In the Nick of Time

An emaciated racehorse on a tropical island found a savior in Charlotte Morris.

By Patrick Beach
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

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He was about a month from dead when she first saw him.

She was on her motorcycle on her way to work. He was standing in a small patch with a few meager blades of grass between a hospital and housing project on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Charlotte Morris saw him, saw a broken-down thoroughbred racehorse that had become the neglected plaything of children in a rough neighborhood. She believes a “tough guy” on the island owned it, and therefore was discouraged from investigating the ownership question too closely.

It was a small thing she wanted to do that day in late December 2000. She knew there were plenty of children and animals and even other horses on the island that needed help. But she just wanted to save this one horse, 9 years old at the time, a horse that had been bred on a farm owned by the host of “Jeopardy!” and ridden by famous jockeys. Then, a little more than a year after she’d spotted Nick, Charlotte — an energetic, curly-haired triathlete with sun freckles and a body-fat index of approximately zero — moved to Round Rock to help care for her stepfather, compelling her to try to ship Nick to Texas from thousands of miles away, to find him a place with more acres than he could run — if in fact he could run — and more grass than he could eat.

Finally, after the last portion of the journey, the trailer bearing Nick arrived at his new home around the time the sun was setting one September night. Charlotte opened the window to the trailer. Nick whinnied loudly when he saw her. Charlotte cried when she saw him.

“I would have wondered about it all the time if I’d left him there,” she said.

How these two came to be together is a story of chance, hard times and a good deal of tenacity on Morris’ part and resilience on Nick’s. Briefly:

Nick: Registered name Glendower. Bred to bring profit and prestige to his buyer a decade ago at Alex Trebek’s Creston Farms in Paso Robles, Calif. Ridden to victory by Hall of Fame jockeys, including Laffitt Pincay Jr., winner of more races than any other jockey in history. Raced for six years and won around $100,000 — not spectacular, but enough to earn his keep. Did not finish his last two races. Shipped off to the island. There’s a track there, and races are popular on the islands around Carnival season. Raced some more. Broke down in left fetlock in final race and not treated by a vet. Doomed to live the rest of his life on an island with almost no grass and few flat surfaces. Was down to 725 pounds, almost 500 pounds less than a healthy weight, when Charlotte first saw him.

Charlotte Morris: Military brat. Graduated high school in South Carolina. Had a couple of quarter horses when she was younger. Rhett and Rocker. Attended the University of Texas. Paid out-of-state tuition. Decided to invest her last $2,000 in technical college to be a travel agent. Then became social director on cruise ships. (Yes, like Julie McCoy on “The Love Boat.”) Then had a successful bike tour business on St. Thomas catering mainly to cruise ship passengers looking for island diversion.

Then came a run of bad luck. As Charlotte tells the story, diminutive Anglo women and busted old racehorses have a hard time getting respect and attention on the island, 33 square miles of extreme wealth and crushing poverty squarely in the Third World, where things are done differently. On the other hand, Charlotte Morris is a longtime serious amateur athlete, well accustomed to blowing through obstacles and pushing herself past sane limits.

These qualities would come in handy.

She remembers that she first saw the horse as “a literal skeleton.” His tail had been cut off, so he couldn’t swat flies. His halter was torn. He wasn’t eating.

“When you brushed him,” Charlotte said, “the hair between his ribs wouldn’t brush because he was so thin.”

Charlotte prevailed on the St. Thomas Humane Society, where she was a volunteer and a known softie, to come collect the horse. The veterinarian told her the animal — which she would rename “Phoenix,” “Nick” for short — was easily a month from dying because of neglect and malnourishment. He also was anemic and had abscessed hooves.

According to a volunteer at the humane society, the conventional wisdom was that the horse would have be be put down.

“A lot of people said that,” said the humane society’s Phyllis Rogers. “He wasn’t in good shape at all.”

“No,” Charlotte told them. “I’m going to save him.”

Charlotte has a historical soft spot for strays, and she persuaded the humane society to let her adopt the horse. Months of nursing got him up to 1,100 pounds. He didn’t founder. He didn’t die. He proved to be passive and sweet-tempered. He would follow her around like a dog when she came to the stables.

Then Morris’ bike tour business went down the tubes in what she describes as a political fight involving kickbacks for go-betweens and cruise ship lines. Her relationship with her business partner, who also happened to be her boyfriend of five years, was collateral damage.

Then her stepfather got the diagnosis: He had lung cancer. It was time for Charlotte to leave her problematic paradise for Round Rock. She never thought she’d be 41 and living with her mother in a two-story suburban house with one sun room, two ferrets and four cats, she said, but there you go.

She’d been out of work for eight months. She’d been given estimates from airlines that it would cost as much as $15,000 to ship Nick to Central Texas. Then there was an ownership dispute — because Charlotte had never filled out formal adoption papers, she said, the stable owner on St. Thomas tried to claim ownership of what was by then quite a nice horse. There was a trip to small-claims court, a feeling that Murphy’s Law was as real and irrevocable as gravity.

“It was like throwing a million pieces of a puzzle into the air,” she said.

All of this, since February, conducted long-distance, via e-mail and phone from Round Rock.

Beginning with the tattoo inside Nick’s upper lip, Morris had filled in pieces of his history. She solicited help from a handful of organizations, none of which offered encouragement. Online, she found The Exceller Fund, a Web site (excellerfund.org) that helps to find adoptive owners for thoroughbred horses that would otherwise be slaughtered.

The fund couldn’t give her any money, but a couple of members held her hand through the exasperating months that followed. Karla Phaneus, a volunteer with the group, said Nick was on his way to being one of an estimated 5,000 thoroughbreds slaughtered or euthanized every year — for little reason other than their money-making days are over.

“There’s a million Nicks out there,” Phaneus said.

Morris got a job at, and now is one of the managers of, Cycle 360, a shop in Davenport Village that caters to cyclists, runners and triathletes. And she kept fighting to get Nick to Texas. There were hangups with blood tests, paperwork, getting a trailer.

For all her triathletic tenacity — she usually finishes within the top 15 — the fight was going out of her.

The humane society on the island eventually ran interference to clear up the ownership dispute and paid about $1,400 to ship Nick. All told, the bill would be around $2,000 — about a buck a mile. Not a small sum, but some people think nothing of paying that much for a fancy titanium bike.

Nick spent a month in transit. By boat from St. Thomas to San Juan, Puerto Rico. By plane from San Juan to Ocala, Fla. Then to Savannah, Ga. And from Savannah to Nick’s new home, a nice place out in the country between Pflugerville and Hutto, for the whinnying and crying reunion. Charlotte was so picky — because she wanted the best for the horse that hadn’t had anywhere near the best in a long time — that she went to five barns before she settled on the place.

Three days after he arrived, Charlotte Morris rode Nick. She wasn’t sure he’d be ridable, but he is. It’s costing her around $300 a month to board him. Nick could live another 20 years, but Charlotte doesn’t seem to regard the commitment as a burden. She says she’ll keep him even after he’s too old to ride.

He’s also passive, at times playful and downright goofy. He still follows Charlotte around like a dog. He has a habit of making his lower lip protrude, which seems to shave off a few IQ points.

Was it worth it? To see the two of them together makes the question silly.

“It’s just fate,” she said, a little self-conscious. “But it does sound cheesy.”