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July 17, 2012

Thoroughbred-Only Horse Show Proves The Finish Line Is Just The Start

Jennifer Pennington, who won two hack classes with Victory's Palace, is interviewed by HRTV for a webcast about the Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show, held on July 14 in Maryland.

On a muggy afternoon in July, the infield at Pimlico Race Course rumbled with the sound of galloping hooves of a different kind—an all-Thoroughbred horse show designed to showcase the versatility of the breed and raise funds for rehoming organizations.

“Don’t take off; you’re not a race horse anymore!” a girl is overheard saying as she leads her bay Thoroughbred across the track and into the infield at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md. The horse was one of more than 300 taking part in the first Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show, a show-hunter style competition limited to Thoroughbreds that took place on July 14 at the home of the Preakness Stakes.

The competition was conceived by Georgeann Hale, racing secretary for the Maryland Jockey Club, and Stacie Clark-Rogers, of Adena Springs Retirement Program, to raise awareness and funds for various charities that try to help racing Thoroughbreds move on to second careers. The day featured seven classes, from leadline to a 3' over fences class, and all horses competed under their Jockey Club names.

For the most part, the ex-racers seemed to consider it just another horse show—one that happened to take place in the infield of a racetrack. The riders, however, were a different story.

Hillary Hytken of Olney, Md., stopped her mount Wild About Harry under a sign marking the intersection of Secretariat St. and Affirmed Ave. and asked a friend to snap a photograph. “Because it’s cool!” she exclaimed, beaming under the sign.

Hytken, who rides with Rolling Acres Farm in Brookville, Md., normally shows “Harry” (who competes under the name D’Orsay) in the high/low children’s/adult jumpers, and he has also evented through training level.

“Today he’s masquerading as a hunter, and doing a pretty good job!” she joked. The pair placed fourth and second in two under saddle classes. The 11-year-old gelding, who was Breeders Cup nominated, is by Wild Rush and out of Ashlea’s Debut.

“He’s the only Thoroughbred at my barn, and I want to get another one,” she said, adding that she wanted to attend the show to support the Thoroughbred industry, and especially to promote the horses’ abilities in other sports.

“I felt it was important to put my money where my mouth is,” she said. “These horses are too talented, too kind, and too many of them get destroyed before we know what they can do.”

The day was a celebration of all things Thoroughbred—t-shirts and hats were for sale emblazoned with the show’s logo, leadline competitors donned jockey silks and goggles, and competitors were invited to chalk messages or their horses’ names on large blackboards set up by the main ring. By the end of the day, the boards were full of inscriptions and doodles. The show announcer read a proclamation from Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, declaring the day “Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show Day,” and paying tribute to the long history of racing in the state.

The passion shown by the owners of these repurposed racehorses surprised even the organizers. By the Wednesday before the show, show manager Hale realized she was going to need to add a third ring and had to scramble to secure more jumps and another judge. There were about 800 total entries, and around 200 of them were added the morning of the show, making for a hectic start to a competition day that started with heavy downpours and lasted almost until sunset.

“It was a long day, but everyone enjoyed themselves,” Hale said. She noted that almost all of the competitors were from the Mid-Atlantic states, proving that the region has a wide customer base of potential competitors for such shows. She plans to run the show again in 2013, although perhaps as a two-day event to accommodate more competitors.

An Inspired Idea

Hale and Clark-Rogers hatched the idea about a year ago, when Clark-Rogers asked for a meeting to discuss how to raise money for Thoroughbred retirement and rehoming efforts. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a horse show?’ ” Hale recalled. Pimlico, where Hale is the director of racing, was the logical choice—it boasted an expansive infield, and the facility sits unused after the Preakness each May. Stabling was plentiful, and of course there was the allure of riding across the track where Triple Crown winners once galloped.

Hale traveled to Lexington, Va., to watch one of the Thoroughbred Celebration shows held at the Virginia Horse Center, taking notes on how the concept could be adapted for Pimlico. She decided to keep the show simple with just seven classes—a leadline and walk class, open to children ages 6 and under, and 10 and under, respectively; walk/trot and walk/trot/canter under saddle classes, and 1', 2' and 3' over fences classes. She asked friend and colleague Rodney Jenkins, former show jumping star and current trainer of race horses at Laurel Park, to be one of the judges, along with eventer Steuart Pittman Jr., president of the board of directors of the Retired Racehorse Training Project. Leonard Hale also agreed to judge when it became clear the number of entries would require adding a third ring.

Pittman judged the flat classes, which were all split into three sections to accommodate the large number of entries. “All the judges were good sports, but he had the hardest job,” said Hale with a chuckle.

Pittman turned down offers to take a break or find a substitute to spell him and kept the mood light into a hot and muggy afternoon with some added commentary over the bullhorn. “Did you ever see so many laid-back horses? Downright lazy!” he joked during one of the flat classes.

When competitors lined up for ribbons, at the end of each section, he asked riders to raise their hands if they were on horses who were Maryland-bred, or had run more than 50 times, or won more than $50,000, or ever raced at Pimlico. Grinning riders enthusiastically shot their hands up, proud of their mounts’ former lives at the track.

Former Jockey Pilots Former Race Horse To Win

Competitor Jennifer Pennington, who won sections of the walk/trot and walk/trot/canter flat classes with Victory’s Palace, a 2004 gelding by Fortunate Move out of Miracle Zone, had a special connection to her horse’s racing career—she actually raced him. Pennington is a former jockey herself and the wife of current jockey Frankie Pennington, who’s based at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania (formerly Philadelphia Park).

She took ownership of the horse after his career was over and his racetrack owners essentially abandoned him with his trainer. Victory’s Palace later became a pony horse and even took part in the couple’s wedding—they rode double on him into their reception. This was just the second horse show ever for the dark bay 8-year-old gelding. “Oh my God, I was more nervous than when I rode him in a race!” Pennington exclaimed.

Pennington grew up showing Thoroughbreds in the hunters and was a student at the McDonough School in Owings Mills, Md., riding with Streett Moore. After a brief racing career and taking time off to have a baby seven months ago, she now gallops horses for trainer Kathleen DeMasi.

“She’s very into finding horses new careers and told me to take notes [on the show],” Pennington said of DeMasi, adding that she hopes to eventually see a mini-series of similar shows at various racetracks in the region.

“It’s not fair that [Thoroughbreds] work so hard for the two years or so that they race, and then they’re just thrown away,” Pennington said.

Another competitor with ties to both racing and showing was Megan Sullivan, who took the show’s top prize, a perpetual trophy awarded in a hack-off among the top two finishers in the multiple sections of over fences classes. Sullivan rode Houston, a 12-year-old gelding (Rock Point—Anita’s Magic) her family bought as a yearling for $600 at the Fasig-Tipton October sale in Timonium, Md.

“He’s the love of my life,” Sullivan gushed. She shows the gelding in the 3' adult hunters and calls him a “family horse,” as he's been ridden by multiple members of the Sullivan clan, who operate Fairfield Farm in Jarrettsville, Md.

Racing and Thoroughbreds have always been a family affair for Sullivan, with both her mother and grandfather involved in the business, and she’s attended many runnings of the Preakness Stakes. It added some special significance to their big win to have it take place at the venerable track known as “Old Hilltop.”

“It’s a historical place. It’s neat to show there, you know, where Secretariat had won,” she said. “And it was neat to see all my different friends [from racing and showing] and bring all the horses together.”

Although Sullivan admits her family doesn’t have quite as many Thoroughbreds as they used to—currently Quarter Horses and warmbloods are in the mix as well—she still believes the Thoroughbreds stand out. “If they love their job, they love their job,” she said. “Thoroughbreds have so much enthusiasm for what they do, they’re so talented, and they can be talented in so many different things.”

The competition raised $16,500 for the benefit of retired racehorses through Thoroughbred Placement Resources, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue.

 

 
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