This weekend Thoroughbreds will converge on the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington for the second Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Show, Nov. 21-22. Although off-the-track-Thoroughbreds can be found performing well in many disciplines, these shows provide a showcase for the breed that’s a little different than your average horse show.
Anne Russek  is the force behind these shows, which put the spotlight on OTTBs in their second careers. She'd been contemplating a way to spotlight OTTBs for years. Russek got involved with racing as a teenager, but it wasn’t until recently that she realized just how many former racehorses were meeting unfortunate ends at slaughterhouses.
“I read in a farmer’s magazine the statisics of horses going to slaughter. It was something like 60 percent Quarter Horses, 30 percent Thoroughbreds and 10 percent other. I’d been in a bubble on the racetrack,” said Russek.
Russek’s daughter Billie Rae Croll runs a hunter/jumper training business, so she had seen plenty of Thoroughbreds go on to have second careers.
“I knew, on a personal level, that these horses can be retrained and made into useful sport horses, but I realized that the majority of the racing industry was clueless about that,” Russek said.
So when Catherine Truitt, the new executive director of the Virginia Horse Center, and Chris Kelly, the coliseum manager, approached Russek about an off-the-track Thoroughbred show at the Horse Center, she jumped on the opportunity.
“It was like an MGM moment for me. They offered a date and the facility and the organization of the show. They said they’d foot the bill if I got them the horses and the sponsorship,” said Russek. “We had less than 10 weeks to put it together. For the limited amount of advertising and word-of-mouth promotion that we were able to do, the show was absolutely fabulous. It was magical.”
Close to 70 Thoroughbreds showed up for that inaugural show, held June 13-14, from as far away as Pittsburg, Pa., and Georgia.
“There was a genuine sense of camaraderie among the exhibitors that lasted the entire weekend—everyone had an amazing connection through these horses,” said Krista Hodgkin, who showed her mare Well Spent . “This show really allowed the horses to be the stars of the show.”
The show is part of a growing trend of OTTB recognition at competitions in all disciplines, in dressage and eventing as well as the hunter/jumper realm.
“I think that over the years you see fewer and fewer Thoroughbreds at the horse shows,” said Liz Hansen Hinds, who rode her Stuck On You at the Thoroughbred Celebration. “The Thoroughbred is such an athletic breed, and there are so many ex-racehorses that go on to have great show careers. An opportunity to showcase what ex-racehorses are capable of is great for not only the racing industry, which has taken some heat for what happens to their horses once they are no longer racing, but also for the hunter/jumper industry.”
Something For Everyone
The first Thoroughbred Celebration, which was judged by hunter/jumper trainer Paul Mathews, offered three divisions for hunters, with heights of 2’3”, 2’6” and 3’. There were also two jumper divisions, set at 2’6” and 3’, as well as two pleasure hunter divisions on the flat. Big stake classes for hunters and jumpers wrapped up the show with $1,000 of prize money in each.
“No matter what class level you showed in, if you finished first through third, you were eligible for the stake class. You showed at your height level in the stake class. So, technically, a 2’6” horse could have beaten a 3’ horse,” Russek said.
The show was also very affordable, with a $12 entry fee for each class and $25 for stabling each night.
“I wanted to be able to attract the person sitting at home who had their off-the-track Thoroughbred that wanted to go to a horse show, but didn’t want to go and be humiliated,’” Russek said. “They want to get out and show them and market them, but there’s always that question, ‘Will he be OK off the farm?’ So I tried to offer some very simple classes. For the lower-level classes, we specified that simple changes wouldn’t be penalized. I know from retraining these horses myself, changes are a big thing for some former racehorses. We wanted to give them a class where they could go in quietly and just not have to worry about the tough stuff.”
“Everybody was so happy it had come together and gone so well. The horses were fabulous, the participation was great, and the sponsorship was wonderful. I know the November show is going to be every bit as good and then some,” Russek said.
Russek didn’t have much time to promote the June show—she began planning it just two months before. But she was still able to raise a healthy amount of sponsorship.
“I had so many prizes that were donated, that in most classes, in addition to the ribbons, we were able to give prizes out to fourth place,” Russek said.
“What I realized, watching the show, was that there are a lot of people out there really doing their homework with these horses,” she continued. “And they’re doing remarkable things with them. Paul Mathews was our judge, and he couldn’t have been more complimentary.”
Russek has grand plans for the future of the Thoroughbred Celebration.
“Hopefully, what this will grow into will be a series of off-the-track Thoroughbred horse shows. I’m hoping to set the standard, so that these shows flourish,” she said. “Ideally, I’d love to see a six-show series, with one in Pennsylvania, at least three at the Virginia Horse Center, and one in Aiken and one in Ocala. I’d love to see a national final back at the Horse Center eventually, too.”
Fast Facts About The Thoroughbred Celebration Show
- When: Nov. 21-22, 2009
- Where: East Complex of the Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, VA
- Who: Any Thoroughbred bred for the racetrack, whether tattooed or not, can enter. “It’s all about if you have a horse who was meant to be a racehorse. The point is, he wasn’t meant to be a show horse. But we’re creating a market for them to do that,” Russek said.
- Contact: Chris Kelly at the Virginia Horse Center firstname.lastname@example.org  or Anne Russek at email@example.com  or (540) 817-9263
- Sponsorship: Anyone interested in class or division sponsorships please contact Anne Russek at firstname.lastname@example.org 
- For more information on Thoroughbreds in new careers, see the North American Thoroughbred Society website www.hellohorse.com .