By: Erin Shea, @BH_EShea
Sarah MacHarg was searching for a potential 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover horse while spending time with friends who worked at Jim and Susan Hill's Margaux Farm near Midway, Ky. While waiting for her friends to finish their day's work, she noticed a playful horse.
"He was very cheeky and very cat and mouse. He would try to get you to come to his stall," she said. "And if I walked away, he'd kind of press the gate and paw a little bit. None of the other horses were super interested in me, so I said to them, 'Who is this? Because this is the horse I want for the (Thoroughbred Makeover).'"
The answer to that question was that he was "the most famous horse" the Hills have ever campaigned—the grade 1-winning, $1.8 million-earning Grand Arch.
Although she initially thought she didn't have much of a shot to make the 9-year-old son of Arch into her next OTTB project, MacHarg got a meeting with the Hills, through the help of her friends at Margaux, to discuss potential plans to retrain the gelding for a second career.
"I did not know them, they did not know me, we just had a conversation," said MacHarg, an experienced trainer who operates Passport Sport Horses near Lexington.
"I think where we came on the same page was, I do not have an agenda for this horse and I was not seeking him because he's famous. I happened to like him before I knew he was important, and I just think it's neat to give him an opportunity to not be a trophy in a paddock for 20 years, and that's exactly how they feel. They are committed to his training and his opportunities beyond the Makeover."
So, an arrangement was stuck that MacHarg will retrain Grand Arch at his own pace in his discipline of choice and the Hills retain ownership. MacHarg said she'll move at whatever pace the gelding would like to go; her goals are long-term and she hopes to have him in training with her for a few years.
"(The Hills) are big-picture people," MacHarg recalled. "They outright said, 'He doesn't owe us anything, and whatever he wants to do for as many years he wants to do it, we will support it.'"
If the duo does compete at the Makeover this fall, it would be a big step forward for MacHarg, whose plans were derailed last year after a riding accident at Jump Start Horse Trials at the Kentucky Horse Park. A week before she was set to compete in the 2017 Makeover with Sweet Talkin Fella, she crushed her skull in the accident and had it rebuilt in surgery with approximately 30% titanium mesh.
"I am just very, very lucky," she said. "I feel like there must be some reason I'm still around. People have had a lot less traumatic injuries and have struggled and struggled to come back.
"Six weeks out I was riding and Dec. 7, on my birthday, was my first jump back. So I was really lucky. I had a lot of great milestones and I had a lot of wonderful people (around), but to be honest it wasn't that challenging because I had horses around and that's all my days were before."
While disappointed she didn't get to showcase Sweet Talkin Fella, a son of Mutakddim she used to gallop on the track, MacHarg still has him in her care and plans to possibly take him to some working ranch events this summer. She's also keeping busy with another interesting OTTB in former Godolphin runner Brookline, a 4-year-old Tapit half brother to Darley stallion Bernardini.
So far the trainer hasn't done much with Grand Arch other than hacking him around the farm with a halter and lead rope, making sure he's comfortable and ready to begin a new career. Still, the 2015 Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (G1T) winner's class shines through.
Sarah MacHarg aboard Grand Arch (joined by her dog Rampart) at Passport Sport Horses. Photo: Brandi Chase
"He's just a different level horse," MacHarg said. "He's really, really intelligent. He thinks he knows a lot of things. He's a little arrogant. He's really confident about what he thinks, so to change his mind you have to be very tactful and it has to become his idea, because your ideas are not as important as his ideas. He's making sure that my horsemanship is really on point. But I feel because the Hills have given me the privilege of looking long-term, the timeline doesn't apply any pressure to me. So I can play with him like a personal horse and develop a relationship, and the sport stuff will come second."
Whether or not Grand Arch and the horsewoman make it to the Makeover, MacHarg is thrilled for the opportunity to work with her new friend.
"The coolest thing about him was that I was attracted to his personality before I knew he was famous," she said. "Every day, he's the horse I get excited about getting up to see and the last horse I check every night. He seems like a friend I've known for a really long time. I'm just excited to enjoy a partnership with him, and I very much hope it takes us to the Makeover, but he's not on a timeline."