To the Rescue Retired racehorses are granted a rare chance at redemption thanks to devoted Maryland equestrians.

By Janis Barth, Photography by Justin Tsucalas



 

Walk into the stables at Kimberly Godwin Clark’s Leighton Farm and the latest works-in-progress pop their heads over their stall doors, ears pricked, eyes kind.

There’s Two Punch Willy, a breathtaking gray who raced twice, didn’t earn a cent, and wants to be a dressage horse. There’s Scotty, a top sport horse prospect who also gives hugs.

There’s Bono, the intelligent and willing bay, whose devoted human, Aaron Comenetz, says, “He just didn’t want to run.” And then there’s Magnificent Mr. Z. The copper-penny chestnut was one of 25,000 thoroughbreds foaled in 2010. He trained, he worked hard and at age 3, the rangy colt by Unbridled Mate out of Cloud’s Honor set hoof on track and promptly finished seventh in his first race at Laurel Park — an undistinguished start to an unremarkable career.

Over the next three years, he raced 18 times and won once. In November, after finishing 12th in a 12-horse field, his days of galloping counter-clockwise were over. He was sound, he was smart, he moved beautifully and trusted people. He just wasn’t all that good at the job he was born to do.

“It’s not commonly understood that most racehorses never win even one race,” says Clark, whose Upper Marlboro facility is dedicated to forging top performance and pleasure horses from also-rans. “Imagine how you would feel if you were systematically trained to do something for years only to find out you are no good at it. You tried your very best, but you just couldn’t do it.

“This is what many retired racehorses face. They are bred to be generous. They love people. They are surrounded by humans from a young age, and most are very attached to the attention and handling they receive. These horses leave racing knowing full well they have failed.”

Clark has always had a passion for thoroughbreds. For 25 years, she galloped, trained and owned racehorses at Maryland tracks. Since she began working with off-track thoroughbreds 10 years ago, she has written a book on them— “New Track, New Life” — and founded Thoroughbred Placement Resources Inc., a charity that so far has found homes for more than 1,000 retired racehorses.

Each has spoken to her.

Willy said he wasn’t interested in a jumping career. Bono told her that was his new name. Z is still silent on the matter of his next chapter. Clark is hoping he will be an eventer—an equestrian triathlon that combines jumping, dressage and cross-country—but Z is special. The only horse she ever bred, Z was born on Mother’s Day and named after her husband’s stepfather. While he’s thinking deep equine thoughts about the future, they train.

In October, Z and Clark will contend for the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover, a competition in which professional and amateur trainers take recently retired racehorses and, over 10 months, teach them new disciplines, from show jumping to polo to barrel racing.

Through the Makeover, the signature event of the Retired Racehorse Project, Clark and 37 other Maryland trainers are contributing both to the renaissance of the American thoroughbred as show horse and to second acts for horses who might otherwise be given up for naught.

This year, a record 578 trainers will take part in the Makeover finals at the Kentucky Horse Park, including top female jockey Rosie Napravnik, Hollywood horse trainer Rex Peterson and Canadian Olympians Ian Roberts and Kelly Plitz.

Steuart Pittman: president of the Retired Racehorse Project @ Dodon Farm Training Center

“Thoroughbred racehorses are fantastic riding horses,” says Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Project, based at his Dodon Farm Training Center in Davidsonville. “The work that we do is to bring out their best. It’s like a recycling program: Rather than breed new ones, look for the ones that already exist … These are the greatest horses on the planet.”

Dodon Farm has a long equine past. In the 1700s, the original owners and their friends held match races at what is now a shopping center. Pittman was 9 when he started riding — a pony to begin with, but “the teenage kids that were cool were riding thoroughbreds.” Hurricane Hannah was the first in a line that became his life’s work.

At Dodon, on land that has been in his family for eight generations, Pittman trains his own off-the-track thoroughbreds. They make up about 80 percent of the horses in his barns, ambassadors who showcase the breadth and depth of what the breed can accomplish.

Since its founding in 2010, RRP has led thousands to choose a retired racehorse. This, Pittman and Clark say, is what happens when thoroughbreds are presented to America’s 2 million horse owners not as losers, but as intelligent, high-performing athletes deserving of new lives.

While some horses do slip through the cracks, many tracks — including Laurel Park and Pimlico — have anti-slaughter policies and ban owners and trainers who knowingly sell a horse to a kill buyer. The Maryland Horse Council was the first in the nation to support passage of the federal SAFE Act, which would outlaw the sale and transport of American horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. The horses that slip through the cracks are the ones that aren’t trained, Pittman says.

Conversely: “All of our top riders go to Europe for their horses, because no one in America is developing them,” Clark says. “Thoroughbreds aren’t for all, just like Ferraris aren’t for all. But if you want a top-level performance horse, it’s the thoroughbred.”

And so there is Play Like A Raven, a Maryland-bred horse who came to Dodon Farm after a 3-and-38 racing career, finished sixth in eventing at the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover, and shows off a lofty jumping form.

And there is Smash And Grab, a Maryland transplant who earned $405,840 on the track before a career-ending fracture, and defied the odds by going from rehab to Top 10 Makeover finishes in eventing and dressage.

And then there is Z. One sunlit afternoon, Clark spools him out on a long line and works from the ground on voice commands.

“Trot, Z,” she says, and he works a large circle around her, ears flicked in her direction, listening. “Walk, Z,” she says. “Halt.”

Z downshifts flawlessly, and Clark reels him in, lesson over. He was always right there, she says of his days on the track, he was just that much not good enough. Now she pats this kind and honest horse whose races are run. Together, they turn toward home.

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