Facilitating The Transition From The Track

Dec 21, 2015 - 11:04 AM

Our columnist shares his excitement about the resurgence of the Thoroughbred and the work being done by the Retired Racehorse Project and Thoroughbred Makeover.

Each year the racing industry produces about 20,000 Thoroughbred foals in North America. Most of them go into race training, and most of those get tattooed and have at least one start on the track. They race for a season or two, sometimes three or four, but eventually because of lack of desire to keep running, or because of some kind of injury, they retire from racing.

None of the geldings have any future within the racing industry, and most of the mares lack pedigree to become race broodmares. Consequently, between 10,000 and 15,000 young Thoroughbreds each year are “jettisoned” from the use for which they were bred, and unless they can be retrained for a riding or driving job, their future, to put it bluntly, is “dim.”

The racing industry is not blind to the negative publicity of “dumping” thousands of young racing rejects into situations which may lead some of them to the auction kill pens. Nobody wants that, but the challenge has been to create alternatives that real people can do on realistic budgets.

These horses are young, big, strong, fit, and often sensitive. They are used to running at top speeds in straight lines, and they have been trained to outrun other horses. They will not have been trained to turn, speed up, slow down, and stand quietly. Making a calm sport horse out of an aggressive race horse isn’t something that every backyard horse lover has the know-how to get right.

But lots of these young horses are great athletes. They possess heart and elegance and courage. They have beautiful, elastic gaits, the scope and power to jump, and, despite the “hot Thoroughbred” stereotype, many of them are gentle and willing to please. They have all the qualities to become wonderful sport horses, if only, if only, there could be a better established link between the racetrack and the riding rings and trails of the sport horse world.

Subsidizing The Sport Horse Industry

There has always been a correlation between the racing Thoroughbred and the riding sports. In November of 1961, when I was a junior at Dartmouth College (N.H.), I remember going on a horse hunting trip with Joe McLaughlin, who ran a summer riding camp. We wound up, after dark, at Lincoln Downs, in Rhode Island. After several fits and starts of old-fashioned horse trading, Joe wound up the owner of a thin, hairy brown young gelding named Pink Card, by Post Card x Pink Bow.

He was probably my first OTTB project, as I’d drive over to Hitching Post Farm, in Royalton, Vt., from Hanover, N.H., to take lessons from Joe, and I remember starting “Cardie” over cavaletti and tiny crossrails.

In those days, horse dealers would sift through the thousands of youngsters, basically doing what is known as “cherry-picking,” trying to find the “diamonds in the rough,” the “needles in the haystack,” all those cliché terms used to describe selective shopping. All through the 1960s, 1970s, and well into the 1980s, before the warmblood invasion, most North American hunter, jumper, equitation and eventing riders rode straight Thoroughbreds. We even used them for dressage, up to a point.

We remember the names of the great ones: Sloopy, Idle Dice, Bally Cor, Better And Better, Good Mixture, Might Tango, Keen, Jet Run, Touch Of Class, Snowbound, Gozzi, Untouchable. There were so many good ones.

But, by the late 1980s, the warmbloods from Europe started to take over. The steady stream of retiring race horses remained unabated, which resulted in a pile-up of thousands of unwanted Thoroughbreds that fewer riders seemed to want to train. The warmbloods swiftly took over the dressage market, where fancy movement had always been rewarded. It wasn’t long before most of the show hunters and equitation horses were warmbloods since they were generally quieter than horses that had raced. Then, because in Europe, breeders were specifically breeding for jumping ability, the Thoroughbred began to become a rarity in the upper echelons of that sport.

And then, when eventing dropped the long format, which rewarded speed and stamina, even there, the full Thoroughbred began to share the stage with various kinds of crossbred horses.

So why the Thoroughbred renaissance? Well, basic economics is one reason. Last spring, Allie Conrad, who has been deeply involved in the Thoroughbred rescue and rehoming movement, told me something that I’d never sufficiently thought through. Allie said that the racing industry “subsidizes” the sport horse industry, although not by design.

If someone were to breed a mare, pay the stud fee, wait a year for the foal to be born, break the youngster to saddle, put, say, four years of training into him, that would easily cost at the very least $5,000 a year times five years, not including the stud fee. Yet, if the 4-year-old horse comes sound off the track, we are probably going to be able to buy that horse for a fraction of the $25,000 to $30,000 it cost someone to get him to that point.

So price is one reason, but another big one is the difference in “attitude” between the warmblood and Thoroughbred. This is absolutely a generality, with glaring exceptions on both sides of the equation, but the Thoroughbred has been bred to “go forward” in a positive manner, and many riders like that feeling of “Yes, I will” better than the feeling of having to push a warmblood.

The Retired Racehorse Project

At any rate, these days there are all kinds of rescue and rehoming organizations dedicated to giving the young race horse a second chance, and the one that seems to be leading the charge is the Retired Racehorse Project, a non-profit corporation, founded in 2010, with this stated mission:

“To help increase demand for Thoroughbred ex-racehorses and build the bridges to second careers. Thousands of people across North America are working on farms and racetracks to place these horses in second careers. RRP is working to build this community, promote these horses, and educate.” (retiredracehorseproject.com)

Steuart Pittman is the president of RRP and one of the visionaries who has seen a long-standing need and figured out some ways to actually help fix the problem. This past October, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, I was one of the speakers at the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium.

Here’s how the Makeover Program was set up for this year’s Makeover: “To be eligible for the 2015 Makeover, horses must have a Jockey Club tattoo, must have raced at least once, or been in a race training program after Jan. 1, 2013, and must have no training in a discipline other than racing before Jan. 15, 2015, other than a maximum of 15 allowable rides.”

So, now you have your OTTB. What will you do with him if you enter the Makeover? Well, Thoroughbred owners and supporters have anted up $100,000 in prize money, and you can enter your horse in one of 10 disciplines: barrel racing, competitive trail, dressage, eventing, field hunter, freestyle, polo, show hunter, show jumper or working ranch.

By early spring of 2015, Steuart and his group had 350 entries, and nearly 200 of them showed up to compete last month. The Park was electric with excitement and enthusiasm, and wherever you looked, there was another beautiful young former race horse taking on some sort of second-chance new occupation.

I know people right now who are out scouring the rehoming farms to discover the right horse for the 2016 Makeover. This thing is taking off. It is going to be huge, but keep in mind that they have changed the qualifications for the 2016 Makeover.

What kind of horse do you need? Well, that depends upon which job you want him to do. They all have their specific criteria, and what works for one may not be suitable for another, but every one of these horses needs to be one thing. And we know what that is. The horse needs to be sound.

This point was made and remade: “Get a thorough pre-purchase exam done.” Even if the cost of the vetting exceeds the cost of the horse; don’t buy a problem that will preclude his use in sport. You can’t save them all, so save the one that is sound enough to ride.

[My wife] May and I were staying in Lexington with Bernie and Kait Traurig, David Hopper, and Tiff Teeter, and at supper each night we rehashed what we’d watched.

Bernie summed it up, and David and Tiff agreed, “We need to see them jump. Unless you can see them jump, you don’t know what’s there. All of these farms that sell these OTTBs need some sort of free-jumping chute. I want to see them gallop and jump. I want to see if they have the instinct to do a flying change. I want to see how it moves and get a sense of whether or not this horse has a good brain.”

The resurging Thoroughbred isn’t going to push the warmblood breeds back to Europe. Don’t expect that, no matter how devoted you may be to the breed. The 1960s and 1970s are gone, and they won’t be back. What can come back, though, is the idea that there are good athletes which can cost $15,000 or less (often far less), and that, when correctly trained, they can have the potential to be competitive anywhere, at any level.

Yes, it’s easier to go import an already-trained, custom-bred, ready to climb on and ride warmblood from Europe, but not everyone can afford to do that. Not every rider wants to do that. Certainly, retraining the young former race horse isn’t something everyone can do, but for those who can, it is an exciting time.

I have an OTTB that I ride five or six days a week. He’s 7, and he raced 34 times. He’s quiet and sound, and I think he’s a pretty nice athlete. There are thousands just like him waiting to find that second part of their lives. If you find this an intriguing possibility, get on your computer. Type in retiredracehorseproject.com. Learn how you can be part of this growing movement.

Today, and every day, all over America, young Thoroughbreds will enter starting gates at various racetracks for their last starts. As those gates clang shut, their racing days are over. Programs like the Retired Racehorse Project can help ease the transition between racing and “something else.”

It’s that tried and true old saying, “As one door closes, another door opens”—in this case as a means to carry that colt or filly down through the years as a rider’s partner in some other sport.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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