It turns out that five weeks is a pretty long time in the life of a green horse.
The Retired Racehorse Training Project’s 100-Day Thoroughbred Challenge was just past the 80-day mark at their demonstration during the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo in Harrisburg, Pa., on Feb. 23. A packed house of spectators around the main arena saw four horses that, while still quite green, worked competently in a scary venue and had started to develop their own talents.
The horses’ last public appearance was at the Maryland Horse World Expo in mid-January—their debut in front of a non-racing audience, about halfway through their 100 days of retraining. There, they were able to walk, trot and canter, and pop over some small jumps, showing how quickly Thoroughbreds can adapt to new careers and giving a hint of what was to come. But they still looked very green and were obviously still learning the ropes of doing something other than running fast in a circle.
Five weeks later, the expo at Harrisburg was a chance to see how these greenies were progressing, and where these very different horses’ paths would diverge. Who had the most talent for dressage? Who had the scope and bravery to event? Who had the steady temperament to foxhunt?
Helping to answer those questions were three judges: Beverly Strauss (director of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue and an eventer and racehorse trainer), Donnan Jones (a member of the U.S. dressage team at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and dressage coach to international eventers) and Nick Karazissis (a leading hunter/jumper trainer in California who grew up riding Thoroughbreds). Their votes were added to those cast by the public, who have been following the progress of these horses through YouTube videos and blog postings. RTTP president Steuart Pittman emceed the demo; all four horses are in training at his Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Md.
The four horses participating in the challenge came from four major Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred farms, but their point of origin is really their only similarity. All have vastly different résumés—they range in age from 4 to 11; there’s a stakes winner and a horse who was “retired” after finishing last in her only start; one horse sat in a field for five years and another raced as recently as September 2012.
This performance marked the live debut for Gunport, who sat out the Maryland Expo because of a slightly injured hock. A 2009 gun-metal gray filly (Mizzen Mast—Directive, Deputy Minister), she was bred and raced by Sagamore Racing in Reisterstown, Md., owned by Kevin Plank of the Baltimore-based sporting apparel company Under Armour. Her racing career included only one start at Colonial Downs—she finished last in her only race and obviously did not care to become a racehorse. Pittman noted that she’d been somewhat injury-prone during the challenge, and had missed several weeks of training, so was a bit greener than the other three.
See Gunport jump…
Alluring Punch is a flashy chestnut-with-chrome 2009 gelding (Two Punch—Alluring Elixir, Cure The Blues) who earned $12,000 in 10 starts. He is owned and bred by Barbara Ryan, and was entered in the challenge on behalf of Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, Md., where his sire, Two Punch, stood. Two Punch is a noted producer of sport horses, including Vaunted, who competed at the 2009 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** with Ashley Adams.
Suave Jazz (Suave Prospect—Cavite Starlet, Jazzing Around) is a 2003 bay gelding who won $651,000 in 70 races. He was a favorite of racehorse trainer Tony Dutrow, who trained the horse earlier in his career, and took him back when he was ready to retire in August 2012. Dutrow and partner Mark Reid entered this seasoned campaigner on behalf of their Walnut Green Farm in Kennett Square, Pa.
And finally, rounding out the quartet is 11-year-old Declan’s Moon (Malibu Moon—Vee Vee Star, Norquestor), owned by Samantha Siegel and an entry of Country Life Farm in Fallston, Md., where he had been retired in a field. Declan won an Eclipse Award in 2004 after going undefeated in his 2-year-old year, but was sidelined by an injury in 2005 and was unable to contest any of the Triple Crown races. He recovered and raced 13 more times before being retired. He finished his career with six wins in 18 starts, and earnings totaling over $705,000.
An Electric Atmosphere
It was a standing-room-only crowd, estimated at 2,500 spectators, around the arena for the RTTP’s Saturday afternoon demo at the expo. Combine a tight, noisy space with no warm-up area, a large crowd, and green horses, and you’ll often get a recipe for equine fireworks! The horses looked quite “up” as they were hand-walked around the arena before the riders mounted. It took some maneuvering to get rider Michelle Warro up on Gunport, but Pittman characteristically turned his commentary to the positive. “We’ve got four horses here who are very, very green,” he said. “But you’re going to be shocked when you see what happens when you put all this energy to use.”
A frequent criticism of Thoroughbreds is that they’re too hot, so Pittman took care to explain what the horses really wanted—to be allowed to move forward—and how it would allow them to settle into their work. There were a few anxious moments as he mounted up on Declan’s Moon, who wanted to go backward instead of forward and required a lead from solid citizen Suave Jazz in order to get back in “forward” gear. “He can get wound up when he doesn’t understand something,” Pittman explained, adding that it was a common Thoroughbred quality, but one that can also work for the rider because it includes an intense desire to please.
“He’s not trying to be bad, he’s just overwhelmed,” Pittman said. “So am I!”
Pittman described the quartet as “two tough ones, and two not-so-tough.” Indeed, Suave Jazz looked every part the old campaigner that he is, even though he’s in a completely new career. Pittman noted that he’d already taken the horse foxhunting, and rider Katie Klenk easily put him through his paces and took him over single jumps and through a gymnastic.
See Suave Jazz jump…
Declan’s Moon did not jump, as Pittman noted that they thought he was possibly a bit sore behind. In a Facebook posting on the RRTP page after the Expo, Pittman said: “Some of you have asked why Declan’s Moon didn’t get to jump at the PA Expo or in the last video. The answer is that he hasn’t really wanted to jump. We have been struggling with getting him ‘in front of the leg.’ That’s eventer-speak for respectful of the leg aids and forward enough into the bridle that you feel like the horse is happily taking you somewhere.
“Declan has been a bit sluggish from the outset. We have been trying to inspire him with riding the best we know how, but also exploring possible physical reasons. Nothing obvious has appeared but if I had to guess I’d say there is some lack of range of motion and weakness in the sacroiliac area. We have been addressing that as a possible issue while taking it easy in his training. It is also possible that Declan is simply a very wise horse who likes to make his own decisions about when and how he uses his talents.”
Though he was limited to flatwork, Declan’s Moon did show off his fabulous gaits for the crowd and the judges. Pittman explained that a common misconception about off-the-track Thoroughbreds is that the racing industry isn’t producing horses that can excel at anything other than going fast. “[Declan’s Moon], to me, shows the opposite of that—that an unbelievable athlete is an unbelievable athlete,” he said. “I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think he’s the prettiest horse at the Expo!”
After showing off Declan’s moves, Pittman mounted up on Alluring Punch. The remaining three horses all jumped from both the trot and canter, and went through a gymnastic. Pittman pointed out that Gunport was the most naturally careful, with a healthy respect for the jump, but also a love of jumping. Alluring Punch showed off an incredible jump and beautiful canter, and all three horses jumped solidly, albeit with some green moments here and there. And, as predicted, all had settled nicely into their work once they got moving.
See Alluring Punch’s jump…
The Judges’ Verdicts
The viewers at home and the judges in the ring at the expo were tasked with choosing the horse that would be most suited for a particular discipline (dressage, eventing, show hunter, show jumper, or foxhunter/trail horse), as well as the individual that they personally would most like to ride. The popular votes had already been counted and in the end, the 100 votes that each of the professional judges had to dispense among the four horses didn’t change that outcome.
Declan’s Moon was voted best-suited for dressage, by a large margin of total votes, as well as being the top dressage choice of all three judges. “I’m a real lover of Thoroughbreds,” Donnan Jones commented. “He’s just an awesome, awesome type. He’s very flashy and definitely a gentleman.”
Nick Karazissis noted that he was calm and rhythmic, and “very, very attractive,” while Bev Strauss called him a “ ‘look at me’ horse.”
The other landslide victor was Suave Jazz, voted “most likely to succeed” as a fox hunter or trail riding mount. Strauss called him the winner in that category “hands down,” but noted that he was quite versatile and could easily fox hunt on Saturday and go to a dressage show on Sunday.
Jones described him as calm and quiet, with a “good enough” jump, perhaps not of the quality that would make him a top choice for eventing or show jumping, although she noted he had the disposition to do just about anything. He was Karazissis’ choice for this discipline as well, although he added that with some work on stretching and engaging his back, he could also be a good equitation horse.
Gunport was voted the best candidate to be a show hunter, by a comfortable margin. Strauss thought she would thrive on the consistency she would find in the hunter ring. Jones felt she had great potential, noting that she was a bit hot currently to be a hunter, but “could see her in that world easily.”
Karazissis summed up Gunport by simply saying “what an athlete!” He felt the filly could be a cute hunter as she grows older and calmer, or if she kept her energy, she could be a good eventer, or even a show jumper, if her quality of jump stays the same as she gains more experience.
Alluring Punch was the top choice for both eventing and show jumping, as well as the “people’s choice” for the horse they’d most like to have in their own barn. Jones noted his build and his energy from behind, and the fact that he was a “good, aggressive jumper.” Karazissis also pointed to his energy and spring off the ground as good indicators of success in the jumper ring. Jones and Karazissis also picked Alluring Punch as the horse they’d most like to own. (Strauss chose Declan’s Moon.)
A Finale and New Beginnings
There will be a final event marking the end of the 100-Day Thoroughbred Challenge, in the form of a “graduation ceremony” at Caves Farm in Owings Mills, Md., on March 9. It’s a ticketed event, with proceeds going to support future RTTP programs. Tickets can be purchased.
Pittman noted that the four horses’ training will be focused on the disciplines they were chosen for over the last two weeks of the challenge, and they will participate in a final demonstration at Caves Farm.
Gunport and Alluring Punch are both for sale (for $10,000 and $15,000 respectively; contact Pittman if you’re interested!), and Suave Jazz’s owner, Kim Dutrow, has reportedly found him a new home as a fox hunter in Virginia. Declan’s Moon is not for sale and will remain under the ownership of Samantha Siegel, although it’s yet to be decided if he will continue to pursue a second career as a sport horse, or return to retirement.