Saving Sammy: From race track to paddock, beloved horse finds its way home

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Jayson Baxter, producer and co-host of CTV News at age 5, shares the personal story of Saving Sammy, his family’s beloved racehorse.

Sammy was going to be meat. A horse, so loved for the first five years of its life, was going to end up on a plate somewhere in Europe, or perhaps Asia. At 15, he was tired, severely dehydrated, battling infection and had to be dispatched and slaughtered. He looked broken and emaciated as he stood in a Pennsylvania slaughter pen overcrowded with doomed horses.

“He was on death row,” said my father Denny Baxter, 75, eyes downcast to hide the tears.

My dad has loved horses and harness racing from his earliest memories, watching and later helping grandpa Fergie run on the Halifax Commons.

“I just thought they were the most beautiful creatures of God and I still think so,” he said. “I love their smell.”

But no horse has ever captured his heart like Samspace, a lightning-fast leader. Dad raised Bunny, Sammy’s mom. He was her firstborn after retirement and her father had high hopes for his career. He spoiled Sammy with a generous diet of apples, carrots and TLC. He made the nearly 170 km round trip from Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia to Truro Raceway every day, no matter the weather, to train and take care of himself.

“Dude, when he got his legs back, did he become a racehorse,” dad recalls.

Sammy and dad were racing in 2008 in Charlottetown. (Photo: Jayson Baxter)

Their last team race was on May 31, 2009 at the Mohawk Raceway in Toronto. Sammy was in the prime of his life. He won impressively and the next morning my dad had six lucrative offers for him. At 65 and living on a pension, he felt like he had no choice but to do the right thing financially for him and my mom, Jeanie. So he sold Sammy. It broke his heart.

Baby Sammy

Sammy, baby. (Photo: Jayson Baxter)

Sammy ran for another two years, was sold six more times, and then physically broke down. His last race was in 2011. Then he disappeared without a trace. My family feared the worst: that Sammy had been sold for meat, the dirty little secret of the horse industry. So many of these animals give all they can in competition or to their humans and end up being put down. The United States banned the practice nationally in 2007, but horses are still herded there in slaughter pens, by the thousands each year, and then shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

Sammy was just a bittersweet memory from December 3, 2019, the night of the phone call.

When mom answered the phone, a woman named Kim Sloan identified herself as a Standardbred Retirement Foundation volunteer. It is an American non-profit association that has saved the Standardbreds from slaughter for 30 years.

“Do you know a horse named Samspace? she asked after he picked up.

“Do I know him?” my father asked incredulously. “I brought him up and ran him around. He’s named after my best friend. Why?”

“Well he’s alive, but he’s in danger,” Sloan said. “I found him in a slaughter pen in Pennsylvania. He must be slaughtered.”

Like my father, I have always loved horses. Dad was a coach and driver when I was born. If our home track, Sackville Downs, hadn’t closed in 1996, I might have followed it into the sulky. Instead, I went my own way in journalism.

But throughout the last decade of Dad’s career, I traveled with him from track to track, from barn to barn, working as his groom. I would use my summer vacation to compete in Sammy’s run in Toronto and New York. He was also my favorite. He was a talented young stallion, but it was his kind heart and intelligence that touched us both deeply. I have known very few stallions so sweet. Pictures of him don’t adorn my living room walls like mommy and daddy’s, but I loved him and missed him too.

Sammy killpen

Sammy lines up in front of a slaughter pen in Pennsylvania. “He was on death row,” Dad said. (Photo: Standardbred Retirement Foundation)

My wife and I walked into my parents’ kitchen 10 minutes after Sloan called.

“The old horse is still kicking, Jay,” Dad said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can not believe it!”

My jaw dropped open. Then joy filled my heart, followed quickly by worry. Sammy was alive… but not for long. We knew I had to save him.

Tune in for Part 2, Tuesday on CTV News at Five.


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