When Sue Smith met Nkosi Reigns, the only plan was to help his trainer list him on the CANTER Pennsylvania site. More than six years later, “Nkosi” is still part of her family.
A veteran campaigner with 19 wins in 87 starts, Nkosi Reigns had literally crisscrossed the globe in his life. The winner of the Grade 3 Spend a Buck Handicap in 2006, the gelding then went to Dubai for the 2007 winter carnival where he made two starts.
Upon his return to the United States, he continued to race until 2012 when Smith was contacted by his owner Bob Derr to help put up his listing when it was time for the gelding to retire.
“Initially, I planned to meet Nkosi and prepare his online trainer listing for our website by taking pics and videos. Bob and I decided that we would wait to advertise him once his retirement was finalized,” Smith said. “I was really excited; Nkosi was one of the oldest horses CANTER PA ever listed, and also one of the highest earners, so it was an honor to play a role in his retirement. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm dwindled upon meeting him; he's always been a big, impressive horse, but personality wise, he borders on crotchety old-man status.”
Nkosi was one of only a handful of horses who wouldn’t let Smith get his height measurement, even when she had multiple grooms trying to help. With his temperament, it was decided he would be better suited to go to an experienced rider and the rest is history.
“I really wasn't looking for another horse, but I also couldn't find the right situation for him and CANTER PA doesn't have the funding for an intake program,” Smith said. “After Bob and I connected and I knew his retirement was pending, I followed Nkosi’s career closely, regularly stopping by his stall or hanging out at the racetrack on nights he ran. I’d say I was a little bit of a groupie. He may have been running at the bottom, but his career was still solid and he raced consistently for another six months. Bob stayed in touch and even invited me into the winner’s circle for what would be Nkosi's last win pics.”
Perhaps even more difficult to handle than his temperament right of the track is how to say his name. Bred by Christine Janks of Carson Springs Farm, whose passion for African wildlife and culture led to his name, Smith says many people struggle to get it correct with even Smith never hearing anyone saying the actual word.
“Christine’s passion for Africa wildlife and culture inspired his Jockey Club name, which is South African tribal for ‘The King Reigns,’ ”Smith explained. “To make it more complicated, the proper pronunciation of his name is en-KOZ-ee, which I have yet to hear anyone utter out loud, so he goes by the butchered American version, N-ko-si. We spent a few months trying to come up with a simpler barn name for him, but there's something about this horse that makes you feel like any name less than a royal one is disrespectful. Around the barn he does have the nickname of Coach, as we're quite confident if he was human, he would be a drill sergeant or an overzealous football coach who berates his players with embarrassing pet names.”
Taking part mostly in dressage, Nkosi refuses to enjoy time off with his favorite hobby during breaks torturing his pasture-mates. Because of this, Smith tries to keep him in work as much as possible with the horse thriving on the program.
Smith believes his work ethic is what helped get him the warhorse label — a horse who makes 50 starts or more.
“Generally speaking, to reach warhorse status not only does the horse have to be athletic but they have to enjoy their job or they would simply stop trying,” she said. “These horses are often seasoned travelers and have been exposed to all types of environments, accumulating miles in and out of the tack, all of which are great assets in their second careers. They may need a little time and TLC, but these horses are elite athletes.”
But while he is a great workhorse, Smith says his one downfall is veterinary visits.
“Nkosi is a class act 95 percent of the time, but if I'm being honest, his biggest challenge remains cooperating with the vet. We’re lucky to have such a patient and athletic vet team. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let's just say, vet calls rarely produce ‘proud mom’ moments,” she said.
One “proud mom” moment she did have however, was just a year after Nkosi came off the track and went to the famed Dressage at Devon show.
“The year after he retired, we competed at Dressage at Devon in the Thoroughbred division, which was open to non-breeding stock,” she said. “The environment was a bit much for him, but he tried and I had never competed at that venue, so it's a memory I'll hold on to for a long time.”
As for what she loves about OTTBs (off-track Thoroughbreds) and why she would recommend them, she credits the training they get on the track and how versatile they are.
“What's not to love! As far as the breed, I am always impressed at how versatile and willing these horses are,” Smith said. “There’s nothing Thoroughbreds can’t do, from traditional English sports to barrel racing, working ranch and even carriage driving. As far as OTTBs, I really value the fact they were professionally started and kept in consistent work; they may not know the specifics of your chosen sport, but they have a solid foundation to build upon.”
While Smith never expected Nkosi Reigns would become her horse, it seems he was just what she needed.
“My father had passed away the morning Bob called me to tell me Nkosi was retiring. In many ways, Nkosi is a lot like my father — hard-working, honest, but very strong-willed, and the type who can’t be forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do. I guess in that moment it only seemed right that Nkosi would help me start a new chapter in my life.”