Lexington, Ky.—Oct. 3
Diplomat made a big impression on Sara Katz when the two first met. In the last three furlongs of the 2017 New York Turf Writers Handicap, Diplomat charged from the back of the pack into the lead and claimed his first Grade 1 win while Katz watched.
Diplomat has transitioned from leading races to leading the field hunter division at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium. The 10-year-old gelding (Kitten’s Joy—Waki Affair, Miswaki) was the overnight leader and impressed the judges during the mock hunt on Thursday enough to hold his lead heading into the finale on Saturday.
“Obviously he’s an adorable little horse; he’s so kind and sweet, and he’s got the right build, so when [his racing connections] asked me if I was interested I automatically said yes,” said Katz, 30, Parkton, Maryland.
Katz gallops, trains and sells horses professionally. She grew up riding with the Elkridge Harford Hunt Pony Club in Monkton, Maryland, and inherited her love of hunting from her mother. Her interest in steeplechase and racing came from her neighbor, steeplechase trainer Alicia Murphy.
“My parents never wanted me to do the racing, but of course I always wanted to,” Katz said. “Once I turned 20 I went to Alicia and started galloping. The rest is history. I’ve ridden in a few steeplechase races. I think it was a fun, easy transition for me because of all the hunting, so I was already running and jumping. Racing is just a lot faster; the jumps are bigger; everyone’s closer around you, but it’s been great, and it’s given me a full perspective on how these horses are trained, which helps me retrain them.”
Diplomat had 43 starts and won over $350,000 during his career. He retired in December 2018.
“I brought him into the ring for the first time and just legged him up with a few minutes of flatwork a day,” Katz said. “Over the winter I started jumping hunt-type fences in the woods. That was a great foundation for him. He’s also doing the show hunters, so he’s pretty versatile. I’ve done a ton of flatwork, which I think every horse needs to do for fox hunting.”
Katz then gave Diplomat a break until spring, which isn’t something she would do for every horse.
“His overall demeanor is very good, and he’s 10 so he’s been running for eight years,” she said. “It takes time for their muscles to redesign for flatwork and the collected jumping I do versus the running and jumping they’re used to, so I felt it was good to give his body a break and let those muscles develop slowly.”
Katz has experience restarting both flat racers and steeplechase horses. She used grid work and ground poles to teach Diplomat to collect his jump for the hunt field.
“He loves to run and jump, and his running style was to sit in the back and come from behind so he’s very rideable at the back of a group,” she said. “He’s got a big gallop and a great jump, so all that’s easy for him; it’s just the patience we’re working on.
“He’s a ham,” Katz continued. “He’s fully aware that he’s amazing and just takes it all in. He’s a barn favorite; he sings for dinner; he never has any hesitation; he’s just a total class horse.”
Katz hopes that by showcasing former steeplechase horses she can generate more interest in retraining them as riding horses.
“These horses are a different level of athleticism because they can run, and they can jump, and they have to have a good mind,” she said. “They can’t be running off in a race, so they’re a little more educated. Look for a horse with big bone, one that kind of has a look in their eyes like [Diplomat] does, like they just want to be seen.”
Katz and Diplomat will join Brit Vegas on Bombmarito, Lauren Burke on Frank’s Gift, Kara Lee on Thatcher Street and Lindsey Partridge on Regina Christina in the final competition on Saturday.
“It would be extremely rewarding to win this year,” Katz said. “I put my life into this event this year, so this is one of the biggest weeks of my life, training wise.”