Thoroughbreds are a common sight at Pimlico Race Course, but it’s not often you see them jumping, piaffing and barrel racing their way around the homestretch of the historic racetrack. That scene played out over two days last October at the 2014 Thoroughbred Makeover, held at the home of the Triple Crown’s second leg, the Preakness Stakes, in Baltimore, Maryland.
In its second year, the Makeover is a national gathering of farms, organizations and trainers interested in transitioning former racehorses into successful off-track careers. The weekend included educational seminars on training, health care and the business side of placing horses with new owners; demonstrations featuring 14 different riding disciplines; the Thoroughbred Charities of America Marketplace that presented 48 off-the-track Thoroughbreds for sale or adoption; and final performances from 10 horse-and-trainer teams in the weekend’s main event, America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest.
The Makeover’s goal is “to allow the fans of these horses to convince others of their value, abilities and boundless versatility,” says Steuart Pittman, president of the event’s host, the Retired Racehorse Project, a charitable organization aimed at increasing the demand for retired Thoroughbred racehorses as pleasure and sporthorses.
“Racing produces good horses, but like all breeds, they only excel in second careers with good training,” he continues. “It’s time to remind riders that these are the most trainable, athletic and generous creatures on the planet and that with successful efforts to increase demand, there is a financial reward for retraining them.”
The contest, sponsored by the EQUUS Foundation, pitted 10 recently retired Thoroughbreds, each trained in a different discipline, against one another. The disciplines included show jumping, hunters, eventing, dressage and Pony Club, as well as foxhunting, steeplechasing, polo, barrel racing and ranch work. The trainers worked with the horses they selected, who had the same basic racetrack education, for several months, and then presented them during a 20-minute performance on the Pimlico track that was designed to highlight their particular horse’s strengths. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, America’s first female jockey, Diane Crump, and show-jumping legend turned racing trainer Rodney Jenkins commented on the performances and talked with the trainers about their methods. Nearly 10,500 online fans following the horses’ progress through videos, articles and photos voted for their favorite for four days in late September and again during the event itself after watching a live stream.
In this article, four of the trainers—Phillip Dutton (eventing), who won the contest with Icabad Crane; Beverly Strauss, who rode D’Sauvage (hunters); Armand Leone, who rode Discreet Dancer (show jumpers); and Nuno Santos, who rode Now and Then (dressage)—explain the training approach they took both at home and at the contest.
Barn name: Icabad
Sire: Jump Start; Dam: Adorahy; Dam’s Sire: Rahy
Height: 16 hands
Career highlights: Earned $585,980 in 33 starts (7 wins–7 seconds–9 thirds)
Last race: August 2013
Owners: Graham and Anita Motion
Trainer: Phillip Dutton, five-time Olympian, including two team gold medals
New discipline: Eventing
Began retraining: November 2013 (Phillip had considerably more time with his horse than the other trainers and performed at a higher level in the contest.)
What was Icabad like when he arrived? He’d retired and had a month off before coming to us. My first impression was that he had good conformation, but based on the photos I saw of him racing, in my mind he’d been a lot bigger than he actually was. He rides quite big though, covering a lot of ground with each stride, so he makes up for it.
How did you start his retraining? You’ve got to get to know the horse and understand the way he approaches things. During our first ride together I remember walking him into the indoor arena in Aiken, South Carolina. He’d never been in an indoor, but he walked in like he owned the place. He’s a forward-thinking horse.
What exercises did you use to retrain him under saddle? I did a lot of work communicating with him from the leg and seat, teaching him to move forward and away from my leg. In racing, horses aren’t exposed to a lot of leg. That’s the first thing I try to get a former racehorse to understand. I do lots of forward and back transitions and lots of leg-yielding.
What were the easiest training aspects for him? He is a naturally balanced horse. From the get-go he could canter a 15-meter circle and maintain good balance. Dressage came pretty easily to him. He has a good mouth and he didn’t come with much tension or one-sidedness. It made the connection much easier.
What challenges did he have? The biggest issues have come from him being apprehensive about water. I had to get a lead-in with another horse the first time we took him through the water and even that took a long time. Now Icabad understands that the water is safe and OK, but he is still naturally cautious.
What was your strategy during the contest performance? I’m not sure I
really had a set strategy. I knew I was on the best horse there. He’s a horse everyone would like to have. He wants to be the best he can possibly be every day, and that’s something I wanted to show to everyone. Advantages Icabad has are that he’s sensible and quiet. I wasn’t sure how he would react to being back on a racetrack (he finished third at Pimlico in the 2008 Preakness Stakes), but he was good about it. I rode him for the crowd and showed what he could do, which included jumping a five-stride line in strides ranging from four to eight to show his responsiveness. Then I put my 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, on him. I think it made people realize what kind of horse he is, and what these Thoroughbreds can be.
What tips do you have for riders interested in getting off-track Thoroughbreds? You have to go in with realistic expectations. What they’ve been doing is so different from what you’ll be asking them to do. You have to have patience with that. It’s not for everybody, and not every horse is suited to every discipline. It takes a confident and skilled rider, but it can be quite rewarding.
Barn name: Dancer
Sire: Discreet Cat; Dam: West Side Dancer; Dam’s Sire: Gone West
Height: 16.1 hands
Career highlights: Earned $365,900 in 8 starts (4 wins–0 seconds–2 thirds); finished third in America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest
Last race: July 7, 2013
Owner: New Vocations Race Horse Adoption Program
Trainers: Armand Leone, member of the 1980 Olympic show-jumping team; Anna Ford, program director at New Vocations Race Horse Adoption Program
New discipline: Show jumping
Began retraining: June 2014; started training with Armand in August 2014
What was Dancer like when he arrived? His last race was a year prior and he was sent to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program to be rehabilitated after a career-ending injury. They did an excellent job handling him and starting him on the flat and over cavalletti and small crossrails. The focus was on relaxation.
How did you start his retraining? I wanted him to learn balance from front to back and on turns. They need to find a frame. I longed him slowly on a short line—no more than 8 to 10 feet—keeping him between my one hand working with his mouth and the other hand with the stick end of the longe whip just able to touch the dock of his tail, acting like a leg. I didn’t want him running wild at the end of the line but rather working between my aids, learning to balance and put a curve in his body at the walk, trot and canter.
What exercises did you use to retrain him under saddle? I start all young horses softly sitting the trot to prevent disruption in the communication through the seat. It makes the contact with the mouth, back and sides of the horse constant and simpler for the horse to understand. I do this almost exclusively at the beginning, then add in the posting trot to provide the freedom of lighter, forward motion that acts as its own reward. I did a lot of circles and serpentines, a lot of lateral and bending work. I wanted him to follow my direction of travel, to curve his body between the chute of my hand, seat and leg.
Then I started to introduce simple fences, jumping only about two times per week. I don’t see it as teaching them to jump. I’m teaching them to trust me and that it is a partnership. We start with simple crossrails, then increase the difficulty of the questions to verticals, oxers and combinations. Gymnastics are where you can work on a horse’s technique.
What were the easiest aspects of his training? He had a nice, fluid gait and was naturally athletic. He had a good foundation and temperament when he came, mostly from the work Anna Ford did with him at New Vocations. Once we started over fences, we found that he was a natural jumper.
What challenges did he have? Getting him to understand that he does not have to lean on my hands and that life is about more than go, go, go. Turning to the right was harder than to the left.
What was your strategy during the contest performance? Talk about putting a soldier back into the war zone! I knew he would be eager to go when he stepped back onto the racetrack for the first time since he retired, so we just walked around a lot and took time to stop, watch and take it all in to allow him to acclimatize.
What tips do you have for riders interested in getting off-track Thoroughbreds? Training a Thoroughbred fresh from the track can be likened to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat: short, simple sentences, easy to understand. A newly retired racehorse isn’t a good option for a green rider because the rider will unintentionally confuse the horse. Once a rider has a basic sense of training, however—an independent seat and hands—the main keys to success are patience and consistency.
Barn name: Banker
Sire: D’Wildcat; Dam: Tres Chaud; Dam’s Sire: French Deputy
Height: 16.1 hands
Career highlights: Earned $143,202 in 44 starts; (3 wins–7 seconds–5 thirds); fourth in America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest
Last race: March 29, 2014
Owner: MidAtlantic Horse Rescue
Trainers: Beverly Strauss, co-founder of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue; amateur rider Lynne Bowers Pennypacker
New discipline: Show hunter
Began retraining: May 2014
What was Banker like when you got him? He was very level-headed and sensible. He had a nice overall balance and a steady personality.
How did you start his retraining? We just got on and rode. We started him in May. The first days were very simple—walk, trot, canter—to see what he knew and what he didn’t. He did not have a left lead at all and did not have a big stride, but nothing really rattled him at all.
What exercises did you use to retrain him under saddle? Initially, a lot of lateral work, especially shoulder-fore. We also did chiropractic and massage, and he had a left lead after that session. We then worked on getting him long and low. Lynne Pennypacker’s background is show hunters, whereas mine is eventers, so she took over in August to put polish on him and get him to a horse show. She used cavalletti to lengthen his stride and did a lot of cantering forward through the turns on the flat to elongate his stride.
What were the easiest training aspects for him? His changes were very easy and natural. We started left to right, since he was happiest on his right lead, and then worked on right to left. We were able to just stretch tall, sit on the new outside seat bone while taking a nice feel on the new inside and ask with the new outside leg. We also started showing him so he could learn about the life of a show horse. He pinned at his first show in a walk–trot class and from then on picked up blues and championships at subsequent shows, each one a bit bigger than the previous one. He loved being in the show ring and pricked his ears and posed whenever someone had a camera.
What challenges did he have? Jumping! He was a one-man wrecking crew at first. He would take off and leave his hind end behind or knock the rail down in front and drag his hind legs through. After about three sessions like that, we put him on a longe line so he could get the idea without a rider, which helped a bit. Finally we started cantering over poles and crossrails with a rider and that is when he put it all together. He jumps in very good form naturally but is still lazy over small fences. Also, because he wasn’t a tall super-flashy horse, he was at a disadvantage initially in the hunter ring because he didn’t stand out. But after that first show, he was beating those tall flashy horses because of his sweet temperament and his correct form.
What was your strategy during the contest performance? A good show hunter makes the work look easy, but it is difficult to make it look easy. That made our demo a bit challenging because people would think, “What is so hard about that?” In addition to showing off his movement and jumping form, we wanted to show what an exemplary temperament he has.
One week before the challenge, we put a sidesaddle on him. That was no big deal, so we decided to present him sidesaddle with Justine Howe, who learned how to ride aside at the same time. Then Lynne put him through his paces on the flat and over fences. We finished up with our lead-line jockey, 2-year-old George Webster, for the cute factor.
What tips do you have for riders interested in getting off-track Thoroughbreds? There are so many great resources for people interested in getting an OTTB, like adoption facilities throughout the country and listing services. They should know what they are looking for and what they are comfortable with as far as finding their own OTTB—whether they have the skill and confidence to get one right off the track or whether they should go through a rescue or professional. The great thing about the diversity of rescue programs is that anyone can find a program and a horse that suits them.
Now and Then
Barn name: Nat
Pedigree: Sire: Tiznow; Dam: Holiday Runner; Dam’s Sire: Meadowlake
Height: 16.3 hands
Career highlights: Earned $52,650 in four starts (1 win–0 seconds–2 thirds)
Last race: June 22, 2013
Owner: Santos Sport Horses
Trainer: Nuno Santos, a dressage trainer from Portugal and assistant trainer for Bobby Frankel, for whom he galloped horses including Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup winners
New discipline: Dressage
Began retraining: April 2014
What was Nat like when he arrived? He was a typical racehorse. He was a big horse and had a good mind. He was very easy to work with but had little muscle from just being turned out.
How did you start his retraining? I longed him in side reins for two weeks so he got used to contact. I just wanted him to settle a bit and learn to go slower—to give the proper amount of thought to the things being asked of him.
What exercises did you use to retrain him under saddle? I wanted him to learn to rebalance, stretch his neck and work his topline. We did a lot of circles, serpentines and other bending exercises to get him to become more flexible. We also worked on leg-yield and lateral work such as shoulder-in.
What were the easiest aspects of his training? His mind was unbelievable. He understood what was being asked of him quite quickly, even when his body wasn’t flexible and refined enough to respond properly.
What challenges did he have? Creating flexibility. He is such a big horse, and it took a bit more time for him to be able to put everything together.
What was your strategy during the contest performance? My entire strategy centered on keeping him calm and quiet. When I came to America, I galloped racehorses and had the opportunity to ride some of the truly great horses of our generation, so I understand how excited they can get on the racetrack. I wanted him to focus on me and not on his surroundings.
What tips do you have for riders interested in getting off-track Thoroughbreds? You have to have patience. It’s a lot of work daily, and it’s all about repetition and small steps. These horses can be a bit high strung when they retire from racing. Anytime they’ve been asked to do something, they’ve been asked to do it quickly. It takes time and patience to slow them down.
While the team behind Icabad Crane took home top honors in the online voting, several of the horses featured in the contest turned heads, and several, including D’Sauvage, left Pimlico at the end of the weekend headed to a new home.
“Even though we didn’t win the top prize at the Makeover, we did win,” Beverly Strauss says. “If I had to write D’Sauvage’s story, we pictured him in the show ring with a kid or an adult amateur. Through some mutual friends, Isla Vogelsang and her mom, Rita Hamlet, from Marriottsville, Maryland, heard about D’Sauvage. They watched the videos and read the blogs we did for the Makeover. They came to see him perform at Pimlico, and they fell in love with him. They had him vetted and after the event they took him home. Rita said they never thought they would have had an off-track Thoroughbred, especially one so young, until they saw him at the Makeover. So, to us, he did win.”
Plans for the next installment of the Thoroughbred Makeover are already under way, with the group announcing that this year’s event will be held in Lexington, Kentucky at the Kentucky Horse Park October 24–25. Spectators can expect to see even more demonstrations from celebrity riders and trainers showing off their ex-racehorses, a larger marketplace to showcase Thoroughbreds available for purchase, a vendor and retail shopping area and, of course, America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest.
For more information on the Retired Racehorse Project and news about the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit its web site at www.retiredracehorseproject.com.
More Thoroughbred Makeovers
Sire: Lite the Fuse; Dam: Madilynreign; Dam’s Sire: Cryptoclearance
Career highlights: Earned $51,140 in 14 starts (1 win—0 seconds—1 third)
Last race: June 26, 2013
Trainer/Owner: Hannah Gilhool
New discipline: Pony Club
Began retraining: June 2014
Hannah Gilhool, 16, from York, Pennsylvania, began riding when she was 3 years old, and by age 5 she was involved with her local Pony Club. Hannah has evented up to Preliminary level and previously has worked with young horses, but Mad Bomber was her first OTTB project. Raced by his breeders, Richard and Lisa Lugovich, Mad Bomber incurred an injury in his last race and was retired to his owners’ farm, where he was fully rehabilitated until he was ready for his off-track career. Hannah first met Mad Bomber on her 16th birthday, and the pair became fast friends. While Mad Bomber was known to be quite strong on the track and always ridden by men, Hannah has worked with him to channel his strength and energy into his training, working with him in hand, on the flat and over jumps.
Sire: Van Nistelrooy; Dam: Sabina; Dam’s Sire: Cox’s Ridge
Last race: March 28, 2013
Trainer/Owner: Christy Clagett
New discipline: Foxhunting
Began retraining: May 2014
Christy Clagett and Saba Rock have a long history together. After he was purchased as a yearling for $85,000, he was sent to Christy’s Larking Hill Training Center in Maryland for her to start under saddle before being sent to the track. After he had yet to win as a 4-year-old, his owner, who remembered Christy’s affinity for the horse, asked if she would like to have him. Christy gave Saba Rock nearly a year off, in which time he had regular chiropractic, acupuncture and massage treatments. She also made adjustments to the bit and other equipment he trained and raced with, and on November 3, 2012, he won at odds of 77-1. Soon after, Saba Rock came out of a routine workout with a nondisplaced cannon-bone fracture. Christy, who not only trains racehorses but competes on the jumper circuit and is joint master of the Marlborough Hunt, retired Saba Rock from racing and rehabilitated him, with a new goal of teaching him to be a foxhunter. While he’s been full of playful bucks as he gallops across the countryside, Christy has helped him navigate streams, jumps and other common foxhunting obstacles, has introduced him to work among the hounds and is helping him to rechannel his exuberance while on the hunt.
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.