Saratoga Puts Heart in its Work
by LA Pomeroy, Photography by Megan Stapley
Possibly the only thing bigger than the noble heart of a Thoroughbred racehorse is the degree of heart – and soul – that Steuart Pittman and his organization, the Retired Racehorse Project, have put into ensuring that America’s best race horses get second careers as America’s best riding horses.
For the nearly 100 participants who came to Saratoga Springs, New York on Tuesday, August 4 for the Thoroughbreds For All Saratoga symposium (put on by the Retired Racehorse Project and sponsored in part by Aiken Horse) it was a chance to watch, learn and listen from some of the best horsemen and women in the industry, including America’s winningest retired female jockey, Rosie Napravnik. Other speakers included Michael Matz, who is a United States Show Jumping Hall of Famer and a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer; Nuno Santos the dressage trainer; Dr. Stowe Burke, a veterinarian; and Laine Ashker and Jennie Brannigan, both Advanced Level three-day eventers. The symposium had demonstrations by (and a marketplace for) Thoroughbred horses, including the offspring of Bernardini, Giant’s Causeway, Tapit and Unbridled. All this took place at Traylor Stable in nearby Ballston Spa, and, later that evening, at The Parting Glass, an Irish pub in downtown Saratoga Springs.
“The biggest thing about a horse, that we cannot judge with a pre-purchase exam, is their heart. Beyond ability, you have to get to know the personality of a horse. It’s a big part of their career,” Michael Matz told his audience during Selecting the Discipline and Market for your Retiring Racehorse, one of four discussions presented from 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. at Traylor Stable. (Other discussions that day covered: Training the Thoroughbred for Second Careers, Soundness Standards for Second Careers, What Jockeys Know that the Rest of Us Should Learn.)
The program opened with Gloria Oleynek presenting two 8-year-old geldings retired from racing: Roar of the Locust (aka Simba) a flashy 15.3-hand bay by Roar of the Tiger, and Writethatdown (aka Scribble) a 16.1-hand bay by Read the Footnotes. Both horses were for sale through the marketplace, and both had impeccable manners. They were ridden for the crowd, showing ample ability for dressage and jumping.
Following this was a preview demonstration put on by a few recently-retired racehorses in training for the $100,000 RRP/Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) Thoroughbred Makeover. This is a competition that will be staged at the Kentucky Horse Park in October that aims to designate one horse “America’s Most Wanted OTTB.” In the demonstration, the trainers shared each horse’s backstretch story, and there was commentary from the panel of experts.
Among the Makeover hopefuls presented were Rapsandtaps, a 2010 grey stallion by Tapit, bred in Ontario by Robert Harvey, owned by Nell Byrd Noell of Reisterstown, Maryland, and ridden by Nuno Santos. Santos grew up in Portugal studying dressage on Iberian horses before discovering Thoroughbreds as an exercise rider and assistant trainer for the late Bobby Frankel. He and his wife, Katie Tolberg, operate Santos Sport Horses out of Loblolly Farm in Hampstead, Maryland. Over the past few years Nuno has developed a reputation as one of the few upper dressage riders who prefers to compete on Thoroughbreds. He has been successful, winning at Fourth Level on Ken’s Kitten (by Kitten’s Joy), a horse he expects to show at FEI level soon. Nuno’s own string of Thoroughbreds was acquired primarily from Darley Stables, but he now has racing owners worldwide hiring him to secure futures for racing retirees through a dressage foundation.
“My ‘worst’ good horse ever,” Santos recounted later on at the Thoroughbred Training Forum hosted at The Parting Glass, “Was Fusaichi Pegasus. [The winner of the 2000 Kentucky Derby.] He gave me a lot of experience – and sleepless nights – trying to figure him out. One time, while riding him, he jumped out of a round pen, reared up and started hugging a palm tree. He won that battle, but a week later, he also won the Derby. Ghost Zapper [winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic] was one of my greatest. Riding him was one of the best feelings in my life. Working with Bobby [Frankel] was amazing.”
Rosie Napravnik, who was making her first appearance in the irons since retiring from race-riding last fall, presented Dare Me, a 2010 bay gelding by Johannesburg (out of Oatsee by Unbridled), bred in Kentucky by My Meadowview Farm and owned by the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (MMSC). Dare Me, an eventing hopeful, was donated to MMSC by his owner/breeder, Louise Riggio, and was in training with the event rider Dorothy Crowell before Napravnik took over the project.
“The horse probably has more eventing potential than I do,” Napravnik joked. “He’s naturally balanced, with a little spunk. So far our most difficult gait is the walk.
“If we bred Thoroughbreds as show horses the way we breed them as race horses, Rolex [America’s premier three day event] would be dominated by Thoroughbreds,” Napravnik said later at the forum. “The sky’s the limit with the breed. Growing up, my mom owned an off-track Thoroughbred and a Holsteiner, and even at 6, I knew I preferred the Thoroughbred. It’s so satisfying to see how track horses want to do more, do better, and go bigger.
“Getting more from a horse depends first on their care and treating each horse as an individual,” she continued. “When you’ve got a barn with 80 or more horses, it’s tough not to let some slip between the cracks and for a few years, our industry failed to do that.
“There are a lot of Thoroughbreds that need re-homing, as opposed to rescue, that are ready to be perfectly good performance horses. The Secretariat Center puts horses through a very thorough bomb-proofing program, and racetracks are always looking for outlets that will take a horse that needs, for whatever reason, to get off the track. What we need are reputable people, doing the right thing.”
Among the horse-and-rider combinations in Saratoga that are preparing to make a worldwide statement about the American Thoroughbred are Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch (Jockey Club name Alex’s Castledream), a 16-hand, 16 year-old son of Castleguard out of Aimee Alexis. Ashker credits Thoroughbreds (and her mom, Valerie) for everything in her life, but it was this scrappy New Jersey-bred racehorse, purchased as a 4-year-old, that inspired her to pick up the pieces and continue riding after a catastrophic accident at Rolex in 2008. Laine was in a crash that cost her her young horse, Frodo Baggins, and severely injured her jaw, ribs, clavicle and lungs. Seven years later, Ashker and Anthony Patch’s Advanced division highlights include placing 14th internationally and eighth nationally at the 2010 Rolex CCI4*. The pair also won the 2013 USEA/American Eventing Gold Cup Final and scored consecutive Advanced wins at the Millbrook Horse Trials in 2013 and 2014. Their finishes in the three phases of 2015 Rolex Kentucky were so good they moved Ashker to tears, and included a personal best (44.2) in CCI4* dressage as well as one of only eight clears out of 41 pairs in the stadium round.
“When looking at horses and second careers it’s about more than sizing them up by their legs and top lines,” said Valerie Ashker. “It comes down to heart. Does the horse want to do the job? Anthony Patch has a crooked leg but it’s never been a problem. He moves like he’s floating above the ground. He wants to work.
“When it all comes together,” she concluded, “a Thoroughbred’s heart will give you 200%.”
The Retired Racehorse Project is a 501(c)3 charitable organization working to facilitate placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in the marketplace and inspiring an army of equestrians to provide the training that secures their futures. RRP programs include educational resources, programs at major events, the Bloodline Brag, Retired Racehorse Resource Directory, and current listings for more than 200 horses for sale or adoption. RRP’s Thoroughbred Charities of America Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park, October 23-25, will feature 350 horses being trained for up to nine months in 10 disciplines while competing for $100,000 in cash and prizes. Learn more at www.retiredreacehorseproject.org.