Waco Hanover, a competitive harness racer in his prime, marked his 38th birthday on Jan. 1, 2015. Thirty-eight-year-old horses are about as rare as 100-year-old people. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

Former Race Horse Lives 40 Years


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By Sandy Vondrasek

'He’s just as tough as nails and he has legs on him like pipes.'

The following first appeared in the Herald of Randolph Dec. 31, 2014 with the headline "Waco Hanover Still Going Strong After 38 Years." Scroll down for an update.

Waco Hanover makes “extreme old age” look pretty good.

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The Standardbred gelding, who is living out his years in comfort at Rough Terrain Farm in Randolph Center, turns 38 January 1, 2015, the universal birthday for horses.

“That is an extremely old age for a horse to reach, the equivalent (in human years) of well north of 100, probably close to 110,” according to Ellen Harvey of Freehold, N.J., a writer and publicist for the harness racing industry.

“There must be something good in the air in Randolph, as it is just about unheard of for a horse to reach Waco’s age,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “Occasionally you will hear of a pony that reaches 40, but I have never heard of a horse as old as Waco.” (Pronounced “WAY-co,” like the town in Texas.)

Harvey knows about Waco because she and horse-racing photographer Barbara D. Livingston collaborated on a just-released book, “Standardbred Old Friends,” that profiles notable, older Standardbred horses across the U.S.

(Harvey also knows something about Vermont. Several of her relatives, including an aunt, Audrey Osha Harvey, lived in Randolph, and her dad is one of 11 kids born and raised in Duxbury.)

Oldest in the Book

Born May 4, 1977, in Hanover, Penn., Waco Hanover is the oldest of the 43 horses featured in the coffee-table format book. The other Standardbreds in the book— including a trotting mare who racked up $5.59 million in earnings in her racing career—have birth years that range from 1980 to 1995.

Waco has a much more modest harness-racing track record—but he has had a good run, said Leslie Haynes of Rough Terrain Farm.

“Well-bred, out of the Hanover line,” Waco is a pacer (as opposed to trotter) with “decent conformation” to the breed standard, Haynes said. At around 15 hands, he’s a little on the small side—but sturdy.

“He’s just as tough as nails,” Haynes said, “and he has legs on him like pipes.”

“He has a swayback, now but he’s earned it,” she added. “He’s ancient.”

His personality? “He has a lot of chutzpah. He was always a character, and he is still a character.”

Purchased by former Randolph Center resident Everett Kettler for $1500 in 1983, Waco has been at Rough Terrain Farm since since 1991. That’s the year that Haynes and Kettler, then in a personal and business relationship, purchased the farm.

They have since gone their separate ways, but Kettler still owns the bigger portion of the farm, currently leased to Vermont Technical College as the home of its Equine Studies program.

Waco, a dark bay only lightly laced with grey, has his own roomy stall in the farm’s “Co-op Barn,” where VTC students board their horses.

The small barn is known as “Waco’s barn,” Haynes said in an interview at the barn Monday, on a frigid, late December afternoon. VTC students know that when Waco dies, she added, Kettler will sell the farm.

Saratoga Racer

The story of Waco, as told in “Standardbred Old Friends,” starts in 1983, when Kettler, then living in Woodbury, Vt., purchased the six year old. Waco had been racing in the Saratoga, N.Y., area, but in 57 starts, he’d won only four races.

“Waco taught me how to drive,” Kettler told Harvey. “I didn’t know anything. He wouldn’t respond if you didn’t do the right thing.”

Every summer for the next eight years, Kettler raced Waco Hanover, not at Saratoga, but at places like the Tunbridge Fair, which, according to Harvey, “has the world’s narrowest racetrack.”

“It fits four horses across, but they’d better be narrow horses,” she wrote in the book.

In the spring, before the race season opened, Kettler would ride Waco in endurance events—25- mile trail and carriage rides—as conditioning.

Waco won his first race at Tunbridge, as well as his last there, in 1991 and at age 14. That was his last race, period, as 14 is the mandatory retirement age for harness race horses. That season, his 11th, he earned $1,350 for Kettler.

Although retired from racing, Waco remained eager to work for many more years, Haynes said.

“When you’d put a harness on him, he was like, ‘Yes, I get to go!’” Haynes recalled.

Both she and Kettler put him to work on the half-mile track at their Randolph Center farm. Kettler used Waco to train a new trotter he’d purchased, and Haynes used him to train carriage horses. Having another horse running alongside helped the younger horses to “get the idea,” Kettler told Harvey.

The steady Waco also helped Haynes train a new generation of young drivers.

Retired Again

Now, in his second retirement, Waco has direct access to a fenced-in paddock he shares with his companion and fellow retired racer, Desperate Hippie. He enjoys daily care from Donnie MacAdams, a retired dairy farmer who lives in the apartment attached to the barn.

MacAdams takes pains to find the right food for the aged Waco, who is getting pure timothy pellets, since his worn teeth can’t really chew hay. Waco can only mash the hay in his mouth, suck out the juices, and spit out the rest, he explained.

“He’s a lot like me,” MacAdams added. “He can be grumpy; he can be friendly, and he doesn’t mind a scratch now and then.”

Most horses on the farm are not allowed to rub their massive heads against people—a horse head represents about 50 pounds of sometimes powerfully swinging weight—but MacAdams has indulged Waco, in that respect.

Harvey quotes MacAdams in the book: “Sometimes I hang out with the horses. Waco loves to rub his face on my shoulder. He’s worn out two jackets. I just pet him. He consoles me, helps me calm down.”

Life is pretty good in Waco’s barn, even on a cold winter’s day. He sports a two-tone blue blanket and enjoys moseying outside to stand in the sun.

His coat has gained its winter shag. Come summer, however, it will “slick off” and Waco will be “just as beautiful as the other horses,” Haynes said.

During the warm months, a family of barn swallows keeps the barn free of flies, MacAdams added.

For information on “Standardbred Old Friends,” email HRCNews@ustrotting.com. The book is available on eBay and Amazon, according to Harvey. The Herald will pass on a review copy to Kimball Public Library.

*****

Update:

Waco Hanover turned 40 Jan. 1.  His lifespan continues to amaze his owners. 

"For a 40-year-old horse he's doing quite well," said Haynes.

Waco Hanover has a special diet that includes second-cut hay and extra grain. 

The horse still has a big personality. Haynes called him a " horse curmudgeon."  




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