A Second Career for Retired Racehorses
By: Natalie Rietkerk
The word thoroughbred is synonymous with racehorse, and rightfully so – they are the world’s supreme equine athlete and tales of racing triumph are woven into the American story. Of the thousands of racehorses being bred and hitting the track, only a small percentage will ever step into the winner’s circle and even fewer will find fame. Many Thoroughbreds begin racing at the age of two and will only spend a few short years at the racetrack – retiring due to lack of speed or injury. With their boundless courage, immense stamina, and effortless ground-covering stride, the Thoroughbred’s athletic prowess makes them equally suitable for practically any equestrian discipline. But how do these magnificent horses find new homes and what career options are available?
Ideally, trainers and owners are able to find the retired racehorse a new beginning with an experienced owner who understands what the horse will need to make a smooth transition into a successful new career. However, as you can imagine, this does not happen every time as connections are limited and retraining a racehorse requires knowledge and patience. Funny – not everyone is willing to take on a 1,200 pound animal with one speed and no brakes. Wanting the best for their equine athletes, the racing industry turns to Thoroughbred aftercare programs such as California Retirement Management Account (CARMA) to facilitate finding retired racehorses a safe place to be rehabilitated and trained with the hopes of finding a new home.
CARMA, a charitable non-profit organization, was created to raise money to support retired California racehorses and provide funding for Thoroughbred retirement facilities that care for and retrain horses whose careers have ended on the track. Operating on donations from trainers, breeders, owners and true horse racing fans, CARMA is able to give retired racehorses a leg up to find a successful second career and a happy new home. CARMA also hosts fundraising events such as Santa Anita Uncorked, Cards 4 CARMA and sponsors the first Thoroughbred-only horse show on the West Coast, the Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show Series.
Born from the desire to provide retired racehorses and their owners a supportive environment to compete, the Thoroughbred Classic is redefining what it means to be “just an OTTB”. Held at world-class venues such as the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Galway Downs and Blenheim Equisport, and judged by United States Equestrian Federation recognized judges, the Thoroughbred Classic boasts all the trimmings of an ‘A’ rated competition at an affordable price.
“It’s our goal to help off-the-track Thoroughbreds make the transition from racehorse to sporthorse by giving them a place to get show experience and learn their new job,” said Thoroughbred Classic committee member Candace Coder-Chew, who also serves on the CARMA board of directors. “The show has classes for every level of horse and rider and in multiple disciplines as well. We offer hunter, jumpers, dressage, combined training, western, showmanship and we just added cross-county last year.”
Once dominated by off-the-track Thoroughbreds, the show ring is now ruled by Warmblood breeds with an iron fist – a cruel irony since the Thoroughbred played a vital part in improving old breeds to create the Warmblood. To date, there have been 10 Thoroughbreds inducted into the Hall of Fame including Touch of Class, Jet Run and Gem Twist – a few of the most successful show jumpers in history. The Thoroughbred Classic strives to spark the Thoroughbred movement and help the breed reclaim the show ring once again.
“With the right training and someone to give them a second chance, many retired racehorses go on to make excellent sporthorses and can compete with Warmbloods,” Candace said. “They have tremendous endurance and a lot of heart.”
On the weekend of March 21, the Thoroughbred Classic hosted its first show of the year at Galway Downs. As a committee member myself, I made the drive to Temecula to support the event and marvel at more than 50 off-the-track Thoroughbreds thriving in their second career. From fast firing jumpers to reliable lead liners, these former racehorses were doing it all.
My personal highlight of the show was running into jockey Kayla Stra and her horse On Holy Ground, who she affectionately nicknamed Whitey and adopted when he retired from racing. Standing causally outside of the hunter ring waiting for their class, I chatted with Kayla about her relationship with Whitey and what brought her out to the show.
“We’re soul mates,” Kayla said as she leaned forward to pat Whitey’s shoulder. “I rode him for most of his career. It’s funny, he’s nervous and I work with the nervous horses at the track, so I spent a lot of time working with him and really got attached.”
As we were going over her course, a non-descript dark bay walked by and Kayla shouted out the mare’s name. The rider turned stunned, shocked someone knew her horse’s racing name. Kayla then went into detail about what the mare was like to ride in races and asked how she was doing in her new home. Not many jockeys take the time to remember each horse they ride and come into contact with, but Kayla does.
The judge called Kayla and Whitey into the ring, where they completed their jumping course effortlessly – and with fabulous equitation, I might add. The two only started going over fences in December to prepare for the Thoroughbred Classic’s 2nd Annual Trainer & Jockey Calcutta, where race horse trainers and jockeys face off in a jumping competition to raise money for CARMA. A few of the competitors included trainers John Sadler, James Cassidy, Kristen Mulhall and Matt Chew, and jockeys Martin Garcia, Aaron Gryder and Edwin Maldonado.
“I only jumped him like three or four days before the show. I pulled him out of the paddock and set up some sticks,” Kayla joked referring to the Calcutta. “Jumping is fun, but I’d only do it with him. Whitey likes jumping better than racing so that’s why I do this. I want to hang out with him and this is what he wants to do – I tell him okay, let’s go do it! It’s good for both of us.”
With the support of the racing industry, horse show world and dedicated aftercare programs, retired racehorses have more opportunities then they have had in years. All these incredible animals need is a second chance and a loving home.
“If you can’t win on the track come to the Thoroughbred Classic and win some ribbons,” Kayla said with smile as she pinned five ribbons on Whitey’s bridle and reins.”
Follow Natalie on Twitter @NatalieRietkerk
Photo: © Terra Turrin