Don’t even think about it. Lir Jet isn’t for sale, not even when his racing days are done here at Suffolk Downs. For the time being, he still has enough gallop to race at least a few more times next summer, and his trainer, Jay Bernardini, already has decided that the handsome 8-year-old will stay with him in retirement as a horse-of-all-trades, handyman and entertainer, a bit of a barnyard bon vivant.
Need a companion for other horses? Lir Jet’s on it. Keep visitors to the barn engaged and smiling? Oh, Lir’s the guy, full of charm, composure, and poise. Lost for a late-night comic to provide 10 minutes of four-legged standup at Giggles Comedy Club on Route 1? Saddle up, Lir, it’s time to make ’em laugh.
“I’ve had him since he was a baby,’’ Bernardini, one of Suffolk’s veteran trainers, said Friday morning, standing next to Lir Jet as the playful horse craned his long neck Jim Carrey-style out of his stall to nibble at a visitor’s valise. “Even if I wanted to sell him, my wife wouldn’t let me. Heck, if it were up to her, we’d keep all of them.’’
For as many as 80 or more other horses, Sunday is career day at Suffolk. Unlike Lir Jet, it’s the day they leave the racing world behind and begin their next adventure as polo ponies, show horses, or whatever job or leisure activity their new owners hoist upon their strong, willing backs. With the help of CANTER New England (canterne.org), a not-for-profit organization committed to transitioning thoroughbreds into new gigs, owners and trainers this morning will sell off some of their raced-out steeds, most of them going for $500-$2,000.
“All shapes, sizes, and colors,’’ said CANTER spokeswoman Jennifer Montfort, who will oversee Sunday’s sale, along with sidekick/emcee Jessica Paquette. “It’s really sort of a candy box of horses we’ll be selling. There’s a horse here for everyone.’’
The sale begins at 8:30 a.m. in the track’s backstretch area, and admission is free. Buyers, maybe 40 or more, based on the six previous CANTER sales at Suffolk, will be treated to a steady parade of horses until noon, give or take a few minutes and some old-time horse trading. A horse will be led into the viewing area, Paquette will read his or her racing résumé, and interested buyers can follow the horse back to the barns, perhaps to ask trainers and handlers more questions or have an on-site veterinarian provide a pre-sale examination.
“There’s no pressure,’’ noted Bernardini, who will have a horse or two for sale. “The whole idea is to get the horse to a new home where you know he’s going to be OK, well taken care of.
“It’s not about the money, really. In fact, I tell buyers they can bring them back . . . if, say, they think there’s something wrong or they find they just can’t afford to own a horse. Whatever, no questions asked.’’
Over the years, said Bernardini, his returns have been zero. Buyers, he said, usually know what they want, only buy if they’re committed.
According to Montfort and Paquette, buyers tend to favor horses with unique markings, such as a white streak across the face or chest, and polo people prefer smaller horses, while owners who dabble in the show circuit, be it for jumping or dressage, prefer big horses. A dad with a young daughter is likely to write a check based on the horse’s color or how it reminds his daughter of her favorite horse from a cartoon or movie.
The only rhyme or reason to it all is that there is no rhyme or reason. Buyers, like horses, can be a fickle herd.
“One of our buyers,’’ noted Montfort, “trained the horse for mounted skeet shooting. Hey, whatever works. The owner’s happy, and so is the horse. That’s all we’re looking for.’’
At the risk of unfair stereotyping, said Paquette, chestnut mares can be the toughest to sell.
“You know, it’s their reputation, that hot-tempered redhead thing,’’ she said. “I know that may sound a little crazy, but . . .’’
“Ah, come on,’’ said Bernardini, with mock objection, “there has to be one nice one out there!’’ Asked by a visitor if he could think of such a chestnut mare, Bernardini added, “Uh . . . no.’’
Some 900 horses filled Suffolk’s 34 barns as of Saturday night, all of them racehorses of varying ages, sizes, colors, and talents. Come noon or so on Sunday, roughly 5-10 percent of them will be placed in new jobs, pointed toward different pastures. The track’s final race of the season will be Oct. 31, at which time trainers will take horses to race in warmer climes or simply have them spend the winter months in barns throughout the Northeast.
If a horse targeted for sale remains unclaimed, he or she is expected to remain under the trainer’s care until a buyer is found. Suffolk for years has had a “no horse to slaughter’’ policy, per order of the track’s owner, Richard Fields. Track spokesman Christian Teja said the policy is strictly enforced, and trainers who violate it risk being banished from the track.
In part, the $500-$2,000 price range in the CANTER sale was established to prevent nefarious buyers from rounding up horses at cheaper prices, then selling them for short money to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.
“We want to keep them away from the killers,’’ said Bernardini.
A few stalls down from Lir Jet stood another of Bernardini’s charges, Score One for Rose, a perky 4-year-old gelding with a shiny coat but spotty racing record.
“Nice horse, but not much of a racehorse,’’ offered Bernardini, the gray beauty oblivious to his trainer’s blunt assessment, never mind that he’s targeted now for the CANTER sale. “Just one of those things. Looks good, but put him in a race and he just doesn’t try.
“So, rather than argue with him . . . time to go.’’
Go where? With whom? In a world full of posts and pastures, what in the world is next for Score One for Rose?
“Anything, I suppose,’’ mused Bernardini. “Anything other than a racehorse.’’
It is now post time for Score One for Rose and a few other Suffolk horses. Time for them all to begin their post-post careers.