In 2008, when the economy took a turn for the worse, Dale Simanton of the Newell, S.D.-based Horse Creek Thoroughbreds brainstormed creative solutions to stay afloat in the industry.
"One day I was watching the races at Turfway Park on TVG and I saw this gorgeous little grey gelding...he was a 35-1 shot and I thought if he ran as bad as he was supposed to, maybe (his owners) would want to get rid of him," remembered Simanton of Wicked Walt, a winning son of Cozar.
After the race, in which Wicked Walt expectedly finished in the back of the pack, Simanton was able to track down contact information for the gelding's owner and negotiate a trade for one of his yearling fillies. Wicked Walt or "Wally" was then re-trained for a new career at Horse Creek, and subsequently was sold to a North Dakota horseman as a ranch horse and/or barrel racing prospect.
Wicked Walt and Dale Simanton; photos by Dorothy Snowden
Since the harsh economic climate had made it increasingly difficult for Simanton to sell Horse Creek's yearlings, Simanton figured if he could continue trading them for older racetrack geldings, and then re-training those geldings to do ranch work, he might be able to turn a profit.
The resulting off track Thoroughbred program, Great Geldings, has become more successful than Simanton could have hoped.
"I never dreamed it would turn out as good as it has," said Simanton, who owns and operates Horse Creek with his business partner, Dorothy Snowden. "Basically, the horses did it."
The sprawling, open land in South Dakota is home to numerous cattle
ranches, where Simanton is frequently hired for part-time day jobs.
"When we weren't on the Montana summer racing circuit, our horses were used for cattle work to keep their attitudes fresh," added Snowden. "It made for better horses when their racing days were over, but we never thought it would become the focus of the operation."
Simanton now works with four different trainers throughout the Midwest that give him geldings off the track once their race careers have ended. The geldings are then sent to Horse Creek, where they are either re-trained by Simanton to be ranch horses or by Snowden, who specializes in various show horse disciplines.
"In my opinion (Thoroughbreds) are the best horses in the world--they're the most versatile horse alive," said Simanton, who grew up in north central Montana and bought his first Thoroughbred at age 12. He rode as a jockey for around six years at small tracks on the former "leaky roof circuit" in Montana and Idaho, and later worked as a trainer for more than two decades.
Considering his vast experience in the industry, Simanton is rarely intimidated to train a horse off the track.
"If somebody sends me a horse that's already been ridden a bunch of times, I'm probably not going to get bucked off," he said. "The first time you put a back cinch on them and tighten it up, they may jump around and kick at it, but in five minutes they're over it and we trot out of the yard. I trained racehorses for 20 years, so I understand their minds and the things that set them off and get them excited."
There are currently around 15 horses in the Great Geldings program. In the last four years, graduates have gone on to specialize in ranch work, barrel racing, three-day eventing, jumping, and dressage.
"Thoroughbreds can do anything...they're tough, smart, and after they get the first few races out of their system, they're pretty quiet," Simanton said.
A particularly special horse that was re-trained at Horse Creek is the English-bred gelding Crested. Bred by Darley and raced throughout most of his career by a partnership group called The Horizon Stable, the son of Fantastic Light won the 2008 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile Handicap at Turf Paradise and placed in three other grade III races. Crested, who hails from the family of grade I winner Grace Hall, carved out a career record of 9-6-4 from 45 starts, for earnings of $475,349.
Crested needed time to heal from a strained suspensory injury when he was first sent to Horse Creek, but he adjusted to ranch life well, and didn't let rope work slow him down.
"The first time he ever saw a cow, he pinned his ears and went to work; it was just natural," said Simanton of the gelding, who is only about 15'1 hands. "He's not afraid of anything. He's a little prince to ride...he's kind of a hot head--he gets mad when you take him away from his buddies, but he's a really good, solid little horse."
Crested at work
Tally Up, a two-time stakes winner at Arlington Park, is an additional Great Gelding graduate. The son of Service Stripe is now a member of Horse Creek's "Ranch Rodeo" team that competes in local events.
"Incidentally, he and Crested ran against each other in the (2006) Hawthorne Derby (gr. III)," said Snowden. (Crested finished runner up in that race, while Tally Up trailed in eighth). "What were the odds of both horses ending up on the same South Dakota ranch?"
Dale, checking on cows with Tally Up
Race With A Plum, known as "Lucky" around Horse Creek barn, has the distinction of being one of the first Great Gelding horses. He retired from the racetrack with a career slate of 10-18-13 from 86 starts, for earnings of $178,425.
"He's is a hard-knocking Florida-bred that found us after a rough time of things at Suffolk Downs," said Snowden of the gelding, who was originally scheduled to be euthanized due to a racetrack injury. With some time to heal at Horse Creek from a popped abscess in his foot, however, Lucky was soon back to normal and ready for a new career.
"He is an all-around ranch horse with character and has a funny habit of crossing a front leg to scratch flies off the opposite leg," said Snowden.
In a ranch rodeo last fall, Lucky carried his junior rider, Tucker Chytka, age 14, to win the "Top Hand Youth" title.
"He roped everything in the arena; he's a super horse," said Simanton.
Lucky roping a calf
In the future, Simanton said he would like to see some of his Great Geldings go to train in the National Reined Cow Horse Association.
"People also love buying my horses as eventing prospects, because they can get on them and go to work," he said. "They're not afraid to jump anything...they can learn about anything after they've learned ranch work."
Dale and Crested
Fun fact about Horse Creek Thoroughbreds: They bred and raised Cyclone Larry, an off track Thoroughbred that played one of the "Secretariat" horses in the hit Disney film. Cyclone Larry, who is by Horse Creek stallion Finn McCool, is now a trail riding horse for a teenage girl in Minnesota.
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