This past weekend, while Lexingtonians and out-of-towners alike were reveling in horseracing culture at its best at Keeneland with opening weekend festivities, a different celebration was taking place just a few miles away at the Kentucky Horse Park. There, hundreds of former racehorses from all over the U. S. and Canada converged to take part in what has become the largest and most lucrative retired racehorse retraining competition in the world, the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover.
Presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA), the competition was open to recently retired racehorses with eight months or less of off-track training since their last race or published workout. This year's winner, a 3-year-old filly who had been retrained as a polo pony by 17-year-old Charlie Caldwell of Coldwater, Tenn., was nothing short of impressive as she demonstrated the neck reining, lead changes, lateral movements, tight turns and game nature of a seasoned polo mount.
When asked after the awards ceremony if he was planning to keep the filly or sell her, Caldwell commented that one of the judges from the polo division had inquired about purchasing her (at last check, Caldwell was considering the offer).
That scenario is indicative of the event as a whole. As a board member for the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP), I look at the Thoroughbred Makeover through a different lens, and my takeaways from the event this past weekend are likely different than most (or maybe not). To me, there were several key takeaways from this year's Thoroughbred Makeover that are encouraging, inspiring and will likely resonate with anyone whose interest in Thoroughbreds, on-track or off, led them to read this article.
Value is On the Rise
The RRP, the non-profit organization that put on the Thoroughbred Makeover last weekend for the fifth consecutive year, began with a mission in 2012 of increasing demand for, and ultimately the value of, off-track Thoroughbreds. This year, more than any year prior, I saw that mission being realized. There were numerous people on the grounds throughout the weekend who were there for no other reason than to shop for horses.
“This is a great place to shop for young horses with upper level potential,” said Rolex competitor and top eventing trainer Bill Hoos, who came with his family from their Nashville, Tenn., farm with the intention of purchasing several horses as prospects for himself and his son, who is also a professional rider/trainer. “Usually you have to travel to California to look at one horse, Canada to see another. Here you see so many in one spot. This is a great horse shopping opportunity. It makes things much simpler and easier.”
The RRP asks each competitor to complete and submit a sale disclosure form if they sell the horse(s) they competed on in the Makeover. While the specifics of the sales are not made public unless the buyer and seller grant permission and RRP is not involved with the legalities of the sale in any way, the information is used internally, as the data gathered can be used in a variety of ways to promote not only the event, but off-track Thoroughbreds in general.
The RRP show office was like a revolving door, with one competitor after another coming in to ask where they can get the form to declare a sale, and veterinarians on-site stayed busy doing pre-purchase exams.
Case in point (one of many cases that could make this point): Tresa Goodrich-Downey, a professional trainer from Utah, made the trip to Kentucky with a 17h Stormy Atlantic gelding she was given after it showed little promise in three lifetime starts. Someone at the event looking for an eventing prospect inquired about trying the horse, and after all was said and done, Goodrich-Downey went home to Utah with one less horse in her trailer, $10,000 in her pocket and the peace of mind knowing he was going to a good home.
“They were great people who have the means and resources to give him an even better life than I could. It's a win for everyone involved,” said Goodrich-Downey.
Better Horsemanship Makes for Better Horses
A key reason the Thoroughbred Makeover is becoming known as the place to shop for a good show prospect has as much to do with the riders and trainers as it does the horses. This year the competitor list included everyone from teenagers and adult amateurs to elite level equestrians who have competed in the Olympics and World Equestrian Games.
“The caliber of competition is definitely tougher this year,” said 16-year-old Isabella de Sousa, who defeated several internationally competitive riders, including an Olympian and a Kentucky Three-Day Event winner to win the Show Jumping division for a third year in a row.
Just walking around the grounds and hanging out near the warm-up rings, I could see what she was talking about. These riders were good, and in turn they had and were making their horses good. Many competitors either had trainers who came with them to coach them in the competition or hired local coaches to help fine-tune their performances before they went into the ring.
Others, like Ian Roberts, who rode for Team Canada at both the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Equestrian Games, took part in the event as a competitor and seminar speaker as a way to give back and raise awareness for a breed he feels has afforded him so much.
“I feel like I am reliving my past,” said Roberts, who trains out of his Dreamcrest Farm in Canada and coaches riders at the international level. Throughout the weekend Roberts was gracious with his time and knowledge, making time to answer questions or offer insight whenever he was asked. “It's been a long time since I took a horse straight from the track and started it from scratch. This has been an interesting, but fun process.”
Bridging the Gap Between On-Track and Off-Track
It wasn't just the equine competitors' current connections that were cheering on these horses last weekend. A large number of racing owners and breeders of the horses competing in the Thoroughbred Makeover traveled great distances to watch their former charges compete in a new career.
Fort Erie Thoroughbred conditioner Michael Blake was in Lexington to look at a horse running at Keeneland. When he heard two of his former trainees were competing just a few miles away in the Thoroughbred Makeover, he built time into his schedule to go out and watch them.
“Events like this have really helped to raise awareness for retired racehorses and all they can do after they're done running,” said Blake. “The more we know about what options are out there for them, the better we can be about knowing what each one will be best suited for.”
Dan Keen, who made it to the finals in both the Working Ranch and Freestyle divisions on Dreamsicle (by Borrego) and Mad Velocity (by Special Rate) and whose fiancé (as of this past weekend – he proposed to her at the end of his Freestyle performance!) was competing in the Show Hunters and Freestyle with Sollozzo (by J Be K), also had racing industry support.
“One of our horse's owners flew in all the way from Oklahoma to watch the competition,” said Keen. “She's 78-years-old and had the best time cheering him on with her friends.”
Chapter Two (by More Than Ready), ridden and trained by Alison Wilaby, brought his racing connections along for the ride as he went from a racehorse in Andrew McKeever's barn to winning the Dressage division at the event.
“They've all stayed up to date and interested in how he's progressed off the track,” said Wilaby. “He was known for getting strong on the track, so his exercise rider, Keith Dalton, actually took him for his first cross-country school for me. It takes a village, and his village has stayed with him as we've worked toward this goal.”
For me, as a board member for the RRP and more importantly as someone who is as avid about off-track Thoroughbreds as I am the on-track variety, that is an important measuring stick. Are we creating synergy between the racing and equestrian worlds?
“I know we are,” said RRP President Steuart Pittman when asked about the shift. “I see it going in both directions. A lot of racing owners and trainers used to think that equestrian buyers on the backside were either kill buyers in disguise or incompetent backyard pet owners who were getting in over their heads. Now they are seeing that these people can ride, train, and care for Thoroughbred horses after all. At the same time, those buyers are learning about life on the backside of a racetrack and discovering that the horsemanship and quality of care in a good racing stable is second to none. It turns horse lovers into racing fans, and in some cases they become racing owners.”
Added Kirsten Green, director of operations for the RRP, “This year was our third year of presenting the Makeover in this format and it's thrilling to see the evolution taking place. The quality of training and the horsemanship is higher than ever. Sales prices and confirmed transactions are up. Engagement with the racing community has increased. We learn something new each year about how to make this event an even better experience for all involved and I'm looking forward to capitalizing on that for 2018.”
I am by no means saying it is solely RRP that is moving the needle. From aftercare groups and private individuals who work tirelessly to rehome these horses to the riders/trainers and their contingents who serve as ambassadors for their potential as sport horses; from the organizations like The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Incentive Program and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance to the racing trainers, owners and industry professionals, it is thanks to all of these people and so many others that meaningful change is being made.
The Thoroughbred Makeover was a showcase of this change that is afoot. The value of these horses is on the rise and their potential as athletes beyond the race track is being noticed.
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an ark, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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