04/25/2012 2:46PM

Some Thoroughbred retirees make jump in class

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – If you’re looking for evidence that ex-racehorses, even ones that couldn’t win at lower claiming levels, can be stars in second careers, take a look at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event’s entry list.

If you’re not familiar with three-day eventing, here’s a quick primer. It’s a competition that combines dressage, cross-country jumping, and showjumping over a series of days, testing a horse and rider’s courage, stamina, precision, and partnership. The Rolex event takes place at Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park and is the only annual three-day event in the Western Hemisphere to be designated a four-star event, putting it on a par with the Olympic Games. In fact, Rolex this year will provide a selection trial for the U.S. Olympic eventing team. Bottom line: It’s one of the sport horse world’s elite events. And this year, 21 off-track Thoroughbreds, or OTTBs as the sport horse world refers to them, are among the entries at the April 26-29 competition. Thoroughbred lovers and racehorse retirement groups hope both equestrians and the racing industry will take note.

Some in racing already have. The Thoroughbred Incentive Program, which received $100,000 from The Jockey Club for its 2012 pilot program, will sponsor a $1,000 award for the highest-placed Jockey Club-registered Thoroughbred at Rolex (foreign-bred horses also are eligible if they were imported through The Jockey Club). Nineteen of the Rolex OTTBs are eligible for the award, which also includes a horse cooler.

“I’ve been through every breed in our training and sales business, and I just keep coming back to the Thoroughbreds,” said Steuart Pittman, a three-day event trainer and rider who also is president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project. “The love for the Thoroughbred is still strong in the sport-horse world, especially among people old enough to remember the days when we all rode Thoroughbreds. As it turns out, the demand for knowledge about training and finding these horses is huge.”

At the 2012 Rolex event, many of the OTTBs were far from elite in their racing days. One example: Can’t Fire Me. Chances are, you don’t remember him. The Fire Maker gelding bumped around in Texas in 2001 and 2002. His best finish in seven starts was a fifth in a Sam Houston maiden special weight, and he earned $405 in his career. Today, he’s in training with Becky Holder, a member of the 2008 Olympic team that finished third at the 2010 Rolex event with another ex-racehorse, Aqueduct stakes-placed Courageous Comet. Last fall, Can’t Fire Me was second in a three-star event at Fair Hill, Md., that was won by another ex-racehorse, Neville Bardos. The latter horse is a story in himself: a failed Australian runner headed for slaughter, he was saved when eventer Boyd Martin paid $850 for him. He was shortlisted for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and today (a year after surviving a barn fire) he’s the United States Equestrian Federation’s Horse of the Year.

Also at Rolex this year: Alex’s Castledream, now named Anthony Patch, was winless in 10 starts and earned $815. Supplize, now named Here’s To You, did better, earning $1,290 on the track. Titanium won once in 14 starts. The most successful on the racetrack was Santa’s Playboy, a Pentelicus gelding who won three of 43 starts and earned $128,252. Almost no one at these horses’ racetracks would have pegged these runners as the elite athletes they have become, and that’s one reason some sport-horse and racing interests are working harder than ever to highlight Thoroughbreds’ value off the racetrack.

On April 28, immediately after Rolex’s cross-country test ends, the Retired Racehorse Training Project and New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program will co-host a seminar covering a range of OTTB subjects, including how to select a retraining candidate, evaluating common soundness issues in ex-racehorses, developing an early retraining plan for the OTTB’s next career. One of the participants is Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who will demonstrate exercise riders’ and jockeys’ riding skills that also can help sport-horse riders. The event organizers also will produce a catalog spotlighting central Kentucky OTTBs for sale or adoption, and that catalog will be available during Rolex.

The USEF and seven Thoroughbred industry groups – the American Association of Equine Practitioners, National and Kentucky HBPA, Keeneland, Kentucky Horse Council, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, and The Jockey Club – also plan a meet-and-greet reception at Keeneland on April 27 to help bring the racing and sport-horse worlds together.

“There’s a gap between Thoroughbred owners and trainers trying to find new homes for their horses and outside connections,” said New Vocations program director Anna Ford. “The more we can promote programs like New Vocations to be the middlemen, that will help the public. In general, the average equestrian doesn’t feel comfortable going to the track and looking at a horse. You’ve got to jump through hoops, you’re not going to get to ride the horse, there are obstacles. A lot of equestrians aren’t familiar with racetrack scene. Having a group like ReRun or New Vocations in the middle puts the horse on a farm setting that the equestrian is more comfortable with.”

But the single biggest challenge in moving ex-racehorses into second athletic careers, says Ford, is injury. Some injuries that require rehabilitation, even lengthy time off, are less troubling to sport-horse riders than to racehorse owners. But a horse who is too severely injured to be rideable is much harder to place, Ford says.

“If we can retire the horses before they’re too injured, I truly feel there wouldn’t be an unwanted horse issue with the racing industry,” said Ford. “At our program, we can place horses that are sound horses – and I mean even rehabbed and sound – who will be usable for a second career and don’t have any significant injuries. We can place those all day, every day. So if a racehorse hasn’t paid the bills or isn’t making the cut, go ahead and cut your losses and retire it instead of thinking, ‘One more race, then I’ll retire him.’ When people are able to retire them early enough, those horses have such a greater chance of not ending up in a bad situation, because they have something to offer.”

Specifically, what they have is “an incredible work ethic,” according to three-day rider Jenna Schildmier. The 27-year-old dietitian competed at Rolex in 2005 and 2006 with the OTTB Tumble Dry. Today, she has two OTTBs from the CANTER and New Vocations adoption groups: the former Darley runner French Blue and Illinois-bred Denouncer’s Girl.

“They don’t come off the track with a lot of personality, but within a year you get to see their personalities bloom with training,” she said. “That personality with that work ethic, it’s even better than going to the competitions and winning. You get a whole relationship with these horses.”

Three-day eventers clearly are aware of the Thoroughbred’s qualities, but other disciplines will need more convincing, says Pittman.

“In the hunter-jumper world, Thoroughbreds have declined, and in the dressage world they’ve declined,” Pittman said. “A lot of trainers actually discourage clients from getting horses off the track. Part of it is fashion. European warmbloods have become cool, and those breeds really market themselves. Thoroughbreds haven’t marketed themselves as sport horses, but as racehorses.”

Ford feels the Thoroughbred industry has taken some good first steps to make retraining and promoting ex-racehorses easier. As a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance board member, she’s hopeful that increased funding will allow groups like New Vocations to take in more horses for retraining and adoption.

“When they banned anabolic steroids, that made our job way easier with retraining,” Ford added. “Those horses used to come off the trailer breathing fire, and we’d have to wait two months to let them down, because it wasn’t a good representation of the horse. Now that they don’t have that, they’re so much easier to work with.

“There are baby steps, and I think the industry, compared to 10 years ago, is definitely doing more.”