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.
This is the second incarnation of the Retired Racehorse Training Project's showcase at the Expo, building off the success of last year's Trainer Challenge. This year's format was different—instead of sending horses home with different trainers, all four horses in the Challenge are being trained at Steuart Pittman's Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Md. The change simplified the logistics of working with the horses' owners and was easier to present in the hour-long Expo time slot. But it also moved the focus from the guest trainers to the horses and the farms that offered them to participate in the challenge.
An article about the program in the magazine Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred just before the Expo had raised the level of interest, and Pittman said the RRTP booth had seen many visitors from the racing industry, more so than in the past. Their model of increasing the demand for Thoroughbreds off the track by promoting them to sport horse riders, rather than relying on a rescue model, "makes a lot of sense [to the racing industry], and it respects the horse,” said Pittman.
The training challenge is somewhat modeled after the 100-day testing for warmblood stallions, Pittman explained. He noted that most of the spectators in the stands at the Expo probably weren't yet ready to tackle retraining a Thoroughbred off the track, but he hoped it would become a goal for many of them. "I want them to be inspired to learn to ride better, so that they can get the same thrill that we do on these horses," he said. "Watching these horses inspires people to ride better, which is good in itself. It's not just about placing more horses; it's also about improving horsemanship."
At the start of each of the three demo sessions, Pittman made a point of introducing the horses and filling spectators in on their stories, but he also mentioned all the horses' connections—breeders, trainers, owners, all with Mid-Atlantic ties.
Four horses were supposed to be showcased, but as spectators who'd been following their progress via the RRTP's website and Facebook page already knew, a mare named Gunport suffered a hock injury just a few days before the Expo and didn't make trip to Timonium. In addition, one of the riders scheduled to participate dropped a couch on her foot and broke it, so she was unable to ride. (Best laid plans, anyone?)
The three horses who did attend were Alluring Punch (a 2009 chestnut gelding owned by Northview Stallion Station and Barbara Ryan), Suave Jazz (a 2003 dark bay gelding owned by Walnut Green Farm), and Declan's Moon (a 2002 dark bay gelding owned by Country Life Farm and Jay Em Ess Racing). The three horses had about six weeks of training under their belts.
Getting To Know Them
The first session on Friday was an introduction—both for horses and for spectators. Pittman, who emceed all three sessions, provided lengthy biographies on the horses while they were hand-walked around the ring, acclimating to the small space and the sizable crowds. Friday's session focused on free-jumping, but unfortunately Declan's Moon had slipped coming off the trailer and was a bit off behind, so he didn't get to jump.
ABOUT THE HORSES:
Declan’s Moon (Malibu Moon—Vee Vee Star, by Norquestor) is an 11-year-old Maryland-bred gelding who won the Eclipse Award as an undefeated 2-year-old. An injury cut short his 3-year-old year and prevented him from running in the Kentucky Derby, but he ran an additional 13 times after his recovery and was then retired.
Suave Jazz (Suave Prospect—Cavite Starlet, Jazzing Around) is a 10-year-old gelding who ran 70 races and won $651,000.Gunport (not at the Expo) (Mizzen Mast—Directive, Deputy Minister) is a 4-year-old gray filly bred by Sagamore Farm. She trained to race, ran once and was dead last.
Pittman pointed out how each horse's movement and conformation translated to their jumping styles. Alluring Punch's sloped croup gave him the effect of a coiled spring, and so a smooth and effortless jump. Suave Jazz, on the other hand, showed a bit of knee action in his trot and was quick and catty with his feet. Both horses free-jumped through the chute several times, relaxed and looking as if they'd done it dozens of times before.