When Alexandra Beckstett went to look at Icarius in his paddock at Glencrest Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding farm in Midway, Kentucky, at the end of 2020, she was planning to purchase him as a resale project. Glencrest bred the then 4-year-old, by Quality Road and out of a Giacamo mare.
“He’s very well-bred. He had all the right makings to be a successful racehorse,” Beckstett said. “[He] trained with Todd Pletcher; he was given all the tools to be a great race horse, but he raced once and finished poorly.”
Beckstett, who lived in Lexington, Kentucky, at the time, had put out word among her local connections that she was looking for a project to take to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover competition, held Oct. 12-17 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Her friend Kate Sheehan, who works with Glencrest, knew they had a great candidate in the recently retired gelding, who was just sitting in a paddock there.
“So I went out and looked at him… and that’s all I needed to do. I just saw him standing in the paddock, and I saw how big he was and beautiful, and I watched him take like two steps at the trot,” Beckstett recalled with a laugh. “My trainer at the time, Ashley Watts, and I went home, came back with the trailer that day and signed a bill of sale, and that was it.”
But it wasn’t too long into her partnership with “Zion” when Beckstett realized that, despite her intentions, he wasn’t going to be a resale project after all.
“I’m a working adult, and that’s how I fund my horse habit,” she said. “But after a couple months, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to part with this one. He was pretty special.
“His personality from the start, even before I started working with him under tack, has just been so neat, and I connected with him in a way that I haven’t connected with a horse in ages, so that was part of it. I immediately fell in love with him just for his personality and knew I wanted to keep him,” she continued. “I realized he is a pretty talented horse and does have a penchant for the hunter ring. I thought that if I could take a horse that I got inexpensively and take him up the levels in the rated hunter ring, wouldn’t that be awesome? If I could take a cheap off-track Thoroughbred and do the derbies or the amateur hunters, you know, why not? So that’s kind of my goal going forward, just to see how far this horse can go and be competitive.”
Not only did the Makeover judges agree with her assessment of the horse’s talent, awarding Beckstett and the 16.3-hand dark bay gelding top honors in the show hunter division, but so did the spectators watching at the Kentucky Horse Park and at home on the livestream, who voted via text message for their favorites among the 10 discipline winners, choosing the pair as the People’s Choice Award winner. The honor comes with $2,500 in prize money awarded to the charity of the winner’s choosing. (Up until this year, the overall Makeover champion had been determined by a popular vote, dubbed “America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.” This year the judges selected the overall Makeover champion, but spectators were still able to have their say with a separate People’s Choice award.)
“I’m still kind of in shock,” Beckstett said, noting that it’s the first time the Makeover’s popular vote-winner has been a show hunter. “I’m just so excited that I was able to showcase this horse to the best of his ability and the way I know he can go, because you never know how it’s going to turn out. And of course everybody thinks that their horse is the best, but I wanted to show the world what a Thoroughbred can look like in the hunters, and I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
Beckstett, who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the managing editor of The Horse, whose parent company, The Horse Media Group, also publishes Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine for RRP. Beckstett works closely with RRP staff producing content for the magazine and covering each year’s Makeover competition, and she competed herself for the first time in 2019, selling that horse in 2020.
“I did the typical coming up the ranks in the pony hunters, and then junior hunters and jumpers and all the big equitation finals, all that. But since graduating from college, I’ve just been your typical amateur that gets green horses, projects to work on as I can, and horse show as my budget allows,” she said. “I grew up riding warmbloods; I bred warmbloods. I used to live and breathe warmbloods in the hunter ring, and so it was because of working on the magazine for RRP that I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I take a shot at [retraining an off-track Thoroughbred?]’ And now suddenly I’m a Thoroughbred girl!”
The show hunter preliminary competition consisted of two over fences rounds and an under saddle portion. The top five finishers then moved on to the finale, held in the Horse Park’s covered arena, jumping a final course that would determine the division winner.
“I was happy with my first hunter round. I thought he was lovely; he jumped around great,” she said. “He’s the sort of horse that he kind of builds as he goes, so by the second hunter round he was a little bit strong, so I kind of had to hide it a little bit. He landed from a jump and played and spooked a little bit, but obviously it didn’t hurt us too much. I think all these horses are going to have their baby moments.”
When she saw her scores and realized they had qualified for the finale, Beckstett said she was stunned. “When he did his little crowhop in the second round, it felt much worse than it looked. So I was just like, ‘Oh well, I’ll just be happy to get in the top 10.’ So I was shocked.”
The atmosphere for the finale can be the undoing for many of these green horses, in the horse park’s cavernous covered arena with a large Jumbotron showing the live feed. Finale competitors get a chance to school in the ring before their round, but it’s still a tough environment for many of them.
“We didn’t do much as far as schooling him; we jumped like four jumps before going in the ring, and he felt great. So I was like, ‘Well if he goes in there and he doesn’t spook at the Jumbotron and I don’t miss a distance, we have a shot,’ ” Beckstett said.
Spoiler alert: He didn’t, she didn’t, and they were the judges’ clear choice, scoring an 83 for their round and besting the second-placed pair by 13.75 points.
This year’s Thoroughbred Makeover was a massive affair; since the 2020 competition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, those horses that qualified for 2020 were also allowed to compete this year in separate divisions. So 10 discipline winners were named for both 2020 and 2021.
“I don’t know how they did it, basically putting on two Makeovers at the same time with 10 disciplines going simultaneously,” Beckstett said. “This was the smoothest, in my opinion, Makeover that I’ve attended either as a spectator, competitor or vendor since it started. So [the RRP team] found their rhythm; that group of people and the volunteers are just awesome. And the people there are so friendly, the competitors. It’s not your typical horse show. I’m not sure how to describe it…you walk around and every single person says hi or congrats or ‘Hey, did you need to borrow this?’ There’s just a camaraderie.”