NORTH EAST -- Dolly Pouska has raised hundreds of foals at her farm in Cecil County, but only one of them has ever won a race at a Maryland track.
The horse that beat the odds is named Welsh Minstrel.
He is one of Dolly's "bucket babies."
When the 2-year-old gelding runs in the eighth race at Laurel tomorrow, he will be trying for his fourth win in two months, making him one of the winningest 2-year-olds on the grounds.
Although the sheer number of foals that are dropped each year at Pouska's farm rank her as one of the state's most prolific horse breeders, these animals are bred for an unusual purpose. They are not bred to win races, but merely to keep their dams in production as nurse mares.
The foals are weaned off of their mothers at a young age, sometimes as early as one or two weeks, so that their mothers can be used to nurse orphaned babies at some of the East Coast's fanciest thoroughbred farms. Pouska then raises her own little orphans by feeding them powdered milk out of a bucket.
Pouska is known in Maryland as the "Nurse Mare Lady." The service she has provided to Maryland thoroughbred breeders for nearly 30 years is almost legendary.
When a thoroughbred mare dies giving birth or becomes incapacitated for some reason and cannot raise her foal, Pouska provides a surrogate mother. She will come at any hour of the night, almost anywhere on the East Coast, and stays until it looks like her nurse mare will accept the new foal.
The cost is $1,900 per mare, plus hauling. "I don't care if it's
multimillionaire or someone with $2 in his pocket, the cost is the same," she said.
She keeps 105 horses on her farm, and nearly all of them ar foster mothers. They are home now, waiting for the upcoming foaling season that starts in January and runs through next June. They will have their own foals, then be torn away from them to take care of a strange foal on a strange farm.
"I feel we serve a double purpose," she said. "We raise th thoroughbred foal whose mother has died or has been sent away and then we raise our own foal. Very seldom do we lose a foal. Our foals take to drinking out of the bucket. Then I try to find them homes as soon as I can."
Many go to children as 4-H projects or to Amish farmers that us the foals from her Standardbred mares as driving horses.
Pouska uses mares of all breeds-- Appaloosas, quarter horses draft mares, trotters as well as thoroughbreds.
"I never used many thoroughbred mares until the market wen bad four or five years ago," she said. "Then I could pick up thoroughbred mares cheaper than I could the other breeds.
"I try to get a decent mare so she will have a decent foal and can sell it," she added. A look at her well-fed group of mares proves her point-- there isn't a bad-looking horse on the place.
She estimates that only two out of every five mares she buys wil have the temperament to become a nurse mare.
In the case of Welsh Minstrel, Pouska purchased his dam, Tudo Native, in a three-mare package in a private sale in Pennsylvania.
Tudor Native did not work out as a nurse mare. "I think she was weaver [a horse that will sway back and forth out of nervousness] and thoroughbred farms don't want that kind of mare," Pouska said. Welsh Minstrel was weaned from his mother when just three weeks old and fed on a bucket.
Tudor Native was returned from the thoroughbred farm "and I sold her to a dealer. She probably went to New Holland [a killer sale in Pennsylvania]," Pouska said. "I just can't keep mares that don't work out. I'm running a business, not a retirement home."
Kenny Horeis, a feed salesman from Felton, Del., who has bought many of Pouska's foals and has had quite a bit of success selling them as show horses, liked Welsh Minstrel when he stopped by Pouska's farm.
"I traded a half interest of another horse I had in partnership with Dolly for him," Horeis recalled. "As it turned out, a foal out of one of my quarter horse mares died, and I put Welsh Minstrel on her as soon as I got him."
Horeis raised the colt and sold him as a yearling for $1,100 at the Timonium sales.
The buyer was Lou Nichols, a well-known Maryland trainer who lives in Crofton and keeps his string of runners at the Bowie Training Center.
"I almost named the colt Lou's Folly," Nichols said. "I paid $1,100 for him and it cost me $15,000 to get him to the races. But I really liked the looks of the colt. Kenny did a great job preparing him for the sale. He kept walking the colt all around the sales barns for three days. Every time I saw the colt, he just kept bouncing along. You'd think he'd be tired out. He had no pedigree to recommend him, but I just liked him as an individual."
So far, Welsh Minstrel has earned $20,400 for Nichols in nine races. "He always tries," Nichols said. "I just got lucky."
Pouska gives all the credit to Horeis. "Normally, I don't even register my thoroughbred foals. I just sell them as potential show and riding horses," she said. "Kenny is the reason the colt got where he is."
But when the couple of thousand dollars in breeders awards comes to Pouska from Welsh Minstrel's success, it will be a fitting token that the state thoroughbred industry will be giving to a lady who has given local breeders so much.
"No one would do what Dolly does if he didn't love horses," a prominent state breeder said. "She works all hours at the coldest time of the year, sometimes all night. She brings her nurse mares and saves the lives of orphan foals and then spends all that time feeding and caring for her own foals. She gets paid for it, but for the hours she puts in, it hardly seems worthwhile. Unless, of course, you love horses. And it's obvious Dolly does."