The fledgling Retired Racehorse Project is moving its signature event—the Thoroughbred Makeover—to Lexington in 2015. The timing of the move could significantly transform the scope of the organization and its mission.
Founded by Steuart Pittman, the Retired Racehorse Project has a simple goal: for the Thoroughbred to recapture its once-sterling reputation in the show horse arena as a premier, all-around athlete and build up the secondary market for ex-racehorses. When Pittman was growing up in the world of three-day eventing, Thoroughbreds were the breed of choice. Over the years, however, professional trainers shifted to European warmbloods, and the Thoroughbred had its reputation tarnished as being overly hot-blooded and untrainable. Records from the U.S. Equestrian Federation show the percentage of USEF-registered Thoroughbreds at recognized competitions fell from 40% in 1982 to just over 10% by 2010.
“As my career in eventing evolved, I got a Thoroughbred stallion and started to breed some horses on my own,” Pittman recalled during a recent meeting in Lexington to discuss the Makeover’s relocation from Maryland. “I got to the point where I realized the horses I was breeding were not as good as the ones coming off the track.”
Pittman saw both a need and an opportunity. In 2009 he created a small symposium on the re-training of ex-racehorses for show disciplines. With minimal promotion the event attracted more than 350 people from 10 states who sat for hours watching training exhibitions. From these early experiments on the exposition circuit and inspiration from the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s own Extreme Mustang Makeover, the Retired Racehorse Project launched its own national, multi-discipline event in 2013 at Pimlico Racecourse. The second annual Thoroughbred Makeover last fall attracted more than 700 people, and an additional 5,000 watched a live stream
of the marquee event—the $10,000 American’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest. The contest showed ex-racehorses competing in the disciplines of polo, show hunter, eventing, ranch work, steeplechase, fox hunter, show jumper, barrel racing, and dressage. The winner was multiple stakes winner Icabad Crane, who raced until he was 8 and finished third in the 2008 Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The son of Jump Start had been ridden and trained by eventing Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton.
“He is very adjustable and such a sensible horse,” Dutton said after the event. “The last time he was at Pimlico was when he ran in the Preakness Stakes, so to give it a go in front of the grandstands says a hell of a lot about the horse.”
Now the Makeover is getting its own makeover by moving to the Bluegrass and into much-improved facilities at the Kentucky Horse Park. The move is important for several reasons according to Pittman.
First, access to world-class show facilities will open the event to more competitors and offer a wider range of competitive classes. What is envisioned would be hunter hack, hunter over fences, show jumper, dressage, cross-country jumping, judged trail riding, field hunter trials, polo, barrel racing, ranch work, and freelance classes all open to professionals, amateurs, and junior riders. Ideally, these classes would offer prize money, which in turn helps the economic side of building an overall demand for Thoroughbreds.
Second, this event will showcase the versatility of the Thoroughbred at the epicenter of the U.S. Thoroughbred market, and more importantly do so only a few weeks before Keeneland hosts the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Racing takes enough lumps, so here’s an opportunity to offer a positive story about the industry.
“It is a great story,” said Pittman. “You end up thanking racing for producing the best riding horse in the world, rather than blaming them for creating a problem.”
Bringing the event to Lexington also provides an incentive for more people involved in Thoroughbred breeding and racing to get behind the Retired Racehorse Project’s mission. It’s a mission important to the industry’s overall health, to the image of racing, and to the longterm well-being of the Thoroughbreds we raise.
Read more on Off Track Thoroubreds here.