Lisa Russell
September 17, 2001 12:00 PM

With one win and three second-place finishes in a two-year career, odds were that Sunny Puff was headed to the ultimate finish line: the slaughterhouse. But thanks to Monique Koehler, those bets are off. The founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation sees to it that also-rans like Sunny Puff are leisurely munching grass at places like Pleasant Valley Farm in Holmdel, N.J., where the 16-year-old bay, who quit racing in 1988, lifts his head across a pasture fence to receive Koehler’s caresses. “When racehorses retire, they don’t have 401 (k)s,” says the 57-year-old marketing executive. “It’s up to us to save as many of them as possible.”

Since the TRF started in 1982, Koehler’s organization has rescued more than 3,000 horses from the common fate of racing’s equine retirees. Last year some 4,500 less fortunate steeds were led to slaughter. For owners who are unaware of programs like the TRF, it’s a matter of economics. Caring for a Thoroughbred can cost up to $10,000 a year. So it’s tempting to sell a has-been horse at auction for a few hundred dollars—even though the buyer may turn out to be an agent for a meat processor that will butcher the animal for human consumption in parts of Europe and Asia. “This is a practice no one is particularly fond of,” says Eric Wing, media relations director for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “Horsemen have a conscience like everyone else.”

What they lacked, until Koehler rode onto the scene, was an easy alternative. Her organization has become the largest of the 50 or so agencies in the U.S. caring for retired racers, with a current slate of 336 hooved clients. Of those, 151 graze at 13 TRF-affiliated farms and stables, which offer discounted care while the animals wait to be adopted by individual horse lovers. Another 27 are preparing for second careers—often as pleasure or show horses—at the TRF’s 72-acre rehab ranch, which opened last year in Poughquag, N.Y. And 158 have found refuge in an unlikely setting: prisons in four eastern states, where they are used in rehabilitative programs for inmates.

“Monique has done something truly remarkable,” says Penny Chenery, owner and breeder of the renowned Triple Crown winner Secretariat and a TRF founding board member. “I had questions at first, since she was not [professionally] involved with horses, but I realized that she just had this great big heart and wanted to help.”

Indeed, Koehler had been rehearsing for her mission for 30 years. She began rescuing lost pets as a girl in Brooklyn, where she was the fourth of five children born to father Pierre, a pastry chef, and homemaker Madeleine (both now deceased). “Any stray I could sneak into the house, I did,” she recalls. She discovered horses at age 10, when older sister Eva and her then husband, Michael, let her tag along to Long Island’s Belmont Park racetrack. “I had never seen anything so beautiful as a Thoroughbred,” she says. “They’re God’s perfect creatures.”

After earning an associate degree in science from Nassau Community College, she spent 15 years working for a private-label drug manufacturer, rising to vice president of production and purchasing. She married high school sweetheart Peter Koehler in 1966 and became the mother of two sons: Peter, now 26, a Houston architect, and James, 18, who started Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., last month. “Monique has always been determined and dedicated,” says husband Peter, 58, whose advertising firm she joined in 1979 and with whom she shares a five-bedroom house in Middle-town, N.J., “not just with the TRF, but in all areas of her life.”

Koehler’s life took its current turn in 1980, when she read a newspaper article detailing the carnage of retired racehorses. “I had assumed that they all went to a nice farm someplace,” she recalls. She contacted the story’s subject, retired horse trainer Daphne Collings, who had the vision but not the means to establish the TRF. Persuaded by Collings (who died in 1999) to start the foundation and become its president, Koehler was soon devoting as much as 40 hours a week to the cause—on top of her day job. In 1984 the first TRF refuge opened on 50 acres of the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, where up to 40 horses are tended by a specially trained group of 6 to 18 inmates. “The men come out here with a tough-guy attitude,” says farm manager Jim Tremper of the program, since replicated at three other prisons. Eventually, “they learn that if they’re calm and use some gentleness, the horses respond better.”

Koehler’s group has contacted dozens of track officials, who help identify retiring horses so that the TRF can intervene before the animals are auctioned. Occasionally the foundation—now with seven employees and a $1 million budget raised through special track events and donations—must compensate slaughterhouse agents, but few owners ask for cash. Usually, says Koehler, who receives no salary from the TRF, “they’re happy to have a new situation for the horse.”

And no one is more pleased than Koehler herself. “To have anything to do with this animal,” she says, stroking Sunny Puff’s regal brow, “I can’t believe I’m this lucky.”

Lisa Russell

Fannie Weinstein in Holmdel

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