Hailey Henderson’s always had a soft spot for Thoroughbreds, so it’s no surprise that her latest grand prix mount got his start on the racetrack.
She and Zine Dine, 10, have become a solid partnership at $25,000 grand prix classes in the Southwest. They won a $10,000 1.45-meter welcome stake in Texas in late March and while they haven’t led the victory gallop of a grand prix yet, Henderson believes it’s possible.
It’s not what Henderson really expected six years ago when she started her partnership with Zine Dine—a relationship that, to hear Henderson tell it, never should have happened.
Henderson met Zine Dine back in 2008. She was in Lexington Ky., to coach at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Finals, and on a day off decided to wander over to a private racehorse farm to check out a some hunter/jumper prospects. There were a few horses in the barn looking for new careers that Henderson was meant to try, and Zine Dine wasn’t one of them.
The then-4-year-old (Unbridled Time—My Belle, Buckaroo) was still in the training program, and to top it off he was a contender for a proposed reality TV show about jockeys and race horses. But when Henderson walked by Zine Dine’s stall, she insisted she give him a try.
“The only reason I was able to get on him that day was because he’d been recently gelded and hadn’t gone back into training yet,” said Henderson. “This one wasn’t one I was supposed to have, but there was just something about him. Everyone kept saying ‘This one’s not safe, he’s not good.’ But I knew he was great.”
Henderson hopped aboard in the round pen, cantered over a hay bale, and took him home to her Willow Oaks Farm in Lafayette, La., that weekend. She partnered with Mollie Ditsious to buy the horse, and later bought her out.
“She was so supportive of him, when he was a scrappy little Thoroughbred without a good front end, “ said Henderson. “But he was a total springer. [The Ditsious family] believed in him, and so did I, and he kept living up to our expectations. Last year we wanted to get him competitive and consistent in the grand prix, and we did that. This year he keeps surprising us as he gets better.”
Keeping It Fresh
When Henderson got Zine Dine back to Willow Oaks, he fit in immediately. Within six months he earned a hopeful jumper circuit champion at the Gulf Coast Winter Circuit (Miss.). Just when they started to hit their stride, then they hit a speed bump. Henderson broke her elbow badly, requiring surgery and a long recovery, and she was out of the tack for a year.
Meanwhile, Zine hung out on the farm, but when Henderson climbed aboard the next spring he hadn’t regressed at all. He started 2011 at the 1.20-meter level and stepped up from there, earning the Rood and Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse Jumper Rookie of the Year award.
To keep Zine Dine progressing Hailey focused on keeping it his training program fresh and making sure he had plenty of fun.
“Every three months it was something different—never getting stuck in a rut,” said Henderson. “We’d do ring work, trails, then grids, then lunging, just constantly changing. If you work on a landing rail for a month, the next month it’s a take-off rail. I’ll take him over to the pond on our farm and the 30-acre hayfield where he can gallop and feel like a racehorse again.”
She recalled one trip to the Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler the year before when they headed out on the cross-country course for a hack before the grand prix that afternoon.
“He decided he wanted to run, and I let him—I wasn’t going to stop him,” she recalled. “I was laughing so loud. He knew I was impressed and just got lower and lower. I’ve never gone faster. Two hours later he went rocking and rolling around the prix. Who would have known he’d been out there breezing in the field?”
The Poster Child
Henderson, 30, has always made her own winners. Her mother, Toye Henderson, got her daughter hooked on horses. Toye grew up learning to ride by the seat of her pants, traveling to school bareback in her native Mississippi, and developing a keen eye for diamonds in the rough. When Hailey was growing up her mother would head over to nearby Evangeline Downs (La.) and pick out racetrack rejects for her daughter to break and train.
“I would come home and there would be a surprise horse,” recalled Hailey. “She’d chose gentle ones, and my job would be to work with one for several years, get them going and showing and maybe we’d sell them to a student in the barn. We still have a few of them here.”
Once Hailey outgrew ponies, she immediately started on Thoroughbreds. She wrapped up her junior years in the late ‘90s, when the warmbloods were elbowing out Thoroughbreds on entry lists of the AA circuit, but the invasion wasn’t yet as complete.
Both her top jumpers were ex-racehorses: Single Silhouette, who took her to the Washington International Horse Show (Md.) in the children’s division, and Access Greystone, her partner as she represented Zone 7 on the Prix des States team at Pennsylvania National. She competed another Thoroughbred, Fated Image, in both the junior hunters and ASPCA Maclay Finals at the National Horse Show (N.Y.) at Madison Square Garden.
“They’re just totally my type, so eager to please,” said Hailey. “I just love their natural go, their natural drive and the sensitivity. Whenever they’re on your side they’ll fight for you till the end, just as brave as can be.”
These days Toye prefers to let her daughter pick out the prospects, (though she still shows a Thoroughbred, Little Black Dress, in the 2'6" hunters). That’s made easier because several of Hailey’s students are also involved in the racehorse world and are happy to share their knowledge and leads.
“The good ones, the ones that have been broke correctly, you can continue right on,” said Hailey who seeks out 4- and 5-year-olds. “They steer and have pace control and a nice mouth. You can feel a night-and-day difference between the ones that just run them and never give them an education and the guys that do a good job.”
Zine Dine’s become somewhat of a poster child for the ex-race horse movement at Willow Oak and beyond. Hailey estimates that a quarter of the 50 or so horses at Willow Oak are Thoroughbreds, and that the only reason that percentage isn’t much higher is that they have a slew of young riders learning the ropes on Welsh ponies bred at nearby Madoc Farm.
“Everyone’s so impressed with him and his story,” said Hailey. “It’s been really exciting to have him go so far.”