spunky” He got a call in every point of the race because he was always in the hunt. He never won a race, but he never missed a check.

In his last race, Punk got the first call as usual. He finished third and pulled up on the track. Something was wrong. JK was jumping off of him. I ran out and Punkie had broken down. He got a ride in the horse ambulance back to the receiving barn. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never had a horse injured in a race. An old groom came over and assisted me. The vets came and x-rayed Punk. He had a catastrophic fracture of his sesamoid bone.

PunkiePaddock“Okay, how much time?” The vet responded, “You don’t understand, that will never heal, even with surgery. He’ll founder in the other foot and die a painful death. It’s best to put him down now.” I looked at Punk, and he looked back at me, he said he was fine. He was lame, but he was fine. “I’m not doing that, I’m taking him home. I’ll put him down if I have to, but not until then.” I was told he must have six months stall rest and then if it healed he could be turned out, but they did not expect it to heal. “Even if it does heal, he’ll never be sound.” I replied, “I don’t care, I’m keeping him forever.” JK was beside himself with guilt. He had felt it happen in the first part of the race, but had been unable to pull Punk up. Punkie wasn’t going to let those horses get away from him. That’s just who he was.

At the farm and on stall rest, Punkie missed the track, but he was a perfect patient. He was relatively happy staying in the stall for the six months. After six months, I transitioned him to turn out in a big field with a gorgeous turn out shed. My theory was that if he lived outside, He wouldn’t get excited and run when turned out each day. It didn’t work that way……Punkie stood at the gate waiting to come in. He didn’t care how nice that turn out shed was, he was a racehorse and deserved a stall and all its amenities. I gave Punkie his stall back and began turning him out each day. He’s had his own stall ever since.

After a year’s time I got on him and he wasn’t sound so I abandoned the idea of riding him. In the meantime, we moved our breaking operation to Sagamore Farm and of course, Punkie moved with us. We had the 90 stall training barn with the indoor gallop. I hated it. It was too big and too much responsibility. I wanted to ride and train not run a barn. The hours were long and the expenses were high. JK and I were going to have to cut down the number of our “personal horses”.

We only had two. Bo, the pony we used to break the baby horses and Punkie. I told JK I really hated to see Bo go. He responded with “But we need a pony to break babies with. I had gotten on Punkie a few times recently and he was sound, but there was no guarantee he’d stay that way. He also acted just like a racehorse dancing, prancing and carrying on. Punkie didn’t act anything like a pony. I told JK we’d teach Punk to be our pony. JK laughed at me and said that would never happen. I responded that he’d just have learn because I was keeping him forever.

Punkie decided I had lost my mind. What sort of race training was this? “I’m not leading that other horse anywhere.” “Oh and another thing, I’m not standing here waiting around either.” In the beginning JK looked at me every day and thought I was stupid. One day while schooling him to stand, Punkie got so mad he flipped. It wasn’t easy breaking the babies without a pony either. We were spoiled and used to relying on the pony. After a few months Punkie finally became good company for the babies, even if he would not allow them to touch him.

PunkSparkSurprisingly after about a year, Punk was becoming a wonderful pony. He was staying sound and we could even take him to the starting gate at the track with the babies. After all, they would go anywhere with him and relied on him to tell them what to do. We got a really big client from New York and we got this great idea that we would use Punkie to get their gate cards. Punk broke nine times with nine different babies, straight as a string and on the money every time. He was the best horse in the world – as usual.

Time marched on as Punkie developed his skills as a pony. When you pony a horse, their head should be at the pony’s shoulder. If they get ahead, they can get loose and if the suck back they can get loose. No matter how much I corrected Punkie for snapping at babies when they would put their nose ahead of his shoulder, he insisted on snapping at them – they would get back where they belonged though. He would also bump them with his butt to get them to stop leaning on him or if they tried to suck back. I just couldn’t get him to stop these two habits.

SnarlPunkOne day, as we headed to the training track with a baby, Punkie began snapping at the baby and bumping him when he’d lag behind. For whatever reason, I realized at that time that he was telling the baby to keep his head at his shoulder. I looked at JK and I said, Punkie is making this baby stay where he’s supposed to be. He knows what to do, all I have to do is hold the strap. I’m sure Punkie thought “Finally, stupid human. I’ve been trying to take care of you for months and you keep telling me to cut it out.” I never corrected Punk again for snapping a baby. Incidentally, I learned from the Punk that they take correction from another horse much better than they do from us humans.

There was another instance in which I was ponying a colt who started trying to mount us from the side. He pushed us into a corner. (it was my fault, I shouldn’t have let him get us in this position). As he started to come down on us, Punkie bowed down and backed out of there, the colt landing beside us and my hand still on the pony strap. I asked JK if he’d seen it. Punkie had saved me. He would save me many times in the years to come. He’d save JK even more.

I can’t tell you how many times Punkie saved us. He never let us down, not even once. We used to have a third person lead the baby out of the stall and hand them to me for the first few days during the breaking process. Then we had a mishap where the ground person was lead the baby out of the stall and they stumbled. The baby spooked and they let her go. I was sitting on Punkie sideways across the shedrow. This baby was coming at us full tilt. She was scared and JK was in big trouble. There was no time to think, let alone come up with a plan. As the baby approached, Punk turned and accelerated, I looked down and the grabbed the rein and Punkie slowed down and pulled us up. JK was thanking me telling me I was the best rider in the world. I didn’t do anything. There was no time for me to tell Punk what to do. The only thing I had done was reach down and grab the rein. After that day, we knew there was no better pony than Punk. He was the best horse in the world.

No matter how stupid the request, Punkie always came through. He taught people to ride, was the company for weaning babies. He was the companion for bad shippers, rock solid in the race paddock when a horse was nervous and resisting being saddled. Punkie helped JK get quite a few dates who were interested in learning to ride too.

He also never had a lame day since we gave him the two years off. When he was 16, I was breaking a horse off to breeze at Pimlico. Breaking off means you lead the horse with a pony strap and accelerate to breezing speed. Then you let the strap slip and pull the pony up. When I told Punk to go, he said, “Now you’re talking”, and started to pull ahead of the horse we were ponying. I slipped the strap off the horse, but I still couldn’t get him pulled up. The clocker called me and wanted to know who the gray horse was. Punik did the first quarter in .22. That’s smoking. That was the last time I let Punkie break off a horse. He was 16 years old and if he didn’t have the good sense to protect himself, I would do it for him. I don’t think Punkie has ever realized he’s not a racehorse. I know he never stopped loving it.2010-05-09 09.47.06

These days, he still breaks a few horses. He keeps “Cloud’s Honor, aka ”Graycie” company. He’s the only horse that can stand her. She’s hard to take. Punk broke her and her earnings as a race horse financed the birth of TPR. Punkie has started Graycie’s baby, Magnificent Mr. Z. He was present at his birth, watched the baby grow into a two year old and then broke him to saddle and the ways of a racehorse.

Punkie loves baby horses. He’s been the company to four weanlings until they started their training under Punkie’s leadership. He plays with them and brings them up properly. It’s a snap to break them, because they already trust and depend on him.

Punkie2In 2012, at the age of 24, Punkie appeared at Pimlico for a between races show with his only jockey, John K. Adams. JK rode Punk in all 7 of his races.

Punkie also teaches the occasional rider how to gallop. At the age of 24 he taught Dr. Kathy Coyle who subsequently got her exercise rider’s license in Maryland. She rode him on the farm and schooled her to the correct way. Punkie responds to the correct aids, but doesn’t give you a free ride. He loved it because until she understood you hold the horse with your position, not your hands, he got to run off. Everyone who gallops gets run off with sooner or later, there is nothing safer than experiencing this with a “school master”. The old boy’s still got it!

His main job these days is helping in the transitioning of an average 30 retiring Thoroughbred racehorses each year. Most come from Maryland tracks and begin by leisurely strolling around Leighton Farm with “The Punk”. He gives them a sense of calm which helps them to relax. Racehorses already know what a pony is, so it’s a very easy way to transition them to pleasure riding. From there it’s easy to start the fundamental flat work required for competitive disciplines such as dressage and jumping.

PunkieKennedie2Punkie is the ambassador for TPR and the value of Thoroughbreds, but even more than that, he illustrates the reliability and enjoyment you get from an older horse. At 28 years old, he is still sound and going strong.

I’ve been so lucky to have the best horse in the world. He really is the best horse I ever did see.