The Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium attracts entrants from across the U.S. and Canada, but few will have traveled as far as Shelby Dennis and Bionic to get to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“We live across the street from the U.S. border in Langley, British Columbia,” said Dennis, 23. “So we drove across into Washington and found a hauling company that would take him to Kentucky. He laid over in Montana, Oregon, Nebraska and Ohio over the course of four whole days. The total trip was about 2,500 miles, but he’s arrived in really good condition and hasn’t missed a beat. He’s only 4, and I keep expecting him to act his age, but he just acts like he’s done this all before.”
“George” (Stephanotis—Swapalady, Light Of Mine) was bred by Amanda Kolcun, who also owned and trained him throughout his racing career. Dennis met George at the training track for Hastings Racecourse (British Columbia), where she gallops horses for trainer Terry Clyde. George raced 11 times, won once and earned $17,322, but Kolcun felt he was better suited to a life off the track.
“He always had a rhythmic gait; he was really quiet, and it was obvious he was fancy and had a lot of potential even when we were training him as a race horse,” said Dennis. “His owner knew how much I liked him. She really didn’t want him to get claimed or get in a situation where she couldn’t make sure he ended up somewhere safe, so she offered him to me as a project horse.”
George developed a windpuff after his last race in October 2018. Kolcun had him x-rayed, and the veterinarian discovered a bone chip in his left front fetlock, but the initial diagnosis was that the chip would not cause any issues. Dennis got a second opinion a week after purchasing George and found the chip had entered the joint and required surgical removal.
“We x-rayed the rest of his fetlocks to make sure he didn’t have any more chips,” said Dennis. “And his two hinds had chips that hadn’t come off yet. They couldn’t pull them out like chips because he’d have huge holes in the bone, so they put screws in each piece of bone to secure it back to the main bone.”
During surgery, the head of the screw in George’s left hind fetlock broke off, which required a second surgery to fix. George hit his head when waking from anesthesia after his second procedure and sustained nerve damage that makes his lower lip droop.
“It wasn’t an easy go at any point,” said Dennis, “but he was really easy to work with. He was 3, racing fit, and had to be thrown into a stall pretty much immediately, but he stayed really quiet and calm.”
George required six weeks of stall rest, then months of hand walking and extremely limited turnout. Dennis eventually walked him under saddle and worked their way back to regular riding. She estimated they’ve had four months of regular work now.
“It sucked,” said Dennis. “Getting the vet bill was awful; it was very disheartening, and for a large portion of time leading up to the Makeover I wasn’t sure he’d make it there. I didn’t want to get my hopes up; we just had to take it day by day. He was quite sore and needed a lot of chiropractic work, so he’s gotten massage, laser therapy, you name it. We put a lot of money into that because the stall rest was hard on him; he was still growing, and he’s 17 hands, but he’s got such an incredible brain and work ethic. I think a lot of other horses would not have been able to catch up in the way that we have, with so much time taken away by injuries.”
Dennis originally wanted to enter the show jumping and freestyle classes in Kentucky but changed her plan so as not to over face George. They’ll compete in show jumping and dressage, where Dennis said George’s steady gaits and relaxation will set him apart.
Dennis has dreamed of going to Kentucky since she first read the “Thoroughbred” book series by Joanna Campbell. She originally showed Arabians, but once she switched to Thoroughbreds she didn’t look back. She’s been galloping horses for Clyde for four years and has taken multiple project horses off the track. She also maintains a YouTube channel, where she documents her life with horses (including her 4-month-old homebred named Banksy).
“I wanted to live in Kentucky and do exactly what the characters in the books did,” she said. “So when I found out you could get Thoroughbreds off the track and retrain them I got really interested in that. I’ve always wanted to do a training competition, and when I started looking at the Makeover I kind of became obsessed with it because of how many horses attend and everything they do to advocate for the breed.
“I’m very outspoken about the racing industry, Thoroughbreds, rescues, and what I generally view to be right in the horse world or what I view that needs change,” she continued. “I try to encourage people to consider Thoroughbreds or rescuing horses if they wouldn’t necessarily have done it before. I want to portray the journey accurately, but at the same time show how capable these horses can be.”
The Chronicle will be at the Kentucky Horse Park reporting on all the action from the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, so check back here for more stories and photos throughout the week!