Our columnist considers why the breed that built U.S. horse sports is coming back into fashion.
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King And I, Anna, the English governess, sings a soliloquy in which she expresses her thoughts about the King of Siam.
“In your pursuit of pleasure, you
have mistresses who treasure you.
They have no ken of other men
beside whom they can measure you.
A flock of sheep, and you’re the only ram.
No wonder you’re the wonder of Siam.”
During my teens, 20s, 30s, even into my 40s, the Thoroughbred horse played the role of the King of Siam to the American sport horse world. We had “no ken” of other breeds beside which we could measure the Thoroughbred, and as the reigning “ram,” the Thoroughbred was used for all the jumping sports, for all racing sports except harness racing, for foxhunting, polo, dressage, and even, crossed with the old-style Quarter Horse, for many of the western riding sports.
My first vivid awareness of Thoroughbreds was triggered by the 1953 quest of Native Dancer, “The Grey Ghost,” as he attempted to win the Triple Crown. I was an 11-year-old fan, and when he got boxed on the rail in the Kentucky Derby, and Dark Star beat him, I wrote, “He got gypped” in a childish scrawl in a Native Dancer scrapbook of newspaper clippings that I’d been keeping.
I started riding Thoroughbreds in 1961, while I was a student at Dartmouth College (N.H.), evented my first Thoroughbred, Lighting Magic, at GMHA (Vt.) in 1962, stood my first Thoroughbred stallion, the first of 15, Core Buff, in 1973, and have continued to own and ride Thoroughbreds every year since, down to the present.
From A Trickle To A Tidal Wave
But there was a sea change coming, and by the mid 1980s, with the first PSI warmblood auction in Newport, R.I., we were being introduced to European horses that were being “custom bred” for sport, especially for jumping and dressage. The Thoroughbred had never been custom bred for anything but racing, and the reason the various U.S. disciplines had been so successful with the Thoroughbred was because of a “filtering system” by hundreds of horse dealers, large and small, to find the diamonds in the rough. A dealer might buy 10 4- or 5-year-old off-track Thoroughbreds at an auction, for example, run them through a free jumping chute several times, perhaps keep the best two or three, and lose a bit of money on the seven or eight he sent back to the auction.
But the Germans and the Dutch were breeding for jumping ability, not for racing prowess. The Irish were breeding their Irish Draught mares to Thoroughbred stallions specifically to produce foxhunters, jumpers and eventers, and as Americans slowly started to experiment with buying abroad, the trickle of imports in the 1980s had turned into a tidal wave by the late 1990s and early 2000s. Suddenly our old standby, the Thoroughbred, was passé. A long-time dealer who’d sold hundreds of Thoroughbreds over several decades told me bluntly about 15 years ago, “I can’t give away a Thoroughbred anymore.”
About the same time that cargo planes full of European imports were landing almost daily at quarantine facilities like Newburgh, N.Y., a new “prevailing wisdom” was being expounded. “Too bad they don’t make Thoroughbreds like they used to. These modern ones are too spindly, too short, too hot, too unsound, too crazy. All they are bred to do is to run six fast furlongs as 2-year-olds, until they break down.”
People waxed nostalgic for the “old fashioned” stamp of Thoroughbred, those great, raking 16.2-hand, long-necked, high-withered, big-shouldered, “all day stayers” with that look of eagles, never bothering to discover that the horses whose demise they mourned were still “hiding in plain sight” at race tracks all over North America. Those kinds of horses hadn’t disappeared.
What had disappeared was the large network of horse dealers willing to sift through the chaff to find the straw.
“Why,” these dealers asked, “should I pick through dozens of cheap OTTBs to maybe find a few good ones, when I can just get on a plane and go buy five in Europe, broke, jumping, easy to ride, and ready to sell?”
Never mind that Americans had won a Fort Knox full of medals on great Thoroughbred jumpers, eventers and dressage horses, decade after decade. Never mind that, enshrined in the U.S. Equestrian Team trophy room at Gladstone, N.J., were such names as Snowbound, Sinjon, Tomboy, Fleet Apple, Untouchable, Sloopy, Idle Dice, Jet Run, Gem Twist and Touch Of Class. Or eventers like Bally Cor, Good Mixture, Better And Better, Might Tango—even Keen, in dressage. Out with the old, in with the new.
Back To Old Habits
But old habits die hard, and old loyalties are not easily forsaken. Yes, it’s undeniably true that U.S. racing is not now what it once was. In 1990, about 40,000 foals were registered with the Jockey Club. By last year, 2014, that number had been cut in half, down to about 20,000 registered Thoroughbred foals, most of which will be aimed at racing. There are about 60 major tracks left in North America, despite the closing of many of the lower level tracks, and every year thousands of Thoroughbreds, most between the ages of 3 and 6, end their racing careers and come off those tracks.
My Southern Pines, N.C., neighbor, Allie Conrad, has had a long involvement with the Mid-Atlantic branch of CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses). Since 2007, Allie told me, CANTER has helped transition more than 17,000 horses from the track into new careers. Sometimes CANTER acts as a conduit to help prospective buyers be in touch directly with trainers. Sometimes CANTER, a non-profit, gets them as donations and resells them.
Allie told me the main reasons that trainers will stop racing a horse is if the horse is no longer competitive at all, either because he no longer has the desire to race, or because of some sort of veterinary issue. Some other claimers win enough at one price that they are forced “up” to a higher level, where they can’t win, and are subsequently retired.
Well-bred mares from black-type (stakes and allowances) families usually have a breeding career awaiting them upon retirement, as do a relatively few well-bred and successful stallions. For all the geldings and the less well-bred mares, however, if they cannot find a second career, they may face a dim future.
I asked Allie, “What, in your years of experience transitioning race horses into riding horses, constitutes a marketable horse?”
Allie’s response: “Over 16 hands. Preferably a gelding. Attractive. No vices. Clean legs.” She said that most geldings transition in one month. For mares, it takes eight months. There is a clear anti-mare bias.
How are these horses bred? Is there some magic pedigree ingredient that buyers look for? Perhaps, but many of the horses are the “usual suspects,” reflecting the preferences of the race breeders who produced them. Lots of Mr. Prospector. Lots of Storm Cat, Seattle Slew, Danzig, AP Indy, Deputy Minister, Fappiano, Halo, Secretariat, Unbridled and Roberto. Individual buyers may have preferences, but there doesn’t seem to be a dominant set of “lines” indicating sport horse potential.
After a horse retires from racing, it usually needs a period of letdown. Some horses will have been on such medications as corticosteroids, and these horses may “crash,” with resultant weight loss, lethargy and poor coats, but, says Allie, usually they recover in about six months.
For the past couple of years, as riders have brought horses by the dozens to train at my farm, I’ve noticed just how many of them have been Thoroughbreds. Why the comeback? What is driving so many American riders back to the original source? Could the hot and crazy and unsound and fragile and unrideable stereotypes have been so wrong?
Yes and no, I think. The Thorough-bred isn’t for every rider. Hard handed, impatient, demanding riders will not get along with them. Easily intimidated or green riders may feel over-mounted. But for an increasing number of riders, the American Thoroughbred has far more going for it than against it.
They are affordable. It is almost as if one industry, the racing industry, is subsidizing another industry, the sport horse industry, with a flood of young, athletic horses that have already had a certain type of training, that can be bought for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to import one, breed one, or purchase one from its buyer.
They are NOT all hot and crazy. Sure, some are, but most are not.
Riders like the Thoroughbred heart. The Thoroughbred is apt to say, “yes.” Many other breeds are apt to say, “no.” They are athletes. They love to have a job.
The day of the American Thorough-bred as the breed of choice for dressage and grand prix show jumping is pretty much over. There are new “rams” in town custom bred for those jobs. But for the thousands of riders who grew up in those “gap years,” from the mid 1980s until about 2005, who never felt what it was like to gallop a brave, light, elastic, eager athlete over fields of green—these riders are rediscovering what the Thoroughbred has just been waiting to give. They are out there. More and more sources are helping riders make the connections.
You may know the saying that every time you ride a horse you also ride, in a sense, all the horses in that horse’s pedigree.
So the next time you canter your Thoroughbred and get up off his back and feel that power surge, that effortless feeling of a bird in flight, just imagine: You are coming down the homestretch on Man O’War, perhaps, or Native Dancer, or Tom Fool, or Affirmed. Or maybe you’re thundering down to the finish line of the Belmont 32 lengths ahead of the field on Secretariat.
Those are magical sensations for sure, and right now your very own magic carpet is out there waiting to take you on those kinds of rides.
Want A Thoroughbred Of Your Own?
If you’re interested in finding an off-track Thoroughbred of your own, you might reach out to one of the following organizations that specialize in re-homing these athletes:
Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center
Thoroughbred Adoption Network
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
MidAtlantic Horse Rescue
Finger Lake’s Finest
Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.