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December 6, 2012

Taking The OTTB Plunge

Sara Lieser's husband, Eric, holds the off-the-track Thoroughbred he dubbed "Sweet Roll" just before they loaded him for the trip home. Photo by Sara Lieser

It would be difficult for me to enumerate all the opportunities I’ve experienced as a member of the Chronicle editorial staff, but this Thanksgiving the Chronicle led me to do something a little bit crazy. I drove to the track to pick up a horse I’d seen exactly one photo of on the Internet.

Of course I knew about off-the-track Thoroughbreds before working at the Chronicle. But it’s a big leap from knowing something exists to participating in re-training them.

I think it began with our infamous forums. Over my years here, I’ve read countless threads asking for conformation critiques or advice on newly re-homed race horses. They made it sound so simple. Find one you like on CANTER and go get it! 

And then there were the stories we wrote. Everyone loves an underdog, and our journalist radar always goes off when we hear about an OTTB who is winning against the big dogs, such as Hillary Simpson’s Arkansas, who just won his first grand prix

When Allie Conrad, Queen Bee of Canter Mid-Atlantic, started blogging for the Chronicle, I suddenly had a friend who could answer all my track questions. Was this bloodline good? Should I avoid this trainer?

I purchased my first OTTB in 2009, but he’d had a couple of years of re-training first, and at that point I still didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of going straight to the track.

However, a few weeks ago, the stars aligned to send me on my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to the backside.

Money Burning A Hole

To back up a bit, I sold my preliminary horse this summer to the perfect home. We’d just won our last event, and while we could’ve kept going together, my previously mentioned ex-racer was more talented and just waiting for his chance to shine. I’m a two-horse kind of girl—one to actively campaign and the other to bring along. I can just fit two rides in most days around my work schedule, but I can’t seriously compete two at any level above novice or training.

So with money in my pocket and extra time in my day, I began doing what any horse person in my position would do: searching high and low for my next mount!

I perused the online classifieds. I started following every CANTER group within an 8-hour drive on Facebook. I reached out to all my friends and acquaintances with connections to young equine prospects. I planned my weekends around horse shopping expeditions.

But despite sitting on about a dozen horses, nothing spoke to me. I did vet one promising 3-year-old, and then he put his foot through the fence before we could do the re-check the veterinarian recommended.

So I found myself back on the CANTER websites, researching pedigrees, imagining what these baby Thoroughbreds would look like after gaining 200 pounds and a topline. And then I saw him. He was the right age: 4 and the right gender: male. He wasn’t exactly a gelding—he’s a cryptorchid, so there’s a surgery in his future. But he was certainly the right price: free!

Yeah, I know. There’s no such thing as a free horse. But this guy needed a home. He was cute in his photo. He’d come dead last by a huge margin in all three of his races at Delaware Park. No, his pedigree didn’t include any horses I’d even heard of until you went three generations back, but you don’t ride pedigree. I checked in with Allie, who encouraged me. I called my vet, who said he could do the surgery. I played phone tag with the trainer for a few days, and then on Sunday night he called to say, “Take him.”

From Fantasy To Reality

After playing phone tag a bit more, a 6 a.m. text on Thanksgiving Day confirmed I should come get the horse. My husband and I jumped into action. Of course, the truck was still at the shop, because I hadn’t had a chance to pick it up earlier in the week. Fortunately, I had the keys. So we raced over to our mechanic. I went to Dunkin Donuts for the sustenance we’d need for the journey, while my husband headed home to hook up the trailer.

As we hit the road, I called the trainer. He wasn’t impressed that I was three hours away. His heavily accented English made him hard to understand, which is part of the reason I still had so many unanswered questions. He wasn’t much for volunteering information. He told me a barn and stall number and said someone would meet me there.

I began to have serious doubts about the whole thing as we were en route. What if the horse was dead lame? What if he couldn’t handle being turned out? (My horses live out 24/7 with sheds.) What was I getting myself into? Oh, and by the way, the trainer couldn’t give me any papers because they were locked in the track office, which was, of course, closed on Thanksgiving.

We hit traffic on the way—I know, I know, traffic on I-95 on Thanksgiving?—and arrived about noon. The security guy at the gate laughed at me when I told him my errand—I don’t know why, but it was creepy—and he pointed me toward the correct barn.

We parked and walked inside Barn 1. There was no one there. I found stall 14 and peered in at a dark bay horse that appeared to match the photo online. I grabbed a lead rope and led him outside. He seemed startled, as if he hadn’t seen sunshine in quite a while. I was relieved to see that, besides being decidedly on the short side, he was a nice looking animal. I called the trainer again. “No one’s there? The groom was supposed to wait!”

I described the animal I was holding, and he agreed I had the right horse. He asked if I wanted a free filly as well. I declined. I contemplated taking a walk around Barn 1 to see if there were any other horses I liked better but decided that was probably a bad idea.

He marched onto the trailer like a professional. At the gate on the way out, I signed my name and wrote down the town in which he’d be stabled. And that was that. I was the proud owner of a new horse.

He’s been a pleasure so far. I expected antics when I turned him out, but all he wanted to do was eat grass. He didn’t take one trot step let alone gallop around the field. I longed him the following day to see what I had, and he was sound and amenable. Now he’s had his shoes pulled so he can grow better feet, and he’s even proved he can go out with my other two horses. (In case you’re counting, I have one horse to compete and a retired horse to keep him company.)

I don’t know what’s in his future. He may end up being a quick re-sale once he’s a proper gelding with some skills. He may have some yet undiscovered issue that I’ll have to address. Or he may stick around for a while, since he hasn’t put a foot wrong so far.

I’m thinking of calling him “Eli.” But my husband has a different name for him. Our horsey adventures took up most of our Thanksgiving, so he didn’t have time to make the sweet cinnamon rolls that are a family tradition. Thus, my new horse will always answer to “Sweet Roll” as far as he’s concerned.