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Love wins a horse race with death Nurse rescues Black Jack, a sick and starving colt

They call him Black Jack now.

They also could call him Survivor -- or Lucky.

Black Jack is an 8-month-old thoroughbred horse with matted hair, a bloated belly, fluid in the lungs, anemia and a heart murmur. He weighs only about 400 pounds, or 200 pounds less than he should. He takes baby steps, like a person on crutches, and he still can't stand up on his own.

But he's lucky to be alive, thanks largely to a feed-store owner and a nurse who rescued him from a Niagara County farm.

Black Jack is one of at least seven badly malnourished thoroughbred racehorses rescued last weekend from that farm. At least one other horse already was dead, people close to the situation said.

Nurse Judith Miller remembers taking her first look at these emaciated horses, including the jet-black colt now known as Black Jack.

"I just wanted to break down and cry," she said. "The worst one was this baby. I swear to God he was one day from death. The vet said if we had had one day of cold and snow, he would have laid down and died.

"I said, 'I'll take him.' "

The rescue occurred after Steven Nelson, owner of Nelson Feeds in Akron, received a call late last week about the malnourished horses on the farm in the Town of Somerset.

Nelson drove to the farm last Friday. As soon as he saw the condition of the surviving horses, he knew he had to do something.

His eye was drawn to the one "weanling," the black colt that hadn't celebrated its first birthday.

"It was totally emaciated, all skin and bones, all sunk in," he said. "It was sickening to see. I almost wanted to cry. I've owned horses for 30 years, and I've never seen anyone treat a baby like that."

Nelson, who calls himself a horse lover, spent the next couple days calling people and found homes for seven of the horses, including Black Jack. He rescued four of the horses Saturday, three on Sunday.

Miller, a trauma nurse at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, previously had rescued four horses. It didn't take long for her to decide to take Black Jack back to her Lazy J Ranch and Rescue in the Town of Newstead.

Black Jack stood in his stall Wednesday afternoon, still bearing many of the scars of his malnourishment.

"He's just got my heart," Miller said. "It's like helping a lost kitten. He can look at you with his eyes, and it goes right through your soul."

Miller believes Black Jack could become a racehorse, a hunter-jumper or an English show horse.

"He'll be gorgeous, pitch-black like Black Beauty, with a white star on his forehead," she said. "He just needs a lot of attention and love."

Neither Miller nor Nelson can understand how these horses were so ignored.

"I can't understand why you'd neglect animals, no matter what the circumstances are," Nelson said. "It's not the animals' fault that you failed in your business."

But an attorney for one of the owners suggested that the horses, in effect, were victimized as valuable assets in a failing company.

The horses were owned by SGS Bloodstock Corp., a company that raised and raced horses and was co-owned by two Niagara County women, Candice Starkweather and Julie Walker.

Both women have been trying to sell the horses, but that is a costly process, explained Patrick M. Balkin, Starkweather's attorney. After she filed for bankruptcy in late October, the horses, as a valuable asset, were controlled by U.S. Bankruptcy Court and its trustee. So they could not be given away.

Bankruptcy papers have listed the value of the horses -- approximately a dozen -- at somewhere around $350,000, two people with knowledge of the situation said.

As soon as the bankruptcy trustee learned about the horses' dire condition, he agreed to abandon his interest in the animals, Balkin said. That's when Starkweather called Nelson.

"I don't think either of these women had any intention of hurting these horses," Balkin said. "We were looking for ways to [sell or give away] these horses for a long time. But they couldn't find any way to do it."

Meanwhile, the concerns now are with the horses.

"I guess, because I'm a nurse, the healing part of me, this horse represents life and the beauty of animals," Miller said. "I look at him, and I feel good about myself.

"Some day, he'll be healthy, and I'll be able to see him run and play."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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