Owner-trainer Tamara Maxey recognized Gung Ho as a prime show horse prospect when he was in the final stages of his 74-race career at Turfway Park in late 2018. A stakes winner in his prime, Gung Ho finished third in the 2012 Toyota Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland in a career that includes a bankroll of nearly $350,000 and 10 victories. Maxey told mutual friend Julia Vassar she could have him upon retirement and six months later she took him home to South Carolina.
Later this week, Vassar and Gung Ho, a 10-year-old Kitten's Joy gelding, will compete in the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover Presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Designed to inspire the transition of racehorses into other purposes, the event is limited to Thoroughbreds who have raced or been in race training (within a certain time frame). The pair is entered in the trails division in which horse and rider move through obstacles in an arena.
Vassar said that after eight years at the track, Gung Ho seemed confused at his sudden change in routine after his racing career. When set free in a small paddock, he jumped and played but after 20 minutes became bored.
“It was a slow transition for him to be turned out,” Vassar said. “I brought him in every day out of the heat. I gradually increased his turn out time. He was perfectly content to be outside for about an hour and nibble some grass and then he would start walking the fence line. He would say, 'Now what? This is how long I am usually (out of my stall) at the track. I am all done now.' I would give him a bath and put him in a stall for the rest of the day.”
Gung Ho, now known as “Gizmo,” finally felt comfortable when Vassar added a retired gelding to his field to teach him how to be just a horse instead of a racehorse. Vassar, a former race track groom for Steve Hobby, started reschooling Gung Ho in December.
Vassar describes Gung Ho as eager to please yet detached when retraining began. His attitude was most obvious during his initial work under saddle.
“He had a hard time associating me on the ground and me on his back,” she said. “On the ground, he knew I was his person. But when I got on, he had a little meltdown at the beginning. So I would dismount and look at him. When I got back on, he would turn his head to touch my toe. Then he would sigh and we could go on. Now we have a connection.”
The gelding's biggest challenge was learning to move sideways and stand still, but he is unfazed by most everything.
“He doesn't care about where he puts his feet or what you put on him,” Vassar said. “I can wave a tarp at him and put it on his back, and he doesn't care.”
To prepare Gung Ho for the show world, Vassar took him to a show to get accustomed to the setup without having to compete. He thrived on watching the activity. Vassar said he can fret if he does not understand a situation but relaxes once he realizes what is happening.
Long-range plans call for Gung Ho to compete in eventing in which horses perform in cross-country jumping, stadium jumping and dressage in which they move in a pattern in response to the rider's subtle commands.
“This is long term for me,” Vassar said. “He is a keeper. I will have him forever.”
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