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.
But despite Russek’s familiarity with the world of racing, she never stopped to wonder what happened to those horses once they no longer had a job on the track.
“My experience was that the horses went to the farms when they were done or needed rehab. It never dawned on me what happened to them next,” said Russek.
So when she read in a magazine that 30 percent of horses going to slaughter were Thoroughbreds, she was shocked.
“As stupid as I felt, I came to find out that most of my fellow racetrackers were as clueless as I was,” said Russek. “I delved deeper and deeper and found the pipeline to the slaughterhouses. It was racing’s dirty little secret.”
When Russek, 55, started looking into alternative options for ex-racehorses, she quickly got sucked into Thoroughbred rescue. “Once you rescue your first one, you’re either finished with racing or it becomes your mission,” she said.
Russek is practical, and she knew from the outset that not every racehorse could be saved. But she had a sense that many, many good horses weren’t being funneled into the correct channels.
“There was nobody taking inventory. If they went to [the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund], they got retired. But no one was paying attention to which ones could be used for other disciplines,” said Russek. “I wanted to create a secondary market. You need a venue they can go to to perform.
“The event people have been taking advantage of all the off-the-track horses for years, because they love the Thoroughbreds,” Russek continued. “They fit perfectly in their discipline. But the hunter/jumper industry has kind of been taken over by the warmblood.”
Russek knew of some horse shows run by rescues to help adopt out horses, but those shows were quite small.
That’s why she jumped on the idea to run a horse show specifically for off-the-track Thoroughbreds when Catherine Truitt, the new executive director of the Virginia Horse Center, and Chris Kelly, the coliseum manager, approached her about it.
“My daughter [Billie Rae Croll] has competed for years on the A circuit, and I have no problem with competition, but I realized what prevents a lot of people with OTTBs from taking that first step is that no one wants to go to a show and have their horse act badly and get marked as a bad horse. There weren’t enough shows for the horses to get exposed to showing,” said Russek.
So she organized the Thoroughbred Celebration as a show with something for everyone. “I expected we’d have a lot of green horses and first timers. A lot of the classes were baby classes. You could trot in your corners and not be penalized. I wanted to make it competitive, but inviting,” said Russek. “But I also wanted to offer classes for those who have achieved a higher level.”
And while many riders did show up with green horses, Russek was impressed by how well every horse behaved.
“I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised at the level of talent that showed up. You could really tell that these exhibitors had put a lot of time into these horses,” she said.