By Francis LaBelle
As valued members of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for nearly 30 years, Andre Wheeler and Deborah Corcoran have always taken their jobs seriously. This is exactly why the TRF will recognize their work with horses and humans by dedicating a paddock in their honor at the TRF Second Chances Farm at the Wateree River Correctional Facility in Rembert, SC.
The couple has amassed plenty of memories through their years with TRF. Yet, Andre only needed a few seconds to name his favorite horses among those he has overseen since becoming part of the TRF in 1994.
Andre Wheeler and Deborah Corcoran with Mochablend
That horse is Mochablend and he still resides with Andre and Deborah at their 12-acre farm in Trenton, SC along with four TRF sanctuary horses: Bombazine, 19; Bustin Digits, 25; Moorish Prince, 24 and Play After Dark, 29.
Mochablend’s story began in 2000 at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Parkville, MD. Seventeen years earlier, the newly-formed TRF had launched its innovative TRF Second Chances Program, where former racehorses are given a home and a job to help provide vocational training in equine care to inmates at the Wallkill Correctional Facility near New Paltz, NY.
The program was an instant success and the TRF now sought to expand Second Chances to juvenile offenders. It needed experienced horse people who would commit to the cause.
Andre and Deborah both came from racing families that were well known on the East Coast and both had the acumen and the desire to help horses and young people. Former jockey Gregg McCarron, who, along with his brother, Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, were among the leading riders on the Mid-Atlantic racing circuit for years, approached Andre on behalf of the TRF to run the TRF Second Chances Farm at the Hickey School.
“There were eight kids, three classes a day,” Andre said. “When those kids got there, all they really knew was how to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. At first, they looked at the program as just a way to get out of lockdown. They didn’t realize at the time that those horses would change their lives.”
Andre enjoyed his work and the prospect of helping troubled young men find a better direction, even if they would have to make their way from the darkest of places. Andre threw himself into his labor, and even developed Second Chances to where he was comfortable enough to bring horses and their handlers to halftime shows at local high school football games to make people aware of the TRF and Second Chances.
Andre believed in the merits and purpose of the TRF Second Chances Program. His conviction grew stronger when he met a special student.
“We had this one young boy who they told me to work hard and to give him every dirty job,” Andre said. “They told me to make him shovel s*** and make it so he would feel bad being around horses.
“I told them that making someone feel bad about being with horses was not what this program was about. He was going to shovel s*** anyway along with all the other jobs we must do. He would first start by building fences and sheds and helping the school’s maintenance crew. Then, he would slowly start working with horses, but only if he was serious about working with us and when I felt he was ready.”
“I told them that I wanted to talk to this kid first. I met him and told him that he had to earn his promotion to working with horses. He told me that he wanted to work with and take care of horses and he would do anything to do that. I felt that he was a good kid and that he was sincere, I knew he would get his chance. It seemed very important to him.”
Weeks went by and the youth impressed Andre by how hard he worked and how he paid attention to his instructions. Andre became a true mentor to him, teaching him the important intricacies of equine care. The student took to his new duties with skill and passion.
Finally, he decided to tell Andre his secret.
“When these kids came to us, we had no idea what why they were placed there,” Andre said. “They just brought them to us. One day, this kid said that he needed to talk to me. He said he had to tell me the reason he was in there and why he had to work with horses.
“He did something horrible and foolish one night when he was high and drunk with some friends out in Western Maryland. They were driving around and one of them had a rifle. They dared him to shoot a horse. Not only did it turn out to be a horse that belonged to another one of his friends, but that mare was pregnant.
“They next day, it hit him what an awful thing he did. He was sorry, he said, but he knew that didn’t change anything. I told him that we do not judge around here. Our job is to try to save as many horses and humans as we can.”
Among the horses at the school was a mare that Andre owned named Gold Seat. She was in foal.
The youth begged Andre for his second chance.
“He told me he would do a good job and that he wanted to take care of her so he could help her bring a horse into the world,” Wheeler said. “I told him he could, but that he had to be with her when the time came for her to have her baby.
“We made arrangements with the officials that, no matter what time she would have her baby, he would be hustled down to the barn to help her deliver.”
Redemption came on March 23, 2001 around 11 pm.
“When they brought that kid over, he was in shackles,” Andre said.” ‘I told them that he couldn’t help the mare with all that on him. So, they unchained him and he came right to her. I told him to talk to her, to let her know that he was there for her. He talked to her and she stayed calm for him. He rubbed a towel on her face. After the foal dropped, I told him to rub that same towel all over the baby to get his Mama’s scent. When the foal stood, that kid started bawling and couldn’t stop. I told him get himself together because he wasn’t done. I told him that now he had to help him get under the mare and help him to start nursing.”
Andre promised the boy that he could name the bay colt.
“The colt’s legs were pale, not white, but very light,” Wheeler said. “The boy said that he once worked at a gas station and part of his job was that he had to get coffee for everyone. He remembered that they all drank `mocha’ and he so came up with the name Mochablend”
Mochablend only raced twice and never hit the board. Now 19, he has remained with Andre and Deborah for all these years.
“The last I heard that young man that brought him into the world had gone to college after he got out,” Andre said. “He worked hard at school. They even got him an old car so he could get to his classes.”
As for Deborah, her favorite horse over the years was The Optimist. She called him “Big Dee” and he had jammed 76 starts into a five-year racing career. He had posted a record of 14-7-10, earned $146,770 and was claimed half a dozen times before he shattered an ankle at Penn National and was forced to retire.
Big Dee died at the Wheelers’ farm at the age of 29. It was the day before his 22nd anniversary with TRF, and he spent his last hours in his paddock, looking over the fence at the mares.
“He had a long, good life after his racing was over,” Deborah said, “and that is what our job has always been.
“Why do we do it? Not for the money. It is for the love of the horses, and this is something good in life. The horses deserve a good life and so do the people they help. So, that is why we’ve been involved for so long. We have always put the horses before us. And they have always paid us back.”
Photo: Mochablend, Andre Wheeler’s horse, courtesy of TRF.