Retired Racehorses Taking Center Stage at Thoroughbred Makeover

Second in dressage at the 2015 Thoroughbred Makeover, Fullback has gone on to a successful second career in multiple disciplines. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

As racing fans flock to Keeneland later this week to attend the track’s fall meet, across town former racehorses will be showing off the versatility of Thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Horse Park during the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover on Oct. 2 - 5.

Over 400 off-track Thoroughbreds, who were still in race training after June 30, 2017, will converge on the Horse Park to show off the skills they’ve learned in the past eight months in 10 different disciplines. For RRP’s Executive Director Jen Roytz, the Makeover provides the perfect showcase for racehorse aftercare, giving equine lovers a better understanding about what horses can do after their racing careers are over.

“Just like with any other aspect of the Thoroughbred business, aftercare is cyclical. We have fantastic organizations – both for profit and non-profit – doing an incredible job retraining these horses, but if you don’t continue to expand the number of equestrians wanting these horses, the market will stagnate. That is the role we fill. The goal of the RRP is to promote Thoroughbreds as sport horses through marketing and education, and the best way we, or anyone in my opinion, has found to do that is the Thoroughbred Makeover,” she said.

“The Thoroughbred Makeover has been a catalyst for getting more equestrians engaged with the off-track Thoroughbred movement and inspiring to take one on as a project. This year about 60 percent of our entries were people who have never competed in the Makeover before, which I think is a very positive and telling statistic.”

While the horses and their riders have been preparing for the event since last Dec. 1, when Makeover training could get seriously under way, the organization began preparing this year’s edition last summer.

“We start preparing for the following year’s event about one to two months prior to the current year event – no joke," said Roytz. "Putting on a national competition with 10 disciplines, four divisions (juniors, adult amateurs, teams and professionals), a large vendor fair, educational seminars and clinics and a sale component like our Marketplace is a tremendous undertaking. It takes well over 100 volunteers and a ton of coordination and planning. We’re always looking for ways to improve the experience for horses, competitors, vendors and spectators and we constantly seek out feedback, which really helps us to make meaningful changes and improvements.”

The Makeover is celebrating its fifth year in its current location and format, and it reached a major milestone during planning when organizers realized it had become so popular they had to limit the number of trainers they accepted into the competition. The event will also kick off with the inaugural Thoroughbred Aftercare Summit on Tuesday, Oct. 1, in partnership with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Thoroughbred Charities of America aimed at aftercare organizations and businesses.

But perhaps the most important change for those competing the event is the new Arrival Exam, which each horse must pass to be able to compete in the Makeover.

“Each horse will have its vitals checked to be within a normal range, pass a basic soundness exam, have a Henneke Body Condition Score of 4 or higher and have a microchip implanted and registered with The Jockey Club,” Roytz explained. “Throughout the year we also offered our competitors webinars on topics such as nutrition, soundness and hoof care, hosted a Facebook Live Q and A with our staff veterinarian, Dr. Shannon Reed, DVM of the Ohio State University, and published various articles about the exam and related topics in our magazine and on our website.”

But not everything about this year’s show will be different, as the popular ASPCA Makeover Marketplace is returning. With many of the Makeover horses for sale after the event, the Marketplace has proven to be a popular stopover for those attending the Makeover who are also shopping for a new mount.

“About a quarter to a third of the horses entered in the Makeover are typically for sale in the ASPCA Makeover Marketplace, which has quickly become the place for professionals and amateurs alike to shop for show and recreational riding prospects,” Roytz said. “Our efforts for the Marketplace include the production and distribution of a catalog of all horses being offered for sale, a test-ride arena, valuable gift certificates and merchandise for buyers and sellers, and we do a tremendous amount of promotion of these horses. This year we’ve already had several competitors report that their horses have sold prior to the event for the asking prices thanks specifically to these efforts, and our data has shown over recent years that the average sale price of horses that sold at or immediately after competing in the Makeover has risen steadily year after year. This shows us the Makeover scenario is working – horses come off of the track, receive a solid foundation of training and are becoming highly desirable sport horse prospects for equestrians.”

While preparing their mounts for the biggest show of their career to this point can be a stressful experience for riders, Roytz recommends that once riders arrive at the showgrounds they should focus on trying to enjoy the event.

“The best advice I can offer to competitors is that, at the end of the day, it’s just a horse show,” she said. “Winning should not be the ultimate goal for a horse, but rather a good ‘end of his (or her) first year of retraining’ goal. Yes, it’s in a world-class venue and yes, there is a lot of money on the line, but don’t let that tempt you to rush your horse or do anything you wouldn’t normally do to prepare you and your horse for competition. This is an event that celebrates the transformation a racehorse can go through in its first year after racing.”

Graded stakes winner Tower of Texas is competing at the Makeover (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

Organizing a show this size can also be a stressful experience, but Roytz says she and her staff have also learned a lot from the process. They often take suggestions and survey those who attend to see how they an improve the competition from year to year. But even with everything going on, Roytz enjoys the atmosphere of the Makeover and the friendships she sees between competitors.

“There are so many aspects of this show that, as an owner of both on-track and off-track Thoroughbreds, I find inspiring, but I think my favorite aspect is simply seeing so many people from vastly different backgrounds coming together from all over the country and connecting with one another through their mutual love of the Thoroughbred,” she said. “While it is a national competition with more than $135,000 in available prize money, there is an overwhelming sentiment of camaraderie throughout the week that is unlike any other horse show. Over the past five years, friendships have been forged, professional connections have been made and training careers have been launched, all on the backs of Thoroughbreds.”

If you’re going to be at the Makeover this week and are looking for something to fill a gap in your schedule, Roytz says there are a few things you can do to help the show run smoothly and make peoples’ day.

“Thank the volunteers, officials and staff (you) see working the event. They are running all-out to make sure the event is as enjoyable as possible for all involved, and a quick “thanks for all you’re doing,” or “great job!” goes such a long way. You can also stop by the Information Desk and fill out a thank-you card or two for our sponsors. We could not put on this event without support from numerous sponsors, and hearing how much people enjoy and appreciate the event makes a huge difference when they’re deciding if they want to continue to support it in the future.”

The show is also always looking for volunteers, even if it is just to cover another volunteer so they can get a 30-minute break for lunch. You can check in with the volunteer booth to see what needs to be done throughout the week and how you can help.

Find out more about this year’s Makeover taking place Oct. 2 – 5 and the Retired Racehorse Project at this link.

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