09/14/2017 8:14PM

Thoroughbred and eventing worlds meet in Real Rider Cup

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Robin Foster
Icabad Crane, who finished third in the 2008 Preakness, is one of the more well-known Thoroughbreds participating in the inaugural Real Rider Cup.

Three-day eventers love Thoroughbreds, and on Sunday, Sept. 17, the worlds of racing and eventing will come together to benefit each other. Twenty off-track Thoroughbreds and an eclectic mix of riders will team up in the inaugural Real Rider Cup, a unique jumping competition at the Plantation Field International Horse Trials in Unionville, Pa., one of the East Coast’s premier three-day events. Proceeds will benefit Plantation Field and the Retired Racehorse Project.

The Real Rider Cup will feature four squads of five riders each: the Jockey Team, Owner Team, Trainer Team, and Veterinarian Team. They will tackle a show-jumping course of approximately a dozen 2 1/2-foot fences. The horse-and-rider pair with the fastest time and the fewest jumping penalties will be the individual winner. Team scores will be tallied, but the only prize on that front will be bragging rights.

Each rider will wear the silks of his or her sponsor, and racing fans will recognize names such as Brushwood Stable, Harry and Tom Meyerhoff, Sagamore Racing, Team Valor International, and West Point Thoroughbreds.

The four-legged celebrities include Twilight Eclipse, who earned more than $2 million and finally won a Grade 1 stakes, the 2015 Man o’ War, at age 6;  Icabad Crane, third in the 2008 Preakness; and Eighttofasttocatch, who won the Maryland Million Classic three times.

The Jockey Team might seem to have an advantage, with former jump riders Mark Beecher and Sean Clancy, plus flat-racing jockeys Mike McCarthy, Rosie Napravnik Sharp, and Kaymarie Kreidel in the saddle, but the other squads have some impressive credentials as well.

Nuno Santos of the Owner Team galloped Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus as well as Horses of the Year Azeri and Ghostzapper, and now runs Santos Sport Horses, where he competes, gives lessons, and transitions off-track Thoroughbreds to other careers. The Trainer Team can claim Chucky Lawrence, a two-time champion steeplechase jockey, and Sanna Neilson, an accomplished amateur jump rider who trained champions Pompeyo and McDynamo. Trainer Joe Sharp, who will be going up against his wife, former jockey Rosie Napravnik Sharp, competed in his first jumper class at the New Vocations Charity Thoroughbred Show just last week aboard his wife’s OTTB Old Ironsides.

The Veterinarian Team’s best hopes may rest with Dr. Erika Jo Beck, who has foxhunted extensively, ridden in point-to-point races, and has begun eventing under the instruction of Buck Davidson, one of the country’s top upper-level event riders and coaches. Teammate Dr. Stowe Burke has not been in a show ring since 1984, but his mount, 19-year-old Santa’s Playboy, made it to the Rolex Kentucky four-star event in 2012.

Three-day eventing, which requires horses to compete in three phases — dressage, cross-country, and show jumping — has always been a popular second career for Thoroughbreds, who are prized for their speed, athleticism, galloping ability, and heart. This year, Plantation Field is partnering with the RRP with the goal of exposing owners, breeders, and trainers to eventing and showing them that there is an active market for their ex-racehorses in that community.

In addition to the Real Rider Cup on Sunday, there will be a Saturday afternoon preview of some of the horses who will take part in the RRP’s Thoroughbred Makeover in Lexington, Ky., in October, a multi-discipline competition among 400 horses.

“When racing owners come to Plantation and to the Thoroughbred Makeover to see what these horses can become, racehorse retirement suddenly has a fun side to it," said Steuart Pittman, the president of the RRP and a former advanced-level event rider. "And I have to say that eventing is as much fun to watch as a good horse race, especially at Plantation.”

The seeds of a collaboration between Plantation Field and the RRP were sown when Pittman met two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton at the 2014 Thoroughbred Makeover, in which Dutton rode Icabad Crane for Graham and Anita Motion and won the title of Most Wanted Thoroughbred.

“We all built our careers on the backs of Thoroughbreds, and we know that the best way to secure their futures is with quality retraining,” said Pittman. “That’s why Phillip Dutton came up with the idea of RRP partnering with Plantation.”

Icabad Crane, who won a one-star event at Plantation in 2015, will be ridden in the Real Rider Cup by Lauren Baker Cannizzo, who has retrained many Thoroughbreds for careers in jumping and eventing. She is married to Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. Anita Motion explained that the idea of matching Cannizzo with “Icabad” came about by chance at the Saratoga yearling sales last month.

“We were chatting with Jeff and he had asked about the RRC,” she said. “He mentioned that Lauren had a background in show jumping, and I asked if she would be interested in riding. He loved the idea, but we hadn’t asked Lauren yet!

“We were not thinking of using Icabad at that time, but based on Lauren’s experience and the connection of New York Breeders and Icabad being a New York-bred,  it was a great fit.”

Anita Motion said that Dutton will be taking time out from riding in the main event at Plantation Field in order to walk the show-jumping course before the RRC, giving advice to Cannizzo and several other riders. Mike McCarthy, a 12-time leading jockey at Delaware Park, will be riding Dutton trainee Quadrivium, and Dutton has loaned another of his horses, Georgia Gold, to Dr. Dean Richardson, chief of large-animal surgery at the nearby New Bolton Center.

Another rider who hopes to get some pointers from Dutton is Erin Birkenhauer, riding Twilight Eclipse. They are sponsored by West Point Thoroughbreds, and Dutton recently joined a West Point partnership in Ring Weekend.

Birkenhauer, who was the second-highest-placed amateur in eventing at the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover, is optimistic about how “Twilight” will do in the Real Rider Cup, even though the 8-year-old gelding only retired from racing a few months ago.

“He’s definitely green, but picks up on things very quickly and has an incredible work ethic,” she said. “The biggest challenge is keeping him settled in the warm-up and having him realize he’s not at the Breeders’ Cup!”

Rounding out the trio of big-name horses is Eighttofasttocatch, who won 17 races and more than $1 million for trainer Tim Keefe. “Catcher” recently competed in the American Eventing Championships in Tryon, N.C., with Keefe’s daughter Ryan, and is trained by his wife, Rumsey. Keefe has shown horses, foxhunted, evented, and galloped Thoroughbreds, and judging from the Facebook videos of his training sessions on Eighttofasttocatch, they could be one of the pairs to beat.

“When Anita asked me to do it, I hadn’t ridden in 10 years — and it was probably 20 since I jumped anything,” Keefe said. “Ultimately, it’s for a great cause and that’s why I’m doing it. Thoroughbred aftercare and the RRP are very important to me and I always get a kick out of watching these horses in second careers, whether that’s jumping or eventing or trail riding.”

That’s not to say that he won’t be feeling the pressure: “Not only will my wife and daughter be there, but my mother-in-law, who used to coach me riding when I was a teenager, will be there, and my daughter’s two coaches, Packy McGaughan and Sharon White, will be there. I can just see them cringing when I’m coming down the line and missing strides, hoping I don’t mess this horse up.”

Plantation Field is known for its festive fall flavor, and the Real Rider Cup should fit right in.

“It will be a hoot,” said Pittman. “I can’t wait to grab the mic and give these ‘real riders’ some good-natured ribbing about their equitation.”