In Kentucky, there are certain sporting events involving horses that are so well known and loved that they acquire affectionate nicknames: “The Best Two Minutes In Sports” for the Kentucky Derby, and “The Best Weekend All Year” for The Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
There’s another event in Kentucky that has taken on the nickname “The Happiest Horse Show On Earth,” and that is the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, coming up Oct. 11-14 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. There is truly no other horse show like it. Hundreds of competitors and their horses join thousands of supporters and spectators, all of whom gather at the Kentucky Horse Park not just for the competition, but for the actual love of the Thoroughbred breed. Of course, there are many different types of breed shows, and blood, sweat, tears, and sometimes years of preparation go into getting to them, but no other breed-specific show could possibly compare to the process of preparing a Thoroughbred for the Makeover.
If you’ve made it to the Thoroughbred Makeover, or even if you have been training a horse who didn’t make it for whatever reason, you’ve been on a journey. Whether you’ve trained your first Thoroughbred on your own, you’ve had help all along the way, or you’re a veteran trainer working with your umpteenth OTTB, the journey is always inspiring.
In 2008 I acquired my first off-the-track Thoroughbred. Old Ironsides—you may have heard of him; he has his own Breyer model—is a horse that I had ridden in seven races, winning together twice. I followed his career as he was claimed around and moved on to another racetrack, and when I could tell he was ready to retire, I had a racing owner/trainer claim him for me. At the time, I was traveling up and down the East Coast riding in races just about seven days a week, so I sent “Sugar” to my mom to restart—and at that time I didn’t even know for what job. I just loved that horse from the moment I laid eyes on him, and I missed riding horses outside of the racetrack.
I had no experience at all actually training a horse, at the time. I had been a rider all my life, and a good rider, but riding was all I did. I would visit my mom and Sugar about once a month. It was seeing his continual 30-day progress that absolutely inspired me. He was like a different horse every month. Now, as I train a barn full of OTTBs, I get to experience that feeling multiple times each day.
Seeing and riding Sugar once a month could have made anybody think that restarting an OTTB is easy. They want so badly to make their people happy, and they are game for pretty much anything. When I decided to train Aztec Brave for the 2017 Makeover, he would be the very first horse I trained on my own, from Day 1. I had also become a mother just two years prior, and again the next year, just before my 14-year-old stepdaughter moved in with us.
Between raising two infants, one teenager and realizing what retraining a race horse actually involves, I started to learn a lot about humility. I found that if I were going to get anywhere, my emotions would have to become no more important than anybody else’s, even if none of them could, or chose, to talk. (Children are another can of worms, but I continue to be surprised how much I relate one to the other.)
I thought I knew horses. Having worked with horses basically since birth, I thought I was pretty intuitive. Training a Thoroughbred requires that you become a better horseman—nothing short of a damn good horseman. With their incredible intelligence and high sensitivity, they will naturally tell on you every time you are lacking in an area. And on the other side, one of the reasons that we love them is that they will reward you tenfold by showing you your strengths when you are doing the right thing.
Becoming a trainer is a constant study. I’m probably not the only Makeover trainer who sometimes lies in bed at night thinking about my rides from that day and dreaming about what the possibilities are for tomorrow. I’m now at the point where the challenging horses truly drive me, because they challenge me to be even better. I want to understand them. I want them to understand me.
Sometimes it’s trial and error. One of the most rewarding things in my training is when I’ve thought on something for some time and I’ve tried various approaches or exercises and suddenly realize I’ve created something that works! Sometimes it’s practicing the basics. My horses will always let me know if I’ve skipped a simple step.
I’m able to look back on myself from years ago and recognize how little I knew then, which in turn shows me how much I could learn in the next two, five, 10 or 20 years. It fills me with an energy that presents as enthusiasm and confidence! It’s empowering to know that I can learn anything about a horse, if I let the horse show me.
That process—that sense of inspiration and blooming of confidence—isn’t just happening to me; it’s hopefully happening to every trainer involved in this process. So, when you arrive at the Thoroughbred Makeover, the energy is different than at any other show.
All of the competitors come with a story of their own journey in learning what it means to train a Thoroughbred, or their horse’s journey from the racetrack to wherever they are now. Every trainer is working for their own successes with their horse. The camaraderie and support between strangers is admirable and inspiring. It almost feels as if there are no strangers because we can all relate to one another.
With a 10-month limit on how long each has been in retraining, our horses may be at the mercy of what they learned before they met us, but each one has undoubtedly come a long way from the starting gate. The first Makeover Finale that I attended had me welling up in tears watching a 3-year-old filly win the show hunters. Thinking about what that 3-year-old filly had seen leading up to her perfectly poised and executed round in the finale absolutely floored me.
Knowing the heart-thumping adrenaline that they experience in the starting gate to the flattening of their body to keep their nose in front at the wire in front of a cheering grandstand? To know that in such a short time she had gone from that to staying in tune with invisible aides while finding the perfect distance and making a beautiful bascule over a fence in a covered arena, it just had me in awe.
When you arrive at the Makeover, expect only positive energy. Expect to be in awe. Expect to be inspired. Expect to experience the “Happiest Horse Show On Earth.”
Rosie Napravnik is a former jockey who holds multiple riding titles throughout the country, is a two-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks, the only female jockey to win multiple Breeder’s Cup races and the only female to ride in all three Triple Crown races. Retired from racing since 2014, Rosie lives in Simpsonville, Kentucky, with her husband, Joe Sharp, and their three children. Rosie runs a private Thoroughbred rehab and retraining operation, Off-Track Sporthorses, from the family’s Four Ponds Farm. Rosie has also created a boutique lesson program for kids, advocating for kids learning more than what an arena has to offer.