Career Change Thoroughbred Style


Many of us—myself included—discovered that our first job was a poor fit.  Perhaps, we found the work monotonous; perhaps, we had a boss that just didn’t “get” us.  Or, perhaps, we just weren’t as good at it as we had hoped we’d be.

But once we found—for me, it was the magazine business—that job that we both could love and could excel at, we looked forward to going to work each day.

So it goes with Thoroughbred racehorses.  Some, frankly, just aren’t very good at their jobs.  Used to be, many ex-racehorses were sent to slaughter, which reached its peak in the late ’80s, when a change in tax laws and a trend toward over-breeding flooded the market with Thoroughbreds.

Today, however, Thoroughbreds are increasingly finding a second life in a wide array of disciplines and excelling in a completely different arena than one with an oval dirt track.

Helping facilitate these second careers is where the Retired Racehorse Project comes in.  Founded in 2010 by Steuart Pittman, a Maryland-based equestrian who has built his riding and training career largely on the backs of retired racehorses, the RRP takes a market-based approach in facilitating second careers for off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs).  By increasing demand for them in equestrian sports and showcasing the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them into their “new jobs,” the RRP gives these former racehorses a new lease on life, to the delight of their new owners. 

“Part of our role is to support the racing industry by increasing market demand for Thoroughbreds retiring from racing,” says RRP Managing Director Kirsten Green, who is the logistical mastermind behind the RRP’s signature showcase competition, the Thoroughbred Makeover, which is back on track to run October 12-17, 2021 at the Kentucky Horse Park after being on hiatus this past year due to the pandemic.  It’s the largest Thoroughbred retraining competition in the world for recently retired ex-racehorses and boasts $100,000 in prize money, with each competition year crowning its own Thoroughbred Makeover Champion.

2019 Ranch Work winner Amber Jacobson on Silence Is Awesome performing some pen work.

“I’ve found it so gratifying to see how kind and supportive that community has become each year.  It’s a happy accident that this network of Thoroughbred lovers has blossomed, and that they learn so much from each other.”

In this six-day event, riders and their mounts compete in 10 different disciplines to showcase the versatility of this breed.  Some events are ones traditionally associated with Thoroughbreds, such as dressage, eventing, field hunter, polo, show hunter, and show jumper.  Another event, freestyle, highlights skills of the trainer’s choice.  Rounding out the competition are three Western events: barrel racing, competitive trail, and ranch work.  As of 2019, the dressage category includes Western dressage. 

And should you think that Thoroughbreds in the Western events don’t have the same shot at being named Thoroughbred Makeover Champion, think again: In 2019, the most recent year the competition was held, Fallon Taylor and her barrel-racing Thoroughbred, Cowboy Swagger, won the whole enchilada.

Close to 800 trainers entered for 2021. Trainers submitted their applications in January and, after review, applicants were accepted in February.  Trainers were then given until July 31, 2021 to declare their horses.  To be eligible, Thoroughbreds must be registered with The Jockey Club and have a lip tattoo or microchip; must have raced on or after July 1, 2020, or had a published work (recorded timed workout), and not have started in training for a second career before December 1, 2020 (other than a maximum of 15 allowable rides).

“August begins the final entry process,” says Green.  “The trainers use a private Facebook group for all communication.  I’ve found it so gratifying to see how kind and supportive that community has become each year.  It’s a happy accident that this network of Thoroughbred lovers has blossomed, and that they learn so much from each other.”

Unlike the Mustang Makeover, which hold an auction following the competition, the Thoroughbred Makeover publishes a sales catalog from which interested buyers can select. “It’s in line with our market-based approach,” says Kirsten.  “We aspire to support the racing industry by increasing the value of the Thoroughbred.” Interested buyers can go for trial rides after the competition, and veterinarians are available for prepurchase exams.

“We aspire to support the racing industry by increasing the value of the Thoroughbred.” 

The Original Quarter Horse

Quarter-mile races were held in Virginia as early as 1674.  Early colonists adapted the popular European sport to fit their rough new homeland, and soon began to shift their breeding programs to produce muscular, compact Thoroughbreds that excelled in the sprint.  Today, the names of Thoroughbred sires and dams pepper the pedigrees of proven performers in barrel racing, cutting, reining, roping, Western pleasure, and all-around ranch work.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1940 that the American Quarter Horse Association was founded and these Thoroughbreds, dubbed “American Quarter Running Horses,” were designated as a unique breed.

Even after the Quarter Horse was recognized as is own breed, Thoroughbreds such as Brigand, Piggin String, and Woven Web set track records in the quarter mile and earned Champion Quarter Running Horse titles.

2019 Competitive Trail winner Toni Harmon and Belfast Cowboy navigate some obstacles at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Then in the 1960s, the Thoroughbred Little Lena Bars equaled the world record at 220 yards, and set new world records at 250, 300, and 330 yards.  She also equaled and set new track records at 400 and 440 yards.  The nascent AQHA resented her dominance and, realizing that nearly all the records in Quarter Horse racing belonged to a Thoroughbred, retaliated by deleting all mention of times and records set by Thoroughbreds and banned the breed from major Quarter Horse races.

Still, the AQHA had to bow to fact.  The AQHA Hall of Fame includes legendary Thoroughbreds such as Azure Te, Beduido, Cherry Lake, Depth Charge, Esters Little Klu, Lena’s Bar (full sister to Little Lena Bars), Maroon, Rocket Bar, Three Bars, Top Deck, and Woven Web—a legacy set in stone and flowing through the bloodlines of many top Quarter Horses today.  Standouts include the 2020 AQHA/PRCA Horse of the Year, Dashin Haze, that’s 77 percent Thoroughbred.  Among the 33 barrel horses that competed at the 2020 WNFR, the average is 56.3 percent Thoroughbred, with Hailey Kinsel’s DM Sissy Hayday (Sister) clocking in at 54.3 percent Thoroughbred, just slightly below the average.  The 2020 AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year, Dona Kay Rule’s High Valor, comes in at 74.6 percent Thoroughbred, as does Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi’s Ima Famous Babe (Katniss)!

Reprogramming an OTTB

Training your horse is challenging enough. Retraining a racehorse, I learned back when I was in my 20s and working for a trainer who specialized in rescuing and retraining Thoroughbred racehorses, presents a far greater challenge, as you must “deprogram” them first.  Much of the time from when the trainers’ applications are accepted in February to the end of July, when they must commit, is spent on that: simply putting the horse out to pasture to allow it to decompress, reconditioning, longeing or round pen work, and generally helping the horse change its mindset.  After that, the heavy lifting of retraining begins.  As Fallon Taylor puts it, “Thoroughbreds are bred, raised, and trained to run long distances, so for them, the sport of barrel racing can be a bit like asking a wrestler to pole vault.”  Back then, I had the luxury of time to spend in retraining; for the Thoroughbred Makeover, trainers have a mere 10 weeks and three days from the time they must declare their horse on July 31, 2021, to the time the competition commences on October 12.  It’s a formidable challenge.  To up the ante—and also to level the playing field—professional, amateurs, and juniors all compete against each other.

2019 Barrel Racing winner Fallon Taylor and Cowboy Swagger turn and burn at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Fallon won the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover Champion crown much in the same way she attacked her 2009 recovery from near-paralysis after a horse she was training bucked so furiously that he hit her face and fractured her skull and she when she jumped off, she landed on her head, breaking her neck.  “Remember,” she says, “progress only has to be 1 percent every day and in a matter of 100 days, you could be 100 percent better.”  That ethic of constant improvement and slow-and-steady approach propelled Fallon and Cowboy Swagger to an overall win, even though others took first places leading up to the finals.  Consistency and cowgirl grit won the day.

Having come from the Bluegrass State myself, I can attest that early October is one of the grandest times to visit Kentucky, with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s, the foliage in autumnal grandeur, and postcard-perfect vistas of green pastures, palatial barns, and iconic dry stone walls and white fences.  “The Thoroughbred farms in Lexington are such great supporters of the event,” says Kirsten, “welcoming trainers for tours as well as following horses that they bred and raced that are now competing.”  And, of course, there’s the Bourbon Trail, too, with more than a dozen distilleries and those of Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve all in close proximity to the Horse Park.

2019 Thoroughbred Makeover champions Fallon Taylor and Cowboy Swagger celebrate their victory.

And who knows?  You might want to pull a trailer along in case the temptation to bring an OTTB home with you becomes too great. SLE

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