In 2002, trainer Donna Keen (then Donna Gowdy, as she’d yet to marry husband Dallas Keen) was early into what is now known as her passion — saving discarded and slaughter-bound former racehorses from kill pens in Texas, rehabbing them and finding them new homes with second careers. Long before she founded the Texas-based and Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA)-accredited Remember Me Rescue, Keen rescued a plain Texas-bred daughter of Daring Damascus named Won Ton Win, who apparently had no interest in being a racehorse anymore.
Won Ton Win’s life is significant. Not only is she a kill pen success story, but she is also the dam of Monster, a much-loved former claimer and now starter handicap horse who, like his dam, has accomplished much more on the racetrack than anyone ever expected.
“I was buying horse from the kill pens back before it was cool, before it was the ‘thing’ to do,” Keen said. “I guess now they’d call me a ‘flipper’; I’d buy them, ride them for about 30 days and then find them a home. Won Ton Win was at the sale and she had a note that said, ‘This mare is broke and has been ridden a lot, but is too slow for Lone Star Park.’ So I brought her home with intentions of riding her and turning her into a jumper or something.
“She turned out to be a terrible riding horse. She was clunky and knocked the jumps over. She was just a jerk,” Keen said affectionately.
After giving Won Ton Win a few months off and while deciding if she’d breed her or just rehome her, Keen said a happy accident would change the mare’s future. Another racehorse in training on Keen’s farm was looking for a workmate when the thought occurred to her to use Won Ton Win. She was slow and lazy, after all, so how bad it could be?
Nobody was more stunned when the retired “slow” kill pen horse outworked her promising rival. When it happened again, Keen thought that maybe the best choice for Won Ton Win’s happiness was a return to racing.
“She was fourth in her first start back and then went on a tear, winning nine races [total],” Keen said. “She was happy as a racehorse and pretty good at it. After a few races, we gave her a break and sent her to the farm. She was in a big paddock with a pond and when she’d jump in the lake and swim across it and come out bucking and playing we knew it was time to go back to work, vacation over. She was twice stakes placed and earned [$155,000].”
Like any other multiple black-type-winning race mares, Won Ton Win was retired to broodmare duties and had three foals, the last of which is Monster.
“She was really hard to get in foal,” Keen remembers. “She was difficult about everything. Her first foal was a son of Ready’s Image who was the highest-priced Texas-bred yearling at the Fasig-Tipton sale that year and we were hopeful, but he died young. Then she had a foal who never did anything and, then, there was Monster.”
Monster, Keen explained, started out as the definition of an ugly duckling. The son of the now-deceased young stallion Unbridled’s Heart was very nearly never born, let alone a racehorse.
“Won Ton Win went way past her due date,” Keen said, laughing as she remembered. “She always did. Monster was born with teeth and testicles. He was the ugliest foal. He had a big ugly head, and no hind end, no hip. And he had a tail like a donkey — you know, all fuzzy and short at the top. I thought at the time I’d just raise him and find him a good home.
“And to make matters worse, one day he nearly knocked all of his teeth out. They were literally sticking straight out from his mouth. He wore braces after that for like six weeks. Then he got kicked in the chest by another foal and had this giant hematoma hanging down between his front legs we had to have surgically removed. He wasn’t my favorite to say the least. We wanted to name him Frankenstein, but needless to say that name wasn’t available. So we named him, fittingly, Monster.”
As is typical for the Keens, Donna spent several months away from the farm managing one of her and her husband’s racing strings in Texas or Louisiana while Monster spent some time growing up. When she returned to inspect the yearlings, she was surprised to find a horse she never knew she had.
“I saw a good-looking colt in the paddock and asked (the farm manager) who that one was,” Keen said. “I couldn’t believe it, he was like a different horse. He grew into himself and filled out, his body caught up to his head. He looked like an actual horse.”
Keen soon after put Monster in training and in his first two starts as a 2-year-old a year ago he was, “beaten about 80 lengths.” Though she said she should have known the beginning to his racing career would have been about as pretty as the beginning to his life, Keen remained patient. Bad feet sent Monster to the sidelines for the first half of this year, but by the time he made it back in July, a light had turned on.
“He came back and ran his best race ever,” Keen said. “He was a big, beautiful horse and he liked distance, like a mile and three-eighths or better. And he improved after every single race. It was like a light bulb went off and he said, ‘I got this.’ He’s a sound, happy horse and he likes to be a racehorse.”
Looking for partners to have some fun with horse ownership, Keen put up a Facebook page for Monster before his first start. Horse advocate Dreux Flaherty bought into the big, bay gelding, as did Rockwell, Texas, neurologist Dr. Thomas Shinder.
“Monster has been my boyhood and adulthood dream come true!” Shinder wrote on a Facebook post. “It’s impossible to express the fun, joy, and emotional rollercoaster this guy has provided me. I never expected him to win a race and would have been happy for him to bring in a check from time to time. But he’s won TWO in a row in the most exciting of ways! Thanks Donna Keen for bringing this wonderful guy into our lives.”
Monster’s current record stands at 9-2-1-1 and he has earned $8,767. His most recent effort on Nov. 11 produced a third-place finish in a starter handicap at Retama Park and Keen is looking for his next race.
Won Ton Win, who will be 20 in 2018, has been pensioned from broodmare duty. Keen, who galloped her through her career, also retired from the saddle at the same time.
“I was the only one to ever gallop her,” Keen said. “When she retired, I retired. We ended our careers that way together.”
Once a horse who proved difficult to ride, Won Ton Win now is a happy lesson horse, packing children around an arena every day. Keen gave the mare to her good friend Linda Constantino for her second stab at a post-racing career and, in addition to teaching children how to ride, she’s still happy to play in any puddle or pond she can find.
“I am so honored to have this girl!” Constantino posted to Facebook. “She is sweet and easy to take care of. She fit right in with my other two older mares and is now their best buddy. I couldn’t believe how easy she is to ride and how well-behaved she is. I figured after being a broodmare she might not want to be bothered with saddles and kids, but [that’s] not the case. She loves water and anytime she gets the chance to roll in a puddle or a pond she takes it.”
And as a gelding in the Keen family, Monster will also be placed in a new home and/or career through Remember Me Rescue when his racing days are over. He has his own Facebook page and has collected a fair amount of fans with 155 followers.
“He has a long list of people who want him,” Keen said. “The big goober. He’s a really good lesson to everyone to not count out the ugly ducklings because sometimes they turn into beautiful turkeys.”