By Kelley Carlson
When Marla Zanelli first laid eyes on Adonis two years ago, it was love at first sight.
“He was a very handsome horse,” she recalled when reflecting upon her initial meeting with the bay gelding.
Little did the Del Mar resident know that one day, she would be rescuing him from what potentially could’ve been a sad fate.
Officially named Adonis D N A, the blue-blooded thoroughbred — a son of the late stallion Unbridled’s Song and a Storm Cat mare — was a $90,000 purchase as a 2-year-old. He was initially placed under the care of Doug O’Neill, who is perhaps best known for conditioning I’ll Have Another, winner of the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and California champion Lava Man.
Adonis was still a youngster in O’Neill’s barn when Zanelli was introduced to him during a visit. At the time, she was part of the Great Friends Stables racing syndication, which had horses with the trainer, but they did not own Adonis.
Enamored with Adonis, Zanelli followed his racing career through the Equibase Virtual Stable, a free service that notifies a person via e-mail when a particular horse of interest is entered to race, works out or finishes a race.
After a dismal eighth-place finish in his first outing at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Adonis began to drop through the ranks, running in claiming races for lower and lower prices and transferring stables. According to Zanelli, he was running for about $12,000 earlier this year at Los Alamitos Race Course in Los Alamitos, but by May, he was entered in a race for a $2,500 price tag.
“When he was running at Los Alamitos for $2,500, it broke my heart,” Zanelli said. “I called my connections and got the owner’s phone number. I asked him to give me the horse, he said no. They ran him a few more times and, in the meantime, through Dawn Mellen (president of After the Finish Line, an organization that helps saves and retrains former racehorses), I contacted Sarah P., who gallops horses at Los Al.”
About a month ago, Sarah contacted Zanelli to let her know the owner was done with Adonis and that he may go to auction. In 17 starts, he had won three times, finished second twice and was third once. Zanelli was told that Adonis had breathing issues and at one point had throat surgery to correct the problem, but it didn’t work as a permanent solution.
According to Zanelli, the owner wanted $1,000 for the now 4-year-old thoroughbred, but Sarah negotiated $500 for her.
Adonis was hers.
While it was Zanelli’s first rescue, she is no stranger around equines. She showed horses as a child, and has been involved in racing for about 35 years. Zanelli used to exercise horses for Hall of Fame trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel and Neil Drysdale; and has served as an assistant trainer. She also used to “pinhook” horses — the practice of buying horses, overseeing their breaking and training, and eventually re-selling them as race-ready 2-year-olds in training.
After she bought Adonis, Zanelli — a real estate agent with Allison James Estates & Homes in Del Mar — took the horse to Valenti Estate Saddle Club in Rancho Santa Fe. She described it as “the Rancho Valencia of horse stables,” comparing it to the local luxurious five-star resort.
Zanelli then called on her longtime friends Dallas and Donna Keen for help with Adonis’ transition into his new lifestyle. The Keens train racehorses — including some at Del Mar — but they also operate the Remember Me Racehorse Rescue in Texas. Through the nonprofit, they have assisted retired and injured racehorses after their careers at the track are finished, with hopes of finding them new homes with responsible owners, and reschooling them to become riding horses.
The Keens came to Valenti for a day to work with Adonis.
“He’s a very smart, very kind horse,” Dallas Keen said. “He was very attentive, and acted like he wanted to learn.”
Keen desensitized Adonis by running a blue tarp over his body and then had him walk on it. A Western saddle was then placed on the horse, and eventually Keen rode him in the round pen.
“It was about teaching him something different ... getting him used to other stuff (that he didn’t normally see at the racetrack),” Keen said.
“A lot of horses have bad memories when they come off the racetrack,” he added. “It’s a myth that horses are not easy to retrain when they come off the track. ... There’s a lot of neat stuff that they can do. Once they start learning a new profession, they really take to it.”
Zanelli said Adonis has adapted to his new lifestyle “amazingly fast.”
“He is so relaxed, I almost jumped on him bareback today in his paddock and may do so tomorrow!” she said last week.
As for Adonis’ future, “we’ll see what he wants to do ... dressage, a good trail horse,” Zanelli said. “I’d love to show him in OTTB (Off-Track Thoroughbred) shows.”