At Walkill Correctional Institute in upstate New York, some street-savvy tough guys tremble before an even bigger adversary: the horses in their care.
Jim Tremper, who runs the program for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), said the life-changing ties forged between hardened criminals and their horse charges are incredible.
"The tougher inmates, the ones that are more hardened, are the ones who seem to change the most. Once they don't have a knife or a gun in their hands or aren't empowered by their size, things are different. A horse, particularly a tough one, can keep them in check," Tremper said.
That certainly seems to be the case for Efrain Silva, whose life changed for the better nine years ago when he became the groom for a racehorse way past his prime named Creme de la Fete.
"I fell in love with that horse," Mr. Silva said. "The day I met him, I looked into his eyes. I says, 'I'm going to take care of you, Creme. You watch.'"
Mr. Silva was sentenced to fifteen years to life for shooting a man to death while drunk at a Bronx liquor store in 1981. When he learned that Creme, who had a tumor in his thyroid, had to be euthanized, Efrain Silva wept openly in front of his fellow inmates in the mess hall where he was having lunch.
Creme, Mr. Silva said, was like his second family, and the only creature on earth that he had any meaningful relationship with on most days.
Jim Tremper said he had seen the thoroughbreds change the prisoners' lives as much as they changed the horses'.
But it's not just the inmates who get a second chance at life.
The horses who come to Walkill get there thanks to the efforts of the TRF, the nation's oldest and largest thoroughbred-rescue operation.
For the past 18 years, the prison has worked in partnership with TRF to bring together inmates with former champions, runners-up and perennial losers.
Most of the horses who end up at Walkill have no economic value - other than the $600 they might earn as meat - before they arrive at Walkill to live out their final years. The horses, like the inmates who care for them, are in desperate need of a second chance.
There is Quick Call, a Saratoga favorite, who won at least one race every year from 1987 to 1990. In 86 starts, he won 16 races and earned $807,817.
Or Klabin's Gold, the son of Strike the Gold and Splendid Launch, who won 11 times and had career earnings of $346,179. But as of March 2002, Klabin was finishing last and making next to nothing.
He was found 100 pounds underweight with three fractured legs last December in his stall at Suffolk Downs, a minor track in Boston.
Or Banker's Jet, who earned close to $1 million, who was found standing up to his knees in manure at a riding ranch in upstate New York before he, too, was rescued and found his second chance at life among prison inmates.
Growing concerns about the fate of retired thoroughbred horses have been mounting since the story of Ferdinand, a 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic champion, was killed last year in Japan and used for pet food.
Exceller, who outran Affirmed and Seattle Slew, becoming the only horse to defeat two Triple Crown winners, met a similar end. After a failed breeding career, Exceller was killed and sold as meat in Sweden.
Monique Koehler, an advertising agency owner, founded the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and got seed money for the program from a $200,000 fund-raiser held at Belmont Park in 1983.
When the foundation went looking for land, Ms. Koehler discovered that prison systems owned thousands of acres of land that were perfect for horses.
That's when the idea of bringing together inmates who needed to learn a vocational trade and develop compassion for living creatures with horses desperate for respect and care was born.
The foundation also has partnerships with the Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, KY and the Marion County Correctional Institution in Lowell, FL.
TRF provides homes for former racehorses at farms in Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, and through private adoptions.
A hallmark of TRF is that many of its farms are at correctional facilities (like Walkill) or homes for troubled youths.
It's the best of both worlds for man and horse.
Lorenzo Parker, who is serving time for attempted robbery, now works with Quick Call at Walkill. As he said, "If you never make a million in life, at least you can stand next to a million."