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Cape Breton racehorse saved from 'kill pen' by his former groom

Former harness racing horse Mr. Bob Lewis pictured in quarantine in Michigan where he must wait before being transported back to Cape Breton. Jayce Mercer once groomed the horse and is making preparations to bring him to his stable in Albert Bridge, N.S., (New Start Standardbreds/Facebook - image credit)
Former harness racing horse Mr. Bob Lewis pictured in quarantine in Michigan where he must wait before being transported back to Cape Breton. Jayce Mercer once groomed the horse and is making preparations to bring him to his stable in Albert Bridge, N.S., (New Start Standardbreds/Facebook - image credit)

A Cape Breton man is bringing a former harness racing horse back to the island after discovering he was in a dealer lot, sometimes known as a 'kill pen,' in Michigan.

Jayce Mercer of in Albert Bridge, N.S, was scrolling through his Facebook feed when he spotted a familiar horse: Mr. Bob Lewis — a standardbred racehorse he had groomed when he was in his teens. It had been about ten years since Mercer had seen the horse but he recognized him. His playful name confirmed this was the horse he had worked with.

"He kind of caught my attention. He's a chestnut so he's a kind of a red colour and he stands out when he's racing," said Mercer.

Like many harness racers, Mr. Bob Lewis had retired and was later sold to an Amish community pulling buggies used for transportation. He was now in a dealer lot, however, where he could be sold for a low price or possibly sent to slaughter.

It's unclear exactly what led to Mr. Bob Lewis being placed there, but a charity that finds new homes for standardbreds spotted him and started posting online looking for people who may know him and be able to take him.

Jayce Mercer and one of his horses.
Jayce Mercer and one of his horses.

Mercer at home with another one of his other horses. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

"His feet are a little long so they'll need a trim, but other than that he seems to be not underweight and as far as we can tell he's healthy and he doesn't seem to show any injuries," said Mercer.

With the help of his friends and family and even some of Mr. Bob Lewis's former owners, Mercer was able to raise the hundreds of dollars needed to get the horse out of the pen and into quarantine within a matter of days. A big boost came from Mercer's mother, who sold hundreds of cupcakes in what she dubbed a "save a horse, buy a cupcake" campaign.

Christina Robertson lives in New Brunswick and is a board member of New Start Standardbreds, the organization that rehabilitates and rehomes standardbreds, usually used as racehorses. The organization is based in Ontario but is branching out to the Maritimes and currently looking for foster homes.

Mr. Bob Lewis in the winners circle during his race career.
Mr. Bob Lewis in the winners circle during his race career.

Mr. Bob Lewis in the winners circle during his race career. (Submitted by New Start Standardbreds.)

Robertson is passionate about the organization, despite having only owned draft horses previous to adopting a standardbred.

"They have the best personality. They're just goofy, they're kind and they're loving."

According to Robertson, many people are searching for old racehorses, which can often be found by their freeze brand — a permanent mark on their skin created with freezing instead of heat — that is registered along with with the horse's official racing name.

"We have a list of over 500 people who are seeking out old horses, horses that got sold off of the track to their neighbour because they promised them a forever home … and come to find out that horse was sold six months later and no one knows where the horse is."

Many of the horses New Start rescues simply become companion animals but others go on to other types of horse competitions like jumping. While others are used for recreational purposes like trail riding and buggy pulling.

She believes the former racehorses are owed this type of retirement. Many of the horses that the organization has "bailed out" of kill pens have made their previous owners hundreds of thousands of dollars racing.

"They have made livings for their family, they have provided earnings, they earned their retirements. They deserve better."

Legal Litigator is one of the Standardbreds rescued by New Start Standardbreds in 2023. He earned more than $800,000 during his race career.
Legal Litigator is one of the Standardbreds rescued by New Start Standardbreds in 2023. He earned more than $800,000 during his race career.

Legal Litigator is one of the standardbreds rescued by New Start Standardbreds in 2023. The group says he earned more than $800,000 during his race career. (Submitted by New Start Standardbreds.)

Mr. Bob Lewis ran 122 races, winning 15 to earn $33,544 in prize money, according to New Start Standardbreds. He last raced in 2013.

Back in Cape Breton, Mercer and his fiancee own another horse that used to race alongside Mr. Bob Lewis, in addition to three other horses and three mini horses.

"There's so many other options and people willing to help with these horses that I really don't think any horse should end up in the situation that this guy was in," he said.

While Mr. Bob Lewis is in still in quarantine in Michigan, Mercer is fundraising and working out a plan to get him to Cape Breton. His hope is that the horse recognizes him and his old race friend once he arrives.

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