By: Erin Shea, @BH_EShea
When Thoroughbreds reigned supreme in the hunter-jumper ranks, the road from racetrack to show ring for horses was mostly through connections made with people who knew their way around the backside.
As the dynamics of aftercare and sport horse purchasing changed in the age of the internet—and with the rise of many aftercare organizations participating in retraining—the path to second careers has evolved. However, the racetrackers who have an eye for potential and the connections to put a horse into a good home are still an important part of the aftercare market. One racetracker, Jen Ruberto, has made a name for herself as a go-to connector between racing and riding.
In addition to working alongside her husband, trainer Lou Ruberto Jr., and his parents, to help with the day-to-day operations of the family-run Ruberto Racing Stables, Ruberto also helps find new homes for racehorses once their on-track careers are finished.
From her base in Lisbon, Ohio, Ruberto said she has in some way helped move 40-50 horses in the past year, many coming from the nearby tracks: Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, and Presque Isle Downs & Casino.
Through the 15 years Ruberto has been connecting racehorses and potential new owners, the tools of her trade have changed slightly. Instead of VHS tapes, she now uses a digital camera and social media. But what sets her apart are her connections, a good eye for horses, and heart to do what's best for the horse.
"I've heard some people call me a flipper. In a sense, I am flipping a horse for a profit, but I don't take the first money. I don't take the first person who shows up with a trailer," Ruberto said, adding that re-selling horses isn't a profitable trade and that many don't realize how costly of an endeavor it can be.
"The last thing I want to see happen is somebody get hurt, somebody spend their good money and waste it, and watch the horse just get passed along until it never finds its right home."
Since word travels fast around the OTTB community, Ruberto said keeping a good reputation and being honest with potential buyers has helped her build her client base.
"I keep my nose clean because reputation is everything," she said. "You build relationships and you build contacts within the sport horse world who keep coming back because they know they can trust you—that's really important to me."
Being able to speak both the language of the track and of the equestrian community has also been imperative.
"Jen has an excellent reputation for finding excellent horses," said Brit Vegas, an OTTB trainer who finished 10th in the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover aboard Scotchnwater, a horse found by Ruberto that underwent only a month of training in preparation for the event.
"Because she knows racehorses so well, she knows more about those Thoroughbreds than just about anybody you can compare her to," she added. "I think the horses that she markets, you get exactly what she describes."
Jen Roytz, Brit Vegas aboard Scotchnwater, and Jen Ruberto at the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover
With the internet and social media, especially Facebook groups, becoming an easy avenue to turn to when buying and selling OTTBs, being able to make your horses stand out while not overselling can be a delicate balance.
"Facebook has been huge," Ruberto said. "I try to take the best pictures and set (the horse) up the best that I can. The pictures and the videos are what's going to grab someone's attention, and if you don't have a good one the horse could stand there for weeks or months."
With more incentives for showing OTTBs, through the Retired Racehorse Project and The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Incentive Program, Ruberto said demand for good horses has increased.
"The sales blew up with RRP," Ruberto said. "That program has definitely made sales explode, and horses are moving off the track a lot faster, but prices are higher.
"The racetrack people are starting to notice that the 17-hand horse with a bunch of white could sell for a lot of money. The prices are getting a little higher to buy off the track for the nicer horses."
Although some racing trainers actively try to move their former charges into new homes, having the help of someone knowledgeable like Ruberto can be a lifesaver for the buyer, the seller, and the horse.
"Everyone says (Jen is) so honest, but she really is. I buy all sight unseen from her because I trust her that much," said Michelle Craig, an OTTB re-trainer who is known for showing off her bridleless riding aboard Youmightbearedneck, another Ruberto find.
"I think it's her openness, honesty, and passion for Thoroughbred racing. We need more people like her in the transitioning phase."