Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024

Breeds

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Like you'd expect from any activity involving green horses, the 100-Day Thoroughbred Challenge offered spectators at the Maryland Horse World Expo, Jan. 18-20 in Timonium, Md., some thrills, spills and surprises. But it also offered inspiration (to ride better), information (on why Thoroughbreds off the track do some of the things they do), and a solid case made on behalf of ex-racers as excellent sport horses-in-waiting.

It used to be that if you wanted to check out a promising horse coming off the racetrack, you needed an “in”—someone who could get you access to the backstretch and put you in touch with race horse trainers who might have good sport horse candidates. Those two universes—”race horse people” and “sport horse people”—well, it was often a case of “never the twain shall meet.”

On a muggy afternoon in July, the infield at Pimlico Race Course rumbled with the sound of galloping hooves of a different kind—an all-Thoroughbred horse show designed to showcase the versatility of the breed and raise funds for rehoming organizations.

What’s one way to stand out in the show ring? Wear stripes!

After Zack the zebra kept jumping out of his field, Sammi Jo Stohler figured he might have a knack for having fun over fences. “I had to build an 8' fence around the property because he kept jumping out,” she said. “He can clear 5' without a problem; he just walks up to a fence and ends up on the other side of it. I said, ‘I bet he can do it with a rider,’ and yep, it was no problem.”

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As I cross the Kopet Dagh range that separates Iran from Turkmenistan, my spirits begin to lighten. Behind me in Iran lies the land of the chador, while ahead promises the land of the horse.

As I enter Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, I am dazzled by the unequivocal and spectacular display of its equestrian culture, in which other local traditions of carpet and jewelry-making, poetry and music find their themes and raison d’etre.

Thoroughbred racing has been Anne Russek’s career and passion since she was a teenager. She started hot-walking horses at the Monmouth Park track in New Jersey at age 16 for Warren “Jimmy” Croll.

Before long she was galloping horses, and soon she married Croll’s son Bill.

“When Bill and I divorced, I’d been the assistant trainer in the family operation. So I went out on my own. I got remarried and moved to Virginia. I still have my trainer’s license, and we race our own homebreds,” said Russek.

Anne Russek didn’t run the inaugural Thoroughbred Celebration in June just like any other horse show. She made sure the focus was on the horses and their successful transition to their new lives.

As each horse entered the ring, the announcer read a short biography for the spectators—the name of the horse, his or her bloodlines and what was significant about that heritage. The owners of the horses added stories about how they acquired the OTTBs.

Krista Hodgkin not only volunteered to be the secretary for the inaugural Thoroughbred Celebration show in June, but she also rode her off-the-track Thoroughbred mare Well Spent (race name All Game) there.

Hodgkin, Roanoke, Va., and Well Spent, or “Rita,” qualified for and earned ribbons in both the hunter and jumper stake classes. Rita also carried Sarah Vest, 11, to second place in a walk-trot pleasure class.

This weekend Thoroughbreds will converge on the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington for the second Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Show, Nov. 21-22. Although off-the-track-Thoroughbreds can be found performing well in many disciplines, these shows provide a showcase for the breed that’s a little different than your average horse show.

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