Blackfoot Mystery Bringing Awareness to OTTBS on Road to Rio

Blackfoot Mystery and Boyd Martin jumping in the rain at Rolex Kentucky. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

With stakes winners as parents and a strong stakes producing family behind him, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Blackfoot Mystery had been a successful racehorse. But his talent came in another arena with the horse recently being named to the U.S. Eventing Team’s Olympic squad for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics with veteran Olympian Boyd Martin.

Blackfoot Mystery went unsold at the 2005 Keeneland September Yearling Sale when he brought a final bid of $24,000 and shipped out to California to try his luck racing at Hollywood Park. Making three starts as a 3-year-old, he showed little desire to be a racehorse and trainer Jesus Mendoza knew it was time to find him a new career. That’s when Thoroughbred Rehab Center President and CEO Leigh Gray came into his story.

“He was a big gangly 3-year-old and my friend at the track, who was his trainer, called me and said ‘he can’t run, he’s not interested in it. I want to find him a new home,’” she said. “He was with me several months, I just let him down from the track and fattened him up. He was huge and still growing but he was very sound and his legs were very clean so I then sent him to my friend in Northern California, Shirley Aronson. She has worked with my foundation for years and she is a really big help for me. She evaluates the horses and puts their beginning training from the racetrack on so that they can start in a new career.”

A big fan of three-day eventing, Gray has connections in the sport and Blackfoot Mystery found a home with eventer Lisa Peecook. Gray often went to his events in California, a tradition she keeps up today, recently traveling to watch the horse at a mandatory outing for the Olympic team.

Blackfoot Mystery and Boyd Martin jump the spires jump in the rain. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)
“I saw him a number of times when he was with his rider Lisa Peecook, I go see a lot of my horses and I have so many of them out there now that it’s not uncommon for me to see five to six to eight horses of mine who have gone through my program out competing at all different levels,” she said. “I hoped from probably age 14 that I could find a horse that would someday go to the Olympics. Having said that, in my rescue career I’ve rescued and rehomed over 580 horses and only one has succeeded [at the top level] so I didn’t think that it was even in the realm of possibilities because I had never had one go that far.”

Peecook trained and evented the horse to the CCI1* level with Kelly Prather occasionally taking the mount at shows. Eventually Prather was given the opportunity to buy him and Blackfoot Mystery returned to the East Coast when Prather made the move from California. Prather continued to move Blackfoot Mystery up the levels with the two finishing fourth in a CCI3* event in early 2015.

After Prather moved to the area, Martin saw the horse and paid close attention to him for two years. Prather eventually took some jumping lessons from Martin and when she mentioned the possibility of selling the gelding, he quickly jumped on the phone to put a syndicate together.

“He was just one of those eye-catching horses who I used to see at the events and drool over,” Martin said. “The horse just oozes with class. The first time I sat on him when I tried him he just had that championship feel about him. His ears were pricked and he was looking to see which jump I wanted him to jump next. He had unbelievable power in his gallop and right then and there I knew he was a big horse. At the same time, I had a couple of chances for the Olympics but both those horses had a bit of mileage so I thought I’d need to try and get ahold of ‘Big Red’ just as a bit of an insurance policy that I’d get to Rio.”

Already experienced at the top levels of the sport, Blackfoot Mystery and Martin were able to quickly form a partnership and start on the road to the Olympics. They made their 3-star debut in a CIC (a CIC is where stadium jumping is held before cross country) in September of last year, finishing ninth of 63 before finishing sixth in a CCI 3-star (the traditional eventing layout where cross country is before stadium jumping) in October.

But it wasn’t until a competition in Florida this year that Martin said people really became aware of the horse.

“It was early in the year, it was only a four minute track – I think two miles,” he said. “They thought that event was more suited to the fancy, shiny, show pony European-type horse who is a big mover and good show jumper. But Blackfoot Mystery went down there and shocked everyone and won the class. I think right then and there everyone started to take notice of him.”

Blackfoot Mystery and Martin with their Rolex ribbon. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)
They made an even bigger impression in April at Rolex Kentucky with a come-from-behind performance. Sitting in 34th after dressage, Blackfoot Mystery moved up to 10th in the second phase after a tough cross country run in the rain. He improved his placing even more on the last day of the event in stadium jumping, finishing the event in sixth and becoming the highest placed Thoroughbred at the event.

That showing put him in the spotlight for the Olympic team and less than two months later he was named to the team with Martin.

“I think it’s wonderful that the U.S. selectors have recognized Big Red as one of the best event horses in the world and it’s great for the American Thoroughbred to be still seen as one of the ultimate breeds of horses that can be sought after for more sports other than racing,” Martin said. “You’ve got to analyze our sport. Our sport’s a triathlon. Really, the make and break of the sport is the cross-country day, that’s where the competition is won and lost. You’ve got to stack the laws of probability more on your side. If you’ve got a Thoroughbred that is bred to gallop a long distance at high speeds the chances of you getting around cross country unscathed is much higher than a big, fat cart horse from Europe.”

Blackfoot Mystery and Boyd Martin gallop on cross-country. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)
Gray agrees with Martin’s opinion that Blackfoot Mystery’s inclusion on the Olympic team is good for the Thoroughbred breed, especially off-track Thoroughbreds. The upper levels of eventing in the U.S. moved away from Thoroughbreds for a few years but it looks as though the breed, especially off-track Thoroughbreds, is becoming a popular choice again for the top riders in the sport. In April, 15 off-track Thoroughbreds competed at Rolex Kentucky, one of the biggest events in the world.

In addition to Blackfoot Mystery, two off-track Thoroughbreds were named to the U.S. team’s reserve list: Donner with Lynn Symansky and Simply Priceless with Elisa Wallace.

“I think it should really wake people up to realize that these horses absolutely are suited to three-day eventing,” Gray said. “They can be superstars and there are tons of them out there that are waiting for someone to give them a try. I really hope that it does a lot to wake people up to think ‘Hey, I could get one of these guys. I could adopt a horse like this. I could go to the Olympics.’ Because it happens, it really happens.”

Though Blackfoot Mystery only raced three times, he still has a strong connection to the racing industry nine years after his retirement from the track.

While the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) was formed a few years after Blackfoot Mystery left the Thoroughbred Rehab Center, the gelding highlights the TAA’s current efforts to provide funding to aftercare facilities. Founded in 2012 in a partnership between multiple arms of the racing industry, the TAA has strict criteria organizations must follow to be accredited by the organization so they can receive funding. Thoroughbred Rehab Center became one of over 55 organizations to receive funding from TAA when they were accredited in 2015 and TAA’s Operations Consultant Stacie Clark Rogers is looking forward to seeing a horse that came from a TAA organization compete in Rio.

Blackfoot Mystery and Boyd Martin jumping into the famous lake at Rolex. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)
“It’s great to see that the infrastructure of placing horses after racing into new careers is working at the highest level. We’re so excited that Blackfoot Mystery came through a TAA accredited group,” she said.

Martin said that he doesn’t think this is the only time Blackfoot Mystery will be representing the U.S. on eventing teams in coming years. Blackfoot Mystery is still young for an eventer at 12 years old and will only be 16 when the next Olympics rolls around.

“I think Big Red’s got a huge career ahead of him and I’m sure Rio’s only the first big event that the country will see of him. I think he’s got plenty left in the tank and we might see him around for the next Olympics too,” Martin said.

The eventing portion of the Olympics takes place from Aug. 6 to 9 and can be watched on various NBC channels throughout the week.

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