One December 2017th evening, I picked up the Equus magazine and coincidentally it opened straight to an ad for the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover competition. Immediately my curiosity was peeked. During my busy schedule on the West coast I had only seen glimpses of this East coast event in passing, but even so, I definitely noticed it was gaining notoriety. A bit of quick history straight from the Retired Racehorse Project: "The Thoroughbred Makeover has been held every year since its inception in 2010. The 2013 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium at Pimlico was the organization's first national gathering of the farms, organizations, and individuals that transition these horses to second careers. Twenty-six trainers in ten riding disciplines chronicled their work online over four months with horses who knew nothing but racing at the start. The weekend included seminars, demonstrations, and a sponsor fair. It was widely hailed as a landmark event experienced by 800 in person, thousands online, and an estimated four million through mainstream media in the local market. Thoroughbred Charities of America awarded RRP its Industry Service Award in recognition for the success of this event."
And just like that, I made up my mind that had to be a part of this event. What better competition to be a part of as a professional, or amateur alike, than one that's built solely around Highlighting the development of a new set of skill(s) into a horse recently retired off the track. The best part for me being it is with a breed that I call my heart breed. The Thoroughbred has been a part of my world since my youth, from my parents raising sport horses in anglo-Trakehner and anglo-Holsteiner crosses, by crossing the warm-bloods on our thoroughbred mares. To the now hundreds of thoroughbreds I have raised and trained into Polo horses on my family's Illinois farm, most of which have been horses straight off the track. I know the breed and the kind of horse that come off the track very well. Like a hand to a glove, the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover seemed like the perfect fit for me.
Instantly I put out an "all call" with all the people in my immediate community, to find a horse that qualified. Not just any thoroughbred off the track can be entered, it has to have retired NO more than 18 months prior to the Thoroughbred Makeover, and NOT have started a second career 10 months prior to the Thoroughbred Makeover, this way everybody is on as much of level a playing field as possible, and the horses would have had a chance to rest and recover from the work or a possible injury.
I chased down lead after lead, and either the horse had an injury that would need rest far to long into the 10 month training period leading up to the competition, or the trainer wouldn't contact me back, or the horse was already gone to a new home. It was now late January and I was starting to get concerned. Many people had their horse already and had been able to give it ample down time after being retired off the track. The more time that ticked by, the further and further I was getting behind the 8 ball.
The end of the first week in February rolls by and still nothing, so at best, I now only have 8 months to acquire, get to know, and train my potential Makeover horse to be ready by the first of October. You have to keep in mind, age does not matter in this event, only the date the horse retired and the date in which it starts a new career. So, you are not necessarily starting with a clean slate with these horses, some of what they learn on the track can be good and beneficial, but other stuff can be an absolute bear to undo and retrain, and in some cases even dangerous, so the more time you get with these horses the better obviously. I am up against the clock for what I know the ex racehorse needs, and that is rest after coming off the track.
FINALLY, my phone rings from one of my clients who works with the Neigh Savers Foundation Horse Rescue, she had a lead on a mare in southern California and was going to email me pictures. As soon as the images came through I knew this horse was my horse, not just my horse for the competition, she was the horse I'd been looking for for myself...it was just one of those gut feelings. She was a coming 5 year old, with almost $40k in earnings, a slight built chestnut mare with a blaze face and 2 perfect white socks in the rear. She was EXACTLY what I had been looking for for my own string, not to mention she comes with the breeding of royalty. Her name is "Sassy Ashley" and she's by English Channel out of Indy Jazz who's by A.P Indy, and anyone who knows TB bloodlines knows Ashley is the real deal.
I soon found out a heartwarming or gut-wrenching, which ever way you want to look at it, detail about this mare's past; she was a survivor of the devastating fires that tore through the San Luis Rey Downs racetrack on December 7th 2017, in Southern California. Most all of us saw the horrible footage of the grooms and trainers racing around, turning horses loose to give them a chance of surviving, what a mess, it still chokes me up just thinking about what everyone went through that fateful day. I think that sealed the deal for me, Sassy Ashley needed to come home for the final time, she'd earned that.
It sounds easy, but was no small task to actually bring Ashley home. I owe a huge thank you to the Neigh Savers Foundation for helping convince Ashley's race owners that she was going to get a great home. I was really impressed that her owners were so concerned where she was going to be placed, to me that was unheard of, at least where I come from anyway ;-) I had to wait exactly 1 week before meeting her in person, and I was bursting at the seams for that day...I just knew this was a special horse.
11:45pm on February 14, still Valentines day which seemed fitting, the semi hauling Ashley from Southern California showed up at the barn. She got off the truck quiet enough, but you could tell she had really stressed somewhere along the way and was"washed out" with sweat, but had since dried. None the less she was here, and that was all that mattered. I could give her the TLC from now on.
Over the course of the next 7.5 months, I knew I had to play my cards just exactly right so I could take care of what she needed, but then also have the time to teach her the skills she needed to know so that we could be as successful as we could be by competition time. Ashley needed part of that 7.5 months as down time and with no stress...and let me be the first to tell you that that was a huge test of will power! For the first 4 months I owned her I didn't do much but fiddle with her, take her places, go on trail rides etc. But to make this whole challenge just a little MORE interesting, we had some real set backs along the way as well. Between getting her ulcers healed and her eating well, to sustaining a couple silly but fairly serious injuries, to picking up a fever that had her out for a week when I only had 2 weeks to go before starting the trip from California to Kentucky...getting to the Makeover in one whole and respectable piece, was no small feat or for the feint of heart.
This was my first Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover, so I didn't really know what to expect. I had been paying attention to some of my fellow competitors on the trainer's Facebook page and was heartened by the light hearted nature everybody had with where they, and their horses were in training and scheme of things. There were a few serious competitors out there that the stars had lined up for, but by enlarge, the masses were those just doing what I was doing, which was trying their best for their horse, and were content getting where they got by competition time. That's not something that can be said in a lot of instances when it comes to competition, this event is no doubt in a class of it's own. Personally I see it as an event where heart and practicality come together, and honestly that's where you see the best come out in people. And it did, there were friendly faces everywhere, people and horses trying hard and getting things done. But the overall feeling was that people where there to celebrate this wonderful breed and showcase its unmatched versatility.
In the end Ashley and I did pretty average to be honest, we were entered in Polo and Ranch Work, and ended up Top 10 in Polo, and 13th out of 55 in Ranch Work. But to tell you the truth I couldn't have been more proud of her, and in a way, what we were able to pull off. Between her physical challenges, injuries, untimely sickness, and my crazy clinic schedule; we came, we saw, we survived and we learned, and you know what, I'm already geared up to go again next year! If I can encourage you to get out and do something great for the horse, and have a great time doing it, it would be to take part in this event in some way, shape or form. The Retired Racehorse Project pays out over $100,000 in cash prizes, and had a growth rate of 38% from last year. This year there were over 700 trainer applications, resulting in over 500 entries. It's getting to be a big deal and needs to continue to grow and be supported!
With that said, I'll leave you with one the greatest song lyrics of all time..."Life is not tried, it is merely survived if you're standing out side the fire..."
~Standing Outside the Fire by Garth Brooks