Q&A on Horse Aftercare with Retired Racehorse Project’s Jen Roytz

Aftercare
Retired Racehorse Project's Jen Roytz advocates for the retraining and rehoming of Thoroughbreds. (Courtesy Jen Roytz)

As a well-known retired racehorse advocate, Jen Roytz has taken part in nearly every aspect of the racing industry from exercise riding to working as the marketing director at Three Chimneys Farm, where she spearheaded the farm’s aftercare efforts.

Today, Jen runs Topline Communications with business partner Sarah Coleman, which has her doing a variety of roles inside and outside of the industry. But perhaps the biggest racehorse role she’s taken on in recent times is that of Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP), a move that was announced in late February.

Roytz recently sat down with America’s Best Racing for a Q&A session, where she talked about her roles in the industry, off-track Thoroughbreds and the racing industry, and some advice she’d give to those who want to give OTTBs a try.

How did you get started in Thoroughbred racing?

I grew up in Cleveland riding hunter/jumpers (mostly off-track Thoroughbreds) and would watch the nightly replays from Thistledown because, well, they were horses and I was horse-obsessed. When I was 14 or so, my dad took me to the track to watch morning training and one of the trainers, Joe Shuman, offered to let us come back to his barn and show us around. I. Was. In. Heaven. He told my dad that if I ever wanted to come up to the track in the mornings on the weekends or in the summer, he’d find something for me to do. From then until I had my driver’s license, I would wake my dad up at 4 a.m. to drive me to the stable gate, where the guard would walk me over to Joe’s barn and I’d do whatever he asked of me. I progressed from cleaning stalls, tacking up horses, and hotwalking to learning to do up legs, make training charts, and take horses over in the afternoons for the races. Eventually I learned how to gallop and break babies and found that I enjoyed that as much as horse showing – maybe even a bit more!

Jen and her horse, Lucky. (Courtesy Jen Roytz)

What is your background in racing?

I was dead set on riding racehorses, but my parents were dead set on me going to college. So, we split the difference and I came to Kentucky for college (graduated from Morehead State with a communications degree and later University of Louisville with a master's degree in integrated marketing) and galloped at the track every morning before class.

When I graduated, I landed a job at a Lexington-based marketing firm whose client list included some big Thoroughbred farms and Keeneland Race Course, so I got to work on those accounts and eventually was promoted to Director of Public Relations. Later I worked for Three Chimneys Farm as their Marketing Director, where I also helped the farm and their clients with their aftercare efforts.

In 2014, I left Three Chimneys and started my own marketing agency, Topline Communications, with my friend and business partner, Sarah Coleman. We have a mix of Thoroughbred, sport horse, and equine health clients, as well as some non-equine clients. In addition, I write about horse racing, equine health, and aftercare for a number of publications, including a weekly column on Paulick Report called “Aftercare Spotlight.”

Why do you feel a horse’s life after the track is such an important thing for the racing industry to focus on?

Aside from the fact that responsibly retiring and repurposing racehorses at the conclusion of their racing careers, when they still have decades of viability left to offer as a riding/show horse, is the ethical thing to do – and that right there is the MAIN reason it’s important – I think it’s a question of optics. The horse racing industry is losing favor with the general public, especially younger generations. Animal welfare is a hot-button issue in mainstream America, and the public perception from a non-racing-savvy audience is that racing doesn’t do a good job of caring for and advocating for its athletes, who do not have the ability to do so for themselves. My opinion is that for the majority of racehorse owners/trainers that is not the case, but when the minority of a group gets the majority of the attention, that puts a label on the whole group.

I think for horse racing to regain its foothold as one of the great American pastimes, aftercare needs to not only be part of the conversation, but be showcased front and center.

Jen giving a tour at Three Chimneys. (Courtesy Jen Roytz)

How have you seen the OTTB industry change since you first started working in the industry?

I think there are a number of key changes that have occurred. There are more people involved on the racing and breeding side that are advocating for responsible retirement of racehorses/breeding stock. Organizations like the RRP, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP), Thoroughbred Charities of America, Take2, MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, New Vocations, ReRun, CARMA, and so many others have done an amazing job at not only advancing the conversation and education about aftercare in the racing industry, but also understanding it from the perspective of the racing industry.

Another major change is that we’re making it easier for equestrians to acquire off-track Thoroughbreds and making it worth their time by offering Thoroughbred-only classes at horse shows (thanks to TIP and Take2), a magazine dedicated to their interest (“Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine,” which every RRP member gets), and providing more educational opportunities and forums for them to find like-minded people to interact with. The effect is that there has been a resurgence in the number of off-track Thoroughbreds being adopted out/sold each year to non-racing homes. Furthermore, RRP’s survey data shows that both the average price our Makeover competitors are paying for a horse off of the track  AND the price they’re selling their horses for after they’ve competed in the Makeover are steadily increasing year after year. This is meaningful change.

What is some advice you’d give to racing industry participants that are interested in helping the OTTB cause but don’t know how to get involved?

Wearing my Retired Racehorse Project hat, I’d suggest becoming a member of RRP and utilizing our educational resources. Read our quarterly magazine to learn about the world of Thoroughbreds post-racing; come to our seminars, demonstrations, or the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover; become part of our community.

I’d also suggest doing simple things, like:

  • If you’re a racehorse owner/trainer, put a sticker on all of your horses’ registration papers with your name and phone number stating that if the horse is ever in need of rehoming, to contact you.
  • Talk with your trainer about what your retirement plan is for your horses, so that when the time comes, you have peace of mind about what to do.
  • If you’ve never been to a Thoroughbred aftercare facility, make an appointment to visit one. The TAA has a long list of accredited facilities searchable by geographic location, or simply Google “Thoroughbred aftercare [closest major city]” and give them a call.
  • Knowledge is power, and the best way to create change within an industry sometimes is to do so from within, so get involved in some way.

How did you first get started with the Retired Racehorse Project?

I attended one of their first Thoroughbred Makeovers at Pimlico in order to write about it for a publication and asked how I could be of help to them. At the time I was working at Three Chimneys Farm. They did not have a board member in Kentucky and lacked someone on their board who could represent the Thoroughbred breeding side of things, so they asked if I would join the board.

The Retired Racehorse Project team. (Courtesy Jen Roytz)

Why do you feel RRP is an important program for OTTBs?

I think just like The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Take2 program, and the many aftercare organizations out there, RRP is an important part of the bigger aftercare picture. RRP has created a venue to showcase the versatility, trainability and adaptability of Thoroughbreds to a much broader audience of equestrians, and the numbers show that more and more of them are deciding on Thoroughbreds over other breeds when looking for a new horse.

In addition to putting on the Thoroughbred Makeover (and that event’s numbers – in participants, attendees and viewers on the livestream – has dramatically increased each of the past three years), RRP puts on demonstrations and seminars at equine expos and equestrian events throughout the country. In 2017 alone, we have more than 1 million pageviews on the RRP website, 18,000 attendees at our events around the country and an average weekly reach on Facebook of 200,000. That is huge. To put it simply, RRP is working hard to put the word out and convince equestrians that off-track Thoroughbreds are a great option for riding or competition. The TAA, aftercare organization and professional trainers are creating more and more opportunities for people to adopt/buy Thoroughbreds and the TIP and Take2 Programs are giving people incentives (monetary and otherwise) and opportunities to compete on Thoroughbreds in the show ring. It’s a cycle that’s proving to work.

How has the program changed since you first started working with RRP?

It’s a LOT bigger. We now have a quarterly magazine that is on par with any other national equine publication; our Thoroughbred Makeover has about 800 trainers entered this year (which is a 37 percent increase from last year’s numbers); our website has become a useful resource for those shopping for or searching for information about off-track Thoroughbreds; and, most of all, I’ve seen more and more crossover between racing and sport horse audiences. That part might be my favorite!

One thing I thought was quite telling last year was that several internationally competitive riders came to the Thoroughbred Makeover to horse shop. I spoke with them and each of them commented that the Makeover was THE best place to shop for competition prospects that they’d ever seen. Fast-forward to this year and look at our entries. We have Olympians, Kentucky Three-Day Event riders (including a winner!) and other big-names who are planning to compete, and plan to shop for prospects when they’re here.  

What are some things people can look forward to in the next year with RRP?

This year we are going to be rolling out some new features and opportunities for the Thoroughbred Makeover, including a number of new special awards, which will mean added prize money available to a larger number of competitors. We are also going to continue to increase our involvement with other aftercare efforts and support the bigger picture wherever and however we can. 

Roytz at the Thoroughbreds for All event
Roytz at the Thoroughbreds for All event. (Courtesy Melissa Bauer-Herzog)

What is some advice you’d give to people who may be struggling with preparing their horse(s) for the Thoroughbred Makeover?

Seeing as how it is barely March, I’d say, “just chill.” There will be ups and downs between now and the Makeover and everyone is in the same boat, having a newly-retired racehorse that they’re hoping will be named America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred and win the whole shebang. Take your time, be methodical and don’t forget the bigger picture – you’re part of something exciting and, for your horse, life-changing – it’s about the journey, not just the destination.

Going back to OTTBs, are there typically signs horses show in their racing careers that give clues in what type of discipline they’d do well at, or does that come in the retraining?

There definitely are, but just like Runhappy bucked the trend of most offspring of Super Saver by being a world-class sprinter rather than a route horse, nothing is an exact science.

A great resource for exploring what traits are prevalent in offspring of Thoroughbreds is the RRP’s Bloodline Brag, a user-driven database that lets you research off-track potential in Thoroughbreds based on their bloodlines.

What is some advice you’d give to people who have their first retired racehorse straight off the track?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The best riders in the world – even Olympians – have coaches and take lessons. Find people who are knowledgeable about retraining a former racehorse and utilize them as a resource.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve found when promoting OTTBs?

Ten or 15 years ago it was a lot harder to have meaningful conversations about aftercare with members of the racing and breeding community unless they themselves were equestrians, and I think it was because aftercare wasn’t part of the “Thoroughbred business model.” There are a lot of people and a lot of organizations that have made meaningful change in that area, and today that is definitely not the challenge it once was.

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