Jimmy Wofford joked that it was a shame that he hadn’t brought a horse trailer to the final of the Retired Racehorse Training Project Trainer Challenge. “I wish I could back my truck up right to this door and take all four of them home!” he said about the horses involved.
Wofford, the legendary eventing trainer who helped judge the final, wasn’t alone in those thoughts—I think everyone watching secretly chose their favorite and pictured them settling down to their evening feed in their own barn. I know I was!
Eric Dierks might have been declared the official winner of the inaugural Retired Racehorse Retraining Project Trainer’s Challenge, but the unanimous general consensus among all involved was that off-the-track Thoroughbreds themselves were the real winners of the day. The four horses, Brazilian Wedding, Four X The Trouble, Solidify and High Level, all handled a bit of a chaotic atmosphere with aplomb and showed a remarkable level of development in the six weeks since the RRTP Challenge began. Read Lisa Slade's report of the kick-off of the challenge for all the details.
“Each of these trainers has done an amazing job,” said Allie Conrad, the executive director of CANTER Mid-Atlantic, who also judged the challenge final. “They started with very typical retired racehorses and turned them into lovely rides.” All three trainers involved in the challenge—Dierks, Tiffany Catledge and Kerry Blackmer—were grinning non-stop and were thrilled with the horses’ performances.
The brainchild of event trainer Steuart Pitttman, the RRTP Challenge gathered amazing momentum as it went on, with huge numbers of fans checking in every time one of the trainers posted a video or a blog. The project turned into quite an educational affair as well, with the challenge trainers demonstrating in clear detail how they approached introducing their charges to their new jobs.
Fans chose their favorite horse and trainer, and quite a few came to the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg, Pa., on Feb. 25 for the final to cheer on their picks. The stands of the Equine Arena were packed, and while the crowd kept applause to a minimum to avoid getting the hairy eyeball from the horses, they were intent on the action. Fans were also able to vote for their top choice American Idol-style on the RRTP website, and the results of those votes factored into the judges’ ultimate decision.
In The Middle Of The Action
The challenge final was held on Saturday afternoon of the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo, and the facility was swarming with people. The equine attendees—there for demonstrations and lectures—represented all breeds and were outfitted in all kinds of different garb and costumes. It was an electric atmosphere, to say the least. The horses had all been at the Expo since the day before, when they participated in a lecture given by Pittman and were able to familiarize themselves with the surroundings.
Pittman took the microphone and introduced the horses and trainers to the crowd and explained the RRTP challenge as Dierks, Catledge and Blackmer warmed up Brazilian Wedding, High Level and Four X The Trouble. Solidify, Catledge’s other RRTP challenge horse, was hand-walked around the arena. Brazilian Wedding was a hot favorite of the crowd after Dierks’ wonderfully educational video blogs, but she seemed the most undone by the atmosphere. She was tense and fussy with her head, and Dierks was patient. High Level and Four X The Trouble, or “Tempyst,” both took a few opportunities to check out the crowd but in general were focused and settled.
After Pittman’s introduction, each trainer went solo to show off their horse’s progress in just six weeks of training, discussing their horses with the crowd via a headset microphone. There were a few small jumps set up—an 18” crossrail, an 18” crossrail oxer and a one-stride combination of 18” crossrails. Pittman adjusted the jumps whenever a rider requested.
Look! No Hands!
Catledge went first on High Level, since she’d have to switch to Solidify and go again. High Level (Mutakddim—Maria’s Crown, Marias Mon) was Catledge’s original choice at the start of the challenge, but he developed an abscess right at the start, so she took both him and Solidify home from the Maryland Horse Expo. High Level, 7, spent the first four weeks of his time with Catledge getting doctored for the abscess, so at the time of the final, he’d really only been in work for two weeks. Read all about High Level's time with Catledge at her RRTP blog.
Catledge noted that High Level was a bit rude and unmannerly at first, but that all the handling he got while soaking his feet seemed to improve his attitude. “Then, once he started working, he really took to it,” she said. “He seems happy to have a job.” While the other three horses came into the RRTP challenge having raced in the past few months, High Level retired from the track two years ago and had been living in a field. Catledge noted that he had lost some muscling in the time off, but he quickly got back in condition.
Pittman pointed out to the crowd that Catledge was actually kicking High Level on quite a bit. The big chestnut had a tendency to get low with his head, but Catledge just kept pushing him forward and encouraging him to accept the contact with a consistent rein.
After showing off High Level’s flatwork, which featured a big, long stride and open frame, Catledge started by trotting the crossrail a few times, then the crossrail oxer and the one-stride. High Level has a slow, lofty jump. Catledge got brave and cantered the oxer—just the second time she’d cantered a jump with High Level—and the horse jumped beautifully. She also got Pittman to turn the second element of the one-stride into a 2’3” oxer and jumped through.
Catledge kicked the performance up a notch right at the end, dropping the reins on the neck and extending her arms out to her sides as she cantered down the long side of the arena. High Level didn’t blink an eye and kept his slow, steady rhythm, much to the crowd’s delight!
Working The Crowd
Blackmer was up next on Tempyst (Domestic Dispute—Rynot, Caveat). She noted that the liver chestnut was the most worried six weeks before at the Maryland Horse Expo, when they chose horses. “There, he pranced sideways the entire time and never went straight,” Blackmer said as she trotted around in a lovely rhythm. “But once I got him home, he turned into the easiest, most rideable horse. He goes around like he’s done it his whole life.” Tempyst, who is 4 this year, is the youngest of the challenge horses.
Tempyst’s trot work was excellent, with a relaxed frame and long step, but he got a bit snarky and tense in the canter. Blackmer explained that he tended to fall behind her leg, especially in the canter, so she spent a lot of time working him outside of the ring, getting him going freely forward. She also spent much of the canter in two-point, off Tempyst’s back. “But if he gets fussy, I don’t worry about it. I just keep him going forward and straight,” she said. Read about Tempyst's development on Blackmer's RRTP blog.
Blackmer trotted the crossrail a few times, and Tempyst was a bit sticky off the ground and hesitant. She jumped him through the one-stride, which got him a bit more into the festivities.
Throughout the riding, Tempyst was a crowd favorite. While Blackmer walked on a long rein during the other trainers’ riding, he’d stop and visit with spectators on the rail, getting some scratches and love.
Talking And Riding
Dierks, who could be nicknamed “The Professor” after the trainer challenge, strutted Brazilian Wedding’s stuff next. In his video blogs, Dierks proved to be a master at talking while riding, explaining via headset microphone his philosophy and decisions in training the gray mare. He didn’t disappoint at the final, giving the crowd real insight into every move he made. See his training videos on his RRTP blog.
Brazilian Wedding (Milwaukee Brew—Lady In Tails, Black Tie Affair) didn’t take well to the Expo experience, and she was quite nervous, according to Dierks. They had trouble getting her to eat well, and during Pittman’s lecture the day before, they spent most of the time hand-walking.
The 6-year-old gray mare had settled a bit since the warm-up time, and Dierks was able to show off her lovely trot. He explained that Brazilian Wedding naturally traveled in a long outline, and that she tended to lug down into rein pressure. “My challenge was to get her to stretch her neck and balance on her own,” he said. He employed lots of lateral bending to encourage a suppleness that would carry over to the mare’s topline.
Dierks trotted a few jumps, then demonstrated cantering to the jumps while counting down from six strides out. He explained to the crowd that he uses the exercise to help develop a consistent rhythm to the stride. He also discussed jumping toward the in-gate and away from the in-gate and how it affected the horse.
Dierks did the most jumping, getting Pittman to put the oxer up to a square oxer of about 2’3” and cantering that a few times.
Last But Not Least
Catledge then returned on Solidify (Alajwad—Kali Dearest, Dearest Doctor), who looked a bit tense and tight under saddle. Catledge explained that as she began training the bay gelding, he was short and uneven in the left hind. After taking radiographs and determining there was no major physical injury, Solidify’s owner, Bev Strauss of Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, told Catledge she thought it was just body soreness and stiffness and to push on with his work. Catledge noted that once she stepped up what she was asking of Solidify, 6, in terms of accepting the contact and pushing forward into it, he became much more even and stronger.
“All three of us [trainers] thought at the Maryland Expo that he would be the most trainable, and we were right,” Catledge said. “He’s got a phenomenal work ethic, and he turned into quite an athlete.” Pittman noted that Solidify’s canter caught everyone’s eye, as it is very uphill and balanced, unlike many ex-racehorses. Catledge explained that because of this, she used canter work early in her training sessions to get Solidfy relaxed and loose. Solidify looked nervous as she worked him, and he got confused about leads, but Catledge kept calm and quiet, working him on a circle until he took a breath and relaxed a bit.
Solidify’s tension carried over as Catledge trotted to a jump, and he got quick and tight. She only jumped the crossrail three times before ending the session. Time was running out, too, as Pittman started to wrap things up.
And The Winner Is…
Each of the three judges—Wofford, Conrad and Alex Brown, a racehorse exercise rider and assistant trainer who wrote the book Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy—complimented the trainers on their work. Wofford made a particular point to commend them on the horses’ coats and overall condition.
Each judge had 100 points to award, and Brown kicked off the evaluation by giving Catledge the majority of his points, 55. He awarded Dierks 30 points and Blackmer 15. Wofford gave 20 points to each horse in recognition of their excellent work, then gave his last 20 points to Dierks. “I thought that horse was the most typical of what people think of in an off-the-track Thoroughbred. She’s a difficult ride, and Eric has done a very good job to being her along,” Wofford said.
Conrad praised each of the trainers on their work, and she noted that Tempyst might be the one she’d steal if she had a chance. She gave Catledge 40 points, and then Dierks and Blackmer 30 points each.
After the points were tallied, Dierks was declared the winner. He’ll receive a portrait of a horse of his choice from noted equine artist Leland Neff. When asked what horse he’ll choose for the portrait, Dierks recalled Stonehedge Heritage, an off-the-track Thoroughbred he evented to the four-star level. “His barn name was Kibbles, because he was actually on the way to the meat wagon,” Dierks said. “But we turned him out real quick and chased him, and he had this gorgeous, floating trot. I think I paid $800 for him, and he took me to the Rolex Kentucky CCI****.”
All About The Education
After the riders had put their horses away, they all returned to the RRTP booth in the Expo area, along with judges Conrad and Brown and three of the horses’ owners—Pat Dale, Bev Strauss and Robin Coblyn. They each shared their impressions of the experience with a whole gaggle of fans that crowded the booth. I even overheard Brown giving advice to a teenage girl who described trouble she’d been having mounting her off-the-track Thoroughbred.
Brown noted that the racehorse world has been watching the RRTP trainer challenge with a great deal of interest. Flyers about the program were distributed on tracks, and many racehorse people tuned in to the live web broadcast of the final. "This is really what the industry needs. I think a lot of racing trainers don't really know what horses can do after a race career, so to see what can happen in a month is brilliant," Brown said. Pittman noted that several exercise riders and others who had worked with the RRTP challenge horses during their racing days had been following them via videos and blogs and had emailed their support.
After the conclusion of the challenge, all four horses were offered for sale. Solidify returned to Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue in Chesapeake City, Md., with Strauss. High Level, owned by Jim Falk, returned to Catledge’s Middleburg, Va., farm to continue training. Tempyst, owned by Robin Coblyn, stayed with Blackmer in Adamstown, Md., and Brazilian Wedding returned to owner Pat Dale’s Three Plain Bays Farm in Conowingo, Md.
Pittman crafted the Retired Racehorse Training Project’s mission statement, which stated its purpose as “an effort to increase demand for retired Thoroughbred racehorses as pleasure and sport horses through public events, clinics, training publications, videos and Internet tools. Our mission is to facilitate the placement of retired Thoroughbred racehorses in second careers by educating the public about the history, distinctive characteristics, versatility of use, and appropriate care and training of the iconic American Thoroughbred.”
The trainer challenge, by giving a multitude of fans an inside look into the first few weeks of an off-the-track Thoroughbred’s conversion to sport horse, definitely fit that bill.
Pittman revealed that while plans weren’t finalized, there will be a RRTP event held on April 28, the Saturday evening of the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. He plans to combine an educational event with the marketing of some Kentucky Throroughbreds, held at the facility of the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program near the Kentucky Horse Park.
Pittman didn’t rule out the possibility of a second RRTP trainer challenge, and he discussed the possibility of an upcoming program in which riders in different situations—professionals and amateurs–would choose an off-the-track Throroughbred on their own to participate.