Watching the fall from grace off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) had suffered in recent decades as go-to horses for all levels of riders, Steuart Pittman decided it was time to step in and help put the breed back in high demand in the show ring. Soon after, the idea of the Retired Racehorse Project’s (RRP) Thoroughbred Makeover came to life.
Nearly a decade after RRP’s founding, Pittman has seen a rise again in the popularity of off-track Thoroughbreds, and the RRP’s Makeover has proven to be a big selling point for the breed every year. It’s hard to avoid the posts looking for Makeover-eligible off-track Thoroughbreds (this year’s horses must have had a published work after July 1, 2016), especially right after the event takes place every October.
“I knew that nobody had effectively marketed these horses ever, and that if we put together the right mix of education, promotion, and trainer incentives the horses would do the rest. I knew it could be huge,” Pittman said. “The magic of the Makeover and RRP’s inclusive approach to involving amateurs, juniors and professionals from throughout the industry in the work of retraining these horses is doing more than serving the horses. It’s making better horsemen. We are rewarding training, rather than rewarding the kid whose parents bought the most expensive horse.”
Off-track Thoroughbred trainer Amy Paulus has seen this firsthand over the last five years. She has had over 20 grads from her program competing every year and this year, over 50 trainers with connections to Paulus were accepted into the Makeover. She constantly gets requests from buyers looking for horses off the track and says she’s been busier now than any time in the past when trying to connect buyers with suitable horses for the Makeover.
“There has been a huge increase in demand for OTTB both right off the track and post-makeover,” Paulus said. My number personally exceeded 500 rehomes last year (my goal was a horse a day ending at 365). That's not a number I've come close to in the past, but this year I have given myself a goal of almost double last year's. People come to me to get their horses straight off the track with minimal or no training but RRP has again opened up a door for people that cannot or are not ready to restart their own horses to buy well-trained, show quality horses at great prices, and many from highly sought after professionals that you wouldn't come in contact with on a day to day basis.”
One bonus for both racehorse trainers and OTTB trainers is that prices have increased as events like the Makeover have brought more awareness to the breed, and people are looking to compete both in the Makeover and buy Makeover-shown horses. But Paulus pointed out that even though prices are increasing, they are still reasonable enough that those who want to buy horses off the track to retrain and then resell can still make a profit – and those who want to buy their “forever” horse off the track can still do so without spending a fortune.
“Prices do continue to rise and with any successful business I think there has to be an increase in profit. A large majority of OTTBs are purchased by professionals cheaper and they put the necessary miles on them to make quality horses for the average rider to go on and be successful and feel safe. I think the increase in buying off the track is still very reasonable and fair and gives professionals who restart enough room for turnaround to make a profit, which continues to create a huge supply and demand. For people that aren't restarting to resell and looking for their forever horse they're able to find great deals buying straight off the track.”
But for Pittman, the most important thing RRP has done isn’t raise the price or demand of Thoroughbreds, it’s bringing more fans to the breed and teaching people that there isn’t just one way to find second careers for racehorses.
“It’s become clear that you don’t have to go to the IRS for charitable status and become a horse rescue to effectively rehome a lot of Thoroughbreds. Some of the people responsibly rehoming the most ex-racehorses are doing it as a business.” he said. “Fans are moved by the Makeover, especially racing fans. Watching Thoroughbred horses compete on the track shows people their incredible athleticism and heart. The Makeover opens a window into their minds. People are moved by the bonds between these horses and their people as they demonstrate the skills developed over 10 months of intense work together.”
While the rise in demand of OTTBs due to the competition is a good thing in Paulus’s mind, even more important is what those in the competition learn about the racetrack and how much of what they hear about the treatment of racehorses are myths. One thing she often preaches to those who come to her to purchase OTTBs is that they need to learn more about what the horses go through as racehorses and when “letting down” post-racing, something they experience when taking on a Makeover horse.
“The most important thing competitors have learned is knowledge of the racetrack. For a long time, the racetrack was looked at as a horrible place but now with organizations like the Retired Racehorse Project, a lot of light is being shined on the track for what they do right, not what they're doing wrong,” she said. “A horse coming off the track goes through so many transitions, some including behavior and weight. These competitors go through an entire journey from the day they the horses come off the track, learning to transition their feed schedules and diet, strengthening different muscles and most importantly keeping them healthy and happy while changing their daily routines and work schedules.”
While Pittman doesn’t believe RRP will help Thoroughbreds rise to their former prominence as the go-to breed for Olympic level athletes, he does think that it helps the horses get recognition as all around mounts, which is what most riders are looking for these days.
“Sport horse breeders are in the business of creating the horses to represent our international teams in the various disciplines. They are purpose-bred horses and they are hard to beat with horses bred to race. But nobody will breed a better all-around horse than a Thoroughbred, and that’s what the market is looking for. The coming together of the riding and racing sides of the horse industry to produce the Thoroughbred Makeover is proving to the public that racing and the horses it produces are good. These horses would not have the generosity and kindness that they show in the Makeover if their lives at the track had been harsh,” he said.
While OTTBs still have a climb to become the “must have” horses they were a few decades ago, there is no doubt RRP has helped them get over a large hurdle by getting them back in the public eye and creating an event that attracts riders and fans far and wide while also showcasing the breed.
To learn more about the Retired Racehorse Project and how you can take part in both the organization and he Thoroughbred Makeover, visit www.tbmakeover.org.