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Published Nov 29, 2023
by Mike Henry

OLDSMAR, FL. – The inscription on the giant bell inside the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle reminds horsemen, jockeys and fans that their love of the sport wouldn’t be possible without the Thoroughbreds that make it happen.

The message reads “This Bell Rings For The Love & Respect Of The Thoroughbred!!” It underscores a conviction that animals bred for centuries to give their utmost in competition deserve the chance to show their worth after their on-track careers have ended.

Throughout the 2023-2024 season, the bell will peal (or, in the case of jockey Mychel Sanchez, reverberate throughout the county) whenever a winning owner, trainer or jockey makes a donation to the “Ring the Bell” program, a joint initiative between the Run for the Ribbons aftercare organization and Tampa Bay Downs.

Winning owners and trainers are required to donate $100 or more to ring the bell, while jockeys can donate any amount.

Run for the Ribbons, which was founded in 2014 by its President, Laurine Fuller-Vargas, strives to raise awareness of retired Thoroughbreds as sport horses while educating equestrians and the community at large of their worth both during and after their racing careers.

“Ring the Bell” made its debut in the spring of 2022 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and the program here works in partnership with the Arkansas Thoroughbred Retirement and Rehabilitation Foundation.

Proceeds from Tampa Bay Downs’s “Ring the Bell” program will help support responsible Thoroughbred aftercare organizations in Florida, with the goal of re-training retired racehorses for other disciplines and finding suitable homes for those in need of a place to rebound from the rigors of racing or simply enjoy retirement.

“Essentially, ‘Ring the Bell’ is a retirement fund that is going to enable us to help more horses every year,” Fuller-Vargas said.

Run for the Ribbons is based at Fuller-Vargas’s 65-acre Cedar Lock Farm in Morriston, just outside of Ocala. The Run for the Ribbons program was recently accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance in Lexington, Ky.

“The TAA accreditation is a big step forward for our organization,” Fuller-Vargas said. “It advances our goals and our mission of promoting excellent, responsible aftercare for our beloved Thoroughbreds.

“The money donated to ‘Ring the Bell’ here at Tampa Bay Downs will only go to Florida aftercare organizations. Because we have such a large facility at the farm, our focus is on re-training and re-homing, and if we get one that is unable to go on we make them a lifer” (enabling that horse to live at the farm), she said.

Jockey Jesus Castanon made a donation and rang the bell after winning today’s first race on 3-year-old gelding Rule It. Castanon, who has ridden more than 2,700 career winners, has two retired Thoroughbreds (and a Miniature Mule) at his family farm in Shepherdsville, Ky., and his spirit is lifted whenever he returns home and sees them enjoying their lifestyles.

“I’m just happy to see them every time I come back from (the racetrack),” he said. “It’s love. I’ve been doing this for so long, and besides my family. … this is my family too. It’s hard not to have them next to you when you’ve spent so much time with them.

“We all need to look at what these horses do for us,” Castanon said. “This is what I do to support my family, and without the horses I wouldn’t be able to do it. They put forth a lot of effort in their careers and when they’re done racing, they need to have a place to go to be safe.”

Trainer Kathleen O’Connell rang the bell after winning the sixth race with 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Sassy Charlee. “I hope the program gains momentum and other tracks take heed and join in,” O’Connell said. “Retired racehorses should be taken care of, and I hope everyone gets involved.”

Fuller-Vargas said planning is underway to build another barn at the farm and launch a youth program for budding equestrians from ages 10-18 to work with off-the-track Thoroughbreds. “Whether it’s grooming horses or just leading them, or getting the opportunity to work with them and show them, it will give these kids a chance to learn how versatile and intelligent these horses are,” she said.

Run for the Ribbons is playing host to the seventh annual Florida Thoroughbred Transformation Expo Dec. 8-10 at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala. Competition will be held in six disciplines – Freestyle, Show Jumper, Dressage, Working Ranch/Trail Horse, Show Hunter and Eventing – with $10,000 in prize money to be awarded. Admission is free to spectators.

For details or to make a contribution, visit www.runfortheribbons.org on the Internet.


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