Twin Thoroughbreds Mr. Ping and Mr. Pong made an international splash earlier this year when they made their first starts in a claiming race at Charles Town April 6. They finished last and second last (Mr. Pong finishing just ahead of Mr. Ping). It's so rare to have a pair of twins survive to adulthood, let alone compete against one another, that media outlets from as far away as Europe picked up the story and Charles Town saw a sizable crowd gather on the apron for the maiden claiming event.
“It was incredible,” said trainer Larry Curtis, who was amazed to see a picture of his horses wind up in a British publication the next morning.
Curtis said their next race won't be against each other – Mr. Ping is entered at Mountaineer this Sunday in what Curtis hopes will be slightly easier company. Mr. Pong came out of his first run with a slight respiratory infection and has since recovered, but the illness pushed back his training slightly.
Although both colts are coppery chestnut with flashy blazes, Curtis said there are plenty of differences between them. As with humans, they seem more like cousins than twins once you get to know them well. When the colts were born, Mr. Pong seemed normal and healthy, but Mr. Ping was considerably smaller (a common occurrence in equine twin births). As adults, Mr. Pong still has the size advantage.
Mr. Pong is sweet-tempered and social and while Mr. Ping is far from vicious or angry, Curtis said he's more temperamental, less interested in people, and a bit more challenging to deal with.
Curtis bases out of the Middleburg Training Center, where the twins are (perhaps surprisingly) not in neighboring stalls, but on opposite ends of the barn – possibly to make it easier to keep them straight.
Curtis grew up fox hunting in the Middleburg, Va. area and knew early on he wanted to make his life in the equestrian world. He chose his college strictly based on his ability to keep riding whenever he wasn't in class and took out his training license in 1977. When not training horses, Curtis is a steeplechase steward. He remains involved in fox hunting – a major part of the landscape in Middleburg, where you can't throw a stone without hitting an entrance sign for a farm featuring a fox or a hound, sometimes drawn wearing red coats or caps. Olympic level eventers also base out of the area, and all of them come with students who are looking for young prospects. That may be part of the reason Curtis has a realistic view of the future for Mr. Ping and Mr. Pong, as well as other horses in his shed row.
One rainy afternoon in late June, Curtis gestured to a sweet-faced bay a few stalls down from Mr. Pong.
“He'll be a really nice ladies' hunter,” he said, giving the horse a pat and a carrot. “Maybe one of the best.”
Like many trainers in the area, Curtis is used to sizing up a Thoroughbred as a horse, not just a racehorse. He knows most horses are not going to retire with a stud deal.
“Not all of them are good ones, unfortunately,” he said. “When they get below a certain level, it costs so much to have them in training per day, and if they can't make it, you can't afford to keep them there. You need to find something else they're good at, and most Thoroughbred horses (if they're not complete nuts, which most of them aren't), they're good at something.”
He's frank about the future for Mr. Ping and Mr. Pong: it's worth giving them a few more tries to see if either could get a win, but they're not going to become the next Justify. Mr. Ping is nicely conformed but is light on talent, while Mr. Pong is more talented but toes out slightly.
Curtis said he's already got an idea of what the twins may be game for when it's time for them to retire. With his temperament and size, Curtis sees Mr. Ping as a polo pony prospect. He knows a good prospect when he sees one – Curtis was the trainer of Old Tavern, who was crowned America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred last year with 17-year-old rider/trainer Charlie Caldwell. Curtis said the Caldwells have another of his graduates in their barn which they will enter in the polo division of the Thoroughbred Makeover and they believe this year's entry is even more talented than Old Tavern. The Caldwells have already agreed to take on Mr. Ping when he retires.
Mr. Pong's easygoing personality means his future is wide open. He could be a field hunter, a pleasure horse, or even a child's horse. Curtis takes pride in pointing out that of five of the local hunts around the training center, two of the hunt masters are riding his former trainees.
“I tell people if they don't work out, they can always come back. I can always find someplace else to send them,” he said. “I've had a couple that didn't work out – everybody gets fooled – but most of the time, they do fine.”
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