Burnett woman writes a new chapter for retired racehorse

Gloria Hafemeister
Amber Sawyer has provided a sort of retirement home to Derek Bromack N, a 21-year old horse who has had a very successful harness racing career.  She was gifted the horse by the last owner with the understanding that she would care for him in his old age.

BURNETT – Where does a race horse go when a race horse can no longer race? If they are lucky they get to go to Sawyer Stables at Burnett.

Dean Sawyer has been involved with owning and training race horses for over five decades. At age 12, he was the youngest person to own a race horse. He founded the family racing stable on 15 acres of property that includes a ⅜-mile track.

His daughter, Amber and grandson Paul share his interest in race horses and have provided a retirement home for a few of the best known race horses in the country including, most recently, Derek Bromack N.

The now 21-year-old Derek was born in New Zealand and began racing when he was 2 years old. Amber explains, “All the horses born on that farm that year had first names beginning with D. It’s the system they use for naming race horses.”

Derek raced so well in New Zealand that he was purchased by a racer in California and eventually sold again to an East coast circuit racer. In his career he raced in 12 states but at age 13 he was hurt. That’s when he came to Sawyer Stables where Amber worked hard to fix and strengthen his injured leg.

In his original racing career he made his owners more than a quarter of a million dollars with his wins. After he retired and was rehabilitated he continued to win races in the county fair circuit. In fact, she says he set a record as the oldest winning horse in the United States.

When Amber Sawyer takes her horse Derek to schools, libraries and nursing homes she helps people understand that animals are still loved and cared for by their owners.

Amber Sawyer has written a children’s book telling the story through the eyes of Derek Bromack N. After returning from a three-week book signing venture at numerous race tracks in eastern states she is now busy touring southeast Wisconsin.

She took this summer off to travel and promote the book. The book-signing tour was more successful than she ever dreamed it could be.

“I had my first book signing at Goshen Historic Track in New York, the oldest harness racing track in the world, established in 1838,"Sawyer said. "To be a part of that history is quite an honor.”

Sawyer was then invited to do a book signing at the largest race track in the world, Meadowlands in New Jersey. 

“I was afraid to ask them to let me come but when I did, they rolled out the red carpet for me. Derek had raced there once and they were eager to promote it,” she said.

Sawyer says horse racing is sometimes criticized because some say it is cruel for the horses. 

"(Meadowlands) saw this as good publicity because it shows that these horses are loved and well cared for," she pointed out. "It is a good story with a happy ending.”

Sawyer also did some book signing at other race tracks out east including one in Cumberland, Maine, where the local horse association and the track bought 40 books to give away to children attending the races. 

On the way back from her book signing she was invited to stop in Ohio for another signing at a track where Derek had previously raced.

Since the book came out it been promoted and sold in numerous countries around the world. She signed and sent a copy to the original owner in New Zealand who she says was thrilled to hear of Derek’s success.

“The breeders don’t usually know what ever becomes of the horses they sell around the world," she says. "They were thrilled that my book tied everything back to where he was born.”

She sent them an autographed copy saying, “You loved him first. I love him last.”

“This has really been an adventure. I have met so many people who either raced him or bet on him and are thrilled to learn his story.”            

Now Derek accompanies her to visits in libraries, nursing homes and family events all round the area.  In spring she takes him to the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison where together they teach a class about harness racing.

She says, “He is always eager to come with me because he knows he will get his fill of carrots and grass when the children he is entertaining take turns feeding him.”

When he visited the Juneau library recently he walked right inside the building and officially got his library card. A Facebook post of the event had a record 11,000 likes immediately.

Some families take their calves or other critters to school.  Amber Sawyer takes her horse and helps the students understand a little more about the world of horse racing.  She recently did a program for Grandparents Day at St. Stephens Lutheran School in Horicon where Derek had the attention of everyone in the audience.

He has visited numerous libraries in the area and last week was a special guest at the Grandparents Day at St. Stephens Lutheran School in Horicon.

“We have owned many different horses over the years. Derek was gifted to us a few years ago with the stipulation that I would care for him and let him finish out his years here on our farm,” Sawyer said. 

At age 15, race horses must retire from the betting tracks. They can still race at county fairs and local tracks. With this in mind, Derek continued on is some harness racing for a few years.

Amber previously cared for another retired race horse from Ohio. When he retired from the betting tracks she continued to race him at age 15 and 16 which she says was unheard of in the harness racing world.

“Of all the race horses in U.S. and Canada, in 2016 my horse was the only one 16 years old. I guess I just had a knack for working with older horses,” she said.

When Amber graduated from high school she moved out east to race professionally.  She says for a long time she was the youngest and the only woman to race horses. SHe returned to Wisconsin right before her son, Paul, was born.

Just as dairying or any other type of farming tends to get in a person’s blood, she says horses do, too. 

At age 15 she believes her son is on his way to being the third generation of horse racers in the family. Paul enjoys helping his grandpa care for the horses on their farm near Burnett, making the hay and doing other chores around the farm.