How Jeanne Mirabito came to own the champion Our Mims easily rivals the twisting tales of Homer or Shakespeare.
Mirabito grew up in the small upstate New York village of Hilton, near the shores of Lake Ontario, the eighth child among 10. Since she was young, Mirabito was all-consumed by what her family referred to as "horse disease."
"My mom always said it is genetic, it is addictive, and I had it bad," Mirabito said. One day when she was 17, she came upon the TV while her brothers were watching "ABC Wide World of Sports" and spied a segment on Our Mims, the Calumet Farm homebred who became champion 3-year-old filly after winning four graded stakes, three of them grade I, in 1977.
"I thought she was the most beautiful horse I'd ever seen," Mirabito recalled. "At the time I didn't say I wanted to own a horse like her some day; I told my family, 'I want to own her some day.' "
Once out of high school, Mirabito took a winding path. She moved to California to join her "wild child" sister and find her independence. In the Golden State she met graduate student Peter Mirabito who was getting his Master's degree at the University of California-Davis. They married, and his career took them to Athens, Ga., then to Rutgers University in New Jersey. Armed with a Ph.D. and post-doctorate degree in molecular biology and genetics, Peter got job offers from universities in Boston and Lexington.
"I told him he could go to Boston, but I was going to Kentucky," Jeanne Mirabito said.
Within a year of moving their family to the Bluegrass, the Mirabitos moved from town to a rented home on a horse farm. The farm owner soon hired Jeanne.
One morning she and a co-worker were sent to bring up a mare from a back pasture. In that field Mirabito nearly lost her life.
"This big mare came up to us, and she tried to kick my head off," Mirabito said. "I ducked. She connected with the fence post behind me and split it. She is standing over me snorting and pounding her front hooves into the ground. I needed to know who was getting ready to kill me so I asked my co-worker and he says: 'That's Our Mims.' He had a lot of cuss words for her. She was not a farm favorite."
Mirabito was stunned to be standing in front of her teenage idol, puffed up and angry; not the sleek champion she remembered from her youth. The mare had been pensioned and left to live out her days sharing round bales with cattle. No vet care. No farrier care.
"There is a common idea with pensioning that putting a horse out to pasture is what they want; that they don't want human contact. But they do," said Mirabito. "I don't think the people who had her were cruel. I think they thought they were doing the best for her. But she was angry."
Mirabito convinced the owners to donate Our Mims to a horse rescue outfit but took her home instead because she couldn't part with the mare.
"She was absolutely my best friend," she said. "We had nearly four good years. I restored her to health. She made public appearances at charity horse shows and Keeneland's 'Breakfast with the Works.' I promised her I would never let her name be forgotten, and I promised I would do what I could to take care of other old horses."
Those promises led Mirabito to create the Our Mims Retirement Haven, northeast of Paris, Ky. When Our Mims died at age 29 on Dec. 9, 2003, Mirabito almost left the horse retirement business because she didn't think she could handle the losses. But she remembered the promise she made and realized the great need her farm provides. The haven is now home to 33 horses, almost all mares.
"In a perfect world this wouldn't be needed. The mares would be taken care of by their owners, but they're not," Mirabito said. "Here the mares relax and become very loving, though they will rear and buck and kick up their heels until they're 30.
"I never expected to have a farm, and I certainly never expected who I'd have," she said. "I have had two champions and met some of the greatest mares in the world. I cannot imagine not having this and don't think I want to do anything else."
Our Mims Retirement Haven is a 2013 grantee of the Thoroughbred Charities of America. For more information about the TCA and its mission visit TCA.org.