Ever since talking with Retired Racehorse Trainer Project founder Steuart Pittman, who was one of 12 people featured in our magazine piece "Making a Difference" (The Blood-Horse of February 16, page 26), I have wanted to specifically blog about the organization's "100 Day Challenge."
Since this is the last week before the blog focus will switch to the Kentucky Oaks as we get closer to the first Friday in May, I figured it was my perfect chance.
The Retired Racehorse Training Project's "100 Day Thoroughbred Challenge" was comprised of four horses representing four Mid-Altantic Thoroughbred farms, including Samantha Siegel's retired grade I-winning gelding Declan's Moon.
Left to right: Samantha Siegel, Declan's Moon, Steuart Pittman. Photo by Lydia Williams
The chosen horses, which began a 100-day long training program Dec. 1, were judged on conformation, movement, jumping ability and trainability by guest riders, judges, and online fans.
They appeared at the Maryland Horse World Expo on the third weekend in January and the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo on the fourth weekend of February. The horses were trained together during the Challenge at Pittman's Dodon Farm Training Center near Davidsonville, Md.
The purpose of the Challenge was to demonstrate the versatility, trainability, and quality of the Thoroughbreds being produced by America's horse racing industry. The Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) is a charitable organization whose mission is to increase demand for Thoroughbreds off the track.
Prior to the 100 Day Challenge, Declan's Moon was stabled at Josh Pon's Country Life Farm near Bel Air, Md.
Declan's Moon at Country Life. Photo by Ellen Pons
"He was just a magnificent horse and a beautiful mover," noted Pons. "I had told Samantha Siegel that I wished I could find a really good rider for him, because he's spirited and not a push-button horse. He's an alpha male, super aware, with a lot of presence. It would take a really good rider to take on that challenge."
Pons met with Pittman at the Maryland Million last October and learned the RRTP needed a farm to commit a "big-name" horse to the 100 Day Challenge.
"I thought Declan's Moon would be the perfect horse, so I asked him to come out to Country Life to see Declan," said Pons. "But I couldn't catch him--he knew something was up. He just galloped circles around us, but it was the perfect demonstration; he had an extended trot and did all this beautiful moving stuff I knew he could do. Steuart said, 'When you can catch him, I'll take him.' "
Pons called Siegel to see if she was on board with sending Declan through the Challenge and she gave him the green light.
"I thought it would be a neat idea," said Siegel. "Declan has always been a physical specimen and a great mover. He hadn't been doing anything other than sitting out in the field and running and having a good time. So we figured if he was agreeable to (the Challenge) it might be an interesting idea."
The 100 Day Thoroughbred Challenge concluded Saturday, March 9 with a final performance and reception for owners, sponsors, and fans at Caves Farm in Owings Mills, Md. Siegel made the trip from California to watch her gelding show off in his new role.
Declan's Moon and Steuart Pittman performing at Caves Farm. Photo by Lydia Williams
"It was really neat; I felt like I was going back in time watching him go under tack and traveling again," said Siegel. "They had a pretty good turnout and a nice arena (at Caves Farm)."
Pons said he enjoyed watching Declan go through the process of the 100 Day Challenge as it provided an opportunity for the horse to showcase new talents and proved the versatility of the Thoroughbred.
"It blends two things: the horse has a career--he loves it, and he's back in the limelight," said Pons. "It's like an actor that quit acting for awhile and then goes back on stage and hears the applause again and is all pro. It surprised me how engaged I became in the process just because the right horse met the right rider. Steuart is tall and fits the horse well. Declan is 16'2 and real leggy and extremely agile and quick. Steuart made the comment, 'I love riding this horse because I'm just a little afraid of him and it keeps me on edge and alert.' "
Photo by Lydia Williams
At the conclusion of the 100 Day Challenge, in spite of the strides Declan had made as a show horse, Pittman decided the gelding needed a break from performing. Declan had suffered from some physical ailments and his occasional stubborn attitude suggested he may need another rest in the pastures of Country Life.
"(Samantha Siegel) and I both agreed that his purpose in this challenge had been served," said Pittman in a final report about the 100 Day Challenge. "He attracted huge amounts of attention to the cause and even with a little hitch in his giddy-up demonstrated that a champion racehorse can also be a magnificent mover and riding horse type. For that he was overwhelmingly voted the horse best suited for dressage."
Declan's Moon in the100 Day Challenge. Photo by Lydia Williams
Added Pons: "I just love the excitement and the enthusiasm by everybody that's heard the story. We put it on Facebook and (jockey) Edgar Prado wrote to Samantha and said, 'This is great; I love this.' And he didn't ever ride Declan. Also (trainer) Ron Ellis is following (the story) in California. It's a viral sensation."
Following the 100 Day Challenge, Siegel told Pittman she would gladly allow Declan participate in future RRTP projects in order to promote the OTTB cause. Pons added that he was searching for an individual in the area to take Declan on some occasional rides.
"He's too smart for his own good...he knows he's got a good home and he really just doesn't want to go back to work full time," said Siegel with a laugh.
Declan in his pasture at Country Life. Photo by Ellen Pons
Have you heard about the 100 Day Challenge prior to this blog? Click here to read all the reports that were written throughout the project.
Back on the farm: Declan at Country Life. Photo by Ellen Pons