The Next Career for Thoroughbreds

Since the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is the best-attended equestrian competition in the U.S., each year many organizations and corporations plan events to coincide with it. So, for the second year in a row, the Retired Racehorse Training Project will team up with New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program to present an evening all about Thoroughbreds, this time on Friday evening, at West Wind Farm 10 miles from the Kentucky Horse Park.

Both groups? goal is to demonstrate that Thoroughbreds who?ve retired from racing are more than capable of international competition, and Rolex Kentucky provides them with strong evidence. Some 16 Former racehorses are slated to start, with at least? one of them?can’t Fire Me (Becky Holder)?being a strong contender for a top-10 finish. Becky has previously placed several times at Rolex Kentucky on Courageous Comet, a Thoroughbred who was a stakes winner on the flat before Becky found him. Comet?s career ended in a glorious retirement just last fall.

There are also going to be several Thoroughbreds who never raced running at Rolex Kentucky, and one them?Gin ?N Juice (Hawley Bennett of Canada)?is a serious top-five contender. Ginny and Hawley, who represented Canada at the 2012 Olympics, have been competing in four-stars since 2009, and they’ve won all three of their advanced starts this spring, including, most recently, the Galway Downs CIC3* in California.

Friday?s Thoroughbred event will feature several top event riders, including former Rolex Kentucky winner Phillip Dutton and Dorothy Crowell, who won the individual silver medal at the 1994 World Championships on Molokai, a Kentucky-bred former racehorse she bought as soon as his brief racing career ended. In my mind, Molokai should be the poster child for former Thoroughbred racehorses.

Over the last three decades, my wife, Heather, or I have owned 13 Thoroughbred former race horses, and We’ve each worked with about half a dozen more owned by other people. In addition, We’ve owned six other Thoroughbreds who didn’t race, one of whom we bred.

Let me tell you a little bit about four of the ones who raced, and two of the ones who didn’t, to illustrate why I think that the Thoroughbred is generally a fabulous animal that, honestly, simply isn?t for everyone.

I bought Buddy in 1986 at the Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. I went there one December morning with a steeplechase trainer friend of mine, and we really did walk from barn to barn looking at horses. We found this attractive and quiet 3-year-old (prophetically named Lazy Runner), watched him jog down the barn aisle, and I made an offer after one of the track vets did a cursory exam.

That spring, I rode him in five flat races on the Virginia point-to-point circuit (placing in three of them), but he had poor front feet (one was a club foot), and shoeing and minor soundness issues convinced me to stop racing him. I then foxhunted him extensively and competed him through training level in eventing before selling him four years later.

Buddy was a very willing and trainable horse, and he was an excellent jumper. But he had a long back and very poor feet, and he constantly ripped shoes off until he became suppler and his hoof shape and strength improved.

Tabor was a beautifully athletic gray gelding by top sire Green Dancer, who sold as a yearling at Keeneland for about $400,000 but was a complete flop on the flat track. The same steeplechase trainer friend of mine found him somewhere with a slightly bowed tendon, and she trained him to win one hurdle race at a point-to-point. But he bowed that tendon again in that victory, and, afterward, she had no success trying to sell him because he was a powerful but anxious jumper. So she gave him to me, because I got along famously with him.

I had many great days foxhunting Tabor, and I competed him in eventing through training level. I was preparing to move him up to preliminary when he completely bowed that tendon while turned out, and we had no choice but to put him down.

Tabor had a bit of a quirky temperament, but he may have been the most magnificent athlete I’ve ever sat on, and I wish I’d had him as a 2-year-old. But his bowed tendon illustrates the major challenge of off-the-track Thoroughbreds?finding a sound one. You have to find the slow ones before they get broken.

Sam is Heather?s former eventing partner, and at 18 He’s now the so-colorful schoolmaster of Phoenix Farm. From his record and accounts We’ve heard, Sam may have been the worst racehorse ever?we believe he beat exactly one horse before they gave up after only three starts. He probably thought it was stupid.

Heather bought Sam nine years ago, even though the rap against him was that he was a runaway. The reason was that he ran off because he didn’t like you to pull on his mouth. Heather has shoulder injuries that mean she can’t ride horses who pull, so she didn’t pull on him and Sam stopped running off, and they won numerous events at novice and training level.

Sam is also a dedicated cribber, but we gave up trying to control that with cribbing collars about five years ago since they were causing neurological problems. He’s going strong now?in fact, we joke that He’s aging backwards.

I bought Ariel in 1992 from a horse dealer who specialized in being a link between the track and buyers. Ariel had started 49 races and won 11 of them at Charles Town, the last with a hairline fracture of a front cannon bone. So I figured she had to be tough, and she was. I raced her on the flat, over hurdles and over timber before she bowed. I also hunted her extensively and competed her through training level. I was preparing to move her up to preliminary level when she tore out the back of her fetlock while cross-country schooling and had to be retired. Then we bred her to the Thoroughbred stallion Class Secret, and we still have her son, Shawn, who’s now 15.

Ariel was a very brave but very opinionated and strong-willed mare. She knew how she liked to be ridden, and you had to accommodate her likes and dislikes. And if she didn’t like how you wanted her to do something, she could rear up and hang in the air like an Andalusian. Ariel and Heather didn’t get along at all?we joke that Ariel considered Heather to be ?the other woman?!

Two of my best event horses were Thoroughbreds who didn’t race. The first was Chuckie, the first horse I competed at preliminary. I placed in the top 10 at two three-day events with Chuckie and completed a third one.

The other Thoroughbred who didn’t race was my great partner Merlin, who was given to me by the same steeplechase trainer friend who gave me Tabor and helped me find Buddy. She?d found him somewhere in Pennsylvania as an early 3-year-old, but he didn’t thrive in a racing stable. I foxhunted Merlin extensively and then evented him through intermediate level (winning two intermediate horse trials). We had to put him down four years ago, at age 15, because of sarcoid tumors and lymphangitis.

The great quality that distinguished Chuckie and Merlin as cross-country horses was their heart, their refusal to ever give up, no matter how hard the course or how tired they were. (Chuckie?s previous owner had named him Running On Empty because he never got tired, and it perfectly described him.)

That indomitable spirit and quick mind are the traits that make Thoroughbred good at switching careers, especially for sports like eventing and foxhunting, which have galloping and jumping. But those traits, place their athleticism, often make them unsuitable choices for casual riders. Usually Thoroughbreds need the focus that comes with ?having a job,? and, like many dogs, they become obstreperous and difficult if they don’t have something to do. So, with the occasional exception, they’re not usually the best choice for casual riders, unfortunately.