Return of the King’s Return to Grace

A recent L.A. Times article told a tale of a racehorse fallen on hard times after his connections suffered unbelievable tragedy. Fortunately for the horse, a helping hand stepped in just in time.

Top photo: Return of the King enjoying massage therapy at Auction Horses Rescue via Auction Horses Rescue on Facebook.

Return of the King stepped into the winner’s circle at Santa Anita on January 8th, 2009, carrying not only his jockey but the emotions of a family in the aftermath of unbelievable tragedy. Owner James Ortega wasn’t even at the race, unable to watch the last piece of his family cross the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead. On Christmas Eve 2008, just weeks prior, an aunt’s ex-husband dressed as Santa Claus and armed with four semiautomatic weapons and incendiary device entered the home where the family was gathered in celebration. He killed nine people, either by gunshot or by fire, before taking his own life later. James Ortega had left the party just an hour or two before the gunman entered, and he found himself suddenly the heir to the family business as well as the family’s racehorse.Rewind to 2006, when the Ortega family together purchased Kentucky-bred Return of the King for $16,000, a joint venture between James’ father (also named James) and his great-uncle Charles. The family threw themselves wholeheartedly into supporting the horse, gathering together at the track to cheer their champion home. In his career with the Ortegas, Return of the King earned just over $100,000.

But with the grief and impact of his family’s murder falling on James Ortega’s shoulders, he conferenced with his sisters and together they decided that it didn’t make any sense to keep the horse. Ortega watched the last race from another track as “the King” cruised home to win, almost as though the horse knew he was running for the memory of the entire Ortega clan.┬áIt would be Return of the King’s last victory, though he went on to race twice more for new owners. After his last start–a fifth-place finish–the horse apparently vanished into thin air, disappearing from race results and the tracks of California, and Ortega lost track of the horse completely.

Return of the King in the auction yard. Photo from Auction Horses Rescue on Facebook.

Return of the King in the auction yard.
Photo from Auction Horses Rescue on Facebook.

But in 2014, the horse appeared again–in the feedlot yard of a California auction house. Megan Gaynes of Auction Horses Rescue noticed the nearly-crippled chestnut gelding with a swollen right hind and offered to buy him outright for $300, taking him straight to the vet clinic. X-rays showed an old fracture and significant arthritis, but Gaynes slowly nursed the gelding back to health. She took a photo of his lip tattoo and researched the horse’s background–and was shocked to discover that this was “the horse that belonged to that poor family.”

Gaynes reached out to Return of the King’s breeder, James Keogh, back in Kentucky, and together the two started raising funds to send the horse back east where he can live out the rest of his days in the bluegrass. He can never be ridden again due to the damage in his right hind. Ortega plans to visit the horse before he travels back east and say one last farewell to the horse that represented so much of his family.

Read the original LA Times article here.


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