Their performances used to be measured by seconds ticking away on a stopwatch as they ate up the furlongs stretching in front of them. Now, they are scored in columns on test sheets as they maneuver between the letters marking the outside of a short, white fence. A cadre of racetrack veterans have collected their strides, shrugged off the stereotypes and entered the dressage world, and Lisa Rasmuson wanted to give them and their owners the recognition they deserve.
An East Coast Regional Dressage Association member and owner of an off-the-track Thoroughbred, Rasmuson knows the inherent challenges of training and competing a former race horse in a discipline ruled by warmbloods. She also knows just how dedicated a partner such a horse can become, which is why she approached the ECRDA with the idea of sponsoring an award for riders competing in dressage with mounts such as her own.
"There aren't too many people out there riding off-the-track Thoroughbreds [in this discipline], and they are often overlooked as appropriate, safe and respectable dressage mounts," explained Rasmuson, of Bordentown, N.J. "I wanted to recognize these horses and their people, who have taken the time to rehabilitate and retrain these kind and gifted athletes and encourage all dressage riders and trainers to take a look at the off-the-track Thoroughbred as an appropriate mount."
The Hell's Angel Thoroughbred Rescue Award, named after Rasmuson's current horse, goes to the horse with the highest average of three dressage scores from three different shows throughout the year. Riders had to submit a copy of their horse's track record to prove that they'd raced. Four entries vied for the inaugural trophy, including Kirsten Tiedeman and Hidden Dignity, who won more $120,000 on the track for Tiedeman's grandmother; Jan Kalafat and Bogart, who was snagged from an auction just before going to a slaughterhouse bidder; and Stephanie Buchanan and Big Tri, one of two former race horses purchased after Buchanan's previous off-the-track mount died.
Based upon their cumulative score of 66.00 percent, Sharon Lutgen and In Unison received the commemorative plaque at the ECRDA annual awards banquet in January of 2004 for their performance in open first level competition. Lutgen, of Mt. Holly, N.J., purchased "Slew," a grandson of the great Seattle Slew, as a coming 5-year-old off of the Philadelphia Park Race Track (Pa.). They've been partners for 10 years.
Taking A Chance
Lutgen hadn't owned a horse for a few years, and although her previous steeds had been Thoroughbreds with racing histories, they'd never been fresh off the track. "I didn't know what to expect, but he had a kind heart and he was broken down. He was stiff and sore, and my heart went out to him," she said. "We worked a lot on getting him sound and very comfortable. I don't think he'd ever known how to work and not be sore."
Slew didn't have any major racing injuries, mostly cumulative aches and pains from his years pounding the track, and Lutgen has managed his issues through a team effort with her veterinarian, farrier, and trainer Vicki Rickabaugh of Jackson, N.J. He exhibits some other remnants from his racing days in his attitude, but some throwbacks are positive manifestations.
"He has trouble with turn-out and doesn't like being ridden in large groups," she said. "He likes his space, but he's also very quiet. I attribute that to him having seen so many things on the track. Being on the track, he also trailers, clip and ties, due to all the good handling he received."
Slew also developed an unflagging work ethic. "He loves to show. He's not a homebody; he likes to get dressed up!" she said. "Now, when the judge rings the bell for us to go in the ring, he drags me inside! He knows that's his time to go in. "He's very level-headed and enjoys his job," added Lutgen, a special education teacher. "I think he enjoys having owners, his own people."
Registered as True Slew, the bay gelding sold for $30,000 as a yearling and won more than $100,000 as a 2- and 3-year-old. But Lutgen isn't very interested in performance records, including her own, having shown Slew very lightly until recently. The pair is hoping to debut at second level this year, and Lutgen is just pleased to have her unlikely mount "hold his own."
"I feel [Thoroughbreds] are mostly pretty steady and straightforward. They might not have the gaits of a warmblood, or that look about them, but you do get their honesty," she said. "I think everything I do has to be that much more perfect. They've been trained and bred to run long and flat, and we're asking them to go round, light and collected. I have great pride in it when he holds his own."
Kalafat, of Manalapan, N.J., would seem an unlikely candidate to buy a Thoroughbred fresh from the track six years ago, having only begun to ride the year before, but a careful training program and lots of patience made her decision work. She began riding at a barn focused on equitation with trainer Mike Kelly. Kalafat had been leasing a horse for some time when she gave the word to her instructor to find her a mount of her own.
"I'm tall, so I told him I wanted a leggy bay," she explained. Racetracks being arguably the most prevalent source of leggy bays, Kelly headed for a local auction, where he outbid a known buyer for a slaughterhouse for a beautiful, but unknown, 6-year-old, 17-hand mahogany bay.
"He took a lot of patience. At first, he didn't like people; you couldn't touch him," explained Kalafat. "He was very fearful, so we took it slowly. I'm very proud to say he's made a wonderful transition." Kelly made it clear to his inexperienced pupil that the process would be very slow. They worked from the ground up, learning the basics together, before she even attempted to ride him. After two months, Bogart had begun to calm down into his new role, and he and Kalafat's partnership has continued to grow.
Having begun their education in a hunter barn, they only made the move to the dressage ring last year when they began training with Rickabaugh of Blue Spruce Dressage. "She has taken Bogart to another level. Any horse can do dressage, but you need a very competent trainer," said Kalafat, who won the ECRDA year-end senior starter walk-trot championship last year with her versatile horse. "Thoroughbreds are a little more 'up' than some other breeds, and their strength, beauty and grace is unmatched."
Rasmuson cautions that former race horses aren't the perfect mount for everyone, particularly novice riders, but for her, the hard work required to transition them to a new life is well worth it. Hell's Angel, a.k.a. "Bobbie," has presented soundness and turnout challenges since Rasmuson bought him as a 6-year-old from the New Holland (Pa.) auction five years ago, but the trade-off is a small one, according to Rasmuson.
"Despite Bobbie's pasture issues, he is beyond a doubt my most favorite horse, not because he is the easiest or the soundest, but because he tries the hardest. If he understands his job, he gives 150 percent for me. He has a great mind, is quick to learn and retain and never holds a grudge," she said. "Bobbie and I have developed a long-lasting and trusting bond. He's been a good friend and a good teacher."
Rasmuson's devotion to her horse is reflected in her desire to honor other riders who've decided to give a former speedster a chance. "It's not an easy job to rehab and retrain an off-the-track Thoroughbred, and people doing this work need to be recognized and rewarded. More importantly, the accomplishments of these wonderful and hard-working equine athletes need to be promoted so that other like-minded people will be encouraged to rescue these very special and talented animals." Waters Coriano.