Sergeant York gets job done – Riderless horse was once a $4,000 claimer in New Jersey

Smarty Jones is not the only inspirational story making the rounds in the horse world.

The riderless horse that followed former President Ronald Reagan's casket in the June 9 procession through Washington is another story of hope.

The horse was Sergeant York, a 13-year-old standardbred who won a few races but never had much success on the racetrack.

His registered name was Allaboard Jules. He raced primarily at Yonkers and Freehold. In 1996, his racing career ended abruptly with a third-place finish in a $4,000 claiming race.

Through luck, along with his good looks, Allaboard Jules was picked for a job with the United States Army Caisson Platoon. The platoon provides equine escorts for the caskets of soldiers and high-ranking officials buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Jules got his job after an employee of the New Jersey Racing Commission told the horse's trainer, Dave Brandwine, that the U.S. Army was looking for a “few good horses.” The horses had to be black or gray, although dark bays also could qualify.

Allaboard Jules is registered as black. He also has a great temperament. The Army signed him on and ordered him to report for duty at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., in 1997.

Allaboard Jules did not find boot camp a welcoming environment. Apparently the soldiers in the platoon made fun of him. He was small. He had an odd name. Thus the platoon renamed him Sergeant York, after the World War I hero.

Only a few weeks into basic training, Sergeant York was able to distinguish himself in a way he never did on the racetrack. He participated in an exercise that simulated a skirmish in a third world country using horse-mounted troops. Machine guns were fired from his back. Grenades exploded beside him.

Sergeant York did so well in that exercise that he was awarded the job as understudy to the platoon's riderless horse. The following year, 1998, Sergeant York moved into the No. 1 spot.

While the platoon works more than 1,000 funerals each year, a riderless horse had not been used for a president since Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973. The riderless horse, outfitted with riding boots facing backward in the saddle stirrups, symbolizes a fallen leader. Its job is to follow the caisson carrying the casket.

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