When it comes to repurposing off-track Thoroughbreds for other equestrian sports, not all trainers and riders hold pedigree in equal credence. Some professionals say a horse's conformation and way of moving is more important to them; the names on the Jockey Club papers are just added color. For others, it's all about finding the best of what's available in their region.
For still others, pedigree can be one of many tools that help them learn what to expect from the horse, as is true in racing. Despite the challenges in tracing the propensities of a horse's offspring outside racing, experts have noticed a few trends in the past several years.
Denny Emerson, international eventing champion and owner/trainer at Tamarack Hill Farm, echoed the popular sentiment among sport horse riders that distance horses have historically been better suited for most types of English riding, especially eventing. Emerson described his ideal eventing Thoroughbred as a Belmont Stakes horse from the 1950s: 16.2 hh with a long neck, big shoulder, strong forearm and gaskin, and an uphill build—all qualities that help a horse push himself into the air as a jumper.
Unfortunately, that 1950s type isn't so common today.
“He looks like he could run five miles, and a lot of the 2014 horses are bred to sprint five, six furlongs at two,” said Emerson. “They tend to be a little more Quarter Horse-y looking, a little more downhill. The joke is that they're bullets—they come out of the gate and fly, and they're done.”
It seems others in the eventing world agree with Emerson's classic-distance horse ideal. A study from Eventing Nation found that most of the top ten finishers in eventing at the recent World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France were predominantly Thoroughbred. Most of those Thoroughbred ancestors were European.
In Emerson's experience, second-generation offspring of Hail to Reason (a line that includes Halo, Roberto, Saint Ballado, Saint Liam, More Than Ready, Dynaformer, Sunday Silence, and Arch among others) have had high-level eventing success. Examples include Sassy Reason, a son of Champagne winner Limit to Reason, who won the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials, and Epic Win, son of graded stakes-placed Epic Journey, who went to the CCI** level.
Emerson also has a soft spot for the family of Never Bend, grandsire of the two top finishers at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta—Sunburst and True Blue Gridwood. Other favorites include the Ribot line-Tom Rolfe, Hoist the Flag, and Alleged.
He has found that size and quality of the hoof is a big concern for show riders, whose horses do long, slow work that rewards soundness. Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer lines weren't necessarily known for their feet, Emerson said, but the Bold Ruler line, particularly sons of Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, and Pulpit can be.
For his own part, Emerson found success at the advanced level of eventing aboard a son of Silent Fox, full brother to Affirmed, and stood Reputed Testamony (son of Preakness and Haskell winner Deputed Testamony) at stud for many years.
In the eye of the beholder
Fortunately for off-track Thoroughbreds, there is a wide range of opinions about which lines work best. Shortly after our interview, Emerson tagged this writer in a Facebook post asking readers which bloodlines had brought them success in their sport. The results were varied. Some love the athleticism of the Storm Cat line, while others have found the family's temperament tough to take. Many swear by Seattle Slew and A.P. Indy, as well as Gone West, Fappiano, and Marquetry, but there were sires from almost every corner of the gene pool whose offspring found success in an off-track home.
For Pittman, the stamp that modern sires put on their foals is more important than which line they descend from. Among those modern sires, Pittman has found great movement from Two Punch offspring (Two Punch was a son of Mr. Prospector out of Grey Dawn mare Heavenly Cause).
“There are a lot of people in this area [Midlantic] who are aware of that and looking for them actively,” said Pittman.
Not For Love is another stallion who seems to produce good sport horses, and in Pittman's experience, they often do best under veteran riders. Both sires specialized at distances of around a mile or even less in their own race careers, and they weren't known for throwing classic-distance runners on the track.
“A lot of people believe that the distance horses are best for at least the English riding sports,” said Pittman. “I keep seeing exceptions to that.”
For several years, Pittman crossed an OTTB stallion with other breeds in search of the perfect sport horse. He said those exceptions to the distance horse paradigm kept coming along from the racetrack, and he thought ‘Why be a breeder when there are already great athletes out there?'
Given the volume of horses retiring each year without viability as breeding horses for racing, he is hoping others will come to feel the same way.
The dressage world has been slower than eventing or jumping to come back to the Thoroughbred and has been more heavily populated by Warmbloods than other disciplines in the past few decades. Pittman has seen at least one horse that could buck the trend, however.
Nuno Santos, a classical dressage rider, is currently competing third level with 7-year-old gelding Ken's Kitten, a son of Kitten's Joy (Santos also worked on the racetrack in California, where he galloped Fusaichi Pegasus, Ghostzapper, and Azeri). Although Ken's Kitten could also be a useful event horse, Pittman believes the horse is good enough to go to the FEI levels of international competition in dressage. The gelding's flowing natural movement has already attracted attention, and Pittman said international achievement by a Kitten's Joy son could make the sire in-demand outside of the turf course.
After all, it only takes one.
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