(Edited TRF press release)
By all accounts, Barbara Dege was a quiet, private woman who lived a simple life. But she had one great passion, and it was horse racing and the animals who provided her with enjoyment on her trips to handicap and make small bets at Belmont, Aqueduct, and the Meadowlands.
Dege passed away July 11 at the age of 50 after battling chronic heart problems, but not before she managed to do something for the Thoroughbreds who gave her so much pleasure.
The Hackensack, N.J, resident left a substantial amount of money to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which received a check for $500,000 last week from her estate. After the final details of her estate are settled, it is expected that the total gift to the TRF will be in the neighborhood of $900,000.
The gift is one of the largest ever made to the TRF, second only to a donation made by the Paul Mellon Estate upon his death.
The TRF cares and finds homes for retired racehorses. TRF farms and satellite facilities are currently located in 17 states from California to New York. The organization also helps rehabilitate prison inmates and youthful offenders through vocational programs whereby the inmates gain marketable job skills in horse care management. The TRF is working with the New Jersey Department of Corrections to establish such a program in New Jersey.
"We know Barbara was a kind and caring person," said TRF executive director Diana Pikulski. "Her wonderful gift to the TRF will go towards helping with our infrastructure so that we can save more horses and feel confident in our ability to care for our horses. It will also add to the Forego Fund, which is dedicated to the daily costs of feeding and caring for our steadily increasing horse population.
"Clearly, Ms. Dege recognized the huge task involved with fulfilling the TRF's mission. We are forever grateful to her for her generosity. It's great to know that we're reaching horse lovers and racing fans at all levels."
The TRF has already formulated plans for the Dege gift and will use much of the money to build a new roof and paddock at its Exceller Farm in Poughquag, New York, a new pasture at the Charles Hickey School in Baltimore, and to help establish a new TRF farm at the women's facility at the Marion (Fla.) Correctional Institute.
Said TRF founder and chairman of the board Monique Koehler: "Barbara was a consistent donor to our fundraising appeals, but her gifts were always modest. So, this was a very special donation to us. No matter how small the donation, they are all very important and we always go to great lengths to thank the donors. Perhaps that sincere acknowledgment had an impact on her."
"In many ways, Barbara is typical of out TRF supporters," Koehler continued. "She was not a racing 'insider,' not from Kentucky or Virginia or one of the states most people associate with Thoroughbred racing. Except for her final bequest she was a small donor who simply loved horses and was concerned about their welfare. Clearly, she saw that we were making a difference and wanted to do her part.
"It's exactly that need and recognition that has helped the TRF succeed. It's why our support is nationwide...and growing all the time. Saving horses, saving lives...Barbara was a tremendous part of making that dream a reality. I hope others will follow her shining example."
Dege, an only child who inherited money from her parents, was not married and had no children. Even her closest friends are not sure how or why she became interested in horse racing. She would go to the track alone.
"She lived a very spartan life, although she didn't need to, as you can guess from the size of the bequest," said Susan Schink, a friend and Episcopal priest. "There was about a 10-year period where I didn't see much of Barbara and during that time she got interested in horse racing. What triggered that, I can't tell you. When we reconnected, she was an absolutely avid fan and loved to go to the track. She even set up a system where she handicapped not the horses, but the riders. Still, she didn't get fancy seats and wasn't a gambler. Her bets were in the $2 range. But she just loved the horses and the mathematics of how you could make an educated bet. I guess she also fell in love with the horses."
Dege became so enthusiastic about the sport that she began to write articles for American Turf Monthly
"I didn't know much about her," said editor Jim Corbett. "But if you read anything she wrote for us, you could tell how enthusiastic she was. Everything she wrote for us was very good. We'd send her packages of result charts so she could do her research and you could see how much she enjoyed that sort of thing."