Eleven years ago, Jeannette Pettit drove her truck and trailer to the Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport, N.J., and picked up Unsung Hero, a then-3-year-old Thoroughbred with a bowed tendon his owner was giving away for free.
This year, Pettit took the same Thoroughbred to Harrisburg, Pa., to win the reserve championship in the USHJA Zone 2 Finals in the adult amateur, 18-35 hunter division in October.
“The original plan was he would be a project and I would have to sell him, but it just never worked out that way,” Pettit said. “He ended up being something that I got to have a lot of fun with, and he’s been wonderful.” Now named Unsung Hero, the bay gelding raced with the name Krebsie (Storm Broker–Swirlon, Jolie Jo). He had 15 starts with three wins and earnings of more than $75,000.
As successful as he is in the show ring now, Hero did not have most auspicious of starts as a young horse. When Pettit picked him up from the track, his owner said she could have him so long as he got a year of turn-out to recuperate from his injury.
Pettit was going to school for her undergraduate degree at the time, and figured he could be turned out at her parent’s farm dairy-turned-horse farm in South Hampton, N.J., while she finished school, and be ready to ride the following summer.
Hero, however, had other plans.
“I gave him a full year and I tried to ride him a little bit the next summer, but he just didn’t really want to go forward. He just didn’t seem like he wanted to work,” Pettit said. “So I gave him another year off.”
Luckily for Hero, patience is something Pettit seems to have in spades. She was finally able to begin riding Hero, then 5, the following summer, after nearly two years of turnout. They began flatting and some jumping before Pettit headed back to school.
“While I was at school, he lived at my trainer’s [Deb Cowperthwait], and she rode him and my two friends did a lot of flatwork and little jumps with him,” Pettit said. “So when I finally got home from vet school and took the ride back over we just started low, and I spent time doing 2’6” for about two years and then once he was comfortable there then we moved up.”
Once Pettit returned from school, Hero moved back to her parents’ farm, where she handled his day-to-day chores, trailering into Cowperthwait’s facility for lessons and meeting up with her at shows.
“Hero is like most Thoroughbreds. You need a soft touch, you need patience, and, I think, a strong belief in your partnership,” Cowperthwait said. “It takes time and trust to build that, and I think Janet is just that person who was just right for Hero. She’s totally committed, she works extremely hard, and she’s 100 percent committed to her horses and her work.”
Pettit started competing in the three-foot adult amateur divisions in 2010 under Cowperthwait’s tutelage, and while she was happy with Hero’s progression and performance, it wasn’t always rewarded by the judges.
“It can be frustrating, because there are some judges who just don’t pin Thoroughbreds,” Pettit said. “It can be really frustrating because you go to a horse show, and you feel like you had a great trip, and then your score is terrible. As terrible as is it is to admit, there are some judges who won’t even look at you, and you just don’t go to the shows they’re judging.”
Not one to be easily discouraged, Pettit kept working on her and Hero’s performance in the ring, working on smaller details like holding a frame around course.
“It took me a long time to get to the point where as long as I was consistent, the judges really didn’t have a whole lot of choice but to place us,” Pettit said. “The main thing is I kind of learned is that as long as I had a good day, and I didn’t make any major mistakes and my horse was good, I’m happy with things.”
Winning the reserve championships for Zone 2 Finals was a well-timed accomplishment for Pettit, who now works as a veterinarian.
“It was a little more rewarding this year, in the sense that my plan for this next year has been not to show as much. I just bought a house so I need to save money and be responsible I guess,” Pettit said with a laugh. “I have a jumper that I bred and broke, and my plan was to focus on him a little more and not show as much with Hero.”
While she and Hero may not be back in the show ring for a while, Pettit wishes both judges and riders in the industry were more open to the idea of Thoroughbreds in the hunters.
“I think they’re some of the most loyal horses, and they’ll do anything for you,” Pettit said. “They have a lot of heart they try really hard. I think it’s sad because I think there are a lot of them out there that get put down and end up in bad places, and there’s definitely a use for them.
“I’m hoping that in time that they will come back in the hunter ring, but it is a tough sell right now,” Pettit continued. “It’s hard to compete with the warmbloods.”