By Susan Kayne
For Capital Region Independent Media
Under a warm, golden sun, Angie and Toes graze contentedly in the lush green pasture at Unbridled, their tails gently swishing in the breeze. Toes’ coppery coat gleams with health and vitality. Standing at 17 hands tall, she towers over Angie, her statuesque physique unmistakable even from a distance across the field.
Angie grazes in step with Toes, but every few strides, she lifts her head, perks her ears forward, and surveys the other mares in their herd. With the keen eyes of an eagle, Angie watches over the group, alert and always aware of her surroundings while staying close to Toes.
Side by side, Angie and Toes transition from peacefully nibbling on grass to a fleet-footed frolic across the field, their powerful muscles rippling in unison. Observing their graceful, synchronized movements and undeniable connection, it becomes clear that Angie and Toes are more than just companions; they are deeply bonded best friends.
When at rest, they nuzzle each other affectionately and take turns grooming one another by scratching each other’s neck, withers, back and rump. This ritual, called allogrooming, signifies acceptance, friendship and trust.
The bond between Angie and Toes was forged through adversity. They found solace in each other’s company during their darkest days. Born just a month apart in 2011, these equine best friends first crossed paths in 2015 when stabled together with trainer Robert Barbara at Belmont Park.
Toes, whose full registered name is Touching My Toes, was foaled in New York on March 13, 2011. She raced 27 times, earning $244,905 and an additional $50,000 in NY Breeder and Stallion Awards. As a “claimer” on the NYRA circuit, she won a race for each of her trainers: Mark Hennig, Linda Rice, David Jacobsen and Robert Barbara.
In her last race, a six-furlong sprint on the dirt on June 22, 2016, in the fifth race at Belmont Park, Toes broke first out of the gate and maintained her lead up the backstretch.
At the top of the stretch with the finish wire in sight, jockey Jose Lezcano took to the whip. Toes was already running at full capacity; the whip hurt and stung her thin flesh but did not accelerate her speed or will. At the 16th pole, she began to weaken. Under the whip and on pure heart, Toes faltered under the wire, holding on for second place.
Prior to the race, a $12,500 claim was submitted for Toes. This meant that after the race, she would be transferred to a new stable with a new owner and trainer.
Just beyond the wire, Lezcano pulled up Toes and jumped off her back. Unable to stand on her left front leg and hopping on her right front, she hobbled up the ramp of the horse ambulance. Her breakdown voided the purchase claim made prior to the race. As the ambulance rolled away, so did the future life that Toes could have excelled in.
The collapse of Toes’ left forelimb did not occur in one catastrophic breakdown. Rather, it was the culmination of repeated concussions and the failure of her team to utilize imaging technology to identify the micro-injuries that ultimately led to her collapse.
At the age of five, Toes was broken, permanently wounded in service to the desires of others. Diagnostic imaging revealed a history layered with soft tissue damage and joint deterioration. Sadly, her racing career left her with a scarred knee, bowed tendon, enlarged ankle and fused pastern.
Had Toes been retired while she was sound, she would have had two more decades of active engagement in dressage, showing and pleasure riding. Due to the permanent injuries she sustained while racing, Toes requires sanctuary and special supplements for her care and comfort.
No longer able to race, Toes was sent to a breeding farm. After carrying a pregnancy on her aching legs, she gave birth to a filly on June 17, 2017. The whereabouts of her filly is unknown.
Angie, on the other hand, was born on Valentine’s Day in California. She raced 32 times, winning 12 races for multiple owners and different trainers, while earning $334,830. Angie’s final race took place just shy of a month after Toes’.
On July 16, 2016, at 4:10 p.m., Angie surged out the starting gate and straight to the lead in the sixth race at Belmont Park. And like Toes, she held onto the lead through the top of the stretch. Also like Toes, the strike of Lezcano’s whip only hurt and stung. Underneath him, while Angie sought to run, her tendons gave way. To collect a check for her connections, Angie would have to cross under the finish wire. She finished second to last and earned $940.
After the wire, Lezcano pulled up Angie, hopped off, and handed her over to the horse ambulance to be “vanned off.” While Lezcano was driven back to the Jockey’s quarters to prepare for his next race, Angie struggled and trembled to stay on her feet for transport to the veterinary clinic.
Despite amassing nearly $700,000 in winnings, no funding had been set aside, nor a retirement plan prepared, to help Angie and Toes when permanent injuries meant they could no longer race.
Two and a half years after their final races, Angie and Toes were discovered huddling side-by-side, neglected and starving at the once iconic Clermont Farm in Columbia County.
In March 2019, Unbridled rescued and assumed ownership of Angie and Toes. At the time, Toes was so lame that she could barely walk on three legs. The pair hovered around a rotting bale of hay, never leaving each other’s side. It took months of careful renourishing, dental and hoof care, and love for them to regain their health.
Remarkably, Angie and Toes made a full recovery, gaining over 700 pounds in the process. Today, they are beloved members of the Unbridled Sanctuary, actively involved in educational programs that teach young people about the sentience, emotions and deep bonds of friendship shared by horses.
The racing industry often refers to these animals as “equine athletes,” anthropomorphizing them and celebrating their accomplishments. However, the horses themselves cannot give consent and have no say in their own well-being. While it is true that Thoroughbreds love to run, it does not mean they relish being drugged, bitted, blinkered and whipped in competition.
Although it is estimated that 3,000 Thoroughbreds break down annually while racing and training, no factual data exists on how many are permanently injured like Angie and Toes. Because horses are classified as livestock and chattel as personal property, that information remains private. This lack of transparency highlights the industry’s systematic failure that causes horses in its service to suffer.
Individuals can contribute to change and promote the ethical treatment of horses within and beyond the racing industry by advocating for the enforcement of pre-race imaging, zero-tolerance sanctions, open veterinary records, accurate post-race tracking, and retirement funding. Supporting organizations like Unbridled and attending their educational programs can also help to raise awareness and encourage responsible horse ownership.
Visit Angie and Toes at Unbridled to witness their inspiring friendship and resilience firsthand. By joining forces, we can champion for the protection of these magnificent creatures and create a brighter future for them all.
Susan Kayne operates the horse rescue organization Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation, on the border of Albany County and Greenville.