James E. "Ted" Bassett III banged his fists on the conference table of his Keeneland office in stentorian rhythm without regard for the 95-year-old bones.
"Why am I involved?" bellowed the former chairman of the Lexington racetrack. "Because she wasn't a horse; she was a Marine!"
The subject of Bassett's passion is Sergeant Reckless, a Korean-bred mare whose heroism in shuttling ammunition and the wounded up and down hills while under fire during the Korean War made her the most decorated horse in the history of the United States military. And Bassett, a proud Marine who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, is spearheading the drive to raise funds for installing a life-size statue of Sergeant Reckless at the Kentucky Horse Park that he hopes will be dedicated in May 2018.
The cost of the statue and surrounding landscaping is $250,000, and Bassett's passion for the project is such that he will exhaust every avenue until that goal is reached and this equine Marine duly honored at the Horse Park.
Sergeant Reckless is believed to have been foaled in 1948. The Korean War halted racing in the country, and a stablehand who needed money to buy a leg prosthesis for his daughter sold the mare to Marine Lt. Eric Pederson, who desired a pack animal to carry heavy shells across mountainous terrain. Her handlers taught the mare how to survive under fire, and she became part of the regiment, sleeping inside tents with the troops, eating scrambled eggs, and drinking soda and beer. The mare learned new delivery routes after being led just a few times, and subsequently made the trips on her own.
During the Battle of Outpost Vegas in 1953, Reckless made 51 solo trips in a single day, carrying more than 9,000 pounds of ammunition and covering 35 miles. She was wounded twice by shrapnel during the battle, and promoted to corporal. She was promoted to sergeant in a formal ceremony following the war.
Later in 1954, Sergeant Reckless was brought to California and lived out her days at Camp Pendleton before her death in 1968. She was promoted to staff sergeant in 1959, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and a passel of other medals and citations.
"If she were a human, she would have worn the Congressional Medal of Honor," Bassett said.
Sergeant Reckless has been honored with statues at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., and another at Camp Pendleton. The Kentucky Horse Park, devoted to all breeds, would make a fitting trifecta for this patriot. Sculptor Jocelyn Russell would memorialize Sergeant Reckless for the third time.
"Hers is the greatest horse story I've ever come across," said Robin Hutton, author of 2014 New York Times best-seller Sgt. Reckless, and Bassett's partner in raising funds for the statue. "I love the great racehorse stories like Secretariat and Seabiscuit, but Reckless served our country and saved American lives, and you can't beat that.
"Whenever I give talks about her, I know everyone is going to leave with a smile on their face and a skip in their step, because they fall in love with this horse."
The Horse Park, located just north of Lexington, has picked out a site for the statue adjacent to its museum and up on a hill overlooking the park, symbolizing Reckless' travails going up inclines in Korea. Tax deductible donations for the statue of Sergeant Reckless can be made out to the Sergeant Reckless Memorial Fund, and sent to P.O. Box 1125, Moorpark, CA, 93020.