Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge: Day One

- Sarah Andrew

"Is he sober?"

Amidst the hurry and scurry of the Maryland Horse World Expo, a big-boned, dark bay gelding stood quietly while he was groomed, politely flicking his ears forward when people opened his stall door.

Beverly Strauss, co-founder and Executive Director of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, looked up from her grooming, and seemed surprised before she smiled and replied, "All he gets is hay and water."

The 6-year-old gelding who was standing so quietly that an onlooker asked if he was tranquilized is named Solidify (Alajwad--Kali Dearest, by Dearest Doctor) and he is one of the four horses taking part in the Retired Racehorse Training Project Trainer Challenge. In December 2011, Solidify finished second in a claiming event at Finger Lakes, his 16th start of the year, and his 43rd lifetime start. After retiring from the track, he had a few weeks of downtime, and in January 2012, he was at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, charming everyone he met with his friendly face and cool demeanor.

Solidify and Bev Strauss

The Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) is a 501(c)3 charity. President Steuart Pittman, a three-day event rider, clinician, and trainer, is actively involved in expanding the market for retired Thoroughbred racehorses. Pittman is based at Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, MD, and travels the country teaching clinics, including 2009's successful Retired Racehorse Training Symposium.

Trainers participating in the RRTP Trainer Challenge will select a recently retired Thoroughbred, ride the horse for five weeks, and present the horse for judging at February's Pennsylvania Horse World Expo. Judges will be evaluating the work of the trainers and the preparation of the horses. At the end of the Challenge, the horses will be offered for sale (or adoption). As a lifelong rider and Thoroughbred enthusiast, I leapt at the opportunity to cover the event. I hear many misconceptions about the breed and the industries from both the sporthorse world and the racing world, and I was eager to watch these professionals tackle the challenges that people face when they work with horses off the track.

On Friday, Jan. 20, the RRTP Trainer Challenge officially began. Three trainers were selected to participate in the challenge: Kerry Blackmer of Frederick, MD; Tiffany Catledge of Middleburg, VA; and Eric Dierks of Tryon, NC.

Four horses were available for the three trainers' selections for the Challenge, with one horse as an alternate. The horses were brought from the barns to the Exhibition Hall Arena, where their athletic ability and conformation were assessed by the trainers in front of the Horse Expo crowd. 

Solidify: cool, calm, collected

I saw a little spring in Solidify's step as Bev walked him up the hill to the arena. He looked dapper in his trace clip and his signature blue MidAtlantic Horse Rescue wool cooler. The sight of the rows of trailers and a few horses in the distance changed his laid-back expression to a keen one. He waited outside the Exhibition Hall, gamely standing his ground every time the chain-operated arena door roared open and shut, resting his chin on Bev, and mugging for peppermints. Before the Challenge began, Bev put the finishing touches on Solidify, and led him into the waiting area.

First up for evaluation was Four X The Trouble (Domestic Dispute--Rynot, by Caveat), also known as "Tempest." Four X The Trouble was bred by Robin Coblyn in Clarksburg, MD, with both sporthorse and racehorse careers in mind. Robin carefully evaluates pedigree, because her broodmares perform double duty, producing racehorses one year and sporthorses the next. Tempest lived up to his name during his evaluation, and he was the most spirited of the bunch. His short back gave him power and agility. He displayed his athleticism for the trainers and crowd, while also showing off his good mind as he handled his strange surroundings with style.
Four X The Trouble

Four X The Trouble

It is difficult to imagine what these horses thought about their new surroundings. Although they were accustomed to racetrack life, the sights and smells of the Horse Expo could not possibly have been anything like what they had experienced before. Solidify showcased his adaptable nature and trainability as he trotted around the arena at liberty, calmly responding to his handlers. Steuart Pittman particularly liked his conformation, and remarked that his shoulder and withers made him look like he was built to be quite the jumper. Pittman also remarked that he may be the sleeper of the bunch because he was so laid-back in personality, but the crowd and trainers murmured with approval when Solidify broke into a lofty, powerful canter. The $4,000 claimer had a perfect "10" canter.

Brazilian Wedding

 Brazilian Wedding (Milwaukee Brew--Lady In Tails, by Black Tie Affair {Ire}), a 16.1h grey mare, retired off a win, also in December 2011. She came from Three Plain Bays Farm in Conowingo, MD. Like Solidify, she was extremely athletic, but in a different way; she moved more like a hunter, with graceful, sweeping strides. She was bold, feminine, and serene. Her presence and class made her quite the crowd pleaser.

The future is bright for the fourth horse, High Level (Mutakddim--Maria's Crown, by Maria's Mon). Started by trainer and Show Jumping Hall of Famer Rodney Jenkins, High Level raced until 2009, when a little heat was felt in his ankles. Owner/breeder Jim Falk of Cornwell Farm gave him time off to prevent an injury, and the ankles never gave the horse any trouble. High Level was ready to either return to the track, become a steeplechaser, or become a show horse. Falk chose to send the muscular chestnut to the Trainer Challenge, and he looked balanced and game on Friday.

High Level

To the trainers participating in the Challenge, the big picture was key. I noticed them paying particular attention to the overall look and way of going of each horse, and performing less specific evaluations of individual parts of the horses. Size of the horse was important, and Eric Dierks went for a taller horse to match his own height; Brazilian Wedding was his pick.

Dierks and Brazilian Wedding

Eric was first to pick a horse because he was the first to answer a trivia question correctly. This was his question: "Hall of Fame show jumper Idle Dice (‘Jonlyle’ to The Jockey Club) ran at Charles Town before Rodney Jenkins made him the top show jumper of his era. How old was he when he won his last Grand Prix?" The answer is 21.

Dierks (left), Catledge (center), Blackmer (right)

Tiffany Catledge chose next, and selected the versatile High Level. Kerry Blackmer chose Four X The Trouble, and said that his personality and size were major contributors to her choice. Steuart Pittman could not have been happier. He loved the scope (and withers!) of Solidify, and he was looking forward to working with the "sleeper" from MidAtlantic Horse Rescue for five weeks while the other trainers worked with their selected horses.

Solidify the "sleeper"

The enthusiasm for this project is infectious. I heard excitement in the voices of the owners/breeders in the videos on the RRTP website, the comments of the fans, and when I spoke with Steuart Pittman and Beverly Strauss. The horses are stunning athletes, and they are truly showcasing the athleticism, trainability, and adaptability of the breed. This project shows a lot of promise both for racehorse owners and for people who are learning how to train racehorses for their second careers. The Maryland Horse Breeders Association is a sponsor of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, and I hope to see many more individuals and organizations from the racing world support this effort as well.

You can read my account of Day Two of the Trainer Challenge in Thursday's TDN. Visit the Retired Racehorse Training Project's website for videos, trainer blogs, and the latest news:


Vickie said...

So happy that Solidify got to be part of this - can't wait to see how he does and to read your account of Day Two!

Anonymous said...

Good luck to the horses and trainers! Hope everyone does well & can show off what second chances can make.

amber said...

Solidify was my horse in fingerlakes..I hope he turns out to be a good project. That horse has a lot of potential and nice conformation.