Imagine getting on an ex-racehorse for the first time in a small indoor arena—during an ice storm—in front of a large crowd of people. That’s what the trainers for the Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge were contending with as the competition kicked off at the Maryland Horse Expo in Timonium on Jan. 20-21.
In preparation for the challenge, Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, first chose three trainers (Kerry Blackmer of Middleburg, Va., Eric Dierks of Tryon, N.C., and Tiffany Catledge of Adamstown, Md.) and three judges (four-star eventer Stephen Bradley, former steeplechase jockey Anne Hambleton and former flat racing jockey Andrea Seefeldt Knight).
Pittman’s next project was choosing four horses—one for each trainer and then one to be used as an alternate. Owners contacted Pittman about using their horses, and he went to visit them at their farms. The four horses chosen to go to the Expo for the Challenge were Brazilian Wedding (Milwaukee Brew—Lady In Tails, Black Tie Affair), High Level (Mutakddim—Maria’s Crown, Marias Mon), Solidify (Alajwad—Kali Dearest, Dearest Doctor) and Four X The Trouble (Domestic Dispute—Rynot, Caveat).
A fifth horse, Lorna Starkey's Bodiddle (Bowman’s Band—Granny Gail, Crafty Friend), showed ankle calcification on his x-rays and wasn’t recommended for use in the challenge. He was taken to Pittman’s Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Md., for a month of training.
Making A Match
The first step in the Trainer Challenge was matching horses and riders, and the three trainers gathered on Friday to make their choices. However, Pittman made things a little more interesting by asking them some racing trivia to determine choosing order. Eric Dierks won first pick, and he snatched up Brazilian Wedding, a 6-year-old mare owned by Pat Dale.
“All the horses were beautiful,” Dierks said. “But this mare, she could do the hunters, eventing, jumping, dressage; she’s just an all-around good horse. The Four X The Trouble horse was just a little on the small side for me. For me to look good on a horse, I’d rather get something that fits me.”
Tiffany Catledge went next, picking up High Level, the 7-year-old gelding owned by Jim Falk. The next morning High Level came up a little lame with a sole bruise, and Catledge ended up riding the alternate, Solidify, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue. Catledge took both horses home with her on Sunday, and she's hoping to bring High Level sound within a few days. If he’s still off, Solidify will be her training project.
“[High Level] struck me as a very athletic horse from the moment he walked into the arena on Friday,” Catledge said. “I loved his expression. I thought he was nicely put together, and he had a fabulous trot. He was a little wild on the video Steuart had, but I liked his enthusiasm. I thought he would be a fun project from the video, and I liked him even more in person.”
Blackmer chose last, picking up Four X The Trouble, but she admitted he was the one she most wanted anyway. The 4-year-old owned by Robin Coblyn was the youngest of the group.
“I like his build,” Blackmer said. “He’s a little smaller than the other two. I personally like a smaller horse because I’m not very tall. He’s a little more compact than the other two, and I find horses like that are easier to put together. I knew he was the youngest and the greenest just from seeing him in the ring on Friday, and I knew he’d be more up than the others.”
After choosing horses, riders were allowed to spend time with the horses on the ground, but they weren’t allowed to sit on them.
“I told them they could sleep in the stalls with the horses if they wanted to, to bond with them, but they couldn’t get on them. Tiffany asked, ‘Can we just get on them once out there just to make sure it’s OK?’ And I said, ‘No, I want this to be as real as possible,’ ” said Pittman.
On Saturday afternoon, the trainers let their charges explore the ring a bit before jumping on them. The three horses quietly looked around at all the people, though a bit of “test applause” didn’t go over well, and Pittman asked the crowd to refrain from clapping for the rest of the demonstration.
While the crowd may have expected some shenanigans once the riders got on their horses, mounting went smoothly for everyone. Catledge spent a few moments lying on the side of the saddle, across Solidify’s back, before moving him to the mounting block and actually swinging up.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” said Catledge. “I was thinking about that afterwards. I was thinking if that was maybe part of why all the horses were so good. We were all so confident about what we were going to do. I was more excited than anything.”
Handlers held all three horses during the mounting process, and everyone moved slowly.
“Part of what you should watch is how these people get on,” said Pittman. “We told them to bring their own tack, their own equipment, whatever they thought was appropriate for getting on a horse you don’t know. Tiffany has a yoke on her horse, which is what they use at the track. It’s like a martingale, but it’s really an 'Oh my God' strap.
“Eric is such a good rider he doesn’t need one,” joked Pittman.
Four X The Trouble, or “Tempest,” was the most visibly nervous of the group.