The ‘Major,’ Barbaro, and their adoring fan

February 3, 2023

Major Zee (Courtesy of Woodbine)

By Chris Lomon – Woodbine Communications

There are times when Donna Ralph can see a spark in the eyes of the 30-year-old Thoroughbred, a warm reminder of the spirit he displayed during his days as a standout sprinter.

Over 11 seasons, Major Zee was a force to be reckoned with on the racetrack, a gallant bay with an explosive turn of foot who reveled going hoof-to-hoof with fellow speedsters.

Bred by the late Steve Stavro’s Knob Hill Stables, he went postward 79 times, winning 20 races, including two triumphs at the age of 13, to go along with over $364,000 in purse earnings. He was retired and donated to the LongRun program in the fall of 2006 by owner/trainer Mark Fournier.

It was another Thoroughbred, one of the sport’s most beloved figures, who would eventually lead Ralph to LongRun and Major Zee.

“Back in my younger years, I loved horses. We lived in Buffalo back then and there were no stables in Buffalo proper. There wasn’t any way to get to the stables in the suburbs. I just watched the horses when the big races were on television. It was tradition to watch the Triple Crown races and that was my introduction to Thoroughbreds. In 2006, when Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby, I absolutely fell in love with him. I followed him all along and when he died, I wanted to know more about the horses after their racing careers were over. I talked to a friend who has horses, and she suggested I look for ways to support a horse retirement organization.

“She told me to contact LongRun, so I sent them an email. I gave them my story, about falling in love with Barbaro, and that I had been breeding Miniature Schnauzers for years. But that particular year, I didn’t have a litter of puppies. Whenever I do have a litter, there is always one that needs attention and that I focus on. But since I didn’t have that, Barbaro was my focus. When he died, I was devastated, and I wanted to see if I could support a retired racehorse.

Soon after the conversation, Ralph went online and learned more about LongRun and Major Zee.

Courtesy of Woodbine

A 100-acre home to over 50 retired Thoroughbreds, LongRun, established in 1999, has earned status as one of the most respected horse retirement and adoption organizations, and was the first industry-funded adoption program in Canada. The scenic property is situated in Hillsburgh, less than an hour’s drive northwest of Woodbine Racetrack.

Prior to the purchase of the farm, LongRun had a network of foster farms, but Major Zee and a few others, because of their age or physicality, didn’t move to Hillsburgh, but stayed with their foster families.

“Vicki [Pappas, founding member and chairperson with LongRun] called me and said that she had a couple of horses she could send profiles of, and if I was interested in sponsoring one, we could talk about that. I was in Florida at the time and when we got back home to Canada, there was a packet waiting for me, with one horse, Major Zee. Vicki said she chose him because he was such a hard-working horse on the track and had this great spirit.”

It was that strength of spirit and desire to compete that propelled Major Zee to a successful racing career.

His first win came in his sixth start, a 6 ¾-length romp at 6 furlongs over the old Woodbine dirt course on November 28, 1997.

Major Zee contested five stakes, his best result a win in the 2004 edition of the Parnitha Stakes.

Another highlight, no doubt, was a three-race win streak running from September 6 to October 7 in 2003. From July 28, 2003, to July 25, 2004, Major Zee won eight of 11 starts.

His final victory came on July 25, 2006, two starts before he was retired from racing.

In July of 2007, Ralph met ‘Major’ for the first time, travelling to the foster farm he now calls home.

“Three of my friends and I have a tradition to go to Bracebridge for a girls’ weekend, and it so happened that the foster farm was on the way up there. I had contacted Gail Sim, who owns and operates the farm, and asked if we could stop by and see him. I got to meet him with the other retirees she had there. He wasn’t overly friendly at the time, but he hadn’t been off the track for long.”

But their relationship would soon blossom.

With every visit she would make to the farm, the pair’s bond strengthened.

“I started making visits on my own, to spend time with Major Zee and Gail. He was the first horse I ever groomed. He was very receptive to me being a novice. We carried on visiting and I try to go as often as I can in the warm weather. I think he knows me because of the treats. He’s such a character and he has such a neat personality for a 30-year-old horse. He’s lost most of his teeth, so Gail makes a special mash for him. The amount of work is tremendous for her to keep him happy and healthy. But you can see what that work has done for him. He looks like a million bucks.”

Major Zee is also spoiled thanks to Ralph, who has financially supported him since he was retired.

When it became clear his food intake would need to be specialized, Ralph spent hours online, looking for suitable treats.

Courtesy of Woodbine

Her efforts paid off.

“I have changed from taking carrots – he can’t eat those anymore – to these big, puffy peppermints that melt in your mouth. I get them from the U.S. and bring those to him. I also have a friend at a local farm who makes these amazing horse cookies. They are soft enough and small enough that he can eat those as well. He gets those special treats. Actually, he demands them. He’ll stand there, like a dog, and lick my hands and my arms until he gets his treats.”

In 2008, Ralph had a unique, unexpected opportunity to learn more about Major Zee’s lineage, including his multiple graded stakes winning sire.

A drive to Florida yielded a trip to one of Thoroughbred racing’s most iconic operations.

“I reached out to Shadwell Farm, who stood Major Zee’s sire, Dayjur. They don’t have public tours, but I got an email back from the stallion manager and he told me that they follow all of their horses, and that they have a picture of Major Zee on their wall of fame. They knew all about him and said to drop by. So, we pull up to his beautiful property and we were treated like royalty. They brought out three stallions, and they were gorgeous. I got photos with Dayjur. For them to allow us to drop in and be so generous and kind, and to see, first-hand, that they keep an eye on all their horses, was very heartwarming.”

It was yet another reminder of the connection Ralph, a LongRun board member, and Major Zee share.

“I absolutely adore him. He’s so special and it’s such a calming feeling to be with him. I wish we were closer – it’s an hour and a half from St. Catharines to Schomberg – so I could see him more often. But I do my best to get there. Gail and I have developed a fabulous friendship, so that has been another wonderful thing to come out of this experience.”

But far from the only wonderful thing.

The bond with Major Zee prompted Ralph to bring an equine duo into her life.

Because of him, I have two ponies at a farm just outside St. Catharines. My granddaughter has ridden the smaller one quite a bit and now she’s on to the bigger one.”

Major Zee is rarely, if ever, out of Ralph’s daily thoughts.

On March 26, the pair will celebrate a special milestone, the day he was foaled in 1993.

“I am totally smitten with this old guy. He didn’t have a choice when it came to being in my life, but I did. And whenever I look into his eyes, I see those traces of how he must have looked when he raced. It’s a beautiful sight to see.”

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