Vanessa Gilliam wanted to rescue horses, not race them. But one precocious pacer changed her perceptions and put them both in the Cal Expo winner’s circle.
Hi Ho’s Little Rev, a 3-year-old racehorse who almost never was born, now helps support the horse rescue operation that spared his life. His mother was a castoff pregnant mare that Gilliam saved from possible slaughter. Little Rev surprised his savior by becoming a stakes winner.
“He loves his job, that’s the big thing,” Gilliam said while visiting her only racehorse on the Cal Expo backstretch. “He was born to do this and I’m giving him the opportunity.”
With driver Mooney Svendsen, Hi Ho’s Little Rev is racing Saturday night in Cal Expo’s final round of California Sires Stakes for 3-year-old pacers. So far in his racing career, he’s won three races and more than $22,000.
“Being a racehorse owner is very nerve-wracking,” Gilliam said. “I’m always worried about him, but he’s really happy.”
Gilliam, 32, runs Second Wind Rescue, a one-woman, nonprofit horse rescue operation based in Paso Robles. With the help of donations and volunteers, she accepts abandoned, abused, neglected or unwanted horses and retrains them for new careers with permanent happy homes. Some of these castoffs were saved from the slaughterhouse, she said. Most become trail horses or trusted companions for amateur riders.
Horses are only part of her rescued menagerie. Gilliam ticks off her current guest list: “I care for 15 horses, two ponies, four llamas, two sheep, two goats, a potbelly pig, three dogs, two cats, eight chickens and 13 ducks, pretty much all by myself,” she said. “That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”
All but a few are up for adoption. “Second Wind has rescued 62 horses in seven years,” she said. “We take all kinds.”
After playing volleyball at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, the 6-foot-2 Gilliam played professionally in Greece. A weekend rider, she bought her first horse in 2007 and found she had a natural knack as a horsewoman. She loves working with them.
“I didn’t grow up with horses, so I’m making up for lost time,” Gilliam added. “I dove in and got my hands dirty. ... What I do is a lifestyle. But when I can find a horse the right home, it’s worth it.”
To put hay in the feed cribs, Gilliam works two jobs. She runs her own cleaning business. She also waitresses on weekends and during special events at a Paso Robles winery restaurant.
While waiting tables, Gilliam met Dr. Audrey Clifton, Cal Expo’s backstretch veterinarian.
“I was there on vacation,” Clifton recalled. “She told me she rescued horses, I told her I was a vet. We immediately became friends.”
When Clifton heard that a large Standardbred horse farm in Bakersfield was suddenly giving away most of its horses including pregnant mares, she enlisted Gilliam’s help. Known for their smooth and even gaits, Standardbreds are the only breed used for harness races.
“They were dumping these mares and they were already six months pregnant,” Gilliam recalled. “Who knows what was going to happen to them? I already had more horses than I could handle and didn’t need babies. But I said, OK; I’ll take two.”
The two mares were both accomplished racehorses with good pedigrees. Both were in foal to Hi Ho Silverheel’s, a top California sire.
But in 2011, they were the victim of bad timing. During the Great Recession, the future of California harness racing was extremely shaky with horse breeders bailing out of the business and moving to other states. Many horses were sent to slaughterhouses outside California. Despite their value, no one wanted these mares or their unborn babies.
Except Gilliam. They were horses and, without consideration of any potential return, she cared.
Her decision proved bittersweet. One mare died along with her foal while giving birth. The other, Prettylittlerebel, produced a little star, Hi Ho’s Little Rev.
Gilliam has cared for the gelding since birth. She thought he could make a nice riding horse and had no intention of racing him, but he had other ideas. Without prompting, Little Rev started pacing around his pasture, mimicking his mother’s racing gait. Eventually, Clifton talked Gilliam into sending Little Rev to Cal Expo for formal training.
Now 3, Little Rev lives up to his name in size. But he’s all heart and shows it on the track.
“He keeps moving forward,” said Clifton, who realized Little Rev’s potential early on. “His (older) sisters both did really well (winning more than $80,000 each). It’s bloodlines. You can’t make a horse into a racehorse, but this is what he was born to do. He’s really exceptional.”
The young racehorse really loves Gilliam, too, and – if allowed – follows her anywhere, just like a puppy. He nibbles at her jeans’ back pockets, looking for treats.
“He’s a very curious critter,” she said. “He likes to be outside, looking around.”
“He’s a nice little guy,” said trainer Bob Johnson, a longtime fixture at Cal Expo. “He goes about his work like a professional. We’ve got one more stakes start (Saturday night), then we’ll shut him down for a while and let him grow.”
Little Rev behaves himself around the barn, Johnson said. But when he sets foot on Cal Expo’s racetrack, look out.
“He gets a little playful on the track,” said the trainer. “He can be quite a handful. Besides that, he’s nice.”
Johnson admires Gilliam’s work.
“She’s a very nice lady and a hard-worker,” he said. “She loves horses and finds homes for them. She does good.”
Gilliam has been with Little Rev every step of his journey. After Cal Expo’s harness meet goes on summer break May 3, her pacer will go home with her for some rest before heading back to the races. Cal Expo reopens for harness racing in late October.
“It’s amazing how far he’s come,” Gilliam said. “When he’s racing, it’s just incredible. He gives validity to my work.”
SECOND WIND RESCUE
▪ Second Wind Rescue plans to hold its first fundraiser – Rescue Roundup Races – May 17 with family-friendly equine races and llama games. Second Wind Rescue is located at 868 Camino Vina, Paso Robles. For tickets, details or to donate, visit www.secondwindrescue.org or call (805) 801-4060.